The forgiveness of Sins
This topic is of utmost interest to all of us, whatever our religion, since we are all sinners and in need of forgiveness and reconciliation with God. Sadly, there is a fundamental difference between the teaching of Roman Catholics and Evangelical Christians on this subject.
The Catholic Church teaches that Christ instituted the sacrament of penance. Rome teaches that divine forgiveness is granted through the priest’s absolution to those who confess their sins to a priest and make satisfaction for them. On the other hand, Christians believe that Christ sent his disciples to proclaim the Gospel; whoever repents and believes is forgiven on the merits of the sacrifice of Christ, whoever rejects Christ is lost. Christians confess their sins to God and when necessary to each other as well to maintain peace in the church.
To support their position, Catholics appeal mainly to John 20:23: “If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.” It is immediately apparent that the crucial aspects of the Catholic doctrine of penance are absent in this passage: there is no mention of priests, secret confession or satisfaction by penance.
Clearly, Jesus gave the disciples the power to forgive. “If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them...” The question we must ask is not whether Christ gave them power to forgive – Catholics and Evangelicals agree up to this point. We need to ask about the kind of power He gave them. Did He make them judges and invested in them power to pass judiciary sentence, granting or withholding divine pardon, as Rome teaches? Or did He make them His ambassadors to proclaim forgiveness through faith in His name, as Evangelicals believe? In other words, can a sinner receive forgiveness directly from God through faith, or must he avail himself of the Catholic priest’s mediation?
Judges or Messengers?
Well then, did Christ constitute His disciples judges or messengers of the gospel?
Rome teaches that “although the absolution of the priest is the dispensation of another’s bounty, yet it is not a bare ministry only, whether of announcing the Gospel, or of declaring that sins are forgiven, but is after the manner of a judicial act, whereby sentence is pronounced by the priest as by a judge” (Trent, Session 14, Chapter 6). To support the doctrine that priests impart God’s forgiveness by absolution, the Catechism refers to the "power of the keys":
"The apostles and their successors carry out this 'ministry of reconciliation,' not only by announcing to men God's forgiveness merited for us by Christ, and calling them to conversion and faith; but also by communicating to them the forgiveness of sins in Baptism, and reconciling them with God and with the Church through the power of the keys, received from Christ" (CCC, 981).
Such interpretation of the "power of the keys" is contrary to the historic understanding. For example, Augustine explains that it is on account of faith and repentance that a person is forgiven, and therefore received in the church:
"He has given, therefore, the keys to His Church, that whatsoever it should bind on earth might be bound in heaven, and whatsoever it should loose on earth might be, loosed in heaven; that is to say, that whosoever in the Church should not believe that his sins are remitted, they should not be remitted to him; but that whosoever should believe and should repent, and turn from his sins, should be saved by the same faith and repentance on the ground of which he is received into the bosom of the Church" (Augustine, On Christian Doctrine, Book 1, Chapter 18).
Further, the Catechism refers to 2 Corinthians 5:18, arguing thus: “But he entrusted the exercise of the power of absolution to the apostolic ministry which he charged with the 'ministry of reconciliation.' The apostle is sent out 'on behalf of Christ' with 'God making his appeal' through him and pleading: 'Be reconciled to God'” (CCC 1442).
I invite the reader to study Paul’s words in context and ask whether Paul saw himself as a judge or preacher of good news:
Paul was an ambassador of Christ, performing the ministry of reconciliation by telling others about Christ and His cross, imploring sinners to be reconciled to God. He did not act as a judge giving judicial sentences! The apostle Paul said elsewhere, "Therefore let it be known to you, brethren, that through this Man is preached to you the forgiveness of sins; and by Him everyone who believes is justified from all things from which you could not be justified by the law of Moses" (Acts 13:38,39). The Christian minister forgives sins through the preaching of the Word and not by sitting on a judge’s seat and giving absolutions.
This conclusion is verified from other passages in the Bible. We have a clear picture of the doctrines and practices of the apostles in the New Testament. We do not read that the apostles were judges, or that they heard confessions, gave absolution or prescribed penance for the satisfaction of sins. On the contrary, we read how they went everywhere proclaiming the Gospel just as the Lord had commissioned them before His ascension into heaven:
“Then He said to them, 'Thus it is written, and thus it was necessary for the Christ to suffer and to rise from the dead the third day, and that repentance and remission of sins should be preached in His name to all nations, beginning at Jerusalem. And you are witnesses of these things” (Luke 24:46-48).
Similarly the apostle Peter knew that his power to forgive was related to preaching the Gospel. Peter said that the Lord “commanded us to preach to the people.” He does not mention confession to himself or to a priest as the means of obtaining forgiveness, but “through His name, whoever believes in Him will receive remission of sins” (Acts 10:42,43).
