Friday, September 7, 2012

How are sins forgiven? (1)

Over at the Jason Stellman thread at Green Baggins, I was asked by a Roman Catholic commenter, "How do you know God forgives your sins?"  Why the question?  Not being Roman Catholic and thus not availing myself of a priest in order to confess my sins and receive absolution, he truly wanted to know how I could be sure that my sins were forgiven. The whole thing hinges on the difference between the Protestant and Roman Catholic understanding of John 20:21-23 which reads,
So Jesus said to them again, Peace be with you; as the Father has sent Me, I also 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, their sins have been forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they have been retained.”
From these verses it's taken by Roman Catholics that Jesus gave the apostles the sole authority to hear the confession of sins and to forgive those sins.  And that that power has been transferred from the apostles through the laying on of hands, solely, to ordained Roman Catholic bishops and priests down through the centuries.  Thus, no confession given to an ordained Roman Catholic priest, no absolution of sins.

So in reference to the apostles, the question is, are Jesus' words referring to confessors who hear and absolve sin or to those who preach the gospel for the forgiveness of sins?  In other words, how are sins forgiven?  In order to be forgiven of one's sins by God, must one confess his sins to a priest?  Or does God grant forgiveness to those who approach Him directly, believing in Christ alone for forgiveness, trusting solely in the mercy of God proclaimed in the gospel?

In verse 21 Jesus says, "as the Father sent Me, I also send you."  He, the Apostle and high Priest of our confession, connects His sending by the Father with the sending of His apostles.  Their mission is to be a continuation of the apostolic, redemptive mission of Christ by being, not confessors, but witnesses of Jesus' finished work of the cross.  Looking at Luke 4:16-21, we see the inauguration of Jesus' ministry:
16 And He came to Nazareth, where He had been brought up; and as was His custom, He entered the synagogue on the Sabbath, and stood up to read. 17 And the book of the prophet Isaiah was handed to Him. And He opened the book and found the place where it was written,
18 The Spirit of the Lord is upon Me,
Because He anointed Me to preach the gospel to the poor.
He has sent Me to proclaim release to the captives,
And recovery of sight to the blind,
To set free those who are oppressed,
19 To proclaim the favorable year of the Lord.”
20 And He closed the book, gave it back to the attendant and sat down; and the eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on Him. 21 And He began to say to them, “Today this Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”
Jesus says He came to "preach the gospel... to proclaim release to the captives," i.e. bring good news.  How?  By the proclamation of Himself as the Son of God and in His death on the cross and His resurrection from the grave.  The proclamation of that Act is how captives, believing that good news, are released from the bondage of sin's guilt and shame.  But again considering the sending of the apostles, is the role of confessor previewed in Jesus?  To answer that, it's helpful to look at Luke 24:45-49, since this passage immediately precedes the events that unfold in the Acts of the Apostles:
Then He opened their minds to understand the Scriptures, and He said to them, Thus it is written, that the Christ would suffer and rise again from the dead the third day, and that repentance for forgiveness of sins would be proclaimed in His name to all the nations, beginning from Jerusalem. You are witnesses of these things.  And behold, I am sending forth the promise of My Father upon you; but you are to stay in the city until you are clothed with power from on high.”
In those last days before His ascension, Jesus opened up the Scriptures to the apostles in order for them to understand the good news of his death and resurrection of which they would speak and point to.  They were witnesses to His death and resurrection and were being sent by Jesus to preach that witness, and those two things uniquely qualified them to proclaim repentance for the forgiveness of sins in His name.

Now turning to Acts 2:37, where we find the first mention of forgiveness of sins after the coming of the Holy Spirit:  Peter said unto them, "Repent, and each of you be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins."  A few verses later we read that "all those who believed were together..."  So the first example of forgiveness of sins being offered by the apostles is Peter preaching the gospel for the forgiveness of sins.  Forgiveness of sins is connected to repentance, belief, and baptism.  No mention of confession to a priest or an apostle!

In Acts 3, we again see Peter as he preaches the gospel.  In his message he declares (verses 19, 26), 'Therefore repent and return, so that your sins might be wiped away, in order that times of refreshing may come from the presence of the Lord... God raised up His Servant and sent Him to bless you by turning every one of you from your wicked ways.'  A few verses later in Acts 4:4, Luke writes 'But many of those who had heard the message believed...'  Sins are "wiped away" as sinners repent and believe the gospel message they heard.  Peter's role is that of a preacher of the gospel.

A little later in Acts 5:27-32, standing before the Council, Peter and the apostles give a defense of their preaching Christ as Messiah:
When they had brought them, they stood them before the Council. The high priest questioned them, saying, “We gave you strict orders not to continue teaching in this name, and yet, you have filled Jerusalem with your teaching and intend to bring this man’s blood upon us.” But Peter and the apostles answered, “We must obey God rather than men.  The God of our fathers raised up Jesus, whom you had put to death by hanging Him on a cross. He is the one whom God exalted to His right hand as a Prince and a Savior, to grant repentance to Israel, and forgiveness of sins.  And we are witnesses of these things; and so is the Holy Spirit, whom God has given to those who obey Him.
The apostles stated that they must obey God rather than man.  And that obedience was to proclaim the gospel of Jesus Christ who died on the cross, whom God raised and exalted as Savior, by Whom repentance and forgiveness of sins be granted to Israel.

Finally, in Acts 10:43 we read Peter addressing the household of Cornelius, "Of Him all the prophets bear witness that through His name everyone who believes in Him receives forgiveness of sins."  While Peter was still speaking these words, the Holy Spirit fell upon those who were listening to the message.  Peter is bringing forgiveness of sins by proclaiming th gospel of Christ.  And that gospel includes the promise of forgiveness of sins to everyone who believes!

I could go on, but the point is clear.  We see no examples in Acts wherein the apostles present themselves as confessors for the forgiveness of sins or that forgiveness of sins is dependent upon a sinner confessing to an apostle.  If in John 20:23, Jesus' final mandate to the apostles was that sins were to be forgiven through them as confessors, then one would certainly expect some apostolic example of that in what followed.  Rather, what we see is that the power of forgiving or retaining sins is in the power of the gospel preached by the apostles.  To those who received and believed their message of Jesus crucified and risen, their sins were forgiven.  To those that rejected their gospel, their sins were retained.

[As a side note, the binding and loosing passage in Matthew 16:13-19 can be understood similarly, as it is consistent with the above.] 


  1. Jack,

    Just wanted to comment that I have read your post. Thank you for your thoughts. I don't think there is anything I can say that will convince you of my point so I will not try to argue with you here. I do appreciate your sharing though as I find other points of view interesting. Also, thanks for the dialog over at Green Baggins. Peace! Dennis.

  2. Dennis,

    I'm glad you stopped in to read my response to your question. You're probably right that neither of us will convince the other. And I don't think that is the bottom line. We are in two very different church traditions. My hope is not in a church or a confesion per se. But rather, my only hope, and I trust yours, is truly in the mercy of God offered in Christ Jesus, who bore my sins on the cross.


  3. Good article & web-site. Just stumbled across it. God bless you. Ecce, quam bonum! (Psalm 133) BCP

  4. If we depend on other men to forgive us and those men are sinners like we are, then we're in a world of trouble. Also, even if the apostles had that authority to forgive sins--which is doubtful--they are all dead. Apostolic sucession is false.