When I met my wife, Sarah, she was a lapsed Catholic who had become an Evangelical Christian. Like most new couples, our dates involved the usual stargazing, romantic dinners, and dancing, as well as the not-so-usual Catholic apologetics. One wintry night as we were sipping coffee in my kitchen, Sarah fired away with three questions Evangelicals often pose to Catholics: Where in the Bible does Jesus give authority to men to forgive sins? Why can’t Catholics confess their sins directly to Jesus, the only mediator between God and us? Doesn’t sacramental confession deny that we have been justified through faith and made righteous by the redemptive blood of Jesus? Here’s how I answered:
If You Forgive Sins, They Are Forgiven
First, Jesus did give the power to forgive sins to human beings. In John 20:21–23, Jesus says, "As the Father has sent me, even so I send you." Then he breathed on them, saying, "Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained." This is the bedrock on which the sacrament of confession stands or falls.
The meaning of this passage is clear to Catholics: Jesus, who alone has the power to forgive or retain sins (Mark 2:10; Luke 5:24), transmits that power to the apostles. But Evangelicals usually have a different take on John 20:21–23. One of the most popular is that Jesus sent the apostles to preach the gospel and to inform hearers that if they have faith in him their sins are forgiven, and if they do not believe in him their sins are retained. This "preaching only" interpretation comes from reading John 20:21–23 in light of 1 Timothy 2:5, in which Paul says that Jesus is the one and only mediator between God and us. Because Evangelicals approach the text believing that Jesus could not have really given the apostles this power, they conclude that he instead commissioned them to preach about the forgiveness and retention of sins. The Evangelical then draws a parallel between John 20 and the "Great Commission" texts, as they are referred to by many Protestants, where Jesus commanded the apostles to "go into all the world and preach the gospel to the whole creation" (Mark 16:15; cf. Matt. 28:18–20, Luke 24:47). John was saying the same thing but using different words. To the Evangelical mind, John is saying, "Whoever believes the gospel, you can declare their sins to have already been forgiven through the preaching of the cross." Of course, that is not what the text says. Jesus clearly commissioned the apostles to carry out his ministry of reconciliation as his agents.
Priests Act In Persona Christi
But Paul teaches that Jesus is the one and only mediator between God and us (1 Tim. 2:5), so isn’t the priest an unnecessary intermediary? Shouldn’t Christians confess their sins directly to God?
Catholics do confess their sins directly to God both within and outside the confessional. Jesus advocated praying directly to the Father to ask forgiveness for our sins (Matt. 6:12), and Catholics do this communally at every Mass and in prayer groups, and individually during private prayer. But Catholics also believe that Jesus gave the Church a unique role in his ministry of reconciliation by entrusting it with his power to forgive and retain sins. It is useful to clarify what happens in the sacrament of confession. During confession, the priest perpetuates this ministry by acting in persona Christi, "in the person of Christ." In other words, when Catholics receive absolution from the priest for sins confessed, it is Jesus’ forgiveness that is granted, not the priest’s.
An essential principle of the ministerial priesthood is that God works through men who have a special spiritual role within the Church to communicate his grace and truth. Both Catholics and Evangelicals affirm Paul’s teaching that Jesus is the sole mediator between God and us, but Catholics recognize that Jesus was at liberty to allow his mediation to be worked through the apostles and their successors in the Church.
We see Jesus giving specific power to the apostles to perpetuate his presence and ministry not only in John 20:21–23 but also in other Gospel accounts: Jesus confers his authority to baptize, saying, "All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit" (Matt. 28:18–19); he also gives Peter and the apostles the power to teach and to excommunicate within the Church in a way that would be ratified in heaven (Matt. 16:18; 18:19).
Jesus chose to use the apostles as his instruments. Most Evangelicals will agree that this instrumentality is at work in their own pastors, who perform baptisms in their churches. In a similar way, God employs priests as ministers of forgiveness in the sacrament of confession.
By Our Love They Will Know Us
At the heart of the Evangelical tradition is the doctrine of justification by faith alone (sola fide), which says that once we accept Jesus as our personal savior in faith, we are clothed with his righteousness and forever righteous in his eyes. Because we are justified entirely by God’s grace, which we accept through faith, our past, present, or future sins have no bearing on our standing before him. Scriptural passages that Evangelicals use to support this belief include Paul’s references to justification by faith apart from the law in Romans 3:21–23 and 10:4.
Catholics and Protestants believe that we are justified by God’s grace through faith but differ on what that actually means. Evangelicals usually understand justification as a one-time historical event, but Catholics see it as a dynamic process of conversion that includes the forgiveness of sins and the interior renewal of the person (Catechism of the Catholic Church 2018). By our faith in Jesus and the unmerited grace that we receive in baptism, God comes to dwell within us. In doing so, God does not simply declare us righteous. He arms us with the power of his Holy Spirit to become truly righteous and reflect his love to the world.
The faith that justifies us, according to Catholic doctrine, is alive and expressed through love (Gal. 5:6), not just intellectual belief or personal trust. In Romans 3:21–23 and 10:4, which Catholics interpret differently than Evangelicals, Paul teaches that Jesus ushered in a new mode of justification—apart from the Mosaic law but not apart from good deeds, which James tells us are essential for justification (Jas. 2:24–26). In fact, Jesus says he will measure our righteousness by how well we have put our faith to work in acts of love for our neighbor (Matt. 25:37–40).
Unlike Evangelicals, Catholics believe that after baptism we can lose the grace of justification by sinning. Jesus is clear on this point. The wheat will be gathered into the master’s barn while the weeds will be burned (Matt. 13:30); the good fish will be kept while the bad ones will be thrown into the furnace (Matt. 13:47–50). Paul echoed Jesus’ teaching when he warned the Galatians, who were already baptized believers, that if they commit serious sins they "shall not inherit the kingdom of God" (Gal. 5:21). He also cautioned the Romans that those who perform wicked deeds will receive "wrath and fury" instead of eternal life (Rom. 2:7–8).
Living the Christian faith in love has always been easier said than done. Like Paul, sometimes we do evil instead of the good we want to do (Rom. 7:19). Even when we have professed our faith in Jesus and become regenerated by the Holy Spirit in baptism, at times we will separate ourselves from God by offending him. At these times, we are called to "be reconciled to God" (2 Cor. 5:20).
The sacrament of confession incarnates Jesus’ "ministry of reconciliation" (2 Cor. 5:18) so that we can walk together with God again after we have strayed away in sin. Like Evangelicals, Catholics affirm that Jesus’ love unto death was entirely sufficient to redeem us, but Catholics believe that it is precisely by the power of his redemptive blood that our personal reconciliation with God is then possible.
By virtue of the new covenant in Jesus, God’s mercy has been made available to us when we sincerely ask for forgiveness. Being reconciled with God means exercising our freedom to make a U-turn back to God in humility and love. Placing this process of conversion and forgiveness within the context of sacramental confession allows us to experience Jesus’ redemptive power in our own lives.
In the words of Pope John Paul II:
This reconciliation with God leads, as it were, to other reconciliations, which repair the other breaches caused by sin. The forgiven penitent is reconciled with himself in his inmost being, where he regains his innermost truth. He is reconciled with his brethren whom he has in some way offended and wounded. He is reconciled with the Church. He is reconciled with all creation (Reconciliation and Penance 31, 5).