Did the apostles forgive sins or just proclaim forgiveness?

A priest hears a confession in 2013 at Christ the King Church in Irondequoit, N.Y. Don't be too lax or too harsh during confession and always make sure people know when the sacrament of reconciliation is available, Pope Francis said. (CNS photo/Mike Crupi, Catholic Courier) (March 28, 2019) See POPE-CONFESSION March 28, 2014.

A priest hears a confession in 2013 at Christ the King Church in Irondequoit, N.Y. Don’t be too lax or too harsh during confession and always make sure people know when the sacrament of reconciliation is available, Pope Francis said. (CNS photo/Mike Crupi, Catholic Courier) (March 28, 2019) See POPE-CONFESSION March 28, 2014.

It’s good to stick close to the words of Scripture to avoid distorting its meaning. But sometimes focusing too much on one aspect of a passage can also distort its meaning. A good example of this kind of distortion can be seen in a very important text where Jesus gives the Apostles the authority to forgive sins in John 20:21-23:

“[Jesus] said to them again, ‘Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.’ And when he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit. Whose sins you forgive are forgiven them, and whose sins you retain are retained.’”

I frequently use this text to explain to non-Catholics the sacrament of confession. It’s a great passage because it is so simple. The text speaks for itself. But I’ve learned that the plain meaning of a text isn’t always so plain to non-Catholics, especially those who believe in something called “eternal security.”

According to this belief, once someone becomes a Christian, their entrance into heaven is guaranteed; there is nothing a Christian can do to lose his salvation. Once he is saved, he is always saved. Confession, therefore, is unnecessary because all of one’s sins (past, present and future) are already forgiven.

If this were true, however, why would Jesus give the apostles the authority to forgive sins? Those who hold to “eternal security” say Christ wasn’t bestowing upon the apostles any special authority; rather, he was telling them that they were to proclaim to those who are “saved” that all their sins have already been forgiven and to those who refused to be “saved” that all their sins remain upon them.

How do they do this? James McCarthy in his anti-Catholic work, “The Gospel According to Rome,” appeals to the Greek words translated “forgive” and “retained” in John 20:22-23 and points out that these words indicate a past completed action. In fact, the New American Standard Bible (a Protestant translation that sticks closely to the literal sense of the text) translates John 20:22-23 as: “If you forgive the sins of any, their sins have been forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they have been retained.”

All is well and good. But here’s where the interpretive twist comes in: McCarthy and those who believe in “eternal security” then argue that these sins must already have been forgiven or retained before the apostles said or did anything. In other words, the apostles aren’t forgiving sins, but only proclaiming to Christians that their sins have already been forgiven back when they were first saved. Presto! Confession vanishes.

But is this really what John 20:22-23 is saying?

I must confess that this argument stumped me when I first began sharing and explaining the faith, until one day I looked up the passage in a Protestant reference work designed to aid Protestant scholars in translating the Bible. What it showed me was that by focusing so much attention on the verbs in John 20:22-23, they had missed the proverbial “forest through the trees.”

What did they miss? They forgot that Jesus’ statement is conditional. He says “If you forgive the sins of any … If you retain the sins of any …” What this means is that when the condition is met (i.e. the apostles forgive/retain sins) then the following result occurs (the sins have been forgiven/retained). The forgiveness of sins, therefore, did not take place before the apostles’ actions, but it occurs when the Apostles forgive or retain sins. In other words, Jesus is investing the apostles with the authority to actually forgive sins.

We can see this investment of authority one verse earlier when “… Jesus breathed on them and said, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit.’” What does this breathing mean? In Scripture, it shows the bestowal of new life (Genesis 2:7, Ezekiel 37:9-14). This gift of the Holy Spirit empowers the apostles to carry out their mission of mercy and forgiveness.


Gary Michuta is an apologist, author and speaker and a member of St. Michael the Archangel Parish in Livonia. Visit his website at www.handsonapologetics.com.