Do we have authority to forgive sins?

"My son, I have always loved, accepted and
forgiven you---now, come join the party."
The Parable of the Prodigal Son by Guercino
(public domain via Wikimedia Commons)
I'm often asked about something Jesus said to his disciples following his resurrection:
...“Peace be with you! As the Father has sent me, I am sending you.” And with that he breathed on them and said, “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive anyone’s sins, their sins are forgiven; if you do not forgive them, they are not forgiven.” (John 20:21-23 emphasis added)
Is Jesus declaring that his followers have authority to forgive sin or to withhold forgiveness? Some think so, but note the context here---John is giving his account of the commissioning of Jesus' disciples (the Synoptic Gospels give another account). When Jesus says to his disciples, "I am sending you" (John 20:21) John likely intends that we recall what Jesus had earlier prayed to the Father: “As you sent me into the world, I have sent them into the world” (John 17:18). Now in John 20, before his return (ascension) to the Father, Jesus commissions his disciples, anointing them with the Holy Spirit who (it is implied) will empower and otherwise enable them for their ministry in Christ's service to the world.

It is in this context that Jesus tells his disciples that in carrying out his ministry they are to declare that people's sins have been forgiven. This is another way of telling the disciples that they are now commissioned to do what Jesus had prophesied in Matthew 24:14, namely the preaching of the gospel in all the world. That gospel is the good news that because of who Jesus is and what he has done, sinners are forgiven. This means, to quote Paul, that God is "no longer counting people's sins against them" (2 Corinthians 5:19). Now that's good news!

In the John 20 commissioning, Jesus was not setting aside his disciples (or their successors) as a “spiritual elite” to deal with the sins of the world (that is Jesus' job!). The BBE translation gives a more accurate sense of v. 23: "Any to whom you give forgiveness, will be made free from their sins; and any from whom you keep back forgiveness, will still be in their sins." Jesus' disciples do not forgive people their sins, only God does that. Rather they were commissioned to announce God's forgiveness---to authoritatively declare to sinners that their sins are forgiven in Jesus, and to invite them, in response, to repent (turn to Jesus) and receive their forgiveness in faith (trusting in Jesus).

With that context in mind, we may conclude that Jesus is not telling these disciples that they (personally) have power (or authority or responsibility) to forgive sin or to withhold forgiveness (as though they were God, or in some way were appointed mediators of God's forgiveness to people). Instead, Jesus is saying that, as "Christ's Ambassadors" (2 Corinthians 5:20), they have been given a message (the gospel) to convey to the world. That message is about the lavishly forgiving God who Jesus beautifully portrays as the father in his well-known Parable of the Prodigal Son (pictured above and see Luke 15:11-32).

Consider this: there is great power in the declaration of the message (the gospel) that in Christ, God has forgiven all people. It is a message with great power to deliver (save) people (see Romans 1:16). They experience that power personally (subjectively), and are thus set free as they, in faith, believe the message. I think we sometimes underestimate how powerfully and effectively a clear declaration of the gospel conveys saving, healing power. That being the case, to withhold this message from people would, in my view, be to deny them the experience of their forgiveness and the freedom it brings. We have our work cut out for us, don’t we?

By the way, because of this passage (and others), together with consideration of the liturgy used by the historic Christian church, I personally believe it's valuable to have in each worship service a prayer of confession (acknowledging our need for forgiveness), followed by a declaration of God’s forgiveness (acknowledging that, by grace, we have God's forgiveness), followed by communion (the Eucharist), which declares (experientially) the grace of our forgiveness in and through Christ.

Of course, some churches celebrate the Eucharist less often than weekly (many once a month, some quarterly), but were you to ask for my advice (which I give here personally, not officially), I'd recommend that each worship service incorporate (among other core elements of worship) this gospel-shaped sequence: prayer of confession, declaration of forgiveness, celebration of the Eucharist (communion--the Lord's Supper).
  • For another post on the topic of forgiveness, click here.
  • For a brochure with a short gospel presentation, click here.
  • For a post about confession, with a sample corporate prayer, click here.