Bible Answers: Deciphering what forgiveness really means

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“Jesus said to his disciples, ‘If you forgive the sins of any, their sins have been forgiven them …’ What did He mean by that?”— Shannon
This text (Jn. 20:23), found in the context of Jesus’ first real conversation with his disciples following the resurrection, provides a clue to the kind of ministry he anticipated for these people, as well as all who would follow.
Of primary importance is the grammar found in the passage. The verbs “forgive” and “retain” ascribed to Jesus are in the perfect, passive tense. Thus, they express “what has already been accomplished.” These words point precisely to the work Christ brought to completion through his death and resurrection; i.e., his atoning work that revealed him fully as savior, the forgiver of sin and the source of eternal life.
Jesus claimed for himself the power and right to forgive sin (Mk. 2:5-12). There is no clear evidence here or elsewhere (see, e.g., Mt. 16:19; 18:18) that he actually transferred to the apostles power in and of itself to forgive sin.
He did, however, commit to his disciples the right and responsibility to announce with clarity and confidence the good news of what he had done on the cross.
So, on one hand, the apostles and others are to affirm the reality of forgiveness to those who have put their faith in Christ.
On the other hand, they are to warn those who have resisted faith in him and rejected his finished work that they remain in sin.
The “keys to the Kingdom” given to Peter and all believers (Mt. 16:19) is the call to tell the story of Christ’s great love for mankind — to open wide the door for any who wish to enter, declaring that he has already done all that is necessary for salvation.