If you are a Catholic or if you know many Catholics, then you are probably familiar with the concept of confessing your sins to a priest in a small private room called a “confessional.” While much has been written about the abuses of the Catholic confessional, our focus today will instead be on the Catholic Church’s abuse of John 20:23 (which they claim supports this type of confession). Here is the passage and its context:
19) So when it was evening on that day, the first day of the week, and when the doors were shut where the disciples were, for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood in their midst and said to them, "Peace be with you." 20) And when He had said this, He showed them both His hands and His side. The disciples then rejoiced when they saw the Lord. 21) So Jesus said to them again, "Peace be with you; as the Father has sent Me, I also send you." 22) And when He had said this, He breathed on them and said to them, "Receive the Holy Spirit. 23) If you forgive the sins of any, their sins have been forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they have been retained." (John 20:19-23 - NASV)
The Catholic Church tells us that when Jesus said, “If you forgive the sins of any, their sins have been forgiven them: if you retain the sins of any, they have been retained”… that He was not only giving the disciples the authority to forgive sins, but He also intended to establish the “Sacrament of Penance,” part of which involves the Catholic practice of confessing sins to a priest (also known as “auricular confession”).
CONDEMNATION AND FALSE CLAIMS
Not only do they claim this, but the Catholic Church also condemns anyone who denies this interpretation. According to the Fourteenth Session of the Council of Trent:
If any one saith, that those words of the Lord the Saviour, Receive ye the Holy Ghost, whose sins you shall forgive, they are forgiven them, and whose sins you shall retain, they are retained, are not to be understood of the power of forgiving and of retaining sins in the Sacrament of penance, as the Catholic Church has always from the beginning understood them; but wrests them, contrary to the institution of this sacrament, to the power of preaching the gospel; let him be anathema. (Canon III – emphasis added)
If any one denieth, either that sacramental confession was instituted, or is necessary to salvation, of divine right; or saith, that the manner of confessing secretly to a priest alone, which the Church hath ever observed from the beginning, and doth observe, is alien from the institution and command of Christ, and is a human invention; let him be anathema. (Canon VI – emphasis added)
Note the anathemas at the end of each Canon. When the Catholic Church declares someone “anathema,” she is pronouncing the gravest form of excommunication possible… one which eternally condemns the person to Hell unless and until he does penance to the Church’s satisfaction (see the online New Advent Catholic Encyclopedia – under the topic, “anathema”).
Note also the claim that this type of secret auricular confession was “always from the beginning understood” by the Church in this way, and “ever observed from the beginning.” But this is not true, even according to the Church’s own teachings. The Catechism of the Catholic Church tells us that private 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 [i.e., 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… (CCC #1447)
So, private confession to a priest was NOT “ever observed from the beginning,” and church history verifies this fact. Remember that these statements above (Canon III and VI) are dogmatic statements from a supposedly “infallible ecumenical council” and must be believed by every Catholic, yet they contradict (and condemn) the Catholic Catechism on this point. It seems that the Council of Trent, in a knee-jerk reaction to the Reformation, made false claims, forcing today’s Catholic to have to do damage control.
CAN A PRIEST FORGIVE SINS?
Just to be clear, we’re not talking here about when someone sins against you personally and you need to forgive him for it. This is about someone officially absolving (forgiving) all your sins, giving you a clean slate. So, in light of this, what about the Catholic Church’s interpretation of John 20:23? Is it really speaking of auricular confession to a priest? Did Jesus actually give anyone the power to forgive sins (like He does)? On the surface, it may look like it, but no, there is something else going on here. The Catholic interpretation is not valid for several reasons…
First of all, although there were “ministerial” priests in the Old Testament, there are NONE in the New Testament, contrary to what the Catholic Church claims. According to the Bible, all Christians are considered to be priests (1 Peter 2: 5, 9; Revelation 1:6). So this special class of ministers does not exist anymore. See this article on the priesthood:
Just this point alone destroys the foundation of the Catholic concept of auricular confession.
