John 20:23
Whose soever sins you remit, they are remitted to them; and whose soever sins you retain, they are retained.
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EXPOSITORY (ENGLISH BIBLE)
(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 2Corinthians 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.”

20:19-25 This was the first day of the week, and this day is afterwards often mentioned by the sacred writers; for it was evidently set apart as the Christian sabbath, in remembrance of Christ's resurrection. The disciples had shut the doors for fear of the Jews; and when they had no such expectation, Jesus himself came and stood in the midst of them, having miraculously, though silently, opened the doors. It is a comfort to Christ's disciples, when their assemblies can only be held in private, that no doors can shut out Christ's presence. When He manifests his love to believers by the comforts of his Spirit, he assures them that because he lives, they shall live also. A sight of Christ will gladden the heart of a disciple at any time; and the more we see of Jesus, the more we shall rejoice. He said, Receive ye the Holy Ghost, thus showing that their spiritual life, as well as all their ability for their work, would be derived from him, and depended upon him. Every word of Christ which is received in the heart by faith, comes accompanied by this Divine breathing; and without this there is neither light nor life. Nothing is seen, known, discerned, or felt of God, but through this. After this, Christ directed the apostles to declare the only method by which sin would be forgiven. This power did not exist at all in the apostles as a power to give judgment, but only as a power to declare the character of those whom God would accept or reject in the day of judgment. They have clearly laid down the marks whereby a child of God may be discerned and be distinguished from a false professor; and according to what they have declared shall every case be decided in the day of judgment. When we assemble in Christ's name, especially on his holy day, he will meet with us, and speak peace to us. The disciples of Christ should endeavour to build up one another in their most holy faith, both by repeating what they have heard to those that were absent, and by making known what they have experienced. Thomas limited the Holy One of Israel, when he would be convinced by his own method or not at all. He might justly have been left in his unbelief, after rejecting such abundant proofs. The fears and sorrows of the disciples are often lengthened, to punish their negligence.Whose soever sins ... - See the notes at Matthew 16:19; Matthew 18:18. It is worthy of remark here that Jesus confers the same power on all the apostles. He gives to no one of them any special authority. If Peter, as the Papists pretend, had been appointed to any special authority, it is wonderful that the Saviour did not here hint at any such pre-eminence. This passage conclusively proves that they were invested with equal power in organizing and governing the church. The authority which he had given Peter to preach the gospel first to the Jews and the Gentiles, does not militate against this. See the notes at Matthew 16:18-19. This authority given them was full proof that they were inspired. The meaning of the passage is not that man can forgive sins that belongs only to God Isaiah 43:23 but that they should be inspired; that in founding the church, and in declaring the will of God, they should be taught by the Holy Spirit to declare on what terms, to what characters, and to what temper of mind God would extend forgiveness of sins. It was not authority to forgive individuals, but to establish in all the churches the terms and conditions on which men might be pardoned, with a promise that God would confirm all that they taught; that all might have assurance of forgiveness who would comply with those terms; and that those who did not comply should not be forgiven, but that their sins should be retained. This commission is as far as possible from the authority which the Roman Catholic claims of remitting sin and of pronouncing pardon. 23. Whose soever sins ye remit, they are remitted unto them, &c.—In any literal and authoritative sense this power was never exercised by one of the apostles, and plainly was never understood by themselves as possessed by them or conveyed to them. (See on [1919]Mt 16:19). The power to intrude upon the relation between men and God cannot have been given by Christ to His ministers in any but a ministerial or declarative sense—as the authorized interpreters of His word, while in the actings of His ministers, the real nature of the power committed to them is seen in the exercise of church discipline. Whether Matthew 18:18 be a parallel text to this, I doubt: See Poole on "Matthew 18:18". Our Lord here speaks of the sins of persons,

Whose soever sins remit, & c.; he saith there, Whatsoever ye shall bind or loose. This text hath caused a great deal of contest. All remission of sins is either authoritative; so it is most true, that none can forgive sin but God; and if we had no Scripture to prove it, yet reason will tell us none can discharge the debtor but the creditor, to whom the debt is owing: or else ministerial; thus he who is not the creditor (amongst men) may remit a debt by virtue of a letter of attorney made to him, authorizing him so to do. The question therefore amongst divines is, Whether Christ in this text hath given authority to his ministers actually to discharge men of the guilt of their sins; or only to declare unto them, that if their repentance and faith be true, their sins are really forgiven them? The former is by many contended for; but it doth not seem reasonable,

1. That God should entrust men with such a piece of his prerogative.

2. That God, who knoweth the falsehood of men’s hearts, and the inability in the best ministers to judge of the truth of any man’s faith or repentance, as also the passions to which they are subject, should give unto any of the sons of men an absolute power under him, and in his name, to discharge any from the guilt of sin; for certain it is, that without true repentance and faith in Christ no man hath his sins forgiven; so as no minister, that knoweth not the hearts of men, can possibly speak with any certainty to any man, saying, his sins are forgiven.

