Catholics often present arguments for our beliefs without even considering the assumptions that our arguments rest on. Consider, for example, the argument for the sacrament of confession from John 20:23. Jesus tells the apostles, “If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.”
It would seem there’s no wiggle room for a Protestant to deny that Jesus here institutes the sacrament of confession. But notice that one assumption is that Jesus was giving this authority only to the apostles (and, by way of extension, their successors).
This assumption hasn’t gone unnoticed by Protestant apologists. For example, Ron Rhodes writes, “The context of the verse indicates that this declarative power is not limited to some select group (like priests), but every Christian has this right.”
Rhodes doesn’t specify exactly what in the context suggests that the power is not limited to Christ’s ordained ministers—the apostles and their successors. So we can’t interact with Rhodes on this front. However, we can challenge his assertion and give positive reasons why the context does in fact indicate that the power to forgive and retain is unique to the apostles.
First, it’s only the apostles who are the addressees of the instruction. At first glance, the text doesn’t seem to support this, since it uses the broader term “disciples” (John 20:19, 20) instead of the more restrictive terminology of “apostles” or “the Twelve.” The author, traditionally understood to be John the apostle, does use “disciples” in the broad sense to include others besides the twelve apostles (John 6:60).
But when we look at the wider and immediate context of John’s flowing narrative, we see that Jesus is addressing only the apostles in John 20:23.
Let’s start with John 18:1-2, where John clearly uses “disciples” to refer to the twelve apostles. He writes, “When Jesus had spoken these words, he went forth with his disciples across the Kidron valley, where there was a garden, which he and his disciples entered . . . for Jesus often met there with his disciples.”
Matthew tells us it was only “the twelve” disciples who were with Jesus at the Last Supper and in the garden. Matthew 26:20 reads: “When it was evening, he sat at table with the twelve disciples.” Then, in verse 36, Matthew records, “Jesus went with them to a place called Gethsemane.” “Them” in verse 36 refers to the “twelve disciples” mentioned in verse 20.
Therefore, John’s use of “disciples” in 18:1-2 refers to the twelve apostles.
The next few uses of “disciples” are found on the lips of others besides the author himself (John 18:17, 19, 25). These don’t directly specify a reference to the apostles, but neither do they exclude it.
In 20:10, John refers to Jesus’ “disciples,” and it’s a reference to at least two of the twelve apostles: Peter and John himself. “The other disciple” is commonly seen as a reference to the author himself, who, as we said above, is traditionally understood to be John the apostle.
John 20:18 tells us that Mary Magdalene, after she had spoken with the risen Jesus, went and told the “disciples” that she had seen the Lord. Given that John used “disciples” to refer to two of the Twelve just a few verses earlier, it’s reasonable that “disciples” here refers to either Peter and John (who are referents immediately available) or the rest of the Twelve. At least the use of “disciples” in this verse doesn’t exclude a reference to the Twelve and is consistent with it.
The next two appearances of “disciples” are in verses 19 and 20, which are the verses in question.
So let’s look at what comes immediately after. Verse 24 reads, “Now Thomas, one of the Twelve, called the Twin, was not with them when Jesus came.” Then in verse 25, John writes, “So the other disciples told him, ‘We have seen the Lord.’” John comments, “But he [Thomas] said to them, ‘Unless I see in his hands the print of the nails . . . I will not believe’” (v. 25).
Notice the first “them” in verse 24 refers to “the Twelve.” The second “them” in verse 25, therefore, reasonably refers to “the Twelve” as well. And right in the middle, in verse 24, is a use of “the disciples.” Given its context, it’s clear that “disciples” refers to “them,” which in turn refers to “the Twelve.”
So, at the beginning (the garden in John 18:1) and end (Jesus’ address to Thomas, who doubted) of a flowing narrative, in which Jesus’ instruction to forgive and retain sins is embedded, John uses “the disciples” in reference to the twelve apostles. And every time in between, its use for the twelve is either clear or at least not excluded. Moreover, one of John’s clear uses of “the disciples” as a reference to the twelve apostles comes immediately after Jesus’ address to “the disciples” concerning the power to forgive and retain sins (20:19-20, 23).
Given this evidence, we have good reason to conclude that “the disciples” (John 20:19,20) to whom Jesus gives the instruction to forgive and retain sins in John 20:23 is a reference to the twelve apostles. And if it’s only the twelve apostles, who are Christ’s ordained ministers, then the argument is that this is not a power for all Christians, but one given to Jesus’ ordained ministers.
We can add a couple more pieces of evidence. Consider that John records how Jesus “breathes” on the apostles: “He breathed on them, and said to them, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit.’” Jesus never breathes on anyone else (unless you include God breathing the breath of life into Adam—Gen. 2:7). So what’s going on here is definitely something unique that’s not meant for every Christian.
Also, notice that Jesus communicates the Holy Spirit. This communication of the Holy Spirit signals something unique because it’s separate from the outpouring given on the day of Pentecost, which appears to be for the wider Christian community. The narrative flow from Acts 1:15 (“the company of persons was in all about a hundred and twenty”) through Acts 2:4 (“they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues”) seems to indicate that more than the Twelve were present when the Spirit descended. And similar outpourings were given multiple times throughout the early Church when people converted (Acts 10:44-48, 19:6).
This wide communication of the Spirit stands in stark contrast to the outpouring of the Spirit given for the forgiveness of sins. Not once outside John 20:23 is such an outpouring extended to the wider Christian community.
Rhodes asserts that the context reveals that this declarative power is not for a select group of ordained ministers, but the right of every Christian. But the evidence given above tells a different story. Jesus gives the instruction to forgive and retain sins only to the apostles. He does something entirely unique: he breathes on them. And he gives them a private outpouring of the Holy Spirit that’s never extended to the wider Christian community. If this is not evidence of a unique power given to Christ’s ordained ministers, the apostles, then nothing is!