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. (NASB) John 20:21-23

Jesus breathed

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 living inside men and women. Jesus had said this several times earlier when He had said the Holy Spirit was not yet present (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 is 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.

Power to forgive

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 somewhere in past time and the results continue into the present time. It would be like saying, “I dropped a coin a week ago and it is still dropping today.” So we have a situation where a person drops a coin, but the coin has already been dropped and is still dropping.

The perfect tense in combination with the passive means someone did the action on the one forgiven. Who did the forgiving in time past before the apostles did anything? It was God! So in summary, there are two reasons to conclude that the apostles are not doing the forgiving. The sins were already forgiven in the past and they are still forgiven, and they were forgiven by God.

What was Jesus saying? He was simply saying the apostles would be declaring something that had already occurred. The apostles knew when God had forgiven a man or woman of sins. We can know this too. 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 do good deeds (Eph. 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 (Heb. 10:10). For a true Christian, there is no future sin that God has not already been forgiven. 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.


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 Corinthians. We cannot conclude the apostles are the “us” and “we.”

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, even 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.