How is:

John 20:21-23

Εἶπεν οὖν αὐτοῖς ὁ Ἰησοῦς πάλιν Εἰρήνη ὑμῖν καθὼς ἀπέσταλκέν με ὁ Πατήρ, κἀγὼ πέμπω ὑμᾶς καὶ τοῦτο εἰπὼν ἐνεφύσησεν καὶ λέγει αὐτοῖς Λάβετε Πνεῦμα Ἅγιον ἄν τινων ἀφῆτε τὰς ἁμαρτίας ἀφέωνται αὐτοῖς ἄν τινων κρατῆτε κεκράτηνται

Jesus said again to them therefore, Peace to you! As the Father has sent Me, even so I send you. And having said this, He breathed on them, and said to them, Recieve ye the Holy Ghost: if you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven; if you hold bound the sins of any, they are held bound.

In light of:

Matthew 9:2,6,8

καὶ ἰδοὺ προσέφερον αὐτῷ παραλυτικὸν ἐπὶ κλίνης βεβλημένον καὶ ἰδὼν ὁ Ἰησοῦς τὴν πίστιν αὐτῶν εἶπεν τῷ παραλυτικῷ Θάρσει, τέκνον ἀφίενταί σου αἱ ἁμαρτίαι ... ἵνα δὲ εἰδῆτε ὅτι ἐξουσίαν ἔχει ὁ Υἱὸς τοῦ ἀνθρώπου ἐπὶ τῆς γῆς ἀφιέναι ἁμαρτίας ... Ἰδόντες δὲ οἱ ὄχλοι ἐφοβήθησαν καὶ ἐδόξασαν τὸν Θεὸν τὸν δόντα ἐξουσίαν τοιαύτην τοῖς ἀνθρώποις

And behold, they brought out to him one paralyzed, lying on a bed. And Jesus, having seen their faith, said to the paralytic, Take courage, son; thy sins have been forgiven! ... But so that you might know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins. ... And the crowds seeing [this] marveled, and glorified God, Who gave such authority to men.

Not proof that Jesus really did give men (priests) this power to forgive sins with the power and authority of the Holy Ghost, which He expressly imparts to them for this ministry?

Specifically, how isn't an interpretation other than this ridiculous? Seeing as it would either seem to imply there are such things as 'divinely-approved' grudges (John 20:23b), rather than a priest withholding absolution from an unrepentant.. penitent; or a redundant 'when you forgive someone, you have forgiven them,' whereas this seems to clearly bestowing upon them the "authority" to "forgive sins" by the power of the "Holy Ghost", at least in the Catholic view—that when they forgiven the sins of any God has forgiven them?

Thank you in advance!

  • 1
    Hey i like your question, but im a bit confused, you say "Specifically, how isn't an interpretation other than this ridiculous" But honestly im not clear from your question what the your interpretation is. maybe you could state your position so we could evaluate it against a more protestant understanding
    – L1R
    Commented Jul 21, 2017 at 17:18
  • I believe the preceding sentence is precisely the interpretation I gave. Namely, that "Jesus really did give men (priests) this power to forgive sins with the power and authority of the Holy Ghost, which He expressly imparts to them for this ministry?" Commented Jul 21, 2017 at 17:38
  • 2
    This is what im trying to get to the heart of. You inserted "Priest" into the text. It is not anywhere in the scriptures you pointed to. You have a deeply rooted assumption that only priests can forgive sins. This text does not say that at all. And inside of the Protestant Church there is no such thing as Priests. it really is not a universal concept. We believe that the Holy Ghost is equally in all saved persons, and there is an equality of all who believe. We have different positions in the church, but they don't come with special spiritual powers.
    – L1R
    Commented Jul 21, 2017 at 18:11
  • 1
    Im not trying to give you a hard time, i am interested in Answering the question. but i really didn't see what you were asking. Would it be fair to say your question is something like this? "Why do Protestants not believe that these verses apply only to a special caste of people like priests?"
    – L1R
    Commented Jul 21, 2017 at 18:12
  • 1
    Still don't understand the problem you're seeing. Protestants do utilize this power to forgive or not. Are you thinking it's only for duly ordained ministers?
    – SLM
    Commented Jul 22, 2017 at 22:01

4 Answers 4


Jesus says,

As the Father has sent Me, even so I send you.

so the question to start, How did the father send Jesus?

