John 20:21-23 So Jesus said to them again, “Peace to you. As the Father has sent me, I also send you.” And when he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them. If you retain the sins of any, they are retained.

If it does not refer to confession by the priest, why did the doctors and Fathers of the church (I don't know if all of them) said that it was necessary to confess and also spoke of priests? Is the way of confessing they were referring to how it is practiced today in the Catholic church, or not? I know that aural confession was born much later and is not written in the Bible.

2 Answers 2


First, the Christian church as established by Christ under the New Covenant envisioned no formal priesthood, no distinction between clergy and laity; and most importantly, had only one priest - Jesus Christ Himself as our great high priest, Heb 2:17, 3:1, 4:14, 15, 5:10, 6:20, 7:26, 8:1, 9:11, etc.

No one in the NT is ever designated as a priest of the Christian church except Jesus.

Therefore, the NT church, as established by Jesus could have no confession to priests as Christian priests were never envisioned.

Second, the grammar of John 20:23 is exceedingly difficult to render properly into English because the verb tenses used in the Greek do not exist in English. English does not have an aorist tense and does not have a middle voice, nor a proper perfect tense. Here is my attempt to render John 20:23 in English:

If any of you might forgive sins, they are forgiven them; if any you might retain, they are retained.

The teaching (and the tenses of the verbs) are clearer in Matt 16:19. That verse is examined in the appendix below. For now, let me quote Ellicott's helpful remarks on John 20:23

(23) 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). Sent as He was sent, they are not sent to condemn the world, but that the world through Him might be saved; but in their work, as in His, men are condemned because the light is come into the world, and men love darkness rather than light.

The ultimate principles upon which this power rests are those stated above—the being sent by Christ, and the reception of the Holy Ghost. God has promised forgiveness wherever there is repentance; He has not promised repentance wherever there is sin. It results from every declaration of forgiveness made in the name of the Father through Jesus Christ, that hearts which in penitence accept it receive remission of their sins, and that the hardness of the hearts which wilfully reject it is by their rejection increased, and the very words by which their sins would be remitted become the words by which they are retained. (Comp. especially Notes on John 3:17 et seq.; John 16:8 et seq.; and 2 Corinthians 2:15-16.)

On individual words in this verse it is important to note that in the better text the tense of that rendered “are remitted” is a strict present, while that rendered “are retained” is in the perfect-present. The difference is not easy to preserve in English, but the thought seems to be, “Whose soever sins ye remit—a change in their condition is taking place—their sins are being remitted by God; whose soever ye retain—their condition remains unchanged—they have been, and are retained.”

APPENDIX - Matt 16:16-19

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.

  • 1
    But then why did people like Chrysostom, Ambrose, Augustine etc... talk about this?
    – Leandro
    Commented Mar 21 at 10:00
  • 1
    @Leandro - there are numerous practices and teachings of churches that have nothing to do with the NT teaching. A formal priesthood is one, ordination is another. There are many more.
    – Dottard
    Commented Mar 21 at 10:02
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    I think it goes to far to characterize the priesthood as having nothing to do with the NT. I provided an answer that shows the biblical basis of this type of ecclesiology. Commented Mar 21 at 11:55

The formal office of the priest evolved later on, but those who belong traditions such as the Catholics, Orthodox, Anglicans, etc. definitely see a biblical basis for practices such as confession and the role of the priest. Scholars see the beginnings of the formal church offices already in the Pastoral Epistles attributed to Paul together with 1 Peter and Acts, where the "charismatic" offices of apostle, prophet and teacher seem to have evolved or morphed into those of the bishop (1 Timothy 3:1), deacon (3:8) and presbyter (Acts 11:30, 1 Peter 5).

Regarding confession, the biblical basis for this tradition is this:

James 5:16

Therefore, confess your sins to one another and pray for one another, that you may be healed. The fervent prayer of a righteous person is very powerful.

Meanwhile, the office of presbyter (elder) evolved into a formal priesthood, based on such scriptures as 1 Peter 5:

I exhort the presbyters among you, as a fellow presbyter and witness to the sufferings of Christ and one who has a share in the glory to be revealed. 2 Tend the flock of God in your midst, not by constraint but willingly, as God would have it, not for shameful profit but eagerly. 3 Do not lord it over those assigned to you, but be examples to the flock. 4 And when the chief Shepherd is revealed, you will receive the unfading crown of glory.

Here we can see that the idea of presbyters as "shepherds" had already emerged by the time 1 Peter was written. When the practice of private confession and the sacraments of penance and absolution evolved is uncertain. It is safe to say that the current practice in the Catholic Church is not exactly the same as what was practiced in the beginning. However, the church fathers did find a biblical basis for these traditions as they developed, including John 20:21-23.

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    Thanks for this response Dan, but I don't see a solid biblical basis to confirm what Catholics etc. say. If it evolved over time, the first Christians then did not confess to the priest. And if they did not confess to them, God still accepted their repentance and their confession without Aural confession as it is called today and in addition other non-biblical practices such as the many prayers to be said after confession such as the Hail Mary.
    – Leandro
    Commented Mar 21 at 12:21
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    @Leandro... This gets into church history rather than biblical interpretation. One man's "non-biblical practice" is another man's sacred church tradition and I prefer not to express an opinion in this forum about which one God prefers. Commented Mar 21 at 12:59

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