Second, there are absolutely no New Testament examples of anyone having his sins absolved by confessing to a designated person (unless that Person was Jesus). There are examples of public confession (Matthew 3:6; Mark 1:4-5; Acts 19:18-19), but we find no special person whose “job” it was to hear confessions (as in the Catholic Church).
Third, we DO have examples of those who prayed (or were instructed to pray) directly to God for forgiveness (Matthew 6:9,12; Acts 8:20-22; Luke 18:13-14). Jesus’ dying on the cross gives us direct access to God, without a ministerial priesthood.
Fourth, the structure of the Greek grammar in John 20:23 is rare, and important to recognize. The first pair of verbs (“forgive” and “retain”) are present tense. But the second pair of verbs, ("are forgiven" and "are retained") are both perfect tense, indicating a continual state that began before the action of the first verbs. In other words, the grammar indicates that God’s forgiving or retaining comes first, and then man’s PROCLAIMING of it afterward (based on what the person has chosen to do).
Many scholars will admit that the literal meaning of this verse, although awkward, is more accurately, “If you forgive the sins of any, their sins HAVE ALREADY BEEN forgiven,” or … “SHALL HAVE BEEN FORGIVEN.” So, Jesus was simply giving the disciples authority to announce forgiveness to people that God had forgiven already. This is not a situation where a man DECIDES to forgive or retain your sins – it is a situation in which a man simply declares / proclaims / confirms what God has already clearly stated in His Word, concerning your response to the gospel. Forgiveness depends on whether a person is repentant and how he reacts to the gospel, not on some special formula that the “priest,” rabbi, or minister uses.
By the way, a very similar type of Greek construction is found in Matthew 16:19 and 18:18 concerning “binding” and “loosing.” Here again, it is NOT a case of a man deciding something and afterward, God being obligated to give His seal of approval. It is simply a proclaiming of what God has already done.
For those who may not be quite sure what we mean when we use the term “the gospel,” it means “good news” and is simply the message that God loves us enough to have sent His Son Jesus Christ to Earth to suffer and die on the cross for our sins. He paid our penalty. It is a gift that none of us deserve and the payment of a debt that we could never pay. So, we don’t have to try and earn it… all we need to do is believe / trust Him for it. This is indeed good news.
Fifth, when it comes to absolving (i.e., forgiving all of a person’s sins), it is impossible to do unless you first know with absolute certainty what’s in the person’s heart. That’s why only God can absolve, and He doesn’t need a “middle man” to do it.
It is possible for a Catholic in the confessional to fool a priest into thinking that he is genuinely sorry for his sins, when he is not. And if the priest is convinced, he will mistakenly declare that the person is forgiven. In this case, we would agree with Catholics that this person is certainly not forgiven, since he is not fooling God. On the other hand, the priest could also retain the person’s sins when he is actually repentant. The job of the Catholic priest here is (supposedly) to forgive or retain sins. Yet, he cannot faithfully and “accurately” do it because he does not positively know the person’s heart. The priest is dependent on the honesty of the penitent (the one confessing). But only God really knows the heart of man, therefore, only He can absolve sins. Even the pompous scribes and Pharisees recognized this. (Luke 5:21)
Sixth, we must look to other verses that pertain to the same topic to get a fuller understanding of a passage. Jesus’ words in John 20:23 can be understood in a non-Catholic way when reconciled with the other three gospels. Let’s be sure not to miss the fact that this passage is unmistakably connected to the “Great Commission,” to the preaching of the gospel under the power of the Holy Spirit. When Jesus said, “As the Father has sent Me, I also send you,” He was sending them to preach the gospel. When He breathed on them, He was empowering them by the Holy Spirit to do exactly that.