The Christian church still has the tremendous responsibility to reach the entire world with the forgiveness of God. The minister of Christ must proclaim the Lord Jesus and His cross, telling people to repent and believe in Him to receive forgiveness of sins. Believers are assured that “your sins are forgiven you for His name's sake” (1 John 2:12); just as unrepentant people are warned that they shall not inherit the kingdom of God.
Christians should deal with their daily sins by confession to God. “If we confess our sins, He is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness” (1 John 1:9). Even during the Old Testament, confession was made to God: “I said, 'I will confess my transgressions to the LORD,' And You forgave the iniquity of my sin” (Psalm 32:5). Similarly, the Lord Jesus taught His disciples to pray to their heavenly Father for forgiveness:
Sin is primarily the breaking of God’s Law, but it also injures human relationships. Therefore the Bible directs us to confess our faults and to forgive one another. “Confess your trespasses to one another” (James 5:16). “And be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, even as God in Christ forgave you” (Ephesians 4:32).
Christ also wants the Christian community to deal with sin in the church, seeking reconciliation between the members and to disciple obstinate sinners:
In this context, Jesus is not speaking about preaching the Gospel to unbelievers. He is giving instructions to the church how to deal with sin among its members. We should note that the power to bind and loose is given to ‘the church’ and not to a select group of priests. Christ reassures the congregation that if they come to the extreme disciplinary action of excommunicating one of the members, their decision is consistent with the will of God. What the church binds on earth has been bound already in heaven, and what the church looses on earth has been bound already in heaven. The NASB translation clearly brings out the force of the future perfect tense, “Truly I say to you, whatever you bind on earth shall have been bound in heaven; and whatever you loose on earth shall have been loosed in heaven.”
The church is further instructed to forgive and receive back into fellowship the disciplined member if and when he repents (2 Corinthians 2:7). When a sinner repents, God forgives him, and therefore the church should also forgive and receive him back into the church community.
Yet it should be clear that when we forgive one another we are only dealing with the offense on the human level. I can forgive my brother his offence against me, but I cannot forgive him his guilt in the place of God. He should seek God for such forgiveness because it is His Law that was broken. Similarly, when the church forgives a repentant person, he does not receive God’s forgiveness through the church. God forgives him when he personally repents and turns to God. The church is then bound to receive him back because God has already accepted him; “forgiving one another, even as God in Christ forgave you.”
Discipline was taken seriously in the early church, and rightly so. Sadly the biblical practice degenerated and eventually gave way to the sacrament of penance. First, the works that follow repentance were seen as expiatory. Secondly, the purpose of confession changed from reconciliation with the church to reconciliation with God through the ministry of the priest.
The Roman Catholic practice of secret confession to a priest is a late historical invention. The Catechism of the Catholic admits that secret confession to a priest was a new practice introduced in the seventh century.
Confession to a priest is a departure from the practice of the early church. True Christians have always confessed their sins to God because the Lord’s Prayer had been in their hearts and on their lips since the apostolic age.
In the Catholic religion, when a sinner is absolved by a priest, he is still required to receive punishment for his sins. "Raised up from sin, the sinner must still recover his full spiritual health by doing something more to make amends for the sin; he must 'make satisfaction for' or 'expiate' his sins. This satisfaction is also called 'penance'." (Catechism, 1459). "Let [the penitents] keep in mind that the satisfaction imposed by them is meant not merely as a safeguard for the new life and as a remedy to weakness, but also as a vindicatory punishment for former sins" (Council of Trent, Session 14, Chapter 8).
Catholicism prescribes prayer, fasting and almsgiving as forms of penance, which is defined as a vindicatory punishment for sins. This doctrine is far removed from the biblical teaching that sinners are cleansed by the blood of Christ and not because of personal suffering or anything else we may do. The good works that accompanies repentance are considered as the “fruit” and not as “punishment” (Matthew 3:8, Luke 3:8).
The Bible says that God set forth Jesus Christ “as a propitiation by His blood, through faith” and that “He Himself is the propitiation for our sins” (Romans 3:25; 1 John 2:2). "Propitiation" means the satisfying of wrath. By His death on the cross, Jesus took away the righteous wrath of God against the sins of His people.
The Bible declares that Jesus "by one offering He has perfected forever those who are being sanctified." And since the offering of Christ on the cross perfects all believers, there is no point in offering anything else for their sins. "Now where there is remission of these, there is no longer an offering for sin" (see Hebrews 10:14-18).
Jesus Christ “gave Himself for us, that He might redeem us from every lawless deed and purify for Himself His own special people, zealous for good works” (Titus 2:14). Christians are not redeemed or purified by their own works but by the sacrifice of Christ who gave Himself for their sake. They do good works because they are already purified and not the other way around.
© Dr Joseph Mizzi