'The Forgiveness Of Sins'

This topic is of utmost interest to all of us, no matter what our religion may be, 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; that 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 to one another.

To support their position, Catholics appeal mainly to John 20:23: “Whosoever sins ye remit, they are remitted unto them; and whosoever sins ye retain, 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. “Whosoever sins ye remit, they are remitted unto them...” 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, chapter 6).

To support the doctrine that priests impart God’s forgiveness in this fashion, the Catechism refers to 2 Corinthians 5:18. The Catechism argues this way: “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...”

I would ask the reader to study Paul’s words in their context and ask whether Paul saw himself as a judge or preacher of good news:

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 Corinthians 5:18-20).

Paul was an ambassador and he performed his 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, “Be it known unto you therefore, men and brethren, that through this man (Christ) is preached unto you the forgiveness of sins: And by him all that believe are justified from all things
(Acts 13:38,39).
The Christian minister forgives sins through the preaching of the Word and not by sitting on a judge’s seat.

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 just before His ascension into heaven:

“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 unto the people.”
He does not mention confession to himself or to a priest as the means of obtaining forgiveness, but “that through his name whosoever believeth in him shall receive remission of sins” (Acts 10:42,42).

The Christian church still has this 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.

   Confession  

Christians should deal with their daily sins by confession to God. “If we confess our sins, [God] 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 will confess my transgressions unto the LORD; and thou forgavest the iniquity of my sin” (Psalm 32:5). Similarly, the Lord Jesus taught his disciples to pray to their heavenly Father for forgiveness, “Our Father which art in heaven...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 encourages us to confess our faults and to forgive one another. “Confess your faults one to another” (James 5:16). “And be ye kind one to another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, even as God for Christ's sake hath forgiven 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:

“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” (Matthew 18:17,18).

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 Christians. 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 excommunicated 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 fellowship.

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 repents. The church is then bound to receive him back because God has already accepted him; “forgiving one another, even as God for Christ's sake hath forgiven 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.

"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.

   Satisfaction  

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" (Trent, 14, VIII).

Catholicism prescribes prayer, fasting and almsgiving as forms of penance, which is defined as a vindicatory punishment for sins. Such a 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 “to be a propitiation through faith in his blood” and that Jesus “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 bore the righteous wrath of God against the sins of his people.

The Bible declares that Jesus "by one offering hath perfected for ever them that are 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 remission of these is, there is no more offering for sin" (see Hebrews 10:14-18).

Jesus Christ “gave himself for us, that he might redeem us from all iniquity, and purify unto himself a peculiar people, zealous of good works.” Christians are not redeemed or purified by their works but by the sacrifice of Christ who gave himself for them. They do good works because they are already purified and not the other way around.

  Conclusion 

  • 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 priest.

  • In the church, Christians are exhorted to confess and forgive one another.

  • The satisfaction for sin is the blood of Christ and not the sufferings and works of Christians.

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