Updated: May 28
By Luke Lancaster
Jesus forgave sins, to the shock of his 1st century audience. This mission was given to His apostles in John 20. In that passage, the apostles were told that their personal decisions to forgive some person's sins would be backed up by God Himself. This is where the Catholic Church, specifically at the Council of Trent, has pointed too for evidence of the sacrament of Confession.
Jesus was sent by God the Father to earth. Jesus was to do things such as preach repentance, heal the sick, cast out demons, and forgive people's sins. This is seen in Mark's Gospel, chapter 2. When a paralytic was brought to Him, Jesus said to him, “Your sins are forgiven” (Mk. 2:5). The personal sins of the paralytic was forgiven by Jesus Christ that day. His authority to forgive the paralytic's sins was not something that was to cease. Jesus did not want to keep this authority to Himself.
In John 20, after Jesus rose from the dead, He appeared before the apostles who were hiding in the Upper Room. He said to them,
“As the Father has sent me, even so I am sending you...If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you withhold forgiveness from any, it is withheld” (Jn. 20:21, 23).
Jesus was sent by the Father to forgive sins, and He wanted His apostles to participate in that. Christ lived in His apostles in a mysterious sense (Galatians 2:20); they were like His Body on earth (1 Corinthians 12:27). So, Christ was sending the apostles with the same mission He was sent with: to forgive the sins of the people. By the authority of Jesus, whose authority came from the Father, they could forgive sins. Just as the Father’s forgiveness was communicated through Jesus in Mark 2, so also Jesus would communicate forgiveness through His disciples to individual people.
This idea is similar to a magnifying glass. The sun shines through the glass and onto another object. If you focused the magnifying glass over an ant on the sidewalk, the sun's rays would focus in on that ant. Similarly, the apostles are like magnifying glasses. God is like the sun, forgiveness is like the sun's rays, and the ant is like people. If that ant offended the sun, then the magnifying glass could be shined over it, and the rays of forgiveness could focus in on that ant. That magnifying glass was simply an instrument of the sun's rays.
Jesus was giving the apostles authority to personally forgive people's sins. Even though humans offend God, humans cannot see God to apologize to Him. So, Jesus ensured a visible representative through which humans could apologize to God for their sins, and audibly hear that God forgave them their sins.
Some will attempt to argue that the apostles were not given the authority to forgive sins in John 20. However, why then were the apostles able to personally forgive and also retain the sins of the people? To retain somebody's sins would imply that the apostle knew the sins of the person and felt that they did not deserve God's forgiveness. For if the person committed some evil action but did not feel sorry for their sin, then the apostles would withhold absolution.
Other people will argue that John 20 is about preaching forgiveness of sins. That is, the apostles would preach the Gospel to people, and if they accepted the Gospel, then the apostles would declare that God had forgiven their sins. If the people did not accept the Gospel, then the apostles would announce that God had not forgiven their sins.
This interpretation does not work for a few reasons according to Karlo Broussard. First, Jesus did not tell the apostles to preach the Gospel in John 20. He told them that if they forgave or retained sins, that such actions would be backed up by Heaven. Second, the passage does not say, "if people accept the Gospel their sins are forgiven," but rather has a personal touch, "if you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them." Finally, the text says that the apostles are sent in the manner that Jesus was sent, "As the Father has sent me, even so I am sending you." Jesus was sent to actually, personally forgive people's sins. The apostles were sent likewise.
Must of the difficulty with this sacrament has to do with the legalism of Catholics. Some people just confess their sins in the sacrament, without having a deep interior repentance from the sin. They will not strongly attempt to avoid the sin in the future. This causes non-Catholics to assume that the sacrament of Confession is just a bunch of empty rituals.
What needs to be understood is, if there is confession without interior repentance, then the sins of the person have not been forgiven. Imagine a friend who said he was sorry for stealing money, but continued to do it. Its one thing if he was trying to stop but has difficulty at times. Its another thing to just say empty words. If that is the case with this sacrament, i.e. a person confesses a particular sin, but does not intend to stop, then his sins have not been forgiven by God. For God is the one forgiving. This would also be an opportunity for the priest to “retain” his sins, by not offering absolution to the person who isn’t sorry.
The sacrament of Confession is a beautiful sacrament that is found rather convincingly in the John 20:21-23. Jesus sent His apostles with the same mission as He was sent with: to forgive sins. The apostles then forgive people's sins personally, acting as magnifying glasses of God's forgiveness.