“Who can forgive my sins?”
Shortly after his resurrection, Jesus appeared to the disciples as they hid from the Jews. Thomas was absent. Any number of disciples in addition to the ten may have been there; the Bible doesn’t specify. Jesus gave them a charge as he anointed them with the Holy Spirit:
Again Jesus said, “Peace be with you! As the Father has sent me, I am sending you.” And with that he breathed on them and said, “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive anyone his sins, they are forgiven; if you do not forgive them, they are not forgiven.” John 20:21-23
The Catholic Church and some Protestant denominations such as the Lutherans interpret this passage to mean that priests and ministers have the authority to forgive sins on behalf of God. Other Protestants disagree and insist that the authority rests with God and has only been delegated to his son, Jesus Christ. It would be a mistake to dismiss the Catholic position prematurely, for the face value of Jesus’ command implies that believers are given such authority. We should note, however, that Jesus gives the charge to the group, the body of believers as a whole, and not specifically to individuals.
We sin against God
All sin, though committed against a fellow creature, being a transgression of the law, is against the lawgiver; and, indeed, begins at the neglect or contempt of his commandment. – John Gill
Ultimately God retains the authority to forgive sins, for the Bible makes it plain that our sins rest on him no matter where they begin. David admitted this in Psalm 51 when he said, “Against you, you only, have I sinned and done what is evil in your sight; so you are right in your verdict and justified when you judge.” Joseph acknowledged it in Potiphar’s house in Egypt. “No one is greater in this house than I am. My master has withheld nothing from me except you, because you are his wife. How then could I do such a wicked thing and sin against God?” (Genesis 39:9) When we sin we transgress against God. Therefore, it is God who ultimately decides whether to pardon our sin. The question remains, has God delegated his authority to anyone else?
Jesus Forgives Sins
“Why does this fellow speak in this way? It is blasphemy! Who can forgive sins but God alone?” Mark 2:7
The scribes and Pharisees were aghast that Jesus, a man, would claim the authority to forgive sins. Jesus proved his authority as he demonstrated his divinity by healing the paralytic man. The Pharisees were correct that only God could forgive sins. They were mistaken in failing to recognize that Jesus was God. It’s interesting to note that the Pharisees defended God’s authority even though the Temple worship with its system of priestly sacrifices was a daily practice at the time.
The New Testament is full of references to Jesus’ role in pardoning our sins. John the apostle wrote, “My little children, these things write I unto you, that ye sin not. And if any man sin, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous.” In Romans, Paul wrote, “Who is he that condemneth? It is Christ that died, yea rather, that is risen again, who is even at the right hand of God, who also maketh intercession for us.” In First Timothy he said, “For there is one God, and one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus.” Even Isaiah, prophesying about Jesus in the Old Testament, said, “he bare the sin of many, and made intercession for the transgressors.”
Can anyone else forgive sins?
The question therefore amongst divines is, Whether Christ in this text hath given authority to his ministers actually to discharge men of the guilt of their sins; or only to declare unto them, that if their repentance and faith be true, their sins are really forgiven them? The former is by many contended for… – Matthew Poole
God holds the ultimate authority to forgive. Jesus serves as mediator, advocate, and intercessor between God and man. Is there a need or a place for anyone else to forgive sins? Apparently the church has felt such a need, for it has practiced private confession since at least the fifth century AD. In 459 AD Pope Leo I described the practice in a letter to his bishops. However, the Catechism of the Catholic Church, paragraph 1447, says that Irish monks took the practice of private penance to Europe in the seventh century. The practice was first codified in 1215 when the Fourth Lateran Council stated “All the faithful… should individually confess all their sins in a faithful manner to their own priest at least once a year…” Before the initiation of private penance the church would publicly excommunicate those who committed serious or grave sins, only readmitting them after they made extensive penance, a process which could take years.
In contrast to the Catholic position, most Protestants believe private confession and ministerial forgiveness is unnecessary and not supported by scripture. They hold that the charge given to the disciples in John 20 deals with the church’s mission to bring peace to the world through the ministry of the gospel. In that light, forgiveness of sins is confirmed for those who repent and believe the good news. Priests are not necessary for intercession because, as Peter said, the church itself is a royal priesthood and each man may ask God for forgiveness. Forgiveness or condemnation also operates through church discipline as described by Jesus in Matthew 18: “Moreover if thy brother shall trespass against thee, go and tell him his fault between thee and him alone: if he shall hear thee, thou hast gained thy brother. But if he will not hear thee, then take with thee one or two more, that in the mouth of two or three witnesses every word may be established. And if he shall neglect to hear them, tell it unto the church: but if he neglect to hear the church, let him be unto thee as an heathen man and a publican. Verily I say unto you, whatsoever ye shall bind on earth shall be bound in heaven: and whatsoever ye shall loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.” The New Testament records no instance of the early church practicing private intercession.
Is there any middle ground between these two positions? If there is, I think it would follow along these lines:
- Priestly or ministerial confession is not required, but may be beneficial. As James said, “Therefore confess your sins to each other and pray for each other so that you may be healed.” Such confession may be made between any believers, but priests and ministers are well equipped to offer counsel as well as prayer.
- We should acknowledge that we have sinned against God, who holds the ultimate authority to forgive, and that the penalty for our sins was paid by Jesus Christ, who now intercedes with God on our behalf. Like the priests in the old covenant of temple sacrifices, contemporary priests and ministers may administer God’s forgiveness but they are not the source of that pardon.
- Repentance is always necessary for forgiveness, but the practice of penance is a separate matter and beyond the scope of this article.
- Congregations should take more responsibility for confronting their members when they sin, using church discipline to restore them.
Image by Juliana Muncinelli on Flickr, CC by-nc 2.0