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(Last Updated: 11 Jun 2000 )
"…If you forgive men's sins, they are forgiven them, if you hold them bound, they are held bound",
meaning that Jesus has given the Apostles the power to either forgive or to hold bound the sins of men. And quite obviously in order to forgive (or to hold bound) a man's sins they need to be told just what the sin is. To which my friend replied "I don't get it". My attempts to make it clearer were at the time woefully insufficient, and it has since given me cause to research the topic further, to increase my understanding, but also to aid in a fuller explanation. What follows is the fruit of my continuing study in this and other aspects of the Catholic faith.
For the reason that my original
conversation was with a Christian holding to "Sola Scriptura" (Scripture
Alone as the basis for faith and practice), the following is based on Bible
In looking further into this
issue a number of questions occurred to me:
In John 8:1-11, a women caught in the act of adultery is brought before Jesus. Jesus challenges "Let him who is without sin among you be the first to throw a stone". When no one condemns her, Jesus forgives her with the counselling words "do not sin again".
To quote the Catechism of the
Catholic Church, #1441:
'Only God forgives sins (cf. Mark 2:7). Since he is the Son of God, Jesus says of himself "the Son of man has authority on earth to forgive sins" and exercises this divine power: "Your sins are forgiven." Further, by virtue of his divine authority he gives this power to men to exercise in his name.'
There are repetitive accounts throughout the Gospels of Jesus forgiving the sins of the repentant. The forgiveness of sins by Jesus was common. But a direct and up front comment as to Jesus forgiving sin as man is found in Matthew 9:1-8 (this is well worth looking up and book-marking):
"…when the crowds saw it, they were afraid, and they glorified God, WHO HAD GIVEN SUCH AUTHORITY TO MEN." (emphasis added)
Take very careful note for future reference as this discussion develops, the last word in verse 8 is men. This we all know is a plural, and Jesus was but one man. (Makes you wonder if there is perhaps a little bit more going on here than you'd think at first glance). :-)
In Mark 2:10 we are told that the son of MAN (Jesus) has the authority to forgive sin.
Throughout the Gospels we find numerous testaments
to Jesus' human-ness, from his temptation in the desert, to his torment
in the garden. Jesus experienced very real human trials, ("…
remove this cup from me…", [Mk 14:36])
and it is precisely this that made his sacrifice so beautifully perfect.
If we look to Matthew 16:19 we see the first instance where Jesus delegates his forgiving power to one of his disciples (Simon, from then on known as Peter)
"I will give you the keys to the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven".
Now there's a whole lot happening here, both in this verse, and in the verses immediately preceding it. For the sake of expediency, matters that are only of immediate concern to the topic in debate will be considered here.
We are told that Peter is being given the keys to Christ's kingdom. At this point refer back to the start of Matthew's Gospel (Matt 1:1-16) and you will see the genealogy of Christ, and how Matthew traces his lineage directly back to David, the founder of the Davidic kingdom of the Old Testament. Now without going into the details of the governance of David's kingdom, it is sufficient to note that there was an office of stewards who would run the kingdom during the absence of the king. These stewards were given the keys to the city, and therefore the authority to lock people out or to let people in. David's descendant, Jesus, is reestablishing the kingdom, but his kingdom will last forever. Jesus, knowing that he wouldn't be on earth forever, reestablishes the office of stewards, with Peter as the first, followed in an unbroken chain to John Paul II today¹, and continuing into the future until Jesus comes again. Accordingly Jesus is giving his stewards the keys to his kingdom, along with the authority to let people in, or to keep them out. Essentially to pardon people of their sins, or to hold them bound by them.
Still the most important, perhaps the most obvious, and in fact the one which I've mentioned right at the start of this piece, is found in chapter 20 of John's Gospel, it is in two parts:
John 20:21 - "as the Father sent me, so am I sending you"
Here we find Jesus charging the Apostles to continue his ministry on earth after his ascension into heaven. Part of that ministry as we've already seen was the forgiveness of sin. (Could this also mean a transfer of Jesus's power and authority?). But it doesn't stop here, let's read on.
John 20:22 - "And when he said this, he breathed on them, and said to them, 'Receive the Holy Spirit.'"
In this situation Jesus is being very precise so that there can be no misunderstanding. Make no mistake, this is an important pronouncement that confirms a granting of authority onto the shoulders of the Apostles. But as is often the case there is more to this statement than the obvious, we need to delve deeper. The scene is set with the Apostles locked in a room fearful of the Jewish community which, quite recently, saw to the crucifixion of Jesus. Into this locked room comes Jesus, the walls and the locks are no barrier to the presence of Jesus. Upon entering the room, and before his pronouncement, Jesus breathes on the Apostles. If we look through the Bible we find that there is only one other occasion in which the breath of God is mentioned. And that is right at the start of the Old Testament, in Genesis, we God breathes life into the first man, Adam. And so the act of breathing is in itself a hugely symbolic act, resulting in the giving of life. It could be argued that Jesus is breathing new life into the Apostles, preparing them to take on the burden of his ministry. Or perhaps we could view the act of breathing as a signal of the importance of the statement to come.
