Does John 20:23 use a past-tense verb, i.e. "forgiven"? I was wondering what information there is on the verb "forgiven" here.

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  • This question boils down to what tense the verb was in in this verse, which is a relatively simple linguistic question and a simple yes or no won't really help you with your original question, which is focused on application. I've gone ahead and transferred this to C.SE for you where you will receive a better answer to what you are looking for. – Dan Apr 20 '14 at 16:35
  • I've also reworded the question to focus it exclusively on this text and not on those things to which it applies, and also to keep it from searching for other texts (questions must be focused on a specified text). That way you can now get answers to the language question here and the theological question on C.SE. For more information on why we do this, check out Why can't I ask my 'big question'? – Dan Apr 20 '14 at 16:41
  • @Daи I would have suggested a broader meaning of what "forgiveness" means, in context with the scripture. It still is a step away from application, but goes beyond a technical 'verb tense', which is is less than what the OP asked for. Thank you for allowing it to stay, as the answer addresses the OP's concern(w/o the 'church' element). – Tau Apr 21 '14 at 4:29

The tricky aspect of interpreting verses 21-23 involves the time (or timing) element. There are several things to keep in mind, particularly from the evangelical tradition:

  1. Jesus, in one of His post-resurrection appearances to His disciples, intended by His enduement of the Holy Spirit to them to tide them over, as it were, until the Holy Spirit appeared at a plenary session of all the believers gathered in Jerusalem on the Day of Pentecost. Call it a temporary enduement which portended the baptism and the filling of the Holy Spirit some days hence.

  2. The forgiveness of sins which Jesus spoke of in verse 23 was delegated to them in--again--the interim between the days following His resurrection and the Day of Pentecost. If anything, that forgiveness was in the future tense, not the past tense. This particular enduement enabled the disciples to share (and possibly teach and preach) the good news of Christ's resurrection with the people to whom they were closest at that time, whether relatives, friends, neighbors, or anyone in their circles of influence. In other words, the disciples' audiences had an opportunity to believe in the risen Messiah. If they did, their sins could be forgiven. If they refused to believe, their sins would be retained (though they would almost invariably be given a second chance later on to repent and believe).

  3. The Pharisees and the experts in the Law were quite correct:

               "'Who can forgive sins but God alone?'" (Mark 2:7 and Luke 5:21).

Since the forgiveness of sins is an authority which only God possesses, and then extends to whomever He will, the disciples' authority to forgive or retain sins was indeed delegated to them. A delegated authority carries a similar weight to the authority of the one who delegates, but that authority is derived from the delegator! It passes with the delegator's permission to the delegatees.

The disciples could, for example, legitimately say to a person who believed in the resurrected Christ:

               "On the basis of the authority of the risen Christ 
               given to us, your sins are forgiven." Or conversely,  
               "On the basis of the authority of the risen Christ 
               given to us, your sins are retained." 

Even today, Christ's followers can say to a person whom they lead to the Lord,

              "On the authority of Jesus and His word, 
              as recorded in the Scripture, if you truly
              believed in Jesus for the forgiveness of your 
              sins, those sins are forgiven." 

The forgiveness proffered by the disciples prior to the "birth of the Church on Pentecost" was therefore to a special category of believers (or unbelievers). Believers today are assured of the forgiveness of

  • every sin they committed in the past
  • every sin they commit in the present, and
  • every sin they ever will commit in the future


"died for our sins according to the Scriptures . . ." (1 Corinthians 15:3b NIV).

Paul made it crystal clear in another place, however, that because all our sins--past, present, and future--are forgiven, we are not, therefore, free to commit sins to our heart's content. In his letter to the Roman Christians, Paul asked the question,

"What shall we say then? Shall we continue in sin, that grace may abound ? God forbid . How shall we, that are dead to sin, live any longer therein ? Know ye not, that so many of us as were baptized into Jesus Christ were baptized into his death?Therefore we are buried with him by baptism into death: that like as Christ was raised up from the dead by the glory of the Father, even so we also should walk in newness of life (6:1-4 KJV).

The forgiveness proffered to every living creature who believes in and receives Christ is not a free pass to continue living in sin. On the contrary, out of gratitude for our sins being forgiven, we are to live in "newness of life."

While today we can never truly know who has been forgiven and who has not been forgiven (though a lack of spiritual fruit in a person's life could be an indication of his or her spiritual standing before God, as Christ indicated in Matthew chapter 7, verses 16 and 20), we are given both an assurance and a warning in 2 Timothy 2:19 NAS:

"Nevertheless, the firm foundation of God stands, having this seal, "The Lord knows those who are His," and, "Everyone who names the name of the Lord is to abstain from wickedness."

