In John 20:23, where the risen Jesus tells the disciples, “Receive the Holy Spirit! [Now having received the Holy Spirit, and being led and directed by him] if you forgive the sins of anyone, they are forgiven; if you retain the sins of anyone, they are retained.” AMPLIFIED BIBLE.

Catholicism builds the idea of priests having inherited the power to forgive sins on this text.  It does not say the power can be passed on.  It may have been a once off.  Jesus might have meant, "Whoever you forgive now I forgive them!  Catholicism knows this for it only invented the doctrine that these words have to be used about 1200 years later.  "I absolve you from your sins in the name of the Father, and of the Son and the Holy Spirit."  The doctrine is that without this formula the priest cannot forgive sins.  The formula was not known at all for centuries.  Decades after it came into use it became an essential part of the sacrament.   Another reason Catholicism knows fine well is that it does not have a formula, "I retain you in your sins in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit." Another reason is that you are not allowed to use the formula, "I forgive your sins in the name of the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit."

Anybody rational would not go as far as Catholicism does with the text.

Notice Jesus goes on about the Holy Spirit.  This allows some to say the forgiving is done by the Spirit and so is the retaining.  Again that would not clearly lead to the priestly absolution system.  The Holy Spirit is about grace, the free gift of God's power and protection. If the apostles could forgive sins against God as if it were their decision then what would they need the Holy Spirit for? Forgiveness though called a grace cannot be a grace. It is just a change of heart.

Is Jesus giving them the Holy Spirit? Is he telling them to receive the Holy Spirit? Perhaps they didn't which was why they had to receive the Holy Spirit later at Pentecost. Jesus breathing on them to give them the Holy Spirit does not imply they actually let the Holy Spirit into their hearts. The Church says that the bishop gives you the Holy Spirit at confirmation but nothing will happen at the time unless you want him in your heart. If you have the proper dispositions a year later that is when the Holy Spirit you have received will become active. It is a potential reception that becomes an actual reception later.

The Bible denies that the outpouring of the Spirit then was the full one. That would have to wait to Pentecost see Luke 24:49 and Acts 1:4,5,8. It could be though that John did believe or know of the Pentecost story.

The Bible says that God breathed life into Adam and this story is about God recreating the apostles by breathing new spiritual life into them. Peter had difficulties with John afterwards 21:21 so there was no great spiritual transformation.

John 7:38,39; 14:17; 16:7 indicates that until Jesus' glorification in Heaven there would be no Holy Spirit given to anyone. The Spirit may have influenced people but he did not live inside them having a relationship with them.

It is best to see the Holy Spirit as being given to tell them who should be forgiven. The apostles were not deciding who to forgive like Catholic priests decide. The priests claim no inspiration in absolving. The verse then says it is a sin to try and forgive sins unless you have the Holy Spirit to tell you the person should be forgiven.

The gospel makes it clear that the Holy Spirit gives clear communication from God. Jesus says the Holy Spirit will teach the apostles just like he did. So the disciples only use the powers under clear direction. No Catholic priest claims such unmistakable direction.

Some think that Jesus was telling the apostles that those they had decided to forgive are now forgiven by God and that those whose sins they retained or held unforgiven were not. So he was not giving them any power but making a statement of fact. He breathed the Spirit into them so that they would go to the forgiven and bring them the gospel message. This means that rather than Jesus giving them a power it was a once off thing. The “those who sins you forgive or retain” referred not to anybody they wished to forgive but only to those they perceived, by the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, who had been forgiven already. To accept former pagans and sinners into the Church is to forgive them but not to forgive them as if you were God – an idea that Jesus never hinted was right. The gift was Jesus helping the disciples organise the Church and choose the right people to form it to get it started off. Evidence for this view is that the Church hadn’t been doing absolutions and yet Jesus said, “If you forgive the sins of any they are forgiven.” Had he meant absolution he would have said, “If you WILL forgive anybody their sins WILL be forgiven.” However whatever Jesus meant it is certain that when he didn’t use the future tense that he had no intention of having his apostles doing Catholic style priestly absolutions.

Perhaps Jesus meant, “The Holy Spirit gives you the supernatural power to look into the heart of rebel who asks your forgiveness (for he who insults God insults his Church too and needs her forgiveness) to be admitted back into fellowship with you and the Church to see if he is sincere. When you sense by clairvoyance that he is, you forgive him and I forgive him at the same time. When you see that he is not you retain his sin and so do I.” The forgiving and retaining done by the apostles – and to be done by apostles only - and by God may coincide but the apostles are not making the decisions about how God is to forgive like Catholic priests.

The Bible teaches that apostles could read souls by the power of God and then they retained sins in the sense that they condemned and judged the sinner.  The ban on judging others forbids attempts to do that but that does not rule out that God could help apostles read souls.  Peter perceived how Simon was spiritually in Acts 8:23.God gave Paul the power to read the soul of Elymas in Acts 13:8-11).  Peter discerned the spiritual state of Ananias and Sapphira and even used God's power to judge and kill them.

The apostles needed the charism to prevent scandal to get the Church off to a good start. Bringing in covert heretics could strangle the truth in many and plenty of these would have been seeking admission having been paid off to discredit the Church. And the Bible acknowledges that a good God could give the gift for he says he did. It says he made his apostles know what was in the hearts of others which nobody with normal powers can know (Acts 5:3; 8:20; Galatians 6:13). The fact that the apostles did not know what to make of Paul (Acts 9) shows that God sometimes made exceptions for his own secret purpose. Exceptions, we are told, prove the rule.  But Paul never asked for their forgiveness. Once the Church got off to a start for the clairvoyance was taken away. Catholics may object that they had no such gift for it is needed today but they forget that God knows what is best and does the unexpected.

"If you forgive" does not mean you are deciding to forgive.  Look at how in a gospel Jesus forgives a woman except he doesn't.  He tells her, “Your sins are forgiven.”  That is not the same as saying I decide your sins are now forgiven.  Then we read, The other guests began to say among themselves, “Who is this who even forgives sins?”  So for the New Testament, "I forgive you your sins" is just a way of saying God has forgiven them.  It is not the same as an absolution.

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