With respect to seeking forgiveness, the penalty for sin and being saved by Grace; how is the teaching of the Lord's prayer and the lessons of faithful prayer to Our Father reconciled with the Christ's imparting on the apostles the authority to forgive sins?

It is stated in John 20:23:

Whose soever sins you remit, they are remitted to them; and whose soever sins you retain, they are retained. KJV

However in Luke 24 the disciples are taught the meanings of the scriptures, and, precisely in Luke 24:47 they are sent to preach forgiveness in Christ's name.

And that repentance and remission of sins should be preached in his name among all nations, beginning at Jerusalem. KJV

Now Luke 24:47 seems to be more consistent with the teaching of the Lord's Prayer Matthew 6:5 - 6:15 ...

5And when thou prayest, thou shalt not be as the hypocrites are: for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and in the corners of the streets, that they may be seen of men. Verily I say unto you, They have their reward. 6But thou, when thou prayest, enter into thy closet, and when thou hast shut thy door, pray to thy Father which is in secret; and thy Father which seeth in secret shall reward thee openly. ...

9After this manner therefore pray ye: Our Father which art in heaven, Hallowed be thy name.

10Thy kingdom come. Thy will be done in earth, as it is in heaven.

11Give us this day our daily bread.

12And forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors.

13And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil: For thine is the kingdom, and the power, and the glory, for ever. Amen. 14For if ye forgive men their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you: 15But if ye forgive not men their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses. KJV

...and the seeking of forgiveness by the faithful Mark 2:5

When Jesus saw their faith, he said to the sick of the palsy, Son, your sins be forgiven you. KJV

The answering of one's prayers when made faithfully and not vainly is consistent with the cursing of the fig tree,

Jesus answered and said to them, Truly I say to you, If you have faith, and doubt not, you shall not only do this which is done to the fig tree, but also if you shall say to this mountain, Be you removed, and be you cast into the sea; it shall be done. KJV

In both the teaching of the Lord's Prayer and the seeking of forgiveness, it is communicated that effective prayer requires earnest and deep love for the Lord, (which doubtless amounts to faith and reverence, that is love and fear gained through knowing the truth, that man is sustained by the words of GOD alone).

How is this reconciled with the ostensible need for sinners to seek forgiveness through the church, rather than through faith and reverence in prayer?

Is it that the authority to forgive was granted, or was it that the capacity to forgive was granted by the imparting of "knowing" by the Christ, so that they would be able to pray effectively including the prayer for forgiveness on the behalf of others? If this is not the case how are the passages reconciled?

  • Hi Elihoch, welcome to BHSE! Please take the Site Tour when you get a chance. This question is likely to be closed as it "needs more focus" - you're asking a few different things that (to me) don't seem to be centred on John 20. Can you please have a think about this. Maybe you'd like to split this into two Questions, or move some of your material above into an Answer to your own Question. If it's really more of a question about theology than text interpretation of John 20, you could consider asking it on Christianity.SE.
    – Steve can help
    Feb 20, 2020 at 8:48
  • Sorry I've not logged on the platform in a few days I'll take some time to look at your what you've suggested thanks. God bless
    – Elihoch
    Feb 22, 2020 at 17:27
  • @Steve Taylor, Hi, I've taken a look at the question and what your comments. The reason why I include so many different passages is to give specificity to the sort of answer for which I am looking; that is consistency between passages.
    – Elihoch
    Feb 23, 2020 at 10:09
  • I was asking for a reading of passage that retained this consistency; this was satisfied by the answer that clarified the correct grammatical reading of the passage. I was not looking for an interpretation of the deeper meaning to satisfy my own preconceptions.
    – Elihoch
    Feb 23, 2020 at 11:57

2 Answers 2


Ellicott comments on John 20:23 as follows:

Whose soever sins ye remit, they are remitted unto them . . .--Comp. for the "power of the keys," the Notes on Matthew 16:19; Matthew 18:18. Assuming what has there been said, it will be sufficient to add that this power is here immediately connected with the representative character of the disciples as apostles sent by Christ, as He was Himself sent by the Father (John 20:21), and that its validity is dependent upon their reception of the Holy Ghost (John 20:22), by whom Christ Himself is present in them (John 14:18; John 16:7-11).

Let us take a closer look at both Matt 16:16-19 and John 20:23.

