Was the Disciples' Authority to Forgive Sins Passed to the Church?

Greg discusses the authority to forgive sins in this week's video blog:

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How do you answer the claim that the apostles or disciples were given the authority to forgive sins, and that authority has been passed down through time? This is the claim, for example, of the Roman Catholic Church – the church that I grew up in – so, I’m familiar with this claim. There certainly is a text that seems to suggest that, “Those sins that you’ve forgiven have been forgiven. Those that you retain have been retained.” There are a couple of problems.

One question I'd always ask in this circumstance is, “How did you come to that conclusion?” That is, what are your specific biblical reasons for it? I think the habit is to go to that passage that I just referred to, and that seems – taken in isolation – to suggest that. But that is not the only passage that refers to the whole issue of forgiveness of sins.

Think about Paul when he was in Philippi – Acts 10 – and the Philippian jailer said, “What must I do to be saved?” Paul says, “Believe in the Lord Jesus Christ, and you will be saved.” Subsequent to that, he did believe, and he was baptized and brought into the body of Christ. There’s no mention of having priests forgive sins in that passage.

In fact, in the multitude of passages in the New Testament where forgiveness is discussed, described, and talked about, it is a one-time event. “For having been justified by faith we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ who has introduced us into this grace in which we stand, and we exalt in the hope of the glory of God.” Why were they excited? This is Romans 5. They were excited because salvation was an established fact. First, John 5, “I write these things to you who believe in the name of the Son of God in order that you might know that you have eternal life.” Eternal life was a knowledge that a believer could have in virtue of the fact that our sins have been forgiven for Jesus’ sake. 

So, you look through the New Testament, and all the other references to forgiveness are related to us putting our faith, confidence, and trust in the Lord Jesus Christ, not mediated through someone else, but mediated through Him.

There's this one outlier, then, and the outlier needs explanation. Here's my response: Even if I couldn't explain what was going on in that verse, what I am not going to do is adopt an explanation that seems to go against all of the other references to the issue of faith in Christ and forgiveness. I'm going to stick with the majority and use that to try to figure out what's going on with that minority verse.

There is a possible explanation. I don't know if this is the best one, but it makes sense given the weight of evidence regarding salvation: We communicate to others about what Jesus has done on our behalf, and if we put our faith in Him, we receive the forgiveness that only He can give. 

I'm pausing now in my mind a little bit because I'm thinking of a jumble of verses that all refer to the same thing. Because all of this refers to that one thing, it may be the case that what Jesus is referring to in this passage of the disciples forgiving sins and then holding back and not forgiving some (whatever you retain are retained) is that they have the standard, and they can communicate the standard which is in Christ. They communicate that those who trust in Christ for forgiveness are the ones whose sins are forgiven, and those who do not, their sins are retained. So that might be what Jesus is talking about - that it isn't the disciples who are passing judgment, “Well, I'm going forgive this one and not the other.” Why would any man be given that authority to say that yes, you're forgiven for some sins, and that no, you're not forgiven for others based on their own assessment and on their own authority?

No, the authority is in Christ. Forgiveness is in Christ. As you see the church unfolding there in the book of Acts, you do not see anything like this happening, people being designated as the kinds of people that can go out and say yes to sins and no to sins in terms of forgiveness. It just isn't happening. This might have developed later in the church life, but the biblical record does not demonstrate this is happening. This is another reason why I don't think that's what the disciples understood Jesus to mean when He said that.

So, in this case, I'm going with the plethora of verses that emphasize faith in Jesus, receiving Jesus, confessing Jesus, trusting Jesus, believing in Jesus as securing eternal life for us, and eternal life can only be secured if our sins are forgiven. Then, I'm going to consider that passage that Jesus spoke that way about the disciples in light of the larger verses and not have that one cancel out what these other verses say. Jesus did not deliver the power of forgiveness piecemeal into any person's hands. The Father has given that to the Son, and the Son presents it to us, and we as followers of Christ – whoever we happen to be – can say to an individual, “I'll tell you what sins are retained and what sins are forgiven.” The sins that are retained are the sins that apply to anyone who is not trusting in Christ, and the sins are forgiven when anyone trusts in Christ. It is that simple.

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Greg Koukl

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