A Question I Was Asked:

Does John 20:23 Give Roman Catholic Priests Permission to "Forgive sin"?

I have been told that John 20:23 gives Roman Catholic priests permission to forgive sin. How about that?

UK Apologetics Reply:

Thanks for the question. Let us look at this:

If you forgive anyone’s sins, their sins are forgiven; if you do not forgive them, they are not forgiven. (John 20:23).

So does John 20:23 mean that Catholic priests throughout the ages have been granted the authority to forgive sins? No, not exactly. In the first place Jesus was talking to His disciples. He was giving them special instruction and training because they would soon become the leaders of the first century Christian Church. Let us research carefully and not be too quick to assume things here!

I advise the careful reading of this entire section of Scripture, not just verse 23.

19. On the evening of that first day of the week, when the disciples were together, with the doors locked for fear of the Jewish leaders, Jesus came and stood among them and said, "Peace be with you!" 20. After he said this, he showed them his hands and side. The disciples were overjoyed when they saw the Lord.21. Again Jesus said, "Peace be with you! As the Father has sent me, I am sending you." 22. And with that he breathed on them and said, "Receive the Holy Spirit. 23. If you forgive anyone's sins, their sins are forgiven; if you do not forgive them, they are not forgiven." (John 20:19-23, NIV throughout).

Point One: Discerning and Separating First Century Apostolic Instruction From General Advice to All Believers of All Ages...

We always need to be very careful when reading instructions which Jesus gave to the first Apostles; it sometimes takes good study practice and discernment to know when Jesus is giving instructions just to - or, mainly to - the first leaders of the Church of Jesus Christ of the first century AD, and when He is saying things which might be applicable for all Christians throughout this entire age of the Church. We need to carefully look for clues and evidence, not brashly and somewhat boastfully conclude that anything which Jesus stated to the first century Apostles applies just as much to you and I right now!

Point Two: The Priesthood Had Been Abolished

The big problem is that Catholicism has established it's own priesthood when the New Testament teaching - and, yes, it's a pretty clear teaching - is that Christ has replaced the former priesthood with Himself.

Cyprian was the third century church leader who probably did most to establish a new priesthood based on the supremacy of the bishop, yet in clear contravention of the New Testament doctrine that Christ completed and abolished the priesthood.

...Cyprian was quite familiar with all constitutional laws and political ideas and when he became a Christian, he transferred this immense experience quite naturally to the sphere of his ecclesiastical activity in favour of the church.... As regards the ministry, Cyprian taught a new view of the bishop. Many things had combined to exalt this office, but Cyprian set the bishop on a pedestal higher than had ever been thought of before. God's grace was dispensed by the bishop who was equated with the priest of the Old Testament. (From A Dictionary of African Christian Biography).

Without question, the context of John 20:23 is that Jesus was speaking to the disciples (verse 19). He breathed on them to receive the Holy Spirit (verse 22). There is nothing here about a new class of 'priests' having the authority to forgive sins, so let us not forget that the Levitical priesthood was abolished by Christ. In it's place, the priesthood of all believers has been set up. The whole purpose of the priests in the Old Testament was to act as 'go-betweens,' standing between people on the one hand and God on the other. They had to approach God on behalf of the people; that is how the old covenant worked, but that system concluded when the veil of the temple was torn from top to bottom at Christ's crucifixion (Matthew 27:50-51). Now the way was opened for all to come before God, not just the priests on unusual and rare occasions. We no longer have a human high priest - Jesus alone is now our only High Priest!

Since our high priest is no longer a man it must logically follow that there can be no continuing priesthood of men.

Look at this:

14. Therefore, since we have a great high priest who has ascended into heaven, Jesus the Son of God, let us hold firmly to the faith we profess. 15. For we do not have a high priest who is unable to empathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are - yet he did not sin. 16. Let us then approach God's throne of grace with confidence, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help us in our time of need. (Hebrews 4:14-16).

Let's see what more we may learn about this in 1 Peter 2:

4. As you come to him, the living Stone - rejected by humans but chosen by God and precious to him - 5. you also, like living stones, are being built into a spiritual house to be a holy priesthood, offering spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ. 6. For in Scripture it says: "See, I lay a stone in Zion, a chosen and precious cornerstone, and the one who trusts in him will never be put to shame." 7. Now to you who believe, this stone is precious. But to those who do not believe, "The stone the builders rejected has become the cornerstone," 8. and, "A stone that causes people to stumble and a rock that makes them fall." They stumble because they disobey the message - which is also what they were destined for. 9. But you are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God's special possession, that you may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light. (1 Peter 2:4-9, my emphases).