In other words, we need to spend less time trying to determine who is the true believer and who is not, and more time abstaining from wickedness! As Jesus said, we are to let the wheat and the weeds grow up together and not go around removing the weeds from our respective churches. That is Jesus' job! Since we can't absolutely know--nor do we need to know--who the "weeds" are, we are to take care to grow as healthy stalks of wheat and produce to God's glory many grains of wheat. As Peter encouraged us in his first letter,

"Wherefore the rather, brethren, give diligence to make your calling and election sure: for if ye do these things, ye shall never fall" (2 Peter 1:10 KJV).

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    I believe you are missing a "not" in this sentence: "Paul made it crystal clear in another place, however, that because all our sins--past, present, and future--are forgiven, we are [not?] therefore free to commit sins to our heart's content." Correct? – ScottS Apr 20 '14 at 21:11
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    @rhetorician Good answer, Don. I agree w/ScottS, an "Are" needs to be included before "...we are therefore...". It's too small of an edit(less than 7 characters) so you will have to do it. Otherwise-+1. – Tau Apr 21 '14 at 4:17
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    I could tell by your follow up paragraph after the scripture quote that it had to be a "error" in the statement. But I did not want to assume that, which is why I did not just make the edit myself. – ScottS Apr 21 '14 at 14:35
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    @ScottS: It was SURELY an error! (I imagine, however, that more than a few people wish they were free to sin with impunity. The pleasures of sin, however, are for a very short season, but at God's right hand are pleasures forever more. See Psalm 16:11 KJV, and Hebrews 11:25.) – rhetorician Apr 21 '14 at 23:06
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    @rhetorician, "more than a few people wish they were free to sin with impunity." I met a man who practiced that. He stated that because grace abounded when he sinned, his sins made more grace in his life. Some interpretations are so wrong you just can't fix them. – Frank Luke Apr 22 '14 at 13:18

The verse in Greek is as follows:

John 20:23 (GNT)
23 ἄν τινων ἀφῆτε τὰς ἁμαρτίας ἀφέωνται αὐτοῖς, ἄν τινων κρατῆτε κεκράτηνται.

First, whenever looking at "tough" passages in the Greek New Testament, one important step is to check the most recent research regarding the texts. That is, there is apparent confusion on the exact verb tense of the second iteration of ἀφίημι which is highlighted in bold, above. In other words, the variant readings of the variant texts concerning this verb will confuse our understanding of the interpretation (and therefore any application), unless we consult primary sources.

According to The Greek New Testament (4th Edition), edited by Aland, Metzger, et al. (2012), this verse in Greek has variant readings from various primary sources (papyri, manuscripts, etc.). In order to save ourselves the tedious task of comparing and contrasting the pros and cons of the variant readings, the late Bruce Metzger has also published the companion volume, which is A Textual Commentary on the Greek New Testament (2nd Edition, 2012). On page 219 he writes the following:

20.23 ἀφέωνται {B}
Although the perfect tense ἀφέωνται could be regarded as a secondary assimilation to κεκράτηνται at the end of the sentence, a majority of the Committee interpreted the present tense ἀφίεωνται and the future ἀφεθήσεται as scribal simplifications which weaken the sense. To the external evidence supporting (אc , A D (L) X 050 f1 f13 33vid 565 al) should perhaps be added B*, which reads (ιο being written for ω).

What he is saying, is that the "Editorial Committee" (comprised of the four editors of The Greek New Testament) had ascribed {B} to the reading for ἀφέωνται, which means that they are "almost certain" that the perfect tense was the original word in the autograph. In other words, the present tense (ἀφίεωνται) and future tense of the verb (ἀφεθήσεται), which are the variant readings, were later scribal editions or emendations to "correct" what they (copyists over the centuries) had inferred what should be the appropriate reading based on theological biases. Thanks to the research of Metzger, et al., we now can be "almost certain" that the NASB translation, below, is the most accurate rendering of this verse from the best Greek texts available for the New Testament.

John 20:23 (NASB)
“. . . Receive the Holy Spirit. 23 If you forgive the sins of any, their sins have been forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they have been retained.”

So now what does the verse mean?

The verse does not appear to refer to the authority of believers on earth to forgive the sins of others, because the verb form is in the perfect tense (ἀφέωνται), for which Metzger, et al., are "almost certain" is the correct reading.

So what is the meaning of the verse if sins have been forgiven (absolute sense), but they can still be retained (temporal sense)?

The interpretation appears to refer to the authority of believers on earth to accept or reject believers in community fellowship (temporal sense) even though the sins of those believers have been forgiven (absolute sense).

To start, whenever believers sin in the eyes of other believers, the admonition is for the spiritually mature believers to "restore" them.

