Twisted Scripture Number 16: John 20:23 Does NOT Teach That Man Has the Power to Absolve People of Their Sins

By Brannon Howse

The Scripture: If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.

The Twist: The apostles—and those who come after them—have the power to absolve people of their sins.


John 20:23 reflects another resurrection appearance of Jesus. Here, Jesus has shown the disciples the scars in His hands and side. Then Jesus breathes on them, and they receive the Holy Spirit.

Much like we saw in our chapter on Mark 16:16, Jesus is beginning to commission these men and to explain what they will be able to do. He wants them to know they are empowered and indwelt by the Holy Spirit. This is the context in which Jesus says to them, “If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.”

Jesus is not saying to the disciples that they have the ability to absolve people of their sins, yet the Roman Catholic Church construes the verse this way. The Catholic Encyclopedia teaches that “absolution is the remission of sin or of the punishment due to sin granted by the Church.”[1] Notice that the Catholic Church teaches that forgiveness of sins is not by Christ, not through faith and repentance and then the forgiveness granted by Christ. It holds that forgiveness or the forgiveness of sins is granted by the Church. The Catholic Encyclopedia continues:


There is, in the Church, power to absolve sins committed after baptism, the Council of Trent thus declared, but the Lord then principally instituted the sacrament of penance. When being raised from the dead, He breathed upon His disciples saying, “Receive ye the Holy Ghost. Whose sins you shall forgive, they are forgiven them.”[2]


This twisting of John 20:23 arrives at the completely heretical theology of Roman Catholicism which maintains, “‘And whose sins you shall retain, they are retained.’ Nor is there lacking in divine revelation proof of such power.”[3]


By this, the Catholic Church is saying, “The proof of this ability to forgive sins by the Catholic Church is proven by the classic texts found in Matthew 16:19, Matthew 18:18, and John 20:21-23.” But the Catholic Church is using these verses out of context.

All three verses actually have to do with church discipline. John 20:23 fits in with the idea of church discipline, but it also declares that the apostles, in proclaiming the Gospel, are in a position to see true repentance and its fruit and to declare that the fruitful person is forgiven of his or her sins. However, they could just as well declare that someone is still bound in sin as Peter did to Simon the sorcerer in Acts 8:20-23. Peter saw clearly that Simon had “neither part nor portion in this matter, for your heart is not right in the sight of God.”

That’s what Jesus authorizes in John 20:23. He tells the disciples they will be able to examine the fruit of people’s lives, the doctrine they believe, and say, “You know what? Your sins are forgiven; you truly are saved.” Or conversely, “No, you said you believed, and you got baptized, but now you’re revealing to us by your actions that you are a false convert. You are a tare among the wheat. You are not saved; you are still in your sin.”

For similar reference, look at Matthew 18:18: “Assuredly, I say to you, whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.” The Catholic Church adds a twist to the twist we discussed earlier with regard to this verse by saying the scripture authorizes the binding or loosing of someone’s sin or the remission of sins by the Roman Church. But that’s not in any way what this verse teaches. After all, the Roman Catholic Church didn’t come around until many hundreds of years later, so Jesus could not have been speaking specifically about the Church of Rome.

As always, remember the context, and look at John 20:23 in light of the situation at the time. If you do, it’s clear Jesus is not saying that any man or church has the power to forgive or absolve sins. He is allowing that His disciples would have the ability to declare whether or not someone is really saved, based on whether or not the person repents, receives the Gospel, and exhibits the fruit of a true believer. And that’s all.

Copyright 2014 ©Brannon Howse. This content is for Situation Room members and is not to be duplicated in any form or uploaded to other websites without the express written permission of Brannon Howse or his legally authorized representative. 

[1] The Catholic Encyclopedia, New York: Robert Appleton Company. Retrieved November 23, 2013, from New Advent:


[3] Ibid. Banner