Note here that a new sort of priesthood is set up by Christ, all Spirit-led Christians may consider themselves part of this spiritual priesthood. So although our Lord still wants elders and overseers to lead and teach Christians, the role of the priesthood has gone - yes, gone forever! We no longer need 'go-betweens' which was the priestly role. Now, when we sin, it is up to each of us to go before God in repentance.

We see, then, that the Bible does mention appointing elders (Acts 14:23; Titus 1:5), and makes it plain that the disciples of Jesus had special authority (Matthew 16:18). It speaks of the laying on of hands to receive the Holy Spirit (Acts 8:19) as well as ordaining men to the ministry (1 Timothy 4:14; 2 Timothy 1:6; Titus 1:5). The 'laying on of hands' is for ordination, yet it does not suggest that apostolic authority is being passed down, simply that sincere Spirit-led men are asking God to specially bless the new ordinee; after all, the early Church were dealing with elders who were to be ordained, but not Apostles, who were appointed by God Himself; it was the Apostles who were given the authority by Christ to perform miracles and to write scripture.

Point Three: The Early Church was In An Unusual Situation

The early Church, post the resurrection of Christ, was in an unusual situation; although many Bible books were available it took some time for the full Bible cannon to be decided. It could also be very dangerous to spread the Gospel. Moreover, false teachers were going around, claiming all sorts of things for themselves and upsetting the brethren. In this unusual situation, God raised up a few church prophets to assist and warn the Apostles and first leaders with regard to which of their movements and evangelistic travels could be hazardous (Acts 11:27-30, for instance). In addition to this, the Apostles were certainly given certain powers and authority, yes, it is possible that - for a period of time - the first leaders were granted divine permission to go further in assuring repentant people that their sins were fully forgiven, yet we all know that God is merciful and forgiving to the penitent. On occasion they were also given unusual discernment to know where "repentance" was false and self-serving (examples coming up in the conclusion). First of all, let us recall what we read in Mark 2:

5. When Jesus saw their faith, he said to the paralyzed man, "Son, your sins are forgiven." 6. Now some teachers of the law were sitting there, thinking to themselves, 7. "Why does this fellow talk like that? He’s blaspheming! Who can forgive sins but God alone?" 8. Immediately Jesus knew in his spirit that this was what they were thinking in their hearts, and he said to them, "Why are you thinking these things? 9. Which is easier: to say to this paralyzed man, 'Your sins are forgiven,' or to say, 'Get up, take your mat and walk'? 10. But I want you to know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins." So he said to the man, 11. "I tell you, get up, take your mat and go home." 12. He got up, took his mat and walked out in full view of them all. This amazed everyone and they praised God, saying, "We have never seen anything like this!" (Mark 2:5-12).

The point is: only God forgives sins; and Christians, as representatives of Christ, pronounce to people what has already been forgiven them by God.


We see from clear Scriptures that the Old Testament priesthood is abolished in Christ. Nothing in John 20:23 states that Catholic priests during this church age have the authority to forgive sins, however, it quite possibly does suggest that the first Apostles were given additional authority - at least for a period of time - to more directly pronounce when sin is forgiven, or where forgiveness is witheld: "If you forgive anyone's sins, their sins are forgiven; if you do not forgive them, they are not forgiven." We possibly see two examples of this in the matter of the rejections of Ananias and Sapphira and of Simon Magus - read Acts 5:1-11 and Acts 8:9-24! All Christians have the authority to pronounce that sins "have been forgiven," not by any of us, but by God alone. The additional part was in the unusual discernment which the Apostles were granted to discern real repentance and to recognise false repentance and a bad spirit in certain individuals. In our own day, however, a humble Protestant minister should not assume any additional authority or jurisdiction in this area which the Apostles might have been granted.

Closing Scrpture:

24. For Christ did not enter a sanctuary made with human hands that was only a copy of the true one; he entered heaven itself, now to appear for us in God's presence. 25. Nor did he enter heaven to offer himself again and again, the way the high priest enters the Most Holy Place every year with blood that is not his own. 26. Otherwise Christ would have had to suffer many times since the creation of the world. But he has appeared once for all at the culmination of the ages to do away with sin by the sacrifice of himself. 27. Just as people are destined to die once, and after that to face judgment, 28. so Christ was sacrificed once to take away the sins of many; and he will appear a second time, not to bear sin, but to bring salvation to those who are waiting for him. (Hebrews 9:24-28).

Robin A. Brace. October 21st, 2016.