There are three times in the gospels where a specific group is given this Great Commission of preaching the gospel message and being sent out with power. The first time was after Jesus chose His twelve apostles. (Matthew 10:1-15; Mark 6:7-11; Luke 9:1-5) The second was when He sent out the seventy disciples. (Luke 10:1-12) The third was after He arose from the dead, when He addresses His apostles again. (Matthew 28:16-20; Mark 16:14-18; Luke 24:45-49; John 20:19-23). A close look at all these passages in their contexts will tie them all together as a unit, while never suggesting the concept of auricular confession. John 20:23 must not be interpreted apart from the other three gospel accounts where the Great Commission was issued. When placing the four gospels side-by-side, you can begin to see how John 20:23 is simply the Great Commission stated another way.
Also, within the gospels, there is a common theme of shaking off the dust from the feet of the preacher of the good news, condemning those who have rejected the message:
And whoever does not receive you, nor heed your words, as you go out of that house or that city, shake off the dust of your feet. Truly I say to you, it will be more tolerable for the land of Sodom and Gomorrah in the day of judgment, than for that city. (Matthew 10:14-15 - NASV)
This practice was to show those who rejected the gospel that he (the preacher) wanted nothing to do with their evil ways, not even wanting their dust clinging to his feet. The concept of shaking off the dust in protest is also found in Mark 6:11, Luke 9:5; 10:10-11, and Acts 13:50-51. This act is an excellent example of “retaining” one’s sins, and is actually applying the principle of John 20:23 to those who reject the message.
Speaking of rejecting the gospel, notice what Jesus says:
The one who listens to you listens to Me, and the one who rejects you rejects Me; and he who rejects Me rejects the One who sent Me. (Luke 10:16 - NASV)
This ties in directly with the concepts of “dusting off the feet” and “retaining one’s sins,” yet, notice that Jesus was speaking here to the seventy disciples, not just the apostles. Both of these concepts are about rejecting the gospel, and those who reject the message / messenger are actually rejecting the Lord Jesus Christ. Again, there is a common thread here, a continuous line of thought within the four gospel accounts and when they are viewed together, there is no auricular confession.
As stated before, it is the acceptance (believing) of this gospel message with an attitude of repentance that will cause a person to be forgiven of his sins. The gospel has everything to do with forgiveness. This is because it is “the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes…” (Romans 1:16)
CATHOLIC CLAIM: ALTHOUGH WE CATHOLICS CONFESS TO A PRIEST, IT DOESN’T MEAN WE CAN’T CONFESS DIRECTLY TO GOD. IN FACT, WE ARE ENCOURAGED TO DO SO.
Perhaps so, but this seems to be somewhat confusing, since the Catechism repeatedly tells us that confessing to a priest is “essential.” (CCC #1424, #1448, #1449, #1456) So, this “freedom” for Catholics to go directly to God for forgiveness is questionable. It is either essential to go through the priest, or it’s not. Which is it?
Using this line of reasoning, we could also say that since Jesus came to die on a cross, then every one of the apostles and every one of their “successors” were also expected to be crucified… right? Of course not. Did God also expect all the apostles (and “successors”) to be born of a virgin, since this too, was part of Jesus’ mission? Did He expect each one to be the Messiah, or to be the fulfillment of the Old Testament animal sacrifices? Absolutely not. These things (including forgiving sins) were specific to Jesus and His ministry, not anyone else’s. Not everything that applies to Him applies to us. Being fully God and fully human, He is in a different category than we are. Once again, when Jesus said, “As the Father has sent Me, I also send you,” He was simply referring to the spreading of the gospel.
CATHOLIC CLAIM: PRIESTS ARE NOT MIND READERS, SO THEREFORE, JESUS MUST HAVE INTENDED FOR THE PEOPLE TO ORALLY CONFESS THEIR SINS TO THEM IN ORDER TO BE FORGIVEN. IN OTHER WORDS, YOU CAN’T FORGIVE THEM IF YOU DON’T HEAR THEIR CONFESSIONS.
The very fact that priests are not mind readers weakens the Catholic position. The power to absolve sins would necessarily require infallible knowledge of what’s in the person’s heart and mind. Priests don’t have this infallible knowledge and they can’t be absolutely sure if the person is repentant, so therefore, they can’t absolve sin.
