John 20:23 – “If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you withhold forgiveness from any, it is withheld.” (ESV)
This is probably the most misunderstood and controversial verse to understand in the Bible because only God can forgive sins, right?
How do we know it’s wrong? Because in this passage Jesus clearly gives his disciples the authority to forgive sins and to withhold forgiveness. He says it point blank, and without ambiguity.
But… there is a catch to truly understanding what he’s talking about…
Forgiveness of sins is a delegated authority.
We see this with the Father when he delegates authority to forgive sins to Jesus. Jesus says in Luke 5:24, “to show you that the Son of Man has authority to forgive sins…” Jesus claims he has authority to forgive sins. Jesus later says in John 12:49, “I have not spoken on my own authority, but the Father who sent me has himself given me a commandment — what to say and what to speak.” In other words, Jesus claims all he does and says — including the act of forgiving sins — is under the authority given him by the Father.
When one delegates authority to another, that person has ability to delegate that authority to others as well. In other words, delegated authority can be delegated.
And in this passage, we see Jesus delegating that same authority to forgive sins to his disciples.
What do theologians say?…
However, theologians will be quick to argue that if the apostles had authority to forgive sins, why is there no evidence in Scripture they ever used that authority? They propose that if the apostles had the authority, it would be evident in scripture they used it. But since there’s no evidence they used that authority you cannot as easily claim they actually had the authority to begin with.
They also state that since this is the only passage in the Bible where Jesus says someone has authority to forgive sins, you cannot accurately interpret this passage because there are no other passages of scripture to interpret it with, and scripture must be interpreted by scripture.
Not only that, the theologians are also quick to state that only God can forgive sins. Even the Bible says so.
I’ll address the first two issues in a moment, but the problem with the comment “only God can forgive sins” is that it’s not a comment Jesus made, nor a comment the prophets made by inspiration of the Holy Spirit. It was a comment the Jews made when they ridiculed Jesus for forgiving someone’s sins.
In other words, if the Jews had been wrong in so many of their interpretations of the Law, is it possible they are wrong in this interpretation as well? In other words, are they declaring God’s truth, or are they declaring man’s opinion of what they think is God’s truth?
I’ve searched the scriptures, and nowhere else in the Bible, except the Jews’ comment to Jesus, does it say that only God can forgive sins.
I’m not being blasphemous. I’m simply stating the fact: scripture does not say it. It is simply an interpretation man comes to the conclusion of because it seems logical. But does that make it truth?
There’s more to the “onion” than you may think…
If you “peel back the onion” a little more, so to speak, you’ll see there are multiple layers of understanding you have to consider. And it’s only when you peel back the onion can you understand what Jesus is really saying in this passage.
I believe most people misunderstand what it means to forgive sins. This is the essence of the issue, and it’s not what most theologians think it is.
Most people equate forgiveness of sins to absolving someone of the debt of their sins for salvation. For example, when we believe in Jesus and accept his atoning work on the cross for our sins, our sins are forgiven for all eternity. And it’s because they are forgiven we are now made righteous before God and we receive eternal life.
But is that what Jesus is talking about when he gives authority to forgive sins? I don’t think so. Here’s why…
Jesus makes it clear that believing in him is the only thing that grants you eternal life. In fact, if I may be so bold as to state it this way, Jesus never tells us that the forgiveness of sins gives us eternal life. He states that believing in Him gives us eternal life. It’s the believing, not the forgiveness of sins, that is the primary act to receive eternal life.
Yes, forgiveness of sins is an outcome of believing in Jesus. But it’s the believing in Jesus that saves us, not the forgiveness of our sins. Now, before you claim heresy let me explain…
Forgiveness of sins is not a black and white, one-size-fits-all action. And just because someone’s sins are forgiven doesn’t mean they are granted eternal life. Think about this…
When the paralytic man in Luke 5 was let down through the roof and Jesus says, “your sins are forgiven,” what did he mean?
Was he at that moment granting the paralyzed man total absolution of his sins, and thereby granting him eternal life without requiring him to believe in Jesus?
If the only way to eternal is to believe in Jesus, was Jesus circumventing that singular truth — the key and most important truth of the Bible — by forgiving that man’s sins and instantly granting him eternal life… before Jesus even shed his blood on the cross to atone for sins?
And because of that, we cannot interpret Jesus’s forgiveness of sins as indicating all of the man’s past present and future sins were forgiven. It must be something else.