John 12:49

For I have not spoken on My own authority; but the Father who sent Me gave Me a command, what I should say and what I should speak.

john 5:19

19 Then Jesus answered and said to them, “Most assuredly, I say to you, the Son can do nothing of Himself, but what He sees the Father do; for whatever He does, the Son also does in like manner.

So Jesus was not picking for himself who to forgive, who to heal, rather he was doing that which the Father willed.

Now, jesus says that he sends the disciples in the same manner,

So we can understand that its not up to the disciples to "pick and choose" who to forgive and who to hold accountable, but rather to do the will of the father also. just like jesus said,

who sent Me gave Me a command, what I should say and what I should speak."

In the same way, the disciples had a message entrusted to them.

And when He had said this, He breathed on them, and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit. 23 If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.”

So the core of the Gospel message is the forgiveness of Sins. This is what humanity is in need of. The bible says we are enemies of God, seperated by our Sins Collosians 1:21-23

21 And you, who once were alienated and enemies in your mind by wicked works, yet now He has reconciled 22 in the body of His flesh through death, to present you holy, and blameless, and above reproach in His sight— 23 if indeed you continue in the faith, grounded and steadfast, and are not moved away from the hope of the gospel which you heard, which was preached to every creature under heaven, of which I, Paul, became a minister.

So this forgiveness of Sins is achieved through faith in the Gospel, the Good News of Christs death on our behalf, his paying the penalty for sin, and Rising again, defeating Death.

The ever famous Ephesians 2:8-9

8 For by grace you have been saved through faith, and that not of yourselves; it is the gift of God, 9 not of works, lest anyone should boast.

Peter shows us in the book of Acts that he understood that forgiveness of Sins was offered by God to those who would believe in the Gospel in repentance.

42 And He commanded us to preach to the people, and to testify that it is He who was ordained by God to be Judge of the living and the dead. 43 To Him all the prophets witness that, through His name, whoever believes in Him will receive remission of sins.”

Note Pete says "Whoever believes in him WILL recieve remission of Sins. He does not say, ask me nicely and i will give you forgiveness of sins. he affirms that God forgives sins, but he has been "commanded" to preach this message of forgiveness

See what Paul says about this 2 Corinthians 5:18-20

All this is from God, who through Christ reconciled us to himself and gave us the ministry of reconciliation; 19 that is, in Christ God was reconciling[b] the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting to us the message of reconciliation. 20 Therefore, we are ambassadors for Christ, God making his appeal through us. We implore you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God.

So God has made one way for the forgiveness of sins, Faith in the savior Christ, and his work on our behalf. and he has entrusted this "Ministry of reconciliation" or forgiveness of sins, to all his chosen people.

Now to address the second scripture you provided from Matthew,

And Jesus, having seen their faith, said to the paralytic, Take courage, son; thy sins have been forgiven!

This fits extremely well with what we have said so far, Upon seeing their Faith jesus responds your sins have been forgiven.

So they put their faith in Jesus, and Their sins were forgiven.

Now on to the peoples response,

And the crowds seeing [this] marveled, and glorified God, Who gave such authority to men.

If we know anything from studying the bible, its that the people around Jesus almost never got anything right. I think we can see it this way here. The crowd is only looking at jesus as a miracle worker. maybe a prophet or a great teacher. Their response specifically emphasizes their understanding of him as a Human, completely missing the fact he is also God, the Christ.

Paul mentions this in 2 Corinthians 5:16

16 From now on, therefore, we regard no one according to the flesh. Even though we once regarded Christ according to the flesh, we regard him thus no longer.

He says, there was a time when we didnt realize Christ was more than just a man. This is where the crowd is at here in Matthew.

So that is a protestant understanding of the verses in question. Very long winded, but had to cover a lot of ground to really give you a clear answer about it. i hope this helps.

