I. Jesus Christ Granted the Apostles His Authority
to Forgive Sins
John 20:21 - before He grants them the authority to forgive sins, Jesus says to
the apostles, "as the Father sent me, so I send you." As Christ was sent by the
Father to forgive sins, so Christ sends the apostles and their successors
John 20:22 - the Lord "breathes" on the apostles, and then gives them the power
to forgive and retain sins. The only other moment in Scripture where God
breathes on man is in Gen. 2:7, when the Lord "breathes" divine life into man.
When this happens, a significant transformation takes place.
John 20:23 - Jesus says, "If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven. If
you retain the sins of any, they are retained." In order for the apostles to
exercise this gift of forgiving sins, the penitents must orally confess their
sins to them because the apostles are not mind readers. The text makes this
Matt. 9:8 - this verse shows that God has given the authority to forgive sins
to "men." Hence, those Protestants who acknowledge that the apostles had the
authority to forgive sins (which this verse demonstrates) must prove that this
gift ended with the apostles. Otherwise, the apostles' successors still possess
this gift. Where in Scripture is the gift of authority to forgive sins taken
away from the apostles or their successors?
Matt. 9:6; Mark 2:10 - Christ forgave sins as a man (not God) to convince us
that the "Son of man" has authority to forgive sins on earth.
Luke 5:24 - Luke also points out that Jesus' authority to forgive sins is as a
man, not God. The Gospel writers record this to convince us that God has given
this authority to men. This authority has been transferred from Christ to the
apostles and their successors.
Matt. 18:18 - the apostles are given authority to bind and loose. The authority
to bind and loose includes administering and removing the temporal penalties
due to sin. The Jews understood this since the birth of the Church.
John 20:22-23; Matt. 18:18 - the power to remit/retain sin is also the power to
remit/retain punishment due to sin. If Christ's ministers can forgive the
eternal penalty of sin, they can certainly remit the temporal penalty of sin
(which is called an "indulgence").
2 Cor. 2:10 - Paul forgives in the presence of Christ (some translations refer
to the presences of Christ as "in persona Christi"). Some say that this may
also be a reference to sins.
2 Cor. 5:18 - the ministry of reconciliation was given to the ambassadors of
the Church. This ministry of reconciliation refers to the sacrament of
reconciliation, also called the sacrament of confession or penance.
James 5:15-16 - in verse 15 we see that sins are forgiven by the priests in the
sacrament of the sick. This is another example of man's authority to forgive
sins on earth. Then in verse 16, James says “Therefore, confess our sins to one
another,” in reference to the men referred to in verse 15, the priests of the
1 Tim. 2:5 - Christ is the only mediator, but He was free to decide how His
mediation would be applied to us. The Lord chose to use priests of God to carry
out His work of forgiveness.
Lev. 5:4-6; 19:21-22 - even under the Old Covenant, God used priests to forgive
and atone for the sins of others.
Tradition / Church Fathers
I. The Early Church’s Practice of Oral Confession
Do not come to prayer with a guilty conscience." Epistle of Barnabas, 19:12
“In church confess your sins, and do not come to your prayer with a guilt
conscience. Such is the Way of Life...On the Lord's own day, assemble in common
to break bread and offer thanks; but first confess your sins, so that your
sacrifice may be pure." Didache, 4:14,14:1 (c. A.D. 90).
"Moreover, it is in accordance with reason that we should return to
soberness[of conduct], and, while yet we have opportunity, exercise repentance
towards God. It is well to reverence both God and the bishop." Ignatius,
Epistle to the Smyraeans, 9 (c. A.D. 110).
"Moreover, that this Marcus compounds philters and love-potions, in order to
insult the persons of some of these women, if not of all, those of them who
have returned to the Church of God--a thing which frequently occurs--have
acknowledged, confessing, too, that they have been defiled by him, and that
they were filled with a burning passion towards him. A sad example of this
occurred in the case of a certain Asiatic, one of our deacons, who had received
him (Marcus) into his house. His wife, a woman of remarkable beauty, fell a
victim both in mind and body to this magician, and, for a long time, travelled
about with him. At last, when, with no small difficulty, the brethren had
converted her, she spent her whole time in the exercise of public confession,
weeping over and lamenting the defilement which she had received from this
magician." Irenaeus, Against Heresies, 1:13 (A.D. 180).
"Such are the words and deeds by which, in our own district of the Rhone, they
have deluded many women, who have their consciences seared as with a hot iron.
Some of them, indeed, make a public confession of their sins; but others of
them are ashamed to do this, and in a tacit kind of way, despairing of
[attaining to] the life of God, have, some of them, apostatized altogether;
while others hesitate between the two courses, and incur that which is implied
in the proverb, 'neither without nor within;' possessing this as the fruit from
the seed of the children of knowledge." Irenaeus, Against Heresies, 1:13 (A.D.
"Father who knowest the hearts of all grant upon this Thy servant whom Thou
hast chosen for the episcopate to feed Thy holy flock and serve as Thine high
priest, that he may minister blamelessly by night and day, that he may
unceasingly behold and appropriate Thy countenance and offer to Thee the gifts
of Thy holy Church. And that by the high priestly Spirit he may have authority
to forgive sins..." Hippolytus, Apostolic Tradition, 3 (A.D. 215).
