Q&A: Only God Can Forgive Sin

Only God Can Forgive Sin

Question

Doesn’t John 20:23 confirm that the Catholic Church does things right? It seems the apostles had the power to literally forgive sins.

Answer

John 20:23: If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you withhold forgiveness from any, it is withheld.

Mark 2:7 maintains that only God can forgive sin (cf. Psa. 103:1-3; Matt. 9:6; Luke 5:21). God is the single sovereign of the universe. He is the lawmaker and the judge. He is the legislative, judicial and executive branch all combined into one covenantal authority. Only God has the authority to forgive sins.

God has not transferred the right to forgive sins. No Catholic priest has the power to forgive sins. No priest is a substitute for God Almighty. No number of “Hail Mary’s” will get you any amount of forgiveness. The Catholic confessional booth is an endless cycle of non-forgiveness. It is an unholy dungeon of hopelessness and despair. Watch yourself. Trace your steps. You’ll be right back in that confessional booth again confessing the same sins. There’s only forgiveness at the foot of the Cross, not in some booth! God forgives – really forgives – “as far as the east is from the west, so far does he remove our transgressions from us” (Psa. 103:12).

So, what do we make of our text? Let’s look at the greater context of John 20:23:

John 20:19-23: On the evening of that day, the first day of the week, the doors being locked where the disciples were for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them and said to them, “Peace be with you.” When he had said this, he showed them his hands and his side. Then the disciples were glad when they saw the Lord. Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, even so I am sending 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, they are forgiven them; if you withhold forgiveness from any, it is withheld.”

Above we observe a commissioning – sending (John 20:21) – message of our Lord. Jesus is not here giving the power and authority to his apostles to grant salvation. Rather, Jesus is giving his apostles the authoritative message of salvation – the message of salvation which grants the forgiveness of sins. It is the Holy Spirit (John 20:22) – not the apostles – that makes the message of salvation effectual.

As the apostles proclaimed the gospel (cf. 1 Cor. 15:1-4), they could truthfully tell people who believed in that message that their sins were forgiven, and they could genuinely inform others who did not believe the gospel that their sins were not forgiven. As Jesus said earlier in John, “Whoever believes in the Son has eternal life; whoever does not obey the Son shall not see life, but the wrath of God remains on him” (John 3:36). This is the message the apostles were given.

Believers today have the very same commission (cf. Matt. 28:18-20). We are obligated to share the very same gospel message. But we don’t do the saving, nor do we do the ultimate forgiving. [1] Forgiveness remains with God alone. We are beholden to tell people that the only way to be forgiven is through faith in Christ alone.

Note

[1] While the Bible instructs us to forgive one another (Matt. 18:21-22; Col. 3:13, etc.), Peter reminds us of from where such authority comes – “in the name of Jesus” (Luke 24:47; Acts 2:38; 10:43). God’s children may forgive others in the power of Christ’s name.

Answer by Dr. Joseph R. Nally, Jr.

Dr. Joseph R. Nally, Jr., D.D., M.Div. is the Theological Editor at Third Millennium Ministries (Thirdmill).