  • 1
    I don't see how this addresses the authority that seems to be present in " If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained", especially the portion about retaining sins. I think to answer the question, you need to address that. Just saying ' do the will of the Father ' ignores the authority that bind sins that is explicit in the verse. Further, you need to address why Christ gives this commission to the Apostles alone and not the His followers in general.
    – bradimus
    Commented Jul 21, 2017 at 22:51
  • Why do you think its only the Apostles? Contrast with acts and there is 120 all in one accord at the giving of the Spirit
    – L1R
    Commented Jul 21, 2017 at 23:05
  • Unfortunately I concur with @bradimus: you have not addressed adequately the authority explicitly given the Apostles to bind and forgive the sins. Note that it is whomever they forgive that is forgiven, not 'if you declare to the Gospel to any'. Asserting in many ways the fact that we recieve forgiveness from God is not disputed in my question. Especially since the Catholic claim is that this is one of the normative means Christ has chosen to grant forgiveness—they cannot be, by definition, at odds (the source of forgiveness, and the means of granting it). Commented Jul 22, 2017 at 12:04
  • Also, that part you quoted is not the mistaken Jews' opinion about Jesus, it's St. Matthew's comment. Not a mistaken one. Oh, and thank you for your answer! Commented Jul 22, 2017 at 12:05
  • That Christ was addressing the Apostles is a common interpretation. For example, Calvin, a Protestant of some note, writes "It is not without reason, therefore, that Christ communicates to his Apostles the authority which he received from the Father, that thus he may declare that the preaching of the Gospel was committed to him, nut by human authority, but by the command of God."
    – bradimus
    Commented Jul 22, 2017 at 12:38

Below is an explanation of the Protestant take on the forgiveness of sins. Please note that there is a fundamental disagreement here with you suggestion that Jesus is not giving his disciples the power to preach the Gospel. Please refer to John 20:21. So, without apology or excuse, here is a Protestant interpretation of Jesus’ message to his disciples prior to ascending to heaven.

Only God can forgive sins, and Christ, being God, has the power to do so as well, but He never communicated any such power to His disciples, nor did they ever assume any such power to themselves. The key to understanding the meaning of John 20:23 lies in the previous two verses:

“Again Jesus said, ‘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.’”

He sent them, as He is sending us, to bring the good news of the way to salvation and heaven to the whole world.

Jesus was leaving the earth physically but promised God would be with them in the person of the Holy Spirit living in them. As they proclaimed the gospel, they could honestly tell people who believed in that message that their sins were forgiven, and they could honestly tell people that did not believe in the message that their sins were not forgiven and that they stand condemned in God’s eyes. Jesus said:

“Whoever believes in the Son has eternal life, but whoever rejects the Son will not see life, for God’s wrath remains on him” (John 3:36).

As for Matthew 9:1-8, where Jesus heals the paralytic, it is noteworthy that with all of Jesus’ healing miracles, He always addressed the spiritual sickness which is more important than the physical sickness. Only God can forgive sins, but since Jesus is God then He had the power and the authority to both forgive sins as well as to heal. This is explicit evidence of His divinity, since only God has that prerogative. Neither you nor I, nor any other human, has that authority. We are told to forgive others, but ultimately, it is up to God as to whom He shall (or shall not) forgive.

Christians who have been born again and are indwelt by the Holy Spirit are obligated to tell people that the only way to be forgiven is through faith. Jesus said in John 8:24:

“If you do not believe that I am (God), you will indeed die in your sins.”

This is the very core of the gospel message and the very heart of what we are to explain to the world. It was Jesus’ last command to His followers before He physically left the earth—carry forward the message of hope and save as many as will believe in Him.

Jesus preached a crucial message about forgiving our brothers, as God forgave us. We stand in grace, and He expects us to keep our hearts pure toward others, not holding grudges or harbouring a spirit of resentment. Jesus said those who have been forgiven much, love much (Luke 7:47). He expects us to forgive others 70 times 7 times (Matthew 18:22). We are also told that if we are praying but hold something against anyone, we are to forgive that person so our relationship with God is right and righteous! Colossians 3:13 says:

“Forgive whatever grievances you may have against one another. Forgive as the Lord forgave you.”