Matt 16:16-19, “Simon Peter answered, ‘You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.’ And Jesus said to him, ‘Blessed are you, Simon bar Jona, because flesh and blood did not reveal this to you, but My Father who is in heaven. I also say to you that you are Peter [Petros (masc), a stone], and upon this rock [Petra (fem), large rock, bed-rock] I will build My congregation; and the gates of Hades will not overcome it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven; and whatever you bind on earth will have been bound [simple future + perfect participle passive] in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will have been loosed [simple future + perfect participle passive] in heaven.’” (My translation) We observe several things about this passage.

  • The community/congregation of believers is to be based either on Christ as the Rock, or, the truth that Jesus is “the Messiah, the Son of the living God”. It is obvious that both are intended.
  • The authority delegated in this passage is such that the disciples could only decide what was consonant with heaven, because they decided (bound and loosed) that which heaven had already bound and loosed. Conversely, decisions not in accord with heavenly decisions have no authority.
  • Note these comments (in an appendix) of J B Phillips in his translation of the New Testament in Modern English: Matthew 16:19 and 18:18, "forbidding" and "permitting". There is a very curious Greek construction here, viz, a simple future followed by the perfect participle passive. If Jesus had meant to say quite simply, Whatever you forbid on earth will be forbidden in Heaven", can anyone explain why the simple future passive is not used? It seems to me that if the words of Jesus are accurately reported here, and I have no reason to doubt it, then the force of these sayings is that Jesus’ true disciples will be so led by the Spirit that they will be following the heavenly pattern. In other words what they “forbid” or “permit” on earth will be consonant with the Divine rules. Thus, we conclude that the “keys of the kingdom” is the enlightenment of the Holy Spirit revealing the will of heaven, consistent with the teachings of Scripture. This is confirmed by Luke 11:52.
  • Matt 18:18, “Truly I say to you, whatever you bind on earth will have been bound [simple future + perfect participle passive] in heaven; and whatever you loose on earth will have been loosed [simple future + perfect participle passive] in heaven.” (McG) This provides the same message as contained above. The authority delegated here extends only as far as it accords with the will of heaven. Further, in this passage, authority is given to resolve disputes and “wrongs” between members of the Christian community. (v15-17) Again, this can only be done using the principles of Scripture under the enlightenment of the Holy Spirit.

Now let us examine the passage in John 20:23. Again, it cannot be separated from the previous verse where Jesus bequeathed the gift of the Holy Spirit, thus imparting the source of divine wisdom to the disciples.

Note especially the tense of the verbs used in John 20:23:

  • if you forgive: ἀφῆτε (aphēte) Aorist Subjunctive Active
  • they are forgiven: ἀφέωνται (apheōntai) Perfect Indicative Middle or Passive
  • if you withhold: κρατῆτε (kratēte) Present Subjunctive Active
  • it is withheld: κεκράτηνται (kekratēntai) Perfect Indicative Middle/Passive

Note that the verbs depicting the disciple's actions are active and aorist while the effect on the sins is perfect, ie, already completed.

Thus, what the disciples would be doing is making comments and pronouncements, via the enlightenment of the Holy Spirit that is consonant with the decisions that had already be taken in heaven. This is consistent with Jesus' earlier statements in Matthew.

Only God can forgive sins (Mark 2:7, Luke 5:21, 1 John 1:9, etc) but the disciples would be the conduit via which the enlightenment and encouragement to seek forgiveness would come.

  • I'm quite thankful for your answer. It has been made clear the consistencies between the passages. As Jesus only did and said what was in accordance with GOD's will, the capacity for the disciples to act in accordance with GOD's will subsequent to receiving the Holy Spirit is apparently quite in concert with underlying biblical themes.
    – Elihoch
    Feb 16, 2020 at 22:28
  • I was just wondering, when Jesus explained why he spoke in parables he spoke of those who had gaining more and those who did not have, having even what they did have taken away. Are there any examples of those having before birth? I mean would Enoch, or Samuel count as having this capacity, or perhaps Zachariah and Elizabeth?
    – Elihoch
    Feb 16, 2020 at 23:01
  • Great Question. I suggest you ask that separately.
    – Dottard
    Feb 17, 2020 at 0:05
  • Right, I'll collate the relevant passages then.
    – Elihoch
    Feb 17, 2020 at 2:01

Forgiveness vs Delegated Forgiveness

Passages which teach that forgiveness comes by Jesus Christ (e.g. Luke 24:47) are not at odds with Christ's delegating His own power to grant that forgiveness, since He is merely delegating that power to others, and not ascribing it to another source of forgiveness. Much less are passages which show Jesus bypassing any other minister in forgiveness of sins - hopefully for obvious reasons. In other words, the assertions, "all forgiveness comes from Jesus Christ," and "Christ delegated the ministry of reconciliation to other men," cannot possibly be at odds with one another.

