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How Can a Priest Forgive Sin?

OBJECTOR: I don’t see how the Catholic Church can teach that a priest can forgive sins. It’s against the Bible. The Psalmist, speaking to God, says in Psalm130:4, “But with you there is forgiveness.” A man cannot forgive the sins of another person. The only sins a man can forgive are those against him directly. Jesus said we should forgive those who sin against us. But how can a priest, or any human being, forgive sins which are not against him directly. Only God can do that.

CATHOLIC: You’re absolutely right. Only God can forgive sins. In Mark 2:1–12 we find what you are saying in the story of the healing of the paralytic. When Jesus saw the paralytic, he said to him, “Your sins are forgiven” (Mark 2:5). The scribes gave the same objection that you raised—that is, that only God can forgive sins. They asked, “Who can forgive sins except God alone?” And they were right. But notice how Jesus changes this later in the story. He performs the miracle of healing precisely to show that “the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins” (Mark 2:10). So what was once only in heaven is now on earth because Jesus has the authority to forgive.

OBJECTOR: Yes, but Jesus is God and therefore has the power to forgive. You see, that proves my point. Only Jesus can forgive sins because he is God. A human priest cannot.

CATHOLIC: So you agree that there was once a man on earth who could forgive sins. It was the one who was fully God and fully man. And I assume that if Jesus Christ were on earth again, forgiveness of sins would be on earth again.

OBJECTOR: Yes, but Jesus is now in heaven according to the Bible. So we can only find forgiveness in heaven with God—specifically with God’s Son, Jesus Christ. Jesus is our great high priest who intercedes for us with his Father, as it says in Hebrews 4:14 and 7:25.

CATHOLIC: I agree that Jesus can forgive our sins because he is our great high priest. But the Catholic faith says that Jesus’ priesthood was also given to men so that they could continue his earthly work of forgiving sins.

OBJECTOR: Where does the Bible say that?

CATHOLIC: In John 20:19–23. Let me read it: “On the evening of that day, the first day of the week, the doors being shut where the disciples were, for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them and said to them, ‘Peace be with you.’ When he had said this, he showed them his hands and his side. Then the disciples were glad when they saw the Lord. Jesus said to them again, ‘Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, even so I send you.’ And when he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.”

OBJECTOR: That’s an interesting passage, but it doesn’t say anything about Jesus giving his priesthood to men. I didn’t hear him say, “I make you priests.” And even if he did make them priests, he didn’t give them the power to forgive sins.

CATHOLIC: Then what do you think Jesus meant when he said in verse 23, “If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained”? To me, that sounds like he is giving the apostles authority to forgive sins.

OBJECTOR: He is giving them the authority to proclaim the gospel, which has the forgiveness of sins in it. The power to forgive is something he kept for himself. If sinners believe the gospel, they will receive forgiveness.

CATHOLIC: You must have read John Calvin’s interpretation of John 20:19–23, because that is exactly what he says about Jesus’ words. As you know, John Calvin was the Protestant Reformer of Geneva, Switzerland, who broke away from the Catholic Church in the early 1530s. In 1536 he published his famous Institutes of the Christian Religion in which he identified himself clearly as a Protestant. He was convinced that the Catholic Church was corrupt. And one of its worst corruptions, according to Calvin, was the presumption of a priest forgiving sins. That power was something that Christ reserved exclusively for himself, Calvin said.

OBJECTOR: I’ve never read John Calvin’s writings but it sounds like he was a pretty good thinker. He is absolutely right in thinking that Christ was authorizing the proclamation of the gospel and not the forgiveness of sins.

CATHOLIC: Calvin was a very attentive interpreter of the Bible and paid close attention to the details of the text, but in this text I don’t think he paid enough attention. In verse 23 Jesus says, “You forgive” and “you retain,” not “You proclaim forgiveness” or “You proclaim retention.” It seems that Calvin couldn’t take verse 23 for what it really says because he was prejudiced against the Catholic doctrine.

OBJECTOR: But you don’t know that. It’s not a very charitable judgment to say that he was prejudiced against the Catholic faith.