We know we are His if we love our brothers and don’t hate them or have unforgiveness in our hearts (1 John 2:3-6; 3:14-19; 4:16-21). If we say we love God but hate our brother, we are liars and no truth is in us. So, our forgiveness of others is a major indicator of true fellowship with God. God looks at the heart and actions, not mere words. Jesus stated while on earth:

“These people come near to me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me.”

It’s important that all Christians have a living, genuine faith: “We know that we have passed from death to life, because we love our brothers” (1 John 3:14).

I hope this goes some way to explaining how Protestants view John 20:23.

  • "Neither you nor I, nor any other human, has that authority" But what does the 'such' refer to in "God who gave such power/authority to men"? Commented Apr 21, 2018 at 16:15
  • The witnesses to the miracle glorified God "who had given such authority to men" simply means that they saw Jesus only as a man, and not as the Son of Man, the Christ, the Messiah.
    – Lesley
    Commented Apr 21, 2018 at 17:09
  • That doesn't answer my question^. Commented Apr 21, 2018 at 17:28

We need to recognize a difference in the situation of the apostles and those of the first century AD, and those of every generation since. It is was their generation, that very special time when Christ was manifested on earth (1 Tim. 3:16; 1 John 1:1; Heb. 1:1-3; 1 Pet. 1:20) that the promise of Joel 2 occurred - the pouring forth of the Holy Spirit.

Joel 2:28-32,

"28 And it hath come to pass afterwards, I do pour out My Spirit on all flesh, And prophesied have your sons and your daughters, Your old men do dream dreams, Your young men do see visions.

29 And also on the men-servants, and on the maid-servants, In those days I do pour out My Spirit.

30 And I have given wonders in the heavens, and in the earth, Blood and fire, and columns of smoke.

31 The sun is turned to darkness, and the moon to blood, Before the coming of the day of Jehovah, The great and the fearful.

32 And it hath come to pass, Every one who calleth in the name of Jehovah is delivered, For in mount Zion and in Jerusalem there is an escape, As Jehovah hath said, And among the remnants whom Jehovah is calling!" (YLT)

The Holy Spirit was given to the disciples - the twelve - to enable them to preach the word of the gospel of Christ to all of the world (Matt. 24:14; Mark 16:15). It would be given by the laying on of the hands of the apostles to those who were baptized into Christ beginning on the day of Pentecost.

Peter told those standing before the temple on the day of Pentecost that what they were seeing and hearing was that promise prophesied by Joel.

Acts 2:16-21,

"16 `But this is that which hath been spoken through the prophet Joel:

17 And it shall be in the last days, saith God, I will pour out of My Spirit upon all flesh, and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, and your young men shall see visions, and your old men shall dream dreams;

18 and also upon My men-servants, and upon My maid-servants, in those days, I will pour out of My Spirit, and they shall prophesy;

19 and I will give wonders in the heaven above, and signs upon the earth beneath -- blood, and fire, and vapour of smoke,

20 the sun shall be turned to darkness, and the moon to blood, before the coming of the day of the Lord -- the great and illustrious;

21 and it shall be, every one -- whoever shall call upon the name of the Lord, he shall be saved." (YLT)

The gift of the Holy Spirit was given first to the apostles by Christ, and then was given to those baptized (immersed) into Christ by the laying on of the hands of the apostles after they were baptized (Acts 8:15-17; 19:1-6). They had a short time (40 years, the anti-type of the exodus wilderness) before the kingdom, the promised land of the new covenant would be in full effect.

They were all expecting His soon return in their generation (Heb. 9:28). They were patiently enduring (2 Thess. 1:4; Heb. 12:7) the trials and tribulations, waiting for the promise of His return in their lifetime (Matt. 10:23; Matt. 23:36; 24:34).

The apostles had that special gift which allowed them to perform miracles that would convince the people that what they heard was authorized by God, and was sent from God (Mark 16:20; Acts 2:22; Heb. 2:3-4). The miracles verified the teaching of God's messengers. The Holy Spirit also allowed the apostles to discern the heart of Simon the sorcerer in Acts 8:18-23.

Why do we wonder at the power given to the apostles? The signs and miracles gained the attention of the listeners, who then heard the word, and it produced faith in the good hearts (Matt. 13:18-23).

