The Forgiveness of Sins
All pardon for sins comes, ultimately, from Calvary, but how is this
pardon to be received by individuals? How are people who sin today to
obtain forgiveness? Did Christ leave us any means within the Church to
take away sin? The Bible says he gave us two means.
Baptism was given to take away the sin inherited from Adam (original
sin) and any sins (called actual sins, because they come from our own acts)
committed before baptism. For sins committed after baptism, a different
sacrament is needed. It has been called penance, confession, and
reconciliation, each word emphasizing one of its aspects.
During his life, Christ forgave sins, as in the case of the woman
taken in adultery (John 8:1-11) and the woman who anointed his feet (Luke
7:48). He exercised this power as man, "to convince you that the Son of
Man has authority to forgive sins while he is on earth" (Mark 2:10).
Since he would not always be with the Church visibly, Christ gave this
power to other men so the Church, which is the continuation of his presence
throughout time, would be able to offer forgiveness to future generations.
He gave his power to the apostles, and it was necessarily a communicable
power, one that could be passed on to their successors and agents, since,
obviously, the apostles wouldn't always be on earth either. "He breathed
on them, and said to them, Receive the Holy Spirit; when you forgive men's
sins, they are forgiven, when you hold them bound, they are held bound"
(John 20:22-23). [This, by the way, is one of only two times we are told
that God breathed on man, the other being when he made man a living soul
(Gen. 2:7). It emphasizes how important the establishment of the sacrament
of penance was.]
Christ told the apostles to follow his example: "As the Father sent
me, so am I sending you" (John 20:21). What he did, they were to do. Just
as the apostles were to carry Christ's message to the whole world, so they
were to carry his forgiveness: "I promise you, all that you bind on earth
shall be bound in heaven, and all that you loose on earth shall be loosed
in heaven" (Matt. 18:18).
This power wasn't to be used as being from themselves, but as being
from God: "This, as always, is God's doing; it is he who, through Christ,
has reconciled us to himself, and allowed us to minister this
reconciliation of his to others" (2 Cor. 5:18). Indeed, confirms Paul, "We
are Christ's ambassadors" (2 Cor. 5:20).
It is said by some that any power given to the apostles died with
them. Not so. Some powers, certainly, must have, such as universal
jurisdiction. But the powers absolutely necessary to maintain the Church
as a living, spiritual society had to be passed down, generation to
generation. If they ceased, the Church would cease, except as a quaint
abstraction. Christ ordered the apostles to "make disciples of all
nations." It would take time, much time. He promised his assistance: "And
behold I am with you all days, even to the consummation of the world"
If the apostles and disciples believed that Christ instituted a
priesthood which included the power to forgive sins in his stead, we would
expect the successors of the apostles-- that is, the bishops--and
Christians of later years to act as though such power was legitimately and
On the other hand, if the priestly forgiveness of sins was what
fundamentalists term it, an "invention," and if it was something foisted
upon the young Church by ecclesiastical or political leaders, we'd expect
to find records of protest. In fact, in early Christian writings we find
no sign of protests concerning priestly forgiveness of sins. Quite the
contrary. We find confessing to a priest was accepted as consistent with
the original deposit of faith.
What's more, if the Church itself instituted confession (or "auricular
confession," as some like to emphasize: private confession "to the ear" of
a priest), and if the sacrament did not stem directly from Christ, it
should be possible to point to a date for its "invention." Some opponents
of the Catholic position think they can do that.
Loraine Boettner, in his book Roman Catholicism, claims "auricular
confession to a priest instead of to God" was instituted in 1215 at the
Fourth Lateran Council. This is an extreme example, even for a committed
anti-Catholic. There aren't many people with the gumption to place the
"invention" of confession so late, since there is so much early Christian
writing--a good portion of it a thousand and more years before that
Council--which refers to the practice of confession as something already
long-established. You can't very well "invent" something that has been
around for a millennium and more.
Actually, the Fourth Lateran Council did not introduce confession,
though it did discuss it. To combat the lax morals of the time (morals are
always more lax than they should be, at any time in history; that's one
consequence of original sin), the Council more specifically defined the
already-existing duty to confess one's sins by saying Catholics should
confess at least once a year. To issue an official decree about a
sacrament is hardly the same as "inventing" that sacrament.