CATHOLIC: You may be right, but I think I can safely infer from Calvin’s many writings that he hated Catholic teachings. Perhaps he thought he had good reasons because he had seen so many abuses of the sacrament of confession. Whatever his motivation may have been, it seems clear that he did not pay close enough attention to verse 23. On the other hand, consider the use of this text that the Catholic Church makes in its formula of absolution.

OBJECTOR: What is a formula of absolution?

CATHOLIC: It’s the words that a priest uses to confer or convey the forgiveness of Christ once a person has confessed his sins. This absolution is based directly on Jesus’ words in John 20:19–23. It says, “God, the Father of mercies, through the death and resurrection of his Son, has reconciled the world to himself and sent the Holy Spirit among us for the forgiveness of sin, through the ministry of the Church. May God give you pardon and peace, and I absolve you from your sins in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen.”

OBJECTOR: I suppose any Christian would find those words beautiful, but I still don’t see how they are in the Bible or specifically in John 20:19–23.

CATHOLIC: Consider this. The formula reminds us that reconciliation is the plan of the Father in heaven when it says, “God, the Father of mercies . . . has reconciled the world to himself.” That is, the plan of salvation is not made up by the Church. The Church only proclaims what God has done. And further, this plan is accomplished “through the death and resurrection of his Son.”

OBJECTOR: I agree. God is the only Savior who in and through Christ’s death and resurrection has brought salvation into the world. But what does that have to do with a priest forgiving sin?

CATHOLIC: Think with me further. The formula of absolution wishes peace on the sinner with the words, “May God give you pardon and peace.” These words remind us of Jesus’ words in John 20:19 and 21, “Peace be with you.” Jesus wished peace on his followers. He also conferred that peace on them by giving them the Holy Spirit. This is what it means in John 20: 22, “He breathed on them and said to them, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit.’” The formula states this important role of the Holy Spirit when it says that God “sent the Holy Spirit among us for the forgiveness of sin.” The Holy Spirit is the active agent of bringing the forgiveness of Christ to sinners.

OBJECTOR: Okay. I agree that the Holy Spirit plays an important role in applying the forgiveness of Christ to sinners, but again that action is something only God can do. I don’t see anywhere in John 20:19–23 where a man is given authority to forgive the way your formula of absolution says.

CATHOLIC: Notice how in verse 21 Jesus says, “As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” In other words, Jesus is giving his apostles the same authority that he received from his Father. Now what authority did Jesus receive from God the Father? We saw earlier, in Mark 2:10, that he had the authority to forgive sins. Jesus brought the power of forgiveness from heaven to earth. So now, in John 20:21, he is giving that same authority to his apostles. And he is explicit about what he is giving them, “Whoever’s sins you forgive, they are forgiven.”

OBJECTOR: Ah ha. That’s where the Catholic Church makes its fatal mistake. God the Father gave Jesus that authority because he is God too. But a human priest is not God. Even the Catholic doesn’t say that a priest is God.

CATHOLIC: You’re right. A priest is not God, but the priest has the power to confer or convey the forgiveness of God—not by his own power but by the power that Christ conferred on his apostles that day recorded for us in John 20:19–23.

OBJECTOR: Yes, but didn’t your formula of absolution have the priest saying, “I absolve you from your sins in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit?” That sounds like it’s the priest who is doing the forgiving.

CATHOLIC: Yes, that’s what the formula says, but it says that because the priest is acting in the place of Christ. A priest’s authority to convey forgiveness does not come from himself. It comes from Christ. By the power of the Holy Spirit, the priest stands in the place of Christ to declare the sinner forgiven. That is why the formula of absolution uses the pronoun I. The I is Christ speaking through the human priest. If Jesus had not come to earth, there would be no forgiveness on earth, and if he had not conferred on the apostles this ministry of reconciliation” (2 Cor. 5:18), we would have no forgiveness today. But we can thank God that Christ did indeed come and that he passed on his authority to the Church to reconcile sinners to God.

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