Some religious leaders say that the disciples and apostles were given authority by Jesus to forgive the sins of others just like what Roman Catholic priests do in their confession booth. And they use John 20:23 and James 5:16 to support their claim.
“If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you withhold forgiveness from any, it is withheld.” (John 20:23, ESV)
“Therefore confess your sins to each other and pray for each other so that you may be healed. The prayer of a righteous person is powerful and effective.” (James 5:16, NIV)
Only God Forgives Sins
Daniel 9:9 “To the Lord our God belong mercies and forgiveness…”
Even in the Old Testament, a Levite priest cannot pronounce absolution of sin to the repentant sinner. The priests can only communicate the forgiveness that God has already given to the sinner based on the ceremonies and rules in the earthly sanctuary God gave to Moses.
Leviticus 4:26 “And he shall burn all his fat upon the altar, as the fat of the sacrifice of peace offerings: and the priest shall make an atonement for him as concerning his sin, and it shall be forgiven him.”
The verse never said “and the priest can now forgive the repentant sinner”.
The Jews knew that God alone can forgive sins (absolution). This is the reason the Pharisees accused Jesus of blasphemy when Jesus forgave the sin of the paralytic man in Mark 2:3-12.
The same is true in the New Testament. Nowhere in the Bible mentioned that the apostles nor disciples exercised the forgiving of sins of their fellow men in behalf of God. Why? Because they fully understood what Jesus exactly meant in John 20:23. The remission of sin is the prerogative of God alone.
1 John 2:1 tells us that we have only one Advocate or Mediator with the Father, and that is Jesus Christ. This Advocate can forgive sins as what He had demonstrated in His earthly ministry.
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So What Did Jesus Mean In John 20:23?
Like the Levitical priesthood in the Old Testament, believers in the New Testament belong to the royal priesthood (1 Peter 2:5) and are given privileges. And one of those privileges is to “communicate the forgiveness that God has already given” to the repentant sinner. The priest both in the Old and New Testament never proclaim absolution of sins, rather they just relay the outcome for a repentant sinner, or for an person who chose to be outside God’s leading.
These “binding and loosing, or forgiving or not forgiving, or the acceptance or a disfellowship of an individual” is always based on the Gospel entrusted by God to the Church. In the Gospel, God has already pronounced the result for those who will repent their sins. In the Gospel, God has already given His judgment for those who will hardened their hearts. And so, it is still God who forgive and not forgive sins.
Jesus gave the steps to His Church of what to do if a brother committed a sin to someone.
“If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault, between you and him alone. If he listens to you, you have gained your brother. But if he does not listen, take one or two others along with you, that every charge may be established by the evidence of two or three witnesses. If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church. And if he refuses to listen even to the church,let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector. (Matt 18:15-17, ESV)
If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness. (1Jn 1:9 , ESV) This is the remission of sins which is in accordance to the will of God.
Sins are forgiven by God with confession, repentance and restitution (Proverbs 28:14; Acts 3:19).
What was Jesus saying in John 20:23 is that any Christian can declare that those who genuinely ask for forgiveness and repent the sins he committed and accept Jesus and His Gospel will have his sins forgiven by God. However, for those who will hardened their hearts and not accept Jesus and follow His Gospel will die from their sins. Jesus gave that privilege to any of His followers.