What knowledge the apostles might have by the Spirit of discerning, we cannot say. But certain it is, none hath any such certainty of knowledge now of the truth of any man, declaring his faith and true repentance; from whence it is to me apparent, that no man hath any further power from Christ, than to declare to them, that if indeed they truly believe and repent, their sins are really forgiven. Only the minister, being Christ’s interpreter and ambassador, and better able to judge of true faith and repentance than others, (though not certainly and infallibly), such declarations from a faithful, able minister, are of more weight and authority than from others. And this is the most I can conceive should be in this matter; and that if by those words any further power be granted to the apostles, it was by reason of that power of discerning of spirits, 1 Corinthians 12:10, which ordinary ministers since the apostles’ times, or in latter ages, cannot with any modesty pretend unto. Whose soever sins ye remit,.... God only can forgive sins, and Christ being God, has a power to do so likewise; but he never communicated any such power to his apostles; nor did they ever assume any such power to themselves, or pretend to exercise it; it is the mark of antichrist, to attempt anything of the kind; who, in so doing, usurps the divine prerogative, places himself in his seat, and shows himself as if he was God: but this is to be understood only in a doctrinal, or ministerial way, by preaching the full and free remission of sins, through the blood of Christ, according to the riches of God's grace, to such as repent of their sins, and believe in Christ; declaring, that all such persons as do so repent and believe, all their sins are forgiven for Christ's sake: and accordingly,

they are remitted unto them; in agreement with Christ's own words, in his declaration and commission to his disciples; see Mark 16:16. On the other hand he signifies, that

whose soever sins ye retain, they are retained: that is, that whatsoever sins ye declare are not forgiven, they are not forgiven; which is the case of all final unbelievers, and impenitent sinners; who dying without repentance towards God, and faith in the Lord Jesus Christ, according to the Gospel declaration, shall be damned, and are damned; for God stands by, and will stand by and confirm the Gospel of his Son, faithfully preached by his ministering servants; and all the world will sooner or later be convinced of the validity, truth, and certainty, of the declarations on each of these heads, made by them.

{6} Whose soever sins ye remit, they are remitted unto them; and whose soever sins ye retain, they are retained.

(6) The publishing of the forgiveness of sins by faith in Christ, and the setting forth and proclaiming the wrath of God in retaining the sins of the unbelievers, is the sum of the preaching of the gospel.

EXEGETICAL (ORIGINAL LANGUAGES)
John 20:23. The peculiar authority of the apostolical office, for the exercise of which they were fitted and empowered by this impartation of the Spirit. It was therefore an individual and specific charismatic endowment, the bestowal of which the Lord knew must be still connected with His personal presence, and was not to be deferred until after His ascension,[268] namely, that of the valid remission of sins, and of the opposite, that of the moral disciplinary authority, consisting not merely in the authorization to receive into the Church and to expel therefrom,[269] but also in the authorization of pardoning or of inflicting penal discipline on their fellow-members. The apostles exercised both authorizations, and it is without reason to understand only the former, since both essentially belonged to the mission (πέμπω, John 20:21) of the apostles. The promise, Matthew 16:19; Matthew 18:18, is similar, but not equivalent. The apostolic power of the keys in the sense of the Church is contained directly in the present passage, in Matt. only indirectly. It had its regulator in the Holy Spirit, who separated its exercise from all human arbitrariness, so that the apostles were therein organs of the Spirit. That was the divine guarantee, as the consecration of moral certainty through the illumination and sanctification of the judgment in the performance of its acts.

On ἄν. instead of ἐάν, see Hermann, ad Viger. pp. 812, 822; frequently also in the Greek prose writers.

ἀφίενται] They are remitted, that is, by God.

κρατῆτε] He abides by the figure; opposite of loosing: hold fast (Polyb. viii. 20. 8; Acts 2:24).

κεκράτ] They are held fast, by God. Here the perf.; for the κρατεῖν is on the part of God no commencing act (such is the ἀφιέναι).

That to Thomas, who was at that time absent (John 20:24), the same full authority under the impartation of the Spirit was further particularly and supplementarily (after John 20:29) bestowed, is, indeed, not related, but must be assumed, in accordance with the relation of the necessity contained in the equality of his position.

The objections of Luthardt against our interpretation of this verse are unimportant, since in reality the eleven are thought of as assembled together (John 20:19; John 20:24); and since the assertion, that all charismatic endowments first date from Pentecost onwards, is devoid of proof, and is overthrown precisely by the present passage; comp. also already Luke 9:55. Calovius well says: “ut antea jam acceperant Spiritum ratione sanctificationis, ita nunc accipiunt ratione ministerii evangelici.” The full outpouring with its miraculous gifts, but on behalf of the collective church, then follows Pentecost.

[268] Hence the objection: “they required at present no such impartation” (Hofmann), is precipitate. They made use of it first at a future time, but the bestowal was still to take place face to face, in this last sacred fellowship, in which a quite peculiar distinction and consecration was given for this gift.