"The Pontifex Maximus--that is, the bishop of bishops--issues an edict: 'I
remit, to such as have discharged (the requirements of) repentance, the sins
both of adultery and of fornication.'" Tertullian, Modesty, 1 (A.D. 220).
"In addition to these there is also a seventh, albeit hard and laborious: the
remission of sins through penance...when he does not shrink from declaring his
sin to a priest of the Lord." Origen, Homilies on Leviticus, 2:4 (A.D. 248).
"For although in smaller sins sinners may do penance for a set time, and
according to the rules of discipline come to public confession, and by
imposition of the hand of the bishop and clergy receive the right of communion:
now with their time still unfulfilled, while persecution is still raging, while
the peace of the Church itself is not vet restored, they are admitted to
communion, and their name is presented; and while the penitence is not yet
performed, confession is not yet made, the hands Of the bishop and clergy are
not yet laid upon them, the eucharist is given to them; although it is written,
'Whosoever shall eat the bread and drink the cup of the Lord unworthily, shall
be guilty of the body and blood of the Lord.'" Cyprian, To the Clergy, 9 (16):2
"Moreover, how much are they both greater in faith and better in their fear,
who, although bound by no crime of sacrifice to idols or of certificate, yet,
since they have even thought of such things, with grief and simplicity confess
this very thing to God's priests, and make the conscientious avowal, put off
from them the load of their minds, and seek out the salutary medicine even for
slight and moderate wounds, knowing that it is written, 'God is not mocked.'
God cannot be mocked, nor deceived, nor deluded by any deceptive cunning. Yea,
he sins the more, who, thinking that God is like man, believes that he evades
the penalty of his crime if he has not openly admitted his crime…I entreat you,
beloved brethren, that each one should confess his own sin, while he who has
sinned is still in this world, while his confession may be received, while the
satisfaction and remission made by the priests are pleasing to the Lord?" Cyprian,
To the Lapsed, 28-29 (A.D. 251).
"It is necessary to confess our sins to those whom the dispensation of God's
mysteries is entrusted." Basil, Rule Briefly Treated, 288 (A.D. 374).
"These are capital sins, brethren, these are mortal." Pacian of Barcelona,
Penance, 4 (A.D. 385).
"For if any one will consider how great a thing it is for one, being a man, and
compassed with flesh and blood, to be enabled to draw nigh to that blessed and
pure nature, he will then clearly see what great honor the grace of the Spirit
has vouchsafed to priests; since by their agency these rites are celebrated,
and others nowise inferior to these both in respect of our dignity and our
salvation. For they who inhabit the earth and make their abode there are
entrusted with the administration of things which are in Heaven, and have
received an authority which God has not given to angels or archangels. For it
has not been said to them, 'Whatsoever ye shall bind on earth shall be bound in
Heaven, and whatsoever ye shall loose on earth shall be loosed in Heaven.' They
who rule on earth have indeed authority to bind, but only the body: whereas
this binding lays hold of the soul and penetrates the heavens; and what priests
do here below God ratifies above, and the Master confirms the sentence of his
servants. For indeed what is it but all manner of heavenly authority which He
has given them when He says, 'Whose sins ye remit they are remitted, and whose
sins ye retain they are retained?' What authority could be greater than this?
'The Father hath committed all judgment to the Son?' But I see it all put into
the hands of these men by the Son." John Chrysostom, The Priesthood, 3:5 (A.D.
"The Church holds fast its obedience on either side, by both retaining and
remitting sin; heresy is on the one side cruel, and on the other disobedient;
wishes to bind what it will not loosen, and will not loosen what it has bound,
whereby it condemns itself by its own sentence. For the Lord willed that the
power of binding and of loosing should be alike, and sanctioned each by a
similar condition…Each is allowed to the Church, neither to heresy, for this
power has been entrusted to priests alone. Rightly, therefore, does the Church
claim it, which has true priests; heresy, which has not the priests of God,
cannot claim it. And by not claiming this power heresy pronounces its own
sentence, that not possessing priests it cannot claim priestly power. And so in
their shameless obstinacy a shamefaced acknowledgment meets our view. Consider,
too, the point that he who has received the Holy Ghost has also received the
power of forgiving and of retaining sin. For thus it is written: 'Receive the
Holy Spirit: whosesoever sins ye forgive, they are forgiven unto them, and
whosesoever sins ye retain, they are retained.' So, then, he who has not
received power to forgive sins has not received the Holy Spirit. The office of
the priest is a gift of the Holy Spirit, and His right it is specially to
forgive and to retain sins. How, then, can they claim His gift who distrust His
power and His right?" Ambrose, Concerning Repentance, I:7-8 (A.D. 388).
"All mortal sins are to be submitted to the keys of the Church and all can be
forgiven; but recourse to these keys is the only, the necessary, and the
certain way to forgiveness. Unless those who are guilty of grievous sin have
recourse to the power of the keys, they cannot hope for eternal salvation. Open
your lips, them, and confess your sins to the priest. Confession alone is the
true gate to Heaven." Augustine, Christian Combat (A.D. 397).
"Just as in the Old Testament the priest makes the leper clean or unclean, so
in the New Testament the bishop and presbyter binds or looses not those who are
innocent or guilty, but by reason of their office, when they have heard various
kinds of sins, they know who is to be bound and who loosed." Jerome, Commentary
on Matthew, 3:16,19 (A.D. 398).