Gal 6:1-2 (NASB)
1 Brethren, even if anyone is caught in any trespass, you who are spiritual, restore such a one in a spirit of gentleness; each one looking to yourself, so that you too will not be tempted. 2 Bear one another’s burdens, and thereby fulfill the law of Christ.

You pray for other believers, and ask the Lord to "restore" them from their sins, for which they were already forgiven (perfect tense of ἀφέωνται in John 20:23). The obvious implication is complete forgiveness. But there are sins, which other believers commit, that should cause grief to others.

1 Cor 5:1-3 (NASB)
1 It is actually reported that there is immorality among you, and immorality of such a kind as does not exist even among the Gentiles, that someone has his father’s wife. 2 You have become arrogant and have not mourned instead, so that the one who had done this deed would be removed from your midst. 3 For I, on my part, though absent in body but present in spirit, have already judged him who has so committed this, as though I were present.

Jesus also mentions the tolerance of gross sexual immorality among Christian fellowship.

Rev 6:18-21 (NASB)
18 “And to the angel of the church in Thyatira write: The Son of God, who has eyes like a flame of fire, and His feet are like burnished bronze, says this: 19 ‘I know your deeds, and your love and faith and service and perseverance, and that your deeds of late are greater than at first. 20 But I have this against you, that you tolerate the woman Jezebel, who calls herself a prophetess, and she teaches and leads My bond-servants astray so that they commit acts of immorality and eat things sacrificed to idols. 21 I gave her time to repent, and she does not want to repent of her immorality.

In other words, believers should "retain the sins of others" when matters pertain to the tolerance of gross sexual immorality (and its handmaiden, idolatry) within the fellowship of Christians. (Please click here for amplification of gross sexual immorality and idolatry.) It is not that these Christians are not saved, and therefore forgiven, but that their sins are not tolerated, and in this temporal sense, are retained.

For example -

1 Jn 5:16-17 (NASB)
16 If anyone sees his brother committing a sin not leading to death, he shall ask and God will for him give life to those who commit sin not leading to death. There is a sin leading to death; I do not say that he should make request for this. 17 All unrighteousness is sin, and there is a sin not leading to death.

John is making allusion to the same distinction between the "restoration" of the believer and the "retaining the sins" of the believer. Like the believers in Corinth or the believers in Thyatira, gross sexual immorality (and its handmaiden of idolatry) should not be tolerated among the community of believers. These sins should be "retained" and therefore fellowship broken in the temporal sense, even though in an absolute sense sins were forgiven at the cross (that is, per the perfect tense of ἀφέωνται in John 20:23).


The following two passages reinforce the discussion in the previous paragraphs, above.

Matt 18:15-18 (NASB)
15 “If your brother sins, go and show him his fault in private; if he listens to you, you have won your brother. 16 But if he does not listen to you, take one or two more with you, so that by the mouth of two or three witnesses every fact may be confirmed. 17 If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church; and if he refuses to listen even to the church, let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector. 18 Truly I say to you, whatever you bind on earth shall have been bound in heaven; and whatever you loose on earth shall have been loosed in heaven.

The context is broken fellowship among believers because of sin, which is of such a degree that temporal cessation of fellowship occurs. The context is not about forgiving people (or not forgiving them) so that they can enter heaven (or not enter heaven).

And then there is this passage -

Matt 16:15-19 (NASB)
15 He said to them, “But who do you say that I am?” 16 Simon Peter answered, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” 17 And Jesus said to him, “Blessed are you, Simon Barjona, because flesh and blood did not reveal this to you, but My Father who is in heaven. 18 I also say to you that you are Peter, and upon this rock I will build My church; and the gates of Hades will not overpower it. 19 I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven; and whatever you bind on earth shall have been bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall have been loosed in heaven.”

Peter was the "stand-in" for Jesus at Pentecost, when the New Covenant was announced to Israel. (The dates of the announcement of the Old Covenant and the New Covenant were the 6th of Sivan, which was 50 days after the 16th of Nisan - please click here.) So while Moses announced the Old Covenant, Peter announced the New Covenant. The New Covenant is the key to heaven. Please note that the key to death and Hades is not possessed by Peter, but by Jesus (Rev 1:18).

In other words, the New Covenant is about the keys to heaven (forgiveness of sins in the absolute sense). Gross sexual immorality and/or its handmaiden of idolatry are not tolerated and therefore believers hold one another accountable (binding) in order to preserve the fellowship of saints.

It is Jesus who unlocks the power of death and Hades to save sinners (with the key of death and Hades). The key of heaven is the New Covenant, for which there is absolute forgiveness, but with gross sin (within the fellowship of saints) will come accountability, and therefore the binding of those sins on earth. The story of Ananias and Sapphira provide an extreme example of such accountability (Acts 5:1-11), which had idolatry in view.

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