What does it mean in John 20:23 when Jesus gives his disciples authority to 'retain' sins? What does 'retain' mean here? Does it mean 'not forgive' or something else entirely?

  • There is a question as to αν τινων κρατητε κεκρατηνται - whether the person is 'retained' or 'seized', or 'arrested' Strong 2902, κρατέω by their own sins or whether the sins themselves are 'retained' by the person. – Nigel J May 1 '19 at 19:41
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    @NigelJ "κρατητε" is in the second person... "if you retain" "κεκρατηνται" refers to the sins retained; "they are retained." – Sola Gratia May 1 '19 at 21:23
  • 'an tinon kratete kekratentai' : "if any you retain, they are retained". Can refer to either the person or the sins. – Nigel J May 1 '19 at 21:55

Jn 20:23 has to be understood by examining the Greek grammar, the context surrounding this verse and the record of the actions of the apostles, in response to this statement by Christ.

  1. Grammar

Following the question regarding the word ‘retained’, the Gk grammar indicates that it is in passive voice and perfect tense: ‘having been retained’ Wuest’s translation states it thus:

If the sins of any certain individuals you retain in not forgiving them, they have been previously retained and thus have not been forgiven, with the present result that they are retained and in a state of not being forgiven.

  1. Context

The previous verse states that the disciples should receive the Holy Spirit:

Then Jesus said to them again, Peace be to you. Even as the Father has sent me on a mission for which I still am responsible, I also am sending you. And having said this, He breathed on them and says to them, Receive at once the Holy Spirit. Jn 20:21-22, ( Wuest’s Translation)

Forgiveness is exercised under the influence of the Holy Spirit.

But the most important issue concerning forgiveness is the cross. To elaborate further:

Only God is qualified in administering it.

  • Luk 5:21 (KJV)  .....Who can forgive sins, but God alone?
  • Dan 9:9 (KJV) To the Lord our God belong mercies and forgivenesses

But God is infinitely just and a righteous judge. He cannot overrule the command, ‘The soul that sinneth, it shall die. Ezek 18:20’

In order not to compromise justice and also to exercise forgiveness, the cross is necessary.

All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned every one to his own way; and the LORD hath laid on him the iniquity of us all. Isa 53:6, KJV

This is what Jesus meant when He said, the Son of man has power on earth to forgive sins, Lk. 5:24

3.Acts of the Apostles in response to this command

Peter pronounced forgiveness of sins, after being filled with the Holy Spirit:

"Then Peter said unto them, Repent, and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the remission of sins, and ye shall receive the gift of the Holy Ghost."  Act 2:38, KJV

"But those things, which God before had shewed by the mouth of all his prophets, that Christ should suffer, he hath so fulfilled. Repent ye therefore, and be converted, that your sins may be blotted out, when the times of refreshing shall come from the presence of the Lord;"  Act 3:18-19 KJV

Paul also did the same:

"Be it known unto you therefore, men and brethren, that through this man is preached unto you the forgiveness of sins: And by him all that believe are justified from all things, from which ye could not be justified by the law of Moses."  Act 13:38-39 KJV

To summarize:

Forgiveness of sins is administered by God through the cross.

Forgiveness is pronounced on people based on the fact they repent and trust in the work of Christ on the cross.

Those who do not trust in Christ have not been forgiven and hence their sins have been retained in heaven.

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The passage in Greek (John 20:21-23) reads (NA28):

εἶπεν οὖν αὐτοῖς [ὁ Ἰησοῦς] πάλιν· εἰρήνη ὑμῖν· καθὼς ἀπέσταλκέν με ὁ πατήρ, κἀγὼ πέμπω ὑμᾶς. 22 καὶ τοῦτο εἰπὼν ἐνεφύσησεν καὶ λέγει αὐτοῖς· λάβετε πνεῦμα ἅγιον· 23 ἄν τινων ἀφῆτε τὰς ἁμαρτίας ἀφέωνται αὐτοῖς, ἄν τινων κρατῆτε κεκράτηνται.

This is best translated into plain English as:

Then he said to them once more, Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I am sending you. And saying this He breathed, and said to them, Receive the Holy Ghost: if you forgive the sins of any, their sins are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.