Likewise, passages such as those which record the Our Father do not contradict there being sins which this prayer (or another similar) is not intended to blot out.

To be sure, if a murderer committed murder, and consequently had perfect contrition for his sin, one can safely say that the objective case of such a hypothetical person could be forgiven that sin without any other recourse - not that one doesn't exist, but that the seed of his faith is all he brings to such a recourse anyway, and so it adds nothing to what he already has (i.e. still making it a sin to not make use of that recourse if it is within his power, because he presumes on God's mercy, or his contrition being sufficient, whereas only God could know that).

However, who usually has such contrition for such a heavy sin (as opposed to say, being rude to someone, for which it might be said to easier to muster up a real contrition without too much difficulty)? For such situations in which the person doesn't place any hope in his own contrition, having committed murder, fornication, adultery, serious or dangerous lies, etc., the Lord gave another recourse, to give us the surety the heart can't provide - and the medicine we need not to commit the same sin in the future, avoid the peril that comes with such.

This other recourse is confession, "when [the sinner] does not shrink from confessing his sin to a priest of the Lord, and from seeking medicine" (Origen, Homily on Leviticus 2).

Why would Jesus offer us another means of forgiveness than merely asking in prayer? This is wise for many reasons. Among them:

  • Easy forgiveness leads to easiness of comission of that sin again (whereas confession to another man is humiliating and pricks one's pride)
  • Forgiving sin, but not offering a means of re-sanctification, is akin to healing someone, but then stripping off the protective bandage meant to cover it until the fresh wound heals (whereas administering some penance with the sin, is a means to ensure that progress is sanctification is being made, where the sin caused progress to be lost or even altogether destroyed)
  • For justice's sake it's fitting that creatures who sinned against God should after sinning offer to God instead some act of penance, especially since they didn't deserve forgiveness, not to earn the forgiveness already granted, but to align themselves in thanksgiving with what ought to be instead of what happened - especially if this sin was public, and damaged God's reputation before others (who would, say, break one of Jesus' paintings, if He had any, and upon being forgiven, would not attempt to repay or make amends? not a Christian)
  • Granting assurance of forgiveness via a clear vocalized "I forgive you in the name of...," (i.e. via physical ministers) and not leaving it up to the man's heart to ensure his forgiveness ('I believe I have repented and thus am forgiven...' which might be sufficient for light sins), is not only spiritually therapeutic, but also gives a solid basis and confidence to begin living life firmly resolved not to commit those same crimes again, without the worry that accompanies such fallen-heart based security

Moreover, certain passages prove this distinction between forgiveness obtained by prayer, and forgiveness obtained by the ministry of someone else (namely, the presbyter, or priest):

James 5:13-15 Is any of you sad? Let him pray. Is he cheerful in mind? Let him sing. 14 Is any man sick among you? Let him bring in the presbyters of the church, and let them pray over him, anointing him with oil in the name of the Lord. 15 And the prayer of faith shall save the sick man: and the Lord shall raise him up: and if he be in sins, they shall be forgiven him.

As does, indeed, the very notion of delegated forgiveness by the agency of men:

John 20:21-23 He said therefore to them again: Peace be to you. As the Father hath sent me, I also send you. 22 When he had said this, he breathed on them; and he said to them: Receive ye the Holy Ghost. 23 Whose sins you shall forgive, they are forgiven them; and whose sins you shall retain, they are retained.

For two reasons, this must be understood of delegated forgiveness via men in the church:

  • "Whose sins you forgive" means that the forgiveness is granted by the men to whom the authority is given, namely the apostles (and according to James, all presbyters)

  • "Whose sins you forgive, they are forgiven them," cannot mean, "When you forgive others, others have been forgiven by you" as if Christ were to say, when water is water, it is water; especially since the tense of the verb in Greek forbids such an absurdity (which in fact literally says, "whose sins you shall forgive, they have been forgiven them") meaning that God has bound in heaven what they shall bind on earth (Matthew 18:18 )

"Forgiven, ... Nevertheless"

For example, David who committed adultery and murdered the husband of the woman, God forgave him when he confessed said sin before Nathan the prophet. However, God required something of David, to make him learn that he was forgiven at His expense:

2 Samuel 12:13-14 And David said to Nathan: I have sinned against the Lord. And Nathan said to David: The Lord also hath taken away thy sin: thou shalt not die. Nevertheless, because thou hast given occasion to the enemies of the Lord to blaspheme, for this thing, the child that is born to thee, shall surely die.