The earliest Christian writings, such as the first-century Didache,
are indefinite on the procedure to be used for the forgiveness of sins, but
a self-accusation is listed as a part of the Church's requirement by the
time of Irenaeus (A.D. 190). The sacrament of penance is clearly in use,
but it is not yet clear from Irenaeus just how, or to whom, confession is
to be made. Is it privately, to the priest, or before the whole
congregation with the priest presiding? The one thing we can say for sure
is that the sacrament is understood by Irenaeus to go back to the beginning
of the Church.
Slightly later writers, such as Origen (241), Cyprian (251), and
Aphraates (337) are quite clear in saying confession is to be made to a
priest. (In fact, in their writings the whole process of penance is termed
exhomologesis, which simply means confession: the confession was seen as
the main part of the sacrament.) Cyprian writes that the forgiving of sins
can take place only "through the priests." Ambrose makes things clear,
saying, "this right is given to priests only." And Pope Leo I says
absolution can be obtained only through the prayers of the priests. These
utterances are not taken as anything novel, but as reminders of accepted
belief. We have no record of anyone objecting, of anyone claiming these
men were pushing an "invention."
Note that the power given to the apostles by Christ was twofold: to
forgive sins or to hold them bound, which means to retain them unforgiven.
Several things follow from this. First, the apostles could not know what
sins to forgive, what not to forgive, unless they were first told the sins
by the sinner. This implies confession. Second, their authority was not
merely to proclaim that God had already forgiven sins or that he would
forgive sins if there were proper repentance.
Such interpretations don't account for the distinction between
forgiving and retaining--nor do they account for the importance given to
the utterance in John 20:22-23. If God has already forgiven all of a man's
sins, or will forgive them all (past and future) upon a single act of
repentance, then it makes little sense to tell the apostles they have been
given the power to "retain" sins, since forgiveness would be an all-or-
nothing thing and nothing could be "retained."
And if forgiveness really can be partial, how is one to tell which
sins have been forgiven, which not, in the absence of a priestly decision?
You can't very well rely on your own gut feelings. No, the biblical
passages make sense, hang together, only if the apostles and their
successors were given a real authority.
Still, some people are not convinced. One is Paul Juris, a former
priest, now a fundamentalist, who has written a pamphlet on this subject.
The pamphlet is widely distributed by organizations opposed to Catholicism.
The cover describes the work as "a study of John 20:23, a much
misunderstood and misused portion of Scripture pertaining to the
forgiveness of sins."
Juris begins by mentioning "two main schools of thought," the first
being the Catholic position, the second the fundamentalist. He puts the
fundamentalist position this way: "In this setting and with these words,
Jesus was commissioning his disciples, in the power of the Holy Spirit, to
go and preach the Gospel to every creature. Those who believed the Gospel,
their sins would be forgiven. Those who refused to believe the Gospel,
their sins would be retained."
He correctly notes that "among Christians, it is generally agreed that
regular confession of one's sins is obviously necessary to remain in good
relationship with God. So the issue is not whether we should or should not
confess our sins. Rather, the real issue is, How does God say that our
sins are forgiven or retained?"
Juris says, "Since John 20:23 can be interpreted in more than one way,
it will be necessary to examine this portion of Scripture not only in its
context, but also in the light of other Scriptures pertaining directly to
this subject. And, since we know that God's Word never contradicts itself,
what better way could we arrive at the true meaning of this verse of
Scripture, than by comparing it with other Scriptures?"
This sounds fine, on the surface, but this apparently reasonable
approach masks what really happens next. Juris engages in verse slinging,
listing as many verses as he can find that refer to God forgiving sins, in
hopes that the sheer mass of the verses will settle the question. But none
of the verses he lists specifically interprets John 20:23, and none
contradicts the Catholic interpretation.
For instance, he cites verses like these: "Be it known therefore to
you, brethren, that through him [Christ] forgiveness of sins is proclaimed
to you, and in him everyone who believes is acquitted of all the things of
which you could not be acquitted by the Law of Moses" (Acts 13:38-39); "And
he said to them, Go into the whole world and preach the Gospel to every
creature. He who believes and is baptized shall be saved, but he who does
not believe shall be condemned" (Mark 16:15-16).