Very plainly He is giving them a ministry of forgiving sins, and the Holy Ghost for the authority and power to effect that forgiveness: "As I ... Receive the Holy Ghost: whose sins... etc." To be rejected immediately is the idea that this is the 'power' to preach forgiveness and not to grant it, since it does not say, "If you declare the sins of any forgiven in Christ," but notes that they were expressly given the Spirit by which Jesus Himself forgave and cast out demons, and says, "If you forgive," and notes that the sins of those persons are forgiven by God (the tense in Greek implies a Matthew 18:18-style heaven-granted forgiveness simultaneous to the act of the minister himself). Equally ridiculous is the notion that Jesus is giving permission for people to hold grudges with the backing of heaven: here, "retaining" is opposite to "forgiving" and means that forgivness is withheld (hence, the sins are "held" or "still remain"—are "retained").

As said before, Jesus Himself cast out demons/forgave sins by the Spirit, and not on His own divine authority.

Matthew 9:6-8 (DRB) But that you may know that the Son of man hath power on earth to forgive sins, (then said he to the man sick of palsy,) Arise, take up thy bed, and go into thy house. 7 And he arose, and went into his house. 8 And the multitude seeing it, feared, and glorified God that gave such power to men.

(I disagree with the capitalization of 'Son of man' here, since Jesus' point is He can give humans the ministry of forgiveness, as Matthew writes.)

This is why He gave them the Holy Ghost for His ministry to reconcile men to God.

This parallels or is equivalent to the power to 'bind and loose' spoken of in Matthew 18:18, and the early Church connected them in this way (i.e. interpreted this authority to forgive sins as a 'species' of the 'genus' of the 'binding and loosing' authority given to presbyters of the Church).

Matthew 18:18 (DRB) Amen I say to you, whatsoever you shall bind upon earth, shall be bound also in heaven; and whatsoever you shall loose upon earth, shall be loosed also in heaven.

St. John Chyrsostom has an excellent commentary on this:

Priests have received a power which God has given neither to angels nor to archangels. It was said to them: "Whatsoever you shall bind upon earth shall be bound in heaven; and whatsoever you shall loose, shall be loosed" [Matt 18:18]. Temporal rulers have indeed the power of binding; but they can bind only the body. Priests, however, can bind with a bond which pertains to the soul itself, and transcends the very heavens...Whatever priests do here on earth, God will confirm in heaven, just as the master ratifies the decision of his servants. Did He not give them all the powers of heaven?

"Whose sins you shall forgive," He says, "they are forgiven them: whose sins you shall retain, they are retained" [John 20:23].

What greater power is there than this? ...The Father has given all the judgment to the Son. And now I see the Son placing all this power in the hands of men. They are raised to this dignity as if they were already gathered up to heaven, elevated above human nature, and freed of its limitations....The priests of Judaism had power to cleanse the body from leprosy -- or rather, not to cleanse it at all, but to declare a person as having been cleansed. And you know how much contention there was even in those times to obtain the priestly office. Our priests have received the power not of treating with the leprosy of the body, but with spiritual uncleanness; not of declaring cleansed, but of actually cleansing...What mean-souled wretch is there who would despise so great a good? None, I dare say, unless he be urged on by a devilish impulse....God has given to priests powers greater than those given to our parents; and the differences between the powers of these two is as great as the difference between the future life and the present....Our parents begot us to temporal existence; priests beget us to the eternal. The former are not able to ward off from their children the sting of death, nor prevent the attack of disease; yet the latter often save the sick and perishing soul -- sometimes by imposing a lighter penance, sometimes by preventing the fall. Priests accomplish this not only by teaching and admonishing, but also by the help of prayer. Not only at the time of our regeneration [at Baptism], but even aftward they have the authority to forgive sins....

"Is there anyone among you sick? Let him call in the priests of the church, and let us pray over him, anointing him with oil in the name of the Lord. And the prayer of faith shall save the sick man, and the Lord shall raise him up, and if he have committed sins, he shall be forgiven" [James 5:14-15]. (The Priesthood 3:5:182-4; 3:6:190-6)

...Great is the dignity of priests. "Whose sins you forgive," He says, "they are forgiven them" [John 20:23]...The things that are placed in the hands of the priest, it belongs to God alone to give.... Neither angel nor archangel is able to do anything in respect to what is given by God; rather, Father and Son and Holy Spirit manage it all; but the priest lends his own tongue and presents his own hand. Nor would it be just, if those who draw near in faith to the symbols of our salvation were to be harmed by the wickedness of another. (Homilies on John 86:4)

(Translators often translate "presbyter" as "priest" because it's a) where we got the word "priest" to begin with, and b) is inarguably how the early Church used the word, even Greek speakers like Chrysostom used the term.)