So how else can you explain what Jesus meant when he said “your sins are forgiven”?
To answer that question you have to take a deeper look at the spiritual implication of sins.
In a very simplistic sense, sins do two things…
First, they separate us from fellowship with God. That’s why our sins must be forgiven if we are to have eternal life in fellowship with God.
Second, sins grant legal rights to evil spirits to attack and torment us. These torments are part of God’s perfect plan of bringing discipline to us for wrongdoing.
We see this throughout scripture, but most clearly in the parable of the unmerciful servant in Matthew 18:21-39. Jesus reveals a powerful, spiritual truth at the end of that parable.
In the parable a king calls a servant to pay his debts. It’s an extremely large debt and the servant is unable to pay. So the king graciously forgives the servant. But that servant goes to one of his subordinate servants who owes him a trifle amount, and throws him into prison when he could not pay. In response, the king comes back to the first servant and calls him a “wicked servant” since he did not forgive his subordinate servant as he had been forgiven. And in response, the king turned him over to the jailers to be tortured until that first servant should pay everything he owes.
And here is the clincher…
Jesus is talking to his disciples. He is teaching them a spiritual lesson about forgiveness. And he ends with this comment, “So also will my heavenly father do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother from your heart.”
In other words, because of their sin of unforgiveness, God the Father will turn them over to tormentors (evil spirits) to be tormented until they have forgiven their brothers and sisters.
Keep in mind, the disciples are believers in Jesus. By faith all their sins, past present and future, have been forgiven and they are reconciled to God. So how can they still have sin if their sins have been forgiven?
Once you understand this mystery, then when Jesus gives authority to his disciples to forgive sins in John 20:23, it becomes amazingly clear…
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When Jesus gives us authority to forgive sins…
So the question is, when Jesus gives us authority to forgive sins, in which application is he doing it — to grant eternal life, or to free people from torment?
A look into the Greek text In this passage shows the words being used indicate that the sins being authorized to be forgiven are those that have already been forgiven in Heaven, and the sins whose forgiveness can be withheld are those sins whose forgiveness has already been withheld in Heaven. In other words, the authority to forgive sins or not is simply declaring into the natural realm what has already be declared in the heavenly realm.
But it goes even deeper than that…
In divine healing — what most people call miraculous healing — the vast majority of those healings are actually the casting out of tormenting spirits. These are evil spirits who have a legal right to be in that person’s body and cause pain or sickness because of unrepented sin.
A similar thing happens with deliverance. Deliverance is the casting out of a demon from a person. And the way you cast out a demon is by nullifying that demon’s legal right to be there, then commanding it out. The legal right to be there is unrepented sin.
And finally, we know that sin is not forgiven until it has been repented of.
So how does all of this apply to Jesus’s statement in John 20:23 of giving his disciples authority to forgive sins?
I think if we look at the ministries of divine healing and deliverance we can see what is going on…
There are two ways to accomplish divine healing. Both work in essentially the same manner…
The first way is for a person to repent of their sins that are at the root cause of their sickness.
For example, in the parable of the unmerciful servant, Jesus reveals that if you do not forgive your brother, the Lord will turn you over to tormentors. Those tormentors usually torment in terms of physical disability, physical pain, or some form of mental suffering. This is what we call “sickness and disease.”
I’ve seen numerous occasions when people who are sick and have unforgiveness in their heart, once they repent of their unforgiveness and forgive the person who hurt them, their pain or disability instantly diminishes or disappears altogether. Similarly, I’ve seen instances when they repent of other sins not related to unforgiveness, and the same thing happens.
In other words, by repenting of their sins, the sins no longer stand as legal rights for tormenting spirits to attack them, and those spirits have to cease their attacks. Since those attacks are usually in the forms of physical illness and pain, when they cease their attacks the person gets “healed” of their torment.
The second way to do divine healing is often called “faith healing.” It’s when someone who is walking in great faith on the word of God commands the healing in that person’s body. If they are sick because of unrepented sin, when they command that person’s body to be healed and for the pain to leave, it does, and the person is healed and no longer in pain. What is essentially going on is the command for healing, by faith, nullifies the legal rights for those tormenting spirits to remain and they have to leave.
By inference, when one commands healing and for the tormenting spirits to leave, intrinsic in that command is the authority to forgive those sins (the legal right) that allowed the tormenting spirits to be there in the first place. It’s not forgiving their sins for eternal life, but it is nullifying (forgiving) those sins as it relates to freeing the person from torment.