Juris says that verses like these demonstrate that "all that was left
for the disciples to do was to 'go' and 'proclaim' this wonderful good news
(the Gospel) to all men. As they proclaimed this good news of the Gospel,
those who believed the Gospel, their sins would be forgiven. Those who
rejected (did not believe) the Gospel, their sins would be retained." But
this isn't a proof; these verses, and the others he lists, do not interpret
John 20:23. Juris does nothing more than show that the Bible says God will
forgive sins, something no one doubts. He does not remotely prove that
John 20:23 is equivalent to a command to "go" and to "preach." He
sidesteps the evident problems in the fundamentalist interpretation of the
It takes no scholar to see that the passage simply doesn't say
anything about preaching the good news. Jesus tells the apostles that
"when you forgive men's sins, they are forgiven." Nothing here about
preaching--that's handled elsewhere, such as in Matt. 28:19 and related
verses. Instead, Jesus is telling the apostles that they have been
empowered to do something. He does not say, "When God forgives men's sins,
they are forgiven." It's hardly necessary to say that. He uses the second
person plural: "you." And he talks about the apostles forgiving, not
preaching. When he refers to retaining sins, he uses the same form: "when
you hold them bound, they are held bound." There it is again, "you."
What Juris does--and his pamphlet is a good example of this--is to
select verses, all that he can find, that mention the same general topic,
the forgiveness of sins. Since the other verses he gives, about two dozen
of them, speak about forgiveness by God, he concludes, improperly, that God
could not have appointed men as his agents. The best Juris can do,
ultimately, is merely to assert that John 20:23 means the apostles were
given authority only to proclaim the forgiveness of sins--but asserting is
Granted, his is a technique that works. Many readers go away with the
impression that the fundamentalist interpretation has been shown to be
true. After all, if you propose to interpret one verse and accomplish that
by listing irrelevant verses that refer to something other than the
specific point in controversy, lazy readers will conclude that you have
marshalled an impressive array of evidence. All they have to do is count
the citations. Here's one for the Catholics, they say, looking at John
20:22-23, but ten or twenty or thirty for the fundamentalists. The
fundamentalists must be right! What the readers don't notice is that the
ten or twenty or thirty verses are really just a smokescreen.
Juris' technique illustrates that fundamentalists do not really "find"
their doctrines through a literal reading of the Bible. They approach the
Bible with already-held views, their own tradition one might say, and then
they use the Bible to substantiate these views. Some can be substantiated
easily, such as the reality of the Resurrection. But others can't be
substantiated by Scripture at all because they are contrary to Scripture.
In these cases, Scripture is either ignored or interpreted in an awkwardly
metaphorical sense, as with John 6, where the Eucharist is promised, or as
with John 20:22-23, where the sacrament of penance is established.
Another point. Fundamentalist writers often ignore John 20:22-23
since it is troublesome. They shift focus. They insist there is "only one
mediator between God and man, Jesus Christ" (1 Tim. 2:5). True, but they
draw an improper inference. Christ was at liberty to decide how his
mediation would be applied to us. It is a question of fact.
Naturally enough, the one who is offended does the forgiving. When we
sin, we offend God, so it is he to whom we look for forgiveness. But he
can arrange his forgiveness either personally and immediately or through an
agent. Which did he declare to be the usual (though not exclusive) way to
forgive sins: by direct application to him or by means of confessing to a
priest? If the first, then John 20:22-23 becomes unintelligible. The
words wouldn't remotely mean what they so clearly seem to say.
Is the Catholic who confesses his sins to a priest any better off than
the non-Catholic who confesses straight to God? Yes. First, he seeks
forgiveness the way Christ intended it to be sought. Second, by confessing
to a priest the Catholic learns a lesson in humility, which is conveniently
avoided when one confesses only through private prayer--and how we all
desire to escape humbling experiences! Third, the Catholic receives
sacramental graces the non-Catholic doesn't get; through the sacrament of
penance not only are sins forgiven, but graces are obtained. Fourth, and
in some ways the most important, the Catholic is assured that his sins are
forgiven; he does not have to rely on a subjective "feeling." Lastly, the
Catholic can also obtain sound advice on avoiding sin in the future, while
the non-Catholic praying in private remains uninstructed.
True, Christ could have decided that sins would normally be forgiven
merely through private prayer, but he knew the world would grow old before
his return. With himself gone, he wanted his followers to have every
possible consolation, every possible assurance, every possible help, so he
instituted the sacrament through which we are reconciled to God.
During his lifetime Christ sent out his followers to do his work.
Just before he left this world, he gave the apostles special authority,
commissioning them to make God's forgiveness present to all lands, to all
people, and the whole Christian world accepted this, until just a few
centuries ago. If there is an "invention" here, it is not the sacrament of
penance, but the notion that the priestly forgiveness of sins is not to be
found in the Bible or in early Christian history.
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