by Sebastian R. Fama

In John 20:21-23, we find Jesus saying the following to his apostles: "'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.'"

These verses refer to what Catholics call Confession or the Sacrament of Reconciliation. Those who object to the Catholic view of this passage usually contend that Jesus was simply speaking about believers forgiving those who have wronged them. Such a view is impossible for two reasons. The first reason is that Jesus qualifies His statement. He starts off by saying, "As the Father has sent me, even so I send you." This raises the question, in what manner was Jesus sent to forgive? Mark 2:5-12 gives us the answer:

And when Jesus saw their faith, He said to the paralytic, "My son, your sins are forgiven." Now some of the Scribes were sitting there, questioning in their hearts, "Why does this man speak thus? It is blasphemy! Who can forgive sins but God alone?" Jesus, knowing what they were thinking, said in part, "But that you may know that the Son of man has authority on earth to forgive sins," -- He said to the paralytic, "I say to you, rise, take up your pallet and go home." And he rose, and immediately took up the pallet and went out before them all.

Jesus didn't need to perform a miracle to show that He could forgive someone of a personal offense. The forgiveness spoken of is the forgiveness that makes salvation possible.

The second reason that John 20:21-23 does not refer to believers forgiving others who have wronged them, is that we are not given the option of retaining anyone's sins. In fact, our own forgiveness is dependent on our forgiving others. Jesus tells us this very thing in Matthew 6:14-15: "For if you forgive men their trespasses, your heavenly Father also will forgive you. But if you do not forgive men their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses."

The only time sins would be retained, is when there is an obvious lack of repentance. The fact that they could forgive or retain means that they would have to know what the sins were, and the disposition of the person in question. That could only happen if the person were to tell or confess his sins to the apostle. Furthermore, if this function were necessary in the first century it would be equally important today.

The Didache, written between 70 and 150 AD, records the following: "Confess your sins in church, and do not go up to your prayer with an evil conscience. This is the way of life" (4:14). Cyprian, writing in the year 251, wrote that "Whoever eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord unworthily will be guilty of the body and blood of the Lord. But [the impenitent] spurn and despise all these warnings before their sins are expiated, before they have made a confession of their crime, before their conscience has been purged in the ceremony and at the hand of the priest" (The Lapsed 15:1-3).

Can only those confessing to a priest be forgiven? Certainly not. Confession is the normal means but not the only means. If someone were to die suddenly without confessing to a priest, all would not necessarily be lost. If the person died truly sorry for his or her sins and desired God's forgiveness, forgiveness would be granted. So why bother with Confession? Well for one because Jesus says so. But also because of the graces that we receive when we are absolved, - graces that help us avoid sin in the future.

It is easy to understand why someone might not want to go to Confession. While we don't mind admitting that we are not perfect, we often have a problem admitting to specific faults. Admitting them to our pastor is even less desirable. But we need not fear, for he is also a sinner. Let us remember also, that God is there to help us. As the scripture says, He gives grace to the humble (1 Peter 5:5).

We seem to have a natural need to confess. Quite often we will discuss our misdeeds with a friend. Why not discuss them with a priest, as Jesus commanded, and receive forgiveness as well as consolation?

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