Question:

It is my understanding that according to Catholic teaching, it is not the priest who forgives sins in the sacrament of reconciliation. It is Jesus. Also there are two aspects to confession, or reconciliation as it is called, and that is: 1. When we sin, we offend God. 2. When we sin we also hurt the Body of Christ which is the Church. So the priest also represents the Church. In other words, we are reconciled to God and to the Church which is the Body of Christ. The priest represents Jesus and the Body of Christ.

A priest does not decide what is a sin and what is not a sin. All sin is based on the ten commandments. If you would like to read about this for yourself, it is all there in the Catechism of the Catholic Church. You will find everything that the Catholic Church teaches if you google the catechism.

Now maybe you can help me, and I’m not being funny here, I am really trying to figure all this out without being biased. I did not understand the connection between John 20:23 and the examples of scripture you gave such as Jeremiah 1:10. From what I can see, in Jeremiah 1:9 it is stated that the Lord has “put my words in thy mouth.” I understand that to be referring to Jeremiah as a prophet, whereas in John 20:23 the scripture seems to clearly state that Jesus is giving the apostles authority to forgive sin or not. I’m reading from the King James version: “Whosesoever sins ye remit, they are remitted unto them; and whosesoever sins ye retain, they are retained.” I don’t see that as merely sending the apostles out to declare what God says is right and wrong, but rather it seems to me to say that the apostles actually have the authority to forgive sins or not.

I am not a Greek scholar, and I would imagine that you are not one either. Explanations concerning the Greek are not helpful to me since Catholics and non-Catholics both claim the other has misinterpreted the Greek. I don’t know what to think about all that. I think I understand Baptists to say that the authority ended with the apostles. But if that is true, and it wasn’t meant to be passed down in order to continue the work of Jesus here on earth, then what was the purpose? It is also my understanding that we are to read Scripture as literally as possible without a lot of interpretation that goes beyond what is written there. So, again, I see John 20:23 as stating that the apostles were given this authority to forgive sins or not.

Thank you for your help and consideration regarding this passage. God bless you.


Answer:

I find your question interesting since I scanned my web site and find that I only referenced Jeremiah 1:10 once and it wasn't in connection with the subject of priest forgiving sins. That would lead me to conclude that you are responding to what someone told you I said and had not read it directly yourself.

I will state up front that I don't play by rules people want to place upon me in answering questions. If referring to the Greek clarifies a matter, then I'll refer to the Greek. Lexicons and Greek grammar books are widely available so you are welcome to research any matter I raise to check the facts I present.

The point under discussion is not whether a priest decides what is sinful. The disagreement is whether a priest has the right to forgive sins that are not against himself. You claim that the priest doesn't forgive, but in Catholic Answers, we find:

"For sins committed after baptism, a different sacrament is needed. It has been called penance, confession, and reconciliation, each word emphasizing one of its.aspects. During his life, Christ forgave sins, as in the case of the woman caught in adultery (John 8:1–11) and the woman who anointed his feet (Luke 7:48). He exercised this power in his human capacity as the Messiah or Son of man, telling us, "the Son of man has authority on earth to forgive sins" (Matt. 9:6), which is why the Gospel writer himself explains that God "had given such authority to men" (Matt. 9:8). 

"Since he would not always be with the Church visibly, Christ gave this power to other men so the Church, which is the continuation of his presence throughout time (Matt. 28:20), would be able to offer forgiveness to future generations. He gave his power to the apostles, and it was a power that could be passed on to their successors and agents, since the apostles wouldn’t always be on earth either, but people would still be sinning." ["The Forgiveness of Sins", Catholic Answers].

The claim is that without a physical presence on earth, there would not be any forgiveness of sins. To Roman Catholics, the right to forgive sins was given to the apostles and then pass down through the priests of the Catholic Church.

"Priests have received from God a power that he has given neither to angels nor to archangels . . . . God above confirms what priests do here below" [John Chrysostom, De sac. 3, 5:PG 48,643].

"Were there no forgiveness of sins in the Church, there would be no hope of life to come or eternal liberation. Let us thank God who has given his Church such a gift." [Augustine, Sermo 213, 8:PL 38,1064]

"By Christ's will, the Church possesses the power to forgive the sins of the baptized and exercises it through bishops and priests normally in the sacrament of Penance" [Catechism of the Catholic Church, Article 10].

"If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained" (John 20:23). The biggest flaw in the claim is an unproven assertion. Christ is talking to the Apostles and gave them special authority. No one disputes this. But the Catholic Church claims that authority is passed down. That isn't stated here or elsewhere in the Scriptures. Instead, the Catholic Church uses flawed reasoning to say that if it wasn't passed down, then there can be no forgiveness on earth. Who says this? Only the Roman Catholics. It is certainly not so stated in the Bible. In fact, what we find in the Bible is: "If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, He is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness. If we say that we have not sinned, we make Him a liar, and His word is not in us. My little children, these things I write to you, so that you may not sin. And if anyone sins, we have an Advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous" (I John 1:8-2:1). A Christian prays to God and God forgives his sin. No priest is mentioned or involved.

The reason Greek gets involved in John 20:23 is because Greek has modes of speech which are not available to the English speaker. The Greek word apheontai is translated "they are forgiven" and the Greek word kekratentai is translated "they are retained" in the New King James Version. The problem is that the translation is imperfect because English doesn't have a good way to translate the passive perfect indicative modes, which these words are in. In English, the past tense is used to state that something happened in the past, but whether it was finished or not. "The Greek perfect describes an action that was brought to completion and whose effects are felt in the present." [William D. Mounce, Basics of Biblical Greek, p. 225]. For our example the forgiveness and retention of sins is something that was already completed and the effect is currently being felt.

The New American Standard gets a bit closer to the correct meaning, "If you forgive the sins of any, their sins have been forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they have been retained" (John 20:23). In other words, the disciples would be informing people of what has been already determined. They are not the ones making the determination.

Since you brought it up, Jeremiah 1:9-10 makes a good example of a similar expression that most find easier to understand. "Then the LORD put forth His hand and touched my mouth, and the LORD said to me: "Behold, I have put My words in your mouth. See, I have this day set you over the nations and over the kingdoms, to root out and to pull down, to destroy and to throw down, to build and to plant" (Jeremiah 1:9-10). Jeremiah is not setting up and pulling down kingdoms. That is something God does. Jeremiah's job is to announce what has already been determined. In the same way in John 20:23, God does determines who is forgiven and who is not. The disciples merely announce what was already determined by God. In a sense, they have the authority to enforce the rules God has announced.

What was the purpose? To lay out God's rules for salvation. To announce to the world what must be done to gain forgiveness. These rules do not change. They are recorded for us in the Bible and apply to everyone. When Paul announced, "Do you not know that the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived. Neither fornicators, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor homosexuals, nor sodomites, nor thieves, nor covetous, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor extortioners will inherit the kingdom of God. And such were some of you. But you were washed, but you were sanctified, but you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus and by the Spirit of our God" (I Corinthians 6:9-11), Paul had the authority to announce what sins were and that those who followed God's laws were forgiven. He wasn't giving his opinion; he was announcing what exists. He had the authority to do this because it was given to him as an Apostle by Christ.