CATHOLIC CLAIM: MATTHEW 9:8 SHOWS THAT GOD HAS GIVEN THE AUTHORITY TO FORGIVE SINS “TO MEN”… PLURAL. NOT JUST TO JESUS. HENCE, IF “MEN” HAVE THIS POWER, THEN IT MUST ALSO BE FOR THE SUCCESSORS OF THE APOSTLES, i.e., THE BISHOPS AND PRIESTS OF THE CATHOLIC CHURCH.
Notice what Matthew 9:8 actually says:
But when the multitudes saw this, they were filled with awe, and glorified God, who had given such authority to men. (NASV)
What the crowds actually SAW was the miracle of a healing (v. 6-7) – that’s what they were marveling about.
Furthermore, (if we’re going to be consistent with this passage) if “men” have the power to forgive sins today, then shouldn’t they also have the power to heal today? Can the priest say, “…which is easier, to say, ‘Your sins are forgiven,’ or to say, ‘Rise, and walk…’” (v. 5) and then back up his claim like Jesus did? Hardly. The whole point of Jesus’ saying, “Which is easier…” was to demonstrate His authority to do BOTH, because He is God. If priests have the authority for one, why not for both? If the priest can forgive at will (like Jesus), then why can’t he also heal at will (like Jesus)? Because of inconsistent logic, Catholics cannot use this verse to support their claim.
CATHOLIC CLAIM: JAMES 5:16 SAYS TO CALL FOR THE PRIESTS IF SOMEONE IS SICK, AND TO CONFESS YOUR SINS TO ONE ANOTHER. THIS IS INDEED CATHOLIC CONFESSION.
First of all, it says to call for the elders of the church, not the “priests.” These are two different words in the Greek. Secondly, if we should “confess to one another,” then why do we never see Catholic priests confessing their sins to a lay person (non-priest)? That’s what “confessing to one another” would be, wouldn’t it? It means BOTH PARTIES confessing. The confessing is mutual… it is to “each other,” just as this same verse also says to “pray for one another.” Here again, the Catholic argument is inconsistent. If “confessing” is a “one-way” street in this context, then “praying” would have to be also. But we know that Catholics expect both sides (priests and “laity”) to pray for each other. So, the Catholic interpretation reduces this verse to nonsense.
When the Bible says to “confess to one another” or “forgive each other,” it is simply saying that we must be willing to humble ourselves and admit our faults and shortcomings to our brothers and sisters, in order to reconcile with each other. THAT’S what James 5:16 is about. This verse in no way supports auricular confession.
The apostle Paul, when expressing his deep concern for the souls of men, did not ask, “How will they be forgiven without an ‘official absolver’?” No, he asked, “How will they hear without a preacher?” (Romans 10:14) He was most concerned with the spread of the life-giving message of the gospel. Paul knew very well where to find truth and forgiveness.
Please don’t be deceived – no one -- no “priest,” no rabbi, no minister… has the power to absolve sins. That is reserved for God, alone. God expects men to proclaim the gospel by the authority of His Word. And IF you repent of your sins and trust only in the work of Jesus Christ on the cross, then you are indeed forgiven. We are never told in Scripture to confess our sins to a particular person. Again, forgiveness does not depend on a man telling you that you are forgiven, but it depends on your repenting and accepting the gospel.
The Catholic Church’s attempt to hi-jack John 20:23 and force it (under penalty of anathema, no less) to apply to auricular confession is:
· contradicting many scriptural principles
· ignoring the continuity and context of all four gospels as a unit
· simply reading a Catholic concept into the passage, and
· attempting to put people in bondage to the Catholic sacramental system.
Yes, we CAN and SHOULD go directly to God for forgiveness. We don’t need a “middle man,” a “professional forgiver” – what we do need is a right relationship with the One Who died on the cross for us… because He is the only one who knows our heart.