Deliverance – the casting out demons
Casting demons out of someone is similar to divine healing. It’s all based on unrepented, unforgiven sin. And there are two ways to cast demons out of somebody.
First, you can go through a detailed analysis of the various sins and open doors that have allowed those evil spirits to be there in the first place. You then get that person to repent of those sins, canceling the legal rights of the demons to be there. Once the legal rights are gone, you command them out and they have to leave.
Second, if you are walking in faith by the spirit you can simply command a demon to come out and it has to obey. And, like divine healing, inferred in the command for the spirit to come out is the forgiveness of those sins giving it a legal right to be there.
We see this with Jesus whenever he commands a spirit out. He simply tells the spirit, “come out of that person and do not return.” Jesus does not lead the person through an in-depth prayer of repentance of sins to cancel the legal rights of the demons. He simply commands with authority.
In the gospels we see Jesus giving the same authority to his disciples, first to the twelve, and then to the seventy-two. He says, “I give you authority over the demons to cast them out.” The only way to cast them out is to nullify the legal right they have to be there in the first place. And nullifying those legal rights is the forgiveness of those sins.
And finally, contrary to many theologians’ view that scripture gives no examples of any apostles ever acting in their authority to forgive sins or not, we actually see it throughout the New Testament… you just have to know what to be looking for. For example, we see Paul on several occasions using that authority…
In Acts 16:18 Paul commands a spirit of divination out of a slave girl. It was simply a command, not a deliverance process of leading her in a prayer of repentance to nullify the legal right that spirit had to be there. In other words, Paul used his authority to simply command the spirit out, and intrinsic in that command is the forgiveness of the sins that gave it the right to be there. We know that is intrinsic in the command because otherwise the spirit does not have to leave. For the spirit to be forced out the legal right must be annulled. And that means the sins must be forgiven.
We again see Paul exercising his authority to withhold forgiveness of sins in 1 Corinthians 5:3, 5 when he declares, concerning the man who had his father’s wife, “for though absent in body, I am present in spirit, and as if present, I have already pronounced judgment on the one who did such a thing… you are to deliver this man to Satan for the destruction of the flesh, so that his Spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord.”
One can only be judged for his sins. If the sins are forgiven he cannot be judged, and neither would Satan have a legal right to attack him to destroy his flesh. However, if the sins are not forgiven then the man can both be judged and turned over to Satan for the destruction of his flesh.
And that’s what Paul is doing here. Paul is essentially saying, “I am withholding forgiveness of this man’s sins, thereby judging him on those sins and turning him over to Satan that Satan may discipline him by destroying his flesh, so his spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord.”
To understand this further it’s important to recognize this man who had his father’s wife was a believer. His sins had already been forgiven for eternal life. How do we know? Because Paul says, “that his spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord.” He was a Christian already. His sins had already been forgiven. His Spirit was to be saved in the day of the Lord.
So how could he be judged if his sins had been forgiven?
It’s because the impact of his sins for salvation, in separating him from God, had been forgiven, enabling him to be reconciled to God and have eternal life.
However, the impact of his sins for discipline in this life had not been forgiven. Paul exercised his authority to withhold forgiveness of those sins that his flesh may be turned over to Satan in discipline.
We see Paul doing the same thing in 1 Timothy 1:19b-20 where he says, “By rejecting this, some have made shipwreck of their faith, among whom are Hymenaeus and Alexander, whom I have handed over to Satan that they may learn not to blaspheme.” In other words, Paul is again exercising his authority to withhold forgiveness of sins, allowing Satan the legal right to torment their lives, which is the discipline of God.
What’s the conclusion with all of this?
When you truly understand spiritual warfare and the impact of unrepented, unforgiven sins, it becomes clear what Jesus is saying when he gives authority to his disciples to forgive sins.
Jesus gave us his authority to do the Great Commission — to make disciples and teach them all that he commanded his disciples to do.
Part of those commands is healing the sick and casting out demons. And, in essence, they are almost one and the same process because they are both tied to the same thing — unrepented sin that gives evil spirits a legal right to torment that person.
Jesus came that we might have life and have it abundantly. Healing the sick and casting out demons is part of the process for his children to have abundant life now.
And to heal the sick and cast out demons requires the nullifying (forgiveness) of the sins that give tormenting spirits the legal right to be there. And that’s the authority Jesus is giving his disciples in John 20:23.
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