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 forgive sins.
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 very clear.
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 Church.
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.
II. The Necessity and Practice of Orally Confessing Sins
James 5:16 – James clearly teaches us that we must “confess our sins to one another,” not just privately to God. James 5:16 must be read in the context of James 5:14-15, which is referring to the healing power (both physical and spiritual) of the priests of the Church. Hence, when James says “therefore” in verse 16, he must be referring to the men he was writing about in verses 14 and 15 – these men are the ordained priests of the Church, to whom we must confess our sins.
Acts 19:18 – many came to orally confess sins and divulge their sinful practices. Oral confession was the practice of the early Church just as it is today.
Matt. 3:6; Mark 1:5 – again, this shows people confessing their sins before others as an historical practice (here to John the Baptist).
1 Tim. 6:12 – this verse also refers to the historical practice of confessing both faith and sins in the presence of many witnesses.
1 John 1:9 – if we confess are sins, God is faithful to us and forgives us and cleanse us. But we must confess our sins to one another.
Num. 5:7 – this shows the historical practice of publicly confessing sins, and making public restitution.
2 Sam. 12:14 – even though the sin is forgiven, there is punishment due for the forgiven sin. David is forgiven but his child was still taken (the consequence of his sin).
Neh. 9:2-3 – the Israelites stood before the assembly and confessed sins publicly and interceded for each other.
Sir. 4:26 – God tells us not to be ashamed to confess our sins, and not to try to stop the current of a river. Anyone who has experienced the sacrament of reconciliation understands the import of this verse.
Baruch 1:14 – again, this shows that the people made confession in the house of the Lord, before the assembly.
1 John 5:16-17; Luke 12:47-48 – there is a distinction between mortal and venial sins. This has been the teaching of the Catholic Church for 2,000 years, but, today, most Protestants no longer agree that there is such a distinction. Mortal sins lead to death and must be absolved in the sacrament of reconciliation. Venial sins do not have to be confessed to a priest, but the pious Catholic practice is to do so in order to advance in our journey to holiness.
Matt. 5:19 – Jesus teaches that breaking the least of commandments is venial sin (the person is still saved but is least in the kingdom), versus mortal sin (the person is not saved).
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 (A.D. 74).
“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. 180).
“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 (A.D. 250).
“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. 387).
“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).