John 20:23 - "If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained".
This verse requires little explanation, here Jesus is clearly delegating his authority on earth to the Apostles. Here he is unambiguously bestowing upon the Apostles the ability to forgive sin, or to hold people bound by their sin. To my way of thinking Jesus could have just as easily said:
"…receive the Holy Spirit. And go forth and instruct the people to confess their sins to God, their Father in heaven".²
But he didn't. He sent out the Apostles to hear men's sins, and forgive them as appropriate. He sent out the Apostles to hear men's sins. To hear men's sins (sorry to labor the point). :-)
Unlike the previous case where Peter was singled out individually, here the whole body of the Apostles are given the authority.
Again in Matthew 18:18 some now familiar words are uttered:
"Truly, I say to you, whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven".
These are not the only times that Jesus bestows
a greater authority onto one of his disciples, but in this context they
are perhaps the most important. From these we are able to see that not
only can sins be forgiven by man (Jesus), but that sins can be forgiven
by men (the Apostles). Which brings us to the next question.
We have established already that Jesus reinstated the office of stewards, and it has been mentioned that the task of the stewards was to see to the running of the kingdom in the absence of the king. As such it would be folly to suggest that the office of stewards would cease with the death of the first steward (unless the king has returned, and I think that we would all know about it if that had happened). Therefore it leads to the conclusion that the office given over to Peter, along with the authority of that office, must continue until the second coming of Christ. This however is merely logical progression, and may not make a convincing argument. So let's again look to the words of scripture.
"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, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you; and lo, I am with you always, to the close of the age."
Here the eleven disciples are told to "make disciples of all nations", that's a lot of disciples to continue on with their ministry. "[A]nd lo, I am with you always…", this is disjointed statement in so far as in the start of verse 19 Jesus is speaking to the eleven disciples, then between the 19th and the 20th verse Jesus is talking about the disciples that are to be made of "all nations" (new subject matter), then as a continuation Jesus says that he will be "with you always", talking about the disciples made of "all nations". And so in this context the last earthly disciple will be at the end of time.
Which leads on to the final
In James 5:14-16 we see a recommendation that the sick be taken to the elders to be prayed for that they may be made well and that their sins will be forgiven.
Look also to Luke 10:16
"He who hears you hears me, and he who rejects you rejects me, and he who rejects me rejects him who sent me"
Saint John Chrysostom, one of the early Church Fathers, puts it well:
"Priests have received a power which God has given neither to angels nor to archangels. It was said to them: 'Whatsoever you shall bind on earth shall be bound in heaven; and whatsoever you shall loose, shall be loosed.' Temporal rulers have indeed the power of binding; but they can only bind the body. Priests, in contrast, can bind with a bond which pertains to the soul itself and transcends the very heavens. Did [God] not give them all the powers of heaven? 'Whose sins you shall forgive,' he says, 'they are forgiven them; whose sins you shall retain, they are retained.' What greater power is there than this? The Father has given all judgment to the Son. And now I see the Son placing all this power in the hands of men" (The Priesthood 3:5 [A.D. 387]).
A similar citation, apparently from St Augustine, is found in Jude Mbukanma's book Is it in the Bible?:
"Let no one say: I confess my sins secretly to God, it is enough that He who is to forgive me knows the penance I make in my heart. If this were the case, Jesus would not have sent the Lepers (Luke 17:11-14) to the Priests nor would He have said to the Apostles: That which you will loose on earth will be loosed in Heaven. If God had given us the power to open Heaven by ourselves, His having given the keys to the Church would be useless. It is not enough to confess ourselves to God, therefore, but we must confess ourselves to those who received from Him the power to loose and bind."
Jesus saw fit to forgive sins, he also saw fit to grant this authority to his followers, an authority which continues to this day. We do well to follow Jesus' lead and go to his ministers for forgiveness.³ This was the practice which Jesus set in place.
And if nothing else then to confess our sins to a fellow man provides for a good lesson in humility. :-)
I do hope that this piece will prove to be
useful in aiding understand of a peculiar Catholic doctrine, maybe it will
prompt further questions, maybe it will prompt the reader to do some research
of their own. In the course of this article a number of other issues have
been raised, and these will need to be dealt with in due course. If any
questions do arise then please feel free to direct them to me and I'll
do my best to provide a suitable answer.
31 May 2000
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