Regarding the Catholic practice of confession, what do you think Jesus meant by: ‘If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained’ (John 20:23). How can the person seated next to you ‘retain’ a sin you’ve committed?
This is Pastor Tim from Unlocking the Bible. Pastor Colin asked me to thank you for your good question and to respond to you.
What I hear you saying is this:
In John 20:23 it sounds like Jesus is delegating the authority to forgive sins to the Apostles.
According to Roman Catholic understanding, this authority has been transferred to priests since the death of the Apostles. And priests exercise this authority when they forgive or retain sins in the Sacrament of Confession.
But since evangelicals tend to have a less “corporate” more “individualistic” approach to Christianity, if this passage applies to individual Christians, then how, practically, are they to carry this out?
Scripture Interprets Scripture
When you look at John 20:23 in isolation, I agree that it does look like this is precisely what Jesus is saying. It looks like Jesus has the authority to forgive sins, and that he delegates (or shares) that authority to the Apostles.
However, there is an important principle for understanding (or interpreting) the Bible correctly that applies here. I think it is helpful to call this principle: Scripture interprets Scripture.
In other words, if you look at one passage of Scripture in isolation, and it appears to have one meaning (or interpretation) that meaning (or interpretation) cannot contradict what is said elsewhere in Scripture.
This principle holds because “All Scripture is breathed out by God” (2 Timothy 3:16). There is no contradiction or confusion in God.
I think it is helpful to look at another passage that has a similar construction, but a more helpful immediate context. I believe the context of Matthew 16 gives us some helpful clues to the meaning of John 20:23.
“I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.” (16:19)
Again, on the surface, it sounds like the same kind of delegation we find in John 20:23, but with the added detail of “the keys of the kingdom.”
Jesus is telling Peter (and the other Apostles) that he is going to give them “the keys of the kingdom of heaven.” In other words, Jesus is going to give them something or entrust something to them that will unlock heaven for some and lock others out of heaven.
Now here is the question that I would ask of this passage: What are “the keys” that open up heaven for people? Clearly, Jesus is not talking about a literal “key” here. He does not hand them a key.
The Bible’s answer to the question: “How does heaven become open for a person?” is the gospel.
When a person hears the gospel and responds in repentance and faith, heaven is open to that person. His or her sins are forgiven. Here are a couple of examples of teaching that agree with this understanding of the gospel as the key that opens up heaven for a person:
Gospel as the Key
“The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the gospel” (Mark 1:15).
In other words, The kingdom of God (or of heaven) is near, so what do you need to do? Repent and believe the gospel. Believing the gospel is the key that opens up heaven (or the kingdom of God), according to Jesus.
“This is the testimony, that God gave us eternal life, and this life is in his Son. Whoever has the Son has life; whoever does not have the Son of God does not have life” (1 John 5:11-12).
I believe when John refers to eternal life, he is talking about entrance into heaven. So, according to the Apostle John, we find the keys that open up heaven “in Jesus.”
“I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes, to the Jew first and also to the Greek” (Romans 1:16).
Our salvation, or our entrance into heaven, comes through the power of the gospel, according to the Apostle Paul.
Back to John 20:23
Now, let’s apply this same thinking to John 20:23: “If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.”
What Jesus said here does not, therefore, apply to individual Christians. Jesus meant it initially for the Apostles and then, as they left the scene, for the Church (universal).
The Church has a responsibility: to steward the message of the gospel and to faithfully share it with people.
As the gospel is shared and people respond in faith, their sins are ‘forgiven.’ And also, as the gospel is shared, and people reject the message, their sins are ‘retained.’