forgiveness of sins
This topic is of utmost interest to all of us,
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
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
Now all things are of God, who has reconciled us to Himself
through Jesus Christ, and has given us the ministry of
reconciliation, that is, that God was in Christ reconciling the
world to Himself, not imputing their trespasses to them, and has
committed to us the word of reconciliation. Now then, we are
ambassadors for Christ, as though God were pleading through us: we
implore you on Christ’s behalf, be reconciled to God (2
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”
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
“Our Father in heaven,
Hallowed be Your name.
Your kingdom come.
Your will be done
On earth as it is in heaven.
Give us day by day our daily bread.
And forgive us our sins...” (Luke 11:2,4).
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
“Moreover if your brother sins against you, go
and tell him his fault between you and him alone. If he hears you,
you have gained your brother. But if he will not hear, take with you
one or two more, that 'by the mouth of two or three witnesses every
word may be established.' And if he refuses to hear them, tell it to
the church. But if he refuses even to hear the church, let him be to
you like a heathen and a tax collector. Assuredly, I say to you,
whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you
loose on earth will be loosed in heaven” (Matthew 18:15-18).
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
"During the seventh century Irish missionaries, inspired by
the Eastern monastic tradition, took to continental Europe the
'private' practice of penance, which does not require public and
prolonged completion of penitential works before reconciliation with
the Church. From that time on [that is, from the seventh century],
the sacrament has been performed in secret between penitent and
priest. This new practice envisioned the possibility of repetition
and so opened the way to a regular frequenting of this
sacrament" (paragraph 1447).
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
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
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
The church of Christ is commissioned to proclaim the message
of forgiveness to the world. In this sense the disciples have
power to forgive sins.
Christians are taught in Scripture to ask God for forgiveness
for their daily sins and are never instructed to confess to a
In the church, Christians are exhorted to confess and forgive
The satisfaction for sin is the blood of Christ and not the
sufferings and works of Christians.