Updated: Aug 16, 2021
By Luke Lancaster
Some people reject the sacrament of Penance. They believe that the sacrament is just ritualism. Such people do not fully understand the implications from John 20.
During the earthly ministry of Jesus, He forgave sins (to the shock of his 1st century audience). He was sent by the Father as an apostle (“one who is sent” = apostle) to do that mission. Because of this, Jesus could look at the paralytic in Mark 2 and say, “Your sins are forgiven” (Mk. 2:5). Jesus did not want to keep this authority to Himself, though. He looked at the apostles after His Resurrection from the dead, and said,
"As the Father has sent me, even so I am sending you" (John 20:23).
Jesus was sent to forgive sins. He then wants His apostles to participate in that. All baptized Christians are "in Christ," (Gal. 3:27), for they embody His Body on earth. Yet the apostles get to participate in a more radical way in the mission of Christ than everybody else. The verse continues,
"If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them" (John 20:23).
Notice the clear conditional: "If." For man's sins to be forgiven, the apostles have to forgive them. The apostles have the authority to forgive sins by the authority of Jesus, whose authority comes from the Father. So, the Father’s forgiveness is communicated through Jesus and through His disciples to individual people. This is the basis for the sacrament of Confession! Now, the verse continues in John 20,
"if you withhold forgiveness from any, it is withheld" (John 20:23).
The apostles can refuse to forgive the sins of the people. This would indicate that the disciples know what sins the people committed. Just as Jesus knew people’s sins, and forgave them, so the disciples know people’s sins, and forgive them (provided they repented).
This is the basis for the sacrament of Confession or Penance. The Council of Trent declared in the 16th century after the Protestant revolt that John 20:23 established this sacrament. It said, "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, (z) 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." (Session 14, canon 3).
Much of the difficulty with those who reject 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 avoid the sin in the future. This is an empty use of the sacrament and does not actually result in forgiveness of sins.
If there is confession without repentance, then imagine a friend who said he was sorry for stealing money, but continued to do it. It’s one thing if he is trying to stop but has difficulty at times. It’s 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 ultimately the one forgiving. If the priest recognizes that the person is not truly repentant, then the priest can withhold forgiveness. St. Padre Pio was known to have done this.