Those gifts of the Holy Spirit were poured out on that generation, and that generation only. It was to aid in the spread of the gospel. They did not have the written word of the gospels, nor of the letters to the churches for several years. They had to have confirmation of the spoken word of the apostles of Christ.

That pouring forth of the Spirit, the laying on of hands died with the death of the apostles, and with those who they authorized (Timothy). Paul told them that the miracles were going to cease (1 Cor. 13:8) when that which was perfect came. That which was complete - the word.

"The Greek word translated “perfect” is teleios. The term does not refer to “perfect” in the sense typically understood by the average modern English reader, i.e., to be sinless. Following this faulty notion, some have concluded that the “perfect” refers to Jesus—since He has been the only perfect person. Other interpretations apply “perfect” to heaven (the only perfect place that will be free of sin and imperfection), or Christian maturity and perfect love (the perfect condition or quality). But, in context, Paul was not contrasting qualities or places. He was contrasting quantities, i.e., those things that were incomplete and partial (miraculous gifts) with that which would be total and complete (the fully revealed Word of God). The inaccuracy of these interpretations is seen further in the Greek definition of teleios. The word refers to totality, that which is whole, brought to its end, finished, and lacking nothing necessary to completeness (Delling, 1972, 8:73; Arndt and Gingrich, 1957, p. 816; Thayer, 1901, p. 618). " Excerpt from Modern-Day Miracles... by Dave Miller, Phd. at ApologeticsPress

So, when the written word was complete.. the New Testament.. there was no more need for the miracles, and the Holy Spirit gifts died with the apostles and those of that generation.

If the miracles have ceased, and I believe most will agree that they have, then so has the pouring forth of the Spirit. And, as the pouring forth of the Holy Spirit has ceased, then so has the authorization of the apostles as earthly representatives of Christ.

The gift of the Holy Spirit is not an automatic result of baptism. It was only given by the laying on of the hands of the apostles, or their selected presbyters such as Timothy. Paul told Timothy to lay hands suddenly on no man (1 Tim. 5:22), meaning Timothy was to use some discernment before giving that gift of the Spirit. It was not given to just everyone.

Excerpt from Adam Clarke's commentary on John 20:23:

" Dr. Lightfoot supposes that the power of life and death, and the power of delivering over to Satan, which was granted to the apostles, is here referred to. This was a power which the primitive apostles exclusively possessed." Source: here

Today, as we are baptized into Christ it is the Holy Spirit that is doing the work to add us to the body of Christ. We are not doing the work - God is.

1 Cor. 12:13,

" For by one Spirit are we all baptized into one body, whether we be Jews or Gentiles, whether we be bond or free; and have been all made to drink into one Spirit." (KJV)

We obey the command, we meet the terms, and the Holy Spirit brings us into the kingdom of heaven and into the body of Christ.

Further excerpt from Dave Miller's article above:

"The word “Spirit” is in the instrumental case in Greek, indicating personal agency. The personal agent in the passage who did the baptizing is the Holy Spirit. His baptizing resulted in the placement of the individuals into the one body of Christ. The verb is aorist, showing that Paul was referring to a once-for-all act in the past. Wuest explained: “It is not the baptism with the Spirit or of the Spirit, in the sense that the Holy Spirit is the element which is applied to us. It is the baptism by the Spirit. This baptism does not bring the Spirit to us in the sense that God places the Spirit upon or in us. Rather, this baptism brings the believer into vital union with Jesus Christ” (1943b, p. 86, emp. added)."

Today, the Spirit adds us to the body of Christ when we are immersed (baptized) into Christ. As we study the word, and grow in knowledge of the Lord (YHWH) and of His Son, we grow in the faith and unity of the Spirit of the word. His Spirit will dwell in us through the word (John 15:1-4; Eph 3:16-17; Col. 3:15-16).

All who are baptized (immersed) into Christ are His ambassadors, and His priests (2 Cor. 5:20; 1 Pet. 2:9). It is the fruit of our lips and our prayers that are our sacrifices to Him (Heb. 13:15). We preach the word as we are able to all we come in contact with.

