I would appreciate clarification from you on how John 20:23 gives authority for Christians to forgive sins. At first glance, it would appear to contravene the teaching in the rest of the Bible that only God can forgive sins. John 20:23 – If you forgive anyone’s sins, their sins are forgiven; if you do not forgive them, they are not forgiven.”
I certainly can see how this passage could cause concern for you. At first glance it appears to contradict rather clear passages in scripture which teach that only God can forgive sins (Mark 2:7 for example). This passage appears to be teaching that if Jesus’ hearers forgive sins, then that results in God forgiving them—putting the role of forgiveness and even ultimate judgment in human hands.
In order to answer this question, I would like to consider a parallel passage that deal with this question. Let me begin with Matthew 18:18.
In Matthew 18:15-19 Jesus is talking about the godly way to resolve disputes amongst followers of Jesus. He tells us to go to the person first, but if he/she will not listen, to bring in others and, if the presumably guilty person will not listen to the advice of “Two or three others” then to take it to the church. If the person continues to not listen to the advice of the church, in extreme situations, the person may end up being treated as no longer a disciple by the church. Then Jesus makes a rather enigmatic statement: “What you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and what you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.” This passage is difficult to pin down as to its precise meaning. Let me tell you what I think (and let you judge for yourself). I believe that, in the context, Jesus is talking about church discipline and about the authority of the leaders of the church. Jesus is saying that, ultimately, the leaders of the local church have heavenly authority to make decisions about human disputes within the church. God supports the right of the leaders (presumably the elders in the ideal case) of the church to make binding decisions on such discipline matters. This raises a difficult question. Does it mean that God hands over authority for who will ultimately be in heaven to humans in the church? I would say that this would be overstepping what Jesus is saying and, besides, it would contradict a great number of passages which clearly teach that judgment is of God, not of humans. Again, this is a difficult passage, but we must seek an interpretation which is in agreement with other passages of scripture. Therefore, I conclude that in Matthew 18:18 Jesus is delegating real authority and responsibility for “the church” which I assume is the leadership of the local church in spiritual matters. Will God take their decision into account? Perhaps he will, but in any case, the leaders have full authority to pronounce on these kind of questions in the church.
This passage helps me to understand John 20:23. In Matthew 18 Jesus appears to be addressing the church as a whole, whereas in John 20:23 he is addressing the apostles. In this passage he is clearly giving them a great deal of authority. In the context, he is giving the apostles the Holy Spirit by breathing on them. He is, in essence, appointing the to a position of great power, authority and responsibility over his emerging church. He tells them that if they, in their authority as apostles, forgive sins, then He forgives them as well. Let me be honest here. I am not sure exactly what Jesus meant by this, but I believe he is giving them authority over disputable matters—over matters on which Jesus had not already clearly spoken. They have authority to interpret what they were told by Jesus. He had given them commandments, but also principles. He was about to leave, and he was delegating to them authority to make some authoritative decision for the church. An example of the application of this authority is found in Acts when the Council of Jerusalem made authoritative decision for the Gentile Christians scattered across areas where Paul had planted churches. People who defied this authority would be held accountable by God. They would have authority to discipline unruly disciples and in some cases to disfellowship them (for example in 1 Corinthians 5:1-13). I believe it is possible to overinterpret this passage. God is not giving the apostles ultimate authority to determine anyone’s eternal destiny when he gives them authority to forgive sins in the local church. They are not given ultimate authority to forgive sins in the grand scheme. Only God has this authority, but God is giving the apostles authority in the church and I assume that these decisions, and the response of people to these local decisions will impact their ultimate destiny.
This raises the question of how John 20:23 applies today. I believe that the leaders of local churches are, by implication, also given a significant amount of authority. Is that level of authority exactly the same as the apostles? Probably not. The apostles had miraculous knowledge and the ability to speak with inspiration. Elders today do not have this ability to speak with inspiration. However, I believe that John 20:23 is relevant today. The leaders of the local church—especially the elders—are being given real authority to make decisions, to settle disputes and to exact discipline in local churches with regard to sinful behavior. 1 Corinthians 5:1-13 is still in force today as I understand it. The leaders of the local church have the authority and even the responsibility to “Expel the wicked man from among you” in extreme cases. They also have the authority to forgive such sins in the sense that they can receive back into the fellowship those who sinned and were sent away. This is supported by 2 Corinthians 2:5-11 in which Paul tells the Corinthians to forgive the one sent away. He says, “if you forgive anyone, I also forgive him.” I believe that 2 Corinthians 2:10 is helpful in understanding John 20:23.
I wish I could tell you exactly what this passage means, but I believe that we can get a general understanding of John 20:23. God is giving real delegated authority to the church and, specifically, to the leaders of the local churches. As disciples of Jesus, we need to respect and submit to that authority, as God delegates authority to these people. As is written in Hebrews 13:17, we should obey our leaders and submit to their authority as men who will give an account to God for their leadership. I believe that this, or something like this, is what Jesus has in mind in John 20:23.