Notice that for such a grave sin, David felt that he was not able to just 'Our Father' himself out of this one, as though he had sinned in some minor way. Hence, the prophet, Nathan, must assure him that he is forgiven. Nevertheless, he is assigned a penance, one might say, or suffering, for having sinned, to cause him to learn what sin is - not so that he can earn that forgiveness, but learn something from Him who granted it. God didn't do this for no reason - He does nothing for no reason. God did it to help David learn about sin. It's no different for us Christians, who must learn that we were bought with a price, and that those whom the Lord loves, he chastizes for their own sanctification.

Hebrews 12:5-10 And you have forgotten the consolation, which speaketh to you, as unto children, saying: My son, neglect not the discipline of the Lord; neither be thou wearied whilst thou art rebuked by him. 6 For whom the Lord loveth, he chastiseth; and he scourgeth every son whom he receiveth. 7 Persevere under discipline. God dealeth with you as with his sons; for what son is there, whom the father doth not correct? 8 But if you be without chastisement, whereof all are made partakers, then are you bastards, and not sons. 9 Moreover we have had fathers of our flesh, for instructors, and we reverenced them: shall we not much more obey the Father of spirits, and live? 10 And they indeed for a few days, according to their own pleasure, instructed us: but he, for our profit, that we might receive his sanctification.

Prayer for Light Sin; Confession for Grevous Sin

So asking forgiveness can blot out sin, but not all kinds of sin - for our own benefit.

There is no tension or contradiction present at all. There would be, however, if one denied the need of this ministerial mode of forgiveness, because they would make it (that is, as well as the power to accomplish it given in John 20/Matthew 18) an absolute superfluity, and moreover contradict the unanimous tradition of presbyters being those whom recourse is had for grievous sin in the church. The evidence for which need not even be epitomized by one representative quotation from the early Church, because of the ubiquity and unanimity of this conception of the Scripture, and of the practice itself of confessing to the priest. However, here are just a few:

Just as in the Old Testament the priest makes the leper clean or unclean, so in the New Testament the bishop and presbyter binds or looses not those who are innocent or guilty, but by reason of their office, when they have heard various kinds of sins, they know who is to be bound and who loosed. (St. Jerome, Commentary on Matthew 3:16-19)

"Forgiveness of sins." You have [this article of] the Creed perfectly in you when you receive Baptism. Let none say, "I have done this or that sin: perchance that is not forgiven me." What have you done? How great a sin have you done? Name any heinous thing you have committed, heavy, horrible, which you shudder even to think of: have done what you will: have you killed Christ? There is not than that deed any worse, because also than Christ there is nothing better. What a dreadful thing is it to kill Christ! Yet the Jews killed Him, and many afterwards believed on Him and drank His blood: they are forgiven the sin which they committed. When you have been baptized, hold fast a good life in the commandments of God, that you may guard your Baptism even unto the end. I do not tell you that you will live here without sin; but they are venial, without which this life is not. For the sake of all sins was Baptism provided; for the sake of light sins, without which we cannot be, was prayer provided. What has the Prayer? "Forgive us our debts, as we also forgive our debtors." Once for all we have washing in Baptism, every day we have washing in prayer. Only, do not commit those things for which you must needs be separated from Christ's body: which be far from you! For those whom you have seen doing penance, have committed heinous things, either adulteries or some enormous crimes: for these they do penance. Because if theirs had been light sins, to blot out these daily prayer would suffice.

In three ways then are sins remitted in the Church; by Baptism, by prayer, by the greater humility of penance; yet God does not remit sins but to the baptized. ... (St. Augustine, Sermon to the Catechumens on the Creed)

It is necessary to confess our sins to those to whom the dispensation of God’s mysteries [i.e. the Sacraments] is entrusted [i.e. priests]. Those doing penance of old are found to have done it before the saints. It is written in the Gospel that they confessed their sins to John the Baptist [Matt 3:6]; but in Acts they confessed to the Apostles, by whom also all were baptized [Acts 19:18]. (St. Basil the Great, Rules Briefly Treated)

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