Bible Question:

First I will start with John 20:21-23. Notice how it said breathed. If you forgive anyone's sins, they are forgiven. If you refuse to forgive them, they are not forgiven. The only other time God breathed on anyone was when He gave life to the first man. It's a truly special gift God gave them. As a Catholic, I confess my sins to God through his ministers. It is what God required as the scriptures clearly show. Also 2 Cor. 5:18-21 explains that the apostles are ambassadors of Christ's work of reconciliation. This means they share in the ministry of Christ and forgive sins in His name.

Bible Answer:

John 20:21-23 is a very confusing passage for the English reader,

Jesus therefore said to them again, “Peace be with you; as the Father has sent Me, I also send you. And when He had said this, He breathed on them, and *said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, their sins have been forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they have been retained. John 20:21-23 (NASB)

Jesus Breathed On Them

In this passage Jesus is speaking to His disciples when He blows on them. This is the meaning of the Greek word, emphysao. This word is used only here in John. Then Jesus says, “Receive the Holy Spirit.” This is a symbolic statement of a future event. They did not receive the Holy Spirit here at this time because the Holy Spirit was not yet dwelling within men and women. Jesus had said this several times earlier when He had said the Holy Spirit was not yet given (John 7:39; 16:7). The Holy Spirit did not arrive until after Jesus’ death, resurrection and ascension (Acts 1:9-11). In Acts 1:4-5, Jesus tells them they must remain in Jerusalem until the Holy Spirit comes. The Holy Spirit began indwelling men and women in Acts 2:1-4. This was a significant event in the life of the disciples. It was a promise of the Comforter to a group of weary apostles – a promise that would come true in only a few days.

Who Forgives Sins But God Alone

Recognition of God’s Forgiveness

Now for the most confusing portion of this passage. Jesus uses a Greek verb, aphiemi, for “forgive” two times. The first time He says “If you forgive.” He uses an aorist active subjunctive tense. An aorist tense means an event occurred at some point in time. It would be like someone saying, “I dropped a coin today.” It is something that just happened.

The second time Jesus uses aphiemi, He changes the verb to a perfect passive indicative tense. This is significant. A perfect tense means something happened and has ongoing effect. The passive means God forgave them. If you combine the perfect and passive, the message is that God has forgiven them and they are in a state of continuing forgiveness.

Psalm 130:4; Isaiah 43:25; Micah 7:18 and Mark 2:7  teach that God and God alone is the one who can forgive. Therefore, it is not possible for a human to cause another human to be forgiven. Since only God knows if a person is sincere and repentant, no human priest can forgive sins. The individual could be deceptive and the priest would not know it, but God does. In Romans 10:9 Paul writes these words,

. . . that if you confess with your mouth Jesus as Lord, and believe in your heart that God raised Him from the dead, you will be saved . . . Romans 10:9 (NASB)

Notice that salvation depends upon the attitude of the heart. Only God knows the heart (Acts 15:8). Therefore, what was Jesus saying? He was simply saying the apostles had the authority to declare what God declares. In John 3:16 Christ declared that if someone believes in Christ, that person will not perish but have eternal life. The disciples and every believer can declare the same promise of the forgiveness of sins.

The apostles knew when God had forgiven a man or woman of sins. A man or woman is only forgiven by faith, that is, by trusting in Jesus Christ. 1 John 5:13 tells us that we can know we have eternal life – we can know that we are going to heaven. This occurs when we stop trying to earn our way into heaven by doing good deeds (Ephesians 2:8-9) and just simply do nothing else but trust Jesus (1 John 3:23) to forgive all of our sins for all time (Hebrews 10:10).

For a true Christian, there is no future sin that God has not already forgiven. The perfect passive tense of aphiemi affirms that truth. The disciples could tell a person their sins were forgiven, but in reality forgiveness had already been granted by God through faith in Jesus. Only God can forgive sins (Mark 2:5-9). Jesus was not giving the apostles divine authority. Jesus was allowing them to help others know that their sins were forgiven, if in fact they trusted in Jesus. The apostles were stating something that had already occurred. The Greek text makes this very clear.

Christians Have The Ministry of Reconciliation

There are two quick points that need to be stated about 2 Corinthians 5:18-21. First, the Greek word for reconciliation is katallasso, which literally means “change from enmity to friendship.” It is not forgiveness; it is the result of forgiveness. Second, this passage is for everyone, not just the apostles. Notice that the apostle Paul says, “us” in verse 18 and not me. We cannot push “us” to include the apostles because Paul has been saying “we” and “us” throughout the chapter. Note especially verse 10. His “us” and “we” includes the Corinthian saints (1 Corinthians 1:2). We cannot conclude the apostles are the “us” and “we.” Every Christian has the ministry of reconciliation.

Saint John Chrysostom (A.D. 346-407), a Bishop of Constantinople, answers the question well in his treatise entitled Discourses on Lazarus,

Surely you should tell no man, lest he upbraid you; for you should confess nothing to a fellow servant . . . show your wounds to the Lord, who takes care of you and is your physician.


Power to forgive sins? Only God can forgive sins. He has not delegated this authority to men, not even to the apostles. When Jesus forgives our sins, He forgives all of them for all time – the past ones, the present ones and the future ones – all of them. The sins believers will commit tomorrow are already forgiven. What God asks of believers when we sin is that we are to confess our sins to God as soon as we are aware that we have disobeyed Him. We need only to stop and pray to our Heavenly Father, confess that we have done wrong and thank Him for His forgiveness. 1 John 1:9,

If we confess our sins, He is faithful and righteous to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.  1John 1:9 (NASB)

Suggested Links:

Bind and Loose: When Two or Three Are Gathered
Is the Roman Catholic Church the pillar and defender of the truth?
What does the New Testament say about the Vicar of Christ?
Peter’s Confession – You are the Christ, the Son of God