[269] This in answer to De Wette and several others, including Ahrens (Amt d. Schlüssel, 1864, p. 31), who explains it of the reception or non-reception to baptism, and to the forgiveness of sins therewith connected. So also Steitz in the Stud. u. Krit. 1866, p. 480. But baptism is here, without any indication of the text, imported from the institution, which is non-relevant here, in Matthew 28:18 ff. On the apostolic penal discipline, in virtue of the κρατεῖν τὰς ἁμαρτίας, on church members, comp. the apostolic handing over to Satan, and see on 1 Corinthians 5:5.John 20:23. The authorisation of the Apostles is completed in the words: ἄν τινωνκεκράτηνται. “Whosesoever sins ye forgive, they are forgiven to them: whosesoever ye retain, they are retained.” The meaning of κεκράτηνται is determined by the opposed ἀφέωνται [the better reading]. The announcement is unexpected. Yet if they were to represent Him, they must be empowered to continue a function which He constantly exercised and set in the forefront of His ministry. They must be able in His name to pronounce forgiveness, and to threaten doom. This indeed formed the main substance of their ministry, and it was by receiving His Spirit they were fitted for it. The burden was laid upon them of determining who should be forgiven, and who held by their sin. Cf. Acts 3:26; Acts 5:4.23. Whose soever sins, &c.] This power accompanies the gift of the Spirit just conferred. It must be noticed (1) that it is given to the whole company present; not to the Apostles alone. Of the Apostles one was absent, and there were others who were not Apostles present: no hint is given that this power is confined to the Ten. The commission therefore in the first instance is to the Christian community as a whole, not to the Ministry alone.

It follows from this (2) that the power being conferred on the community and never revoked, the power continues so long as the community continues. While the Christian Church lasts it has the power of remitting and retaining along with the power of spiritual discernment which is part of the gift of the Spirit. That is, it has the power to declare the conditions on which forgiveness is granted and the fact that it has or has not been granted.

It should be noted (3) that the expression throughout is plural on both sides. As it is the community rather than individuals that is invested with the power, so it is classes of men rather than individuals on whom it is exercised. God deals with mankind not in the mass but with personal love and knowledge soul by soul. His Church in fulfilling its mission from Him, while keeping this ideal in view, is compelled for the most part to minister to men in groups and classes. The plural here seems to indicate not what must always or ought to be the case, but what generally is.

are remitted … are retained] Both verbs are perfects, though there is some doubt about the reading as regards the former. The force of the perfect is—‘are ipso facto remitted’—‘are ipso facto retained.’ When the community under the guidance of the Spirit has spoken, the result is complete.

retain] i.e. ‘hold fast,’ so that they do not depart from the sinner. The word occurs here only in this Gospel. In Revelation it is used of ‘holding fast doctrine,’ &c. (John 2:14-15; John 2:25, John 3:11; comp. 2 Thessalonians 2:15).John 20:23. Ἄν τινων) if of certain persons [“Whosesoever”].—ἀφῆτε· κρατῆτε, ye remit—ye retain) See note on Matthew 16:19, “The binding and loosing,” and “the keys,” are given to Peter alone. [Comp. Matthew 18:18, ‘Loose,’ and ‘bind,’ where subsequently, after the transfiguration, (1) the binding and (2) loosing are given also to the disciples in common; the loosing to be exercised chiefly by prayer in the name of Christ (John 20). Now, after the resurrection, the order is reversed since the gate of salvation is opened, and the power is given (1) to remit, (2) to retain. See Hosea 13:12].—ἀφίενταικεκράτηνται, are remitted—have been retained) The former is present: the latter, preterite [a distinction lost in the Engl. Vers.] The world IS under sin; comp. ch. John 3:18; John 3:36, “He that believeth not is condemned already:” “The wrath of God abideth on him;” John 15:6, “If a man abide not in Me, he is cast forth—and withered [viz. already, ἐβλήθη, ἐξηράνθη; not merely, he shall be]. No prophet of the Old Testament ever received so comprehensive a power as the apostles received in this place. [These latter, on account of their profound power of searching into minds, and on account of the extraordinary measure of that power imparted to them,—there being added besides manifest miracles, and these such miracles as strike the senses,—were able in a manner altogether peculiar to themselves either to remit or to retain. Nor, however, is power of this kind not applicable to (nor does it not belong to) all, who are endued with the Holy Spirit, whether they discharge the public duty of the ministry of the word, or do not. Nay, but the word of the Gospel can be available for the remission of sins to those who yield themselves up to the influence of the Holy Spirit, even though it be not applied by the mediation of ministers: Mark 16:16, “He that believeth and is baptized, shall be saved, but he that believeth not, shall be damned;” and Luke 24:47, “That repentance and remission of sins should be preached in His name,” are parallel to this passage.[399]—V. g.]

[399] Which therefore is not to be interpreted of sacerdotal absolution and penance.—E. and T.Remit (ἀφῆτε)

Only here in this Gospel in connection with sins. Often in the Synoptists (Matthew 6:12; Matthew 9:5; Mark 2:5; Luke 5:23, etc.).

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