23 If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.”
It is important to note that this verse conveys its thought in a figure of speech known as metonymy; that is, the action of forgiveness is put for the proclamation of it. The apostles could confirm forgiveness due to its message.
This passage deals with the apostolic office. Parallel passages in Matthew suggest the same thing (Mt 16:19; 18:18). This was a special function the apostles had between the resurrection and ascension of Christ.
23 If you forgive the sins of any [of any class],
Jesus did not give the apostles the inherent right to forgive sins but the privilege to convey the message of forgiveness. Ministers of the gospel cannot forgive sins but simply proclaim how sins are forgiven.
The word “any” indicates that the sins forgiven are forgiven to a class of people, not to individuals (Lu 24:46-48).
they [the sins] are forgiven them;
The words “are forgiven” indicate that this is an event that had already taken place by God (passive voice). The apostles could proclaim sins previously forgiven.
if you retain the sins of any, they [the sins] are retained.”
The words “are retained” indicate that this is an event that had already taken place by God (passive voice, perfect tense). Sins previously committed have been retained.
Both “forgiven” and “retained” are in the passive voice in the Greek, which means that it is God who forgives and retains. God alone forgives sin (Mk 2:3-12; Lu 5:17-26). The Greek tenses (periphrastic future perfects) indicate that forgiveness was already resolved by the death of Christ on the cross. The right of the apostles to forgive or retain depends on the previous forgiveness by God. All that remains is to proclaim that Christ paid for our sins. We could translate the phrases this way: “Those sins you forgive have already been forgiven…those sins you do not forgive have not been forgiven.” In other words, forgiveness is dependent on God’s forgiveness.
The issue of forgiveness and retention of sins is related to the binding and loosing of Matthew 16:18; 18:18.
There is a difference between absolution and proclamation.
The Roman Catholic church built its doctrine on the special priesthoods’ right of absolution of sin. This is done through the confessional. Although the church acknowledges that God ultimately forgives sin, it nevertheless asserts that God does this through the action of the priest.
The Roman church then believes that the priest absolves but God forgives. God allows sins and judgment to remain. This is backward. God first forgives and then, on that foundation, people can proclaim forgiveness. There is a difference between absolution and proclamation. We have the right to preach forgiveness but do not have the right to absolve others of their sin.
There is no instance in the New Testament of an apostle absolving anyone of their sin. Christ is always the remitter of sin/s (Ac 10:43; 13:38,39). There is no place in the New Testament where any apostle absolves or pardons anyone; otherwise, we should expect that it would be manifested elsewhere in Scripture. The Scripture’s claim is that forgiveness comes exclusively through Christ (Ac 10:43). The apostles could not forgive sins, they could only proclaim forgiveness (Ac 8:22). The apostles simply had the authority of a preacher, not a priest.
The special sending in our passage has to do with a peculiar commission for the apostles, not for believers in general. Their commission could not be transmitted to believers in general. They had the right to write Scripture and perform miracles, among other things. There is no such thing as apostolic succession.
Individual believers as well have the privilege of proclamation. We do not have the right to absolve sins. Christians have the responsibility to declare the gospel of sins forgiven (Mt 16:19). We have the pleasure of giving assurance that God forgives sins; we can announce the terms of God’s forgiveness—the cross of Christ. We can only declare what has already been done.
It is important to make the gospel clear so that people know where they stand about their sins. This involves the imperative of proclamation, not simple life-style evangelism. This is far more than dialogue. There are evangelicals today who believe that we must listen to non-Christians without us having anything to say about the nature of the gospel. This is patently wrong considering the imperative to proclaim.
The essence of the New Covenant (Jer 31:31-34; Mt 26:28) is forgiveness of sins. Every believer has the privilege to announce this message to the world. The person who believes that Christ’s death on the cross forgives sin will possess eternal forgiveness.
In the Bible, the authority to forgive sins is always a prerogative of God (Mk 2:7; Lu 5:21). There is not a single instance anywhere in succeeding Scripture to indicate that an apostle absolved sin. Forgiveness comes via belief (Ac 10:43). It comes through the act of preaching (Ac 13:38).