By Luke Lancaster
Jesus 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, He 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, so I send you…whose sins you forgiven, they are forgiven them” (Jn. 20:23).
Jesus was sent to forgive sins, and He wants His apostles to participate in that. Just as the apostles are "in Christ," embodying His Body on earth, they participate in a more radical way that everybody else. For they have the authority to forgive sin 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, “whose sins you retain, they are retained.” This would indicate that the disciples would have to know what sins the people committed. Just as Jesus knew people’s sins, and forgave them, so disciples would have to know people’s sins, and forgive them (provided they repented).
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 avoid the sin in the future.
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, cause God is the one forgiving. This would also be an opportunity for the priest to “retain” his sins, but not offering absolution to the person who isn’t sorry.