But, it is God (YHWH) alone who forgives. Christ is our High Priest (Heb. 2:17; 3:1; 4:14-15; 5:5, 10; 6:20; 7:26; 8:1; 9:11; 10:21) We do not have any other priest but Christ who intercedes for us (1 Tim 2:5). No one stands between us and our High Priest. We have a direct line to the Father.

We do not need any man to act as priest between us and Christ! Indeed, the very idea of establishing an earthly priesthood is to deny the sufficiency of Christ's office as our High Priest.

Added Material regarding the apostles forgiving or retaining sins: Christ breathed the Holy Spirit upon the apostles (john 20:23) in order to authenticate the teaching of the gospel. Peter proclaimed the gospel in Acts 2:38,

"Then Peter said unto them, Repent, and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the remission of sins..." (KJV)

The act of baptizing was the remitting or retaining of sins. If the people repented and answered the call of the gospel preached by the apostles, then their sins were remitted... forgiven. Thus the power to forgive or retain sins was the call of the gospel of Christ.

Even though we do not have the need of the gifts of the Holy Spirit today to authenticate the word of God, the gospel call is still the method and procedure God chose to be preached to the world. Therefore, all who answer that call of belief, repentance, and are then immersed (baptized) into Christ have the remission of sins. If we do not answer that call we then retain our sins. The method remains the same.

Part VIII - Confirmation from Acts 2; Part IX - The First Century Preppers; and Part X - And Then Shall The End Come of my posts It's Not The End of The World provides many more evidences from the scriptures that those first century AD Christians knew Christ was coming back in their lifetime. They are available atShreddingTheVeil.

  • Thank you for taking the time to answer my question. But with the greatest respect, you did not at all address the passage in question, especially the aspect where the recipients of this power to forgive sins also had the power to bind or keep them unforgiven, and this with the authority of the Holy Ghost (we also believe only God can forgive sins, which is the point; this implies a priestly endowment by God with His authority: as the Father has sent Me; Recieve ye the Holy Ghost). That it requires God to delegate this power and authority is not questioned, in question, or in the question :] Commented Jul 23, 2017 at 23:35
  • I believe I did address John 20:23. Christ breathed the Spirit upon the apostles. When the apostles died, so did that gift. The gift of the Holy Spirit did not pass on to succeeding generations. Your position that RCC priests have that same gift or that same office to forgive sins is not scriptural.
    – Gina
    Commented Jul 24, 2017 at 1:39
  • 1
    To the question, though; you believe that the Apostles could absolve and retain sins? Because the question is about the interpretation of the power Christ delegated to the Apostles and what its nature was. Cessation of the ability is a separate question altogether. Commented Jul 24, 2017 at 12:55
  • See added material at the end of post. The apostles were preaching the gospel. The answer of the good heart to the gospel was baptism for remission of sins. Thus who ever they baptized their sins were remitted.
    – Gina
    Commented Jul 24, 2017 at 23:21

You take the position that Paul was referring to the completion of the Bible in 1 Corinthians 13:10, probably because that is a view held by others.

Logically it doesn't agree with contextual text. For several reasons.
First Paul applied that time to himself personally in verse 12.
And Paul died before the Bible's completion. Secondly, we have the complete Bible but still have partial knowledge, e. g. why your view is different from mine.
That which is complete in verse 10 refers to the manifestation of Christ that Paul and all Christians will experience. Then even the faith and hope that he ends that chapter with will be done away with.

  • Hi @messenger. Welcome to the site :) I'm not sure where you got the notion that I espouse the interpretation of 1 Cor 13:10 you described. As me myself, I can tell that I don't hold this interpretation of 1 Cor 13:10. Nor is it relevant to the meaning of this verse in John's Gospel. Commented Oct 27, 2018 at 13:10
  • welcome messenger, to Christianity.SE. Please take the tour and visit the help center to see how a Q&A site in the SE model works best. Attempting to tell someone what their position is takes on the nature of an argument on a forum; this is not an internet forum. Please take a look at the question again, and Sola Gratia's comment in response to your answer, and edit in order to answer the question as asked. thanks for joining us here at Christianity.SE. Commented Oct 30, 2018 at 1:22

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