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  • A very interesting comment; thank you. I was especially interested to get a view from the Greek perspective. But why would a priest want to 'retain' anyone's sins? Does this mean, deny them forgiveness? Why would a priest do such a thing? – Jill Hudson May 2 '19 at 7:22
  • Priests rarely do this, but as I note in my answer, one must withhold forgiveness only when the penitent is not actually sorry for their sins. One sign of this may be no real resolution to stop sinning in a particular way, which amounts to not really being sorry even in the minimal fear of hell sense. For example, a priest cannot forgive someone who has committed adultery, yet wishes to remain in that adulterous relationship—i.e. he cannot forgive contrary to the very reason of forgiveness (restore relationship with God, which ongoing, unrepentant adulterers cannot ever have). – Sola Gratia May 2 '19 at 12:30
  • Thank you again; I am sorry not to have respnded sooner; I haven't quite mastered Stack Overflow yet! I can see what you are saying, yes. It does make sense. – Jill Hudson May 8 '19 at 6:53

John 20:23 New Revised Standard Version (NRSV) 23 If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.”

The apostles have power to declare forgiveness of sins. In the book of Acts, we see how this happens. Peter "opened the door" of the kingdom of heaven to the Gentiles (You are Peter and upon this rock i will build my church. "i give you the keys of heaven").

The forgiveness which the apostles will declare is related to the gospel since that is the way to make people repent , call upon the name of Jesus and receive forgiveness of sins. The gospel is the power of God for salvation (Romans 1:17). To those who did not receive the gospel, their sins were retained (remained).

Peter being the rock was the first one to declare the gospel, but his power was not unique, the other apostles also binds and loose (Matthew 18:18). Binding and loosing was a Jewish teaching about what heaven has permitted under the earth. This is related to how the church should function in preaching, judging /in dealing with problems, novel cases, teaching and discipline (1 Corinthians 6:1-5).

The council of Jerusalem was like the divine council in Psalm 82 wherein the Israelite judges were functioning as gods (elohim). Confession of sins to God (1 John 1:9) and fellow believers (James 5:15) were encouraged for Christians. To confess simply means to tell your sins to another which, in the gospel, involves repentance too (telling that you're willingly to turn away from sins due you accepted Christ) Confession of sins to God and the apostles were necessary to declare forgiveness of sins but this was a one time event since the baptism that it accompanies was one time only ("Wash your sins away, by calling upon his name").

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Question: What does it mean to "retain" a sin?

In whatever way "retain" is to be interpreted—it should probably be defined in juxtaposition to "forgive"—a legal term.

κρατέω can be, (and should be, in my opinion), interpreted in this context with a "legal/governing" connotation because of the context—and because this is how it probably would have been interpreted originally.

κρατέω word study at Logeion

"Retain" may be more accurately translated as "seize", or "take control over", to "conquer", "to rule over".

So, if an infraction is committed, somehow, what happens if the victim doesn't "forgive"?

This is usually where a court comes in.

The Greek word for "retain", in this case, is surrounded by legal context, (forgiveness, sins, etc.).

So, it is reasonable to interpret "retain" with a legal connotation.

Possible Answer

So, instead of simply "forgiving" the sin, the disciples may have also been given authority to "seize jurisdiction", to "preside over" or "rule over" sins.

This does not mean that they were exempt from the commandments to forgive as they had been forgiven; they were still to judge with mercy because they were judged with mercy.

But, I imagine some "sins/infractions" left hardships and some sort of reparations were necessary. In these cases, judges within Churches would have been helpful.

So, Paul might have been agreeing, by saying:

NKJV, 1 Corinthians 6:5 - I say this to your shame. Is it so, that there is not a wise man among you, not even one, who will be able to judge between his brethren?

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