The Catholic Church teaches that the Apostles were given the ability to forgive penitents of their sins. One of the frequent objections to this is that “It is blasphemy! Who can forgive sins but God alone?” (Mark 2:7; Luke 5:21; Matthew 9:3). That line’s from the Bible, but it’s the Scribes and Pharisees raising the objection. So it’s a bit like using the line “Eat, drink, and be merry!” without being aware that Jesus cited it negatively (Luke 12:19).
Nevertheless, the simple fact that this Protestant objection was originally a Pharisaic objection isn’t enough to disprove it.
CARM’s Matt Slick acknowledges the origins of the phrase, but claims (falsely) that Jesus affirmed it:
Jesus forgave sins, and the Scribes, the students of the Law, rightly stated that only God forgives sins. If they were wrong about that, then why didn’t Jesus correct them? Instead, He affirms their claim, states He has the authority to forgive sins, and then heals the paralytic. [….] So, John 20:23 is not saying that Catholic priests have the authority to forgive sins. It is saying that Christian disciples have the authority to pronounce what sins “have been forgiven.”
John MacArthur makes a similar argument, but actually spells out some reasons:
Only God can do this. It is an abomination. It is a perversion. It is sin for us to pervert what is right and what is wrong, what is just and what is unjust, what is innocence and what is guilt. For we have no way to cover sin. Only God can be the forgiver because He has provided the substitute sacrifice. He is the Holy One offended. He is the judge, the lawgiver, the executioner, the only one therefore with the power and authority to pardon the guilty sinner. And that is the message of Christianity. That is the singular heart and soul of the gospel, the good news, that God will forgive your sins.
So let’s take a look at the Scriptural passage, and you can see for yourself whether the Apostles were given the authority to forgive sins. Matthew 9:2-8 describes it this way:
And behold, they brought to him a paralytic, lying on his bed; and when Jesus saw their faith he said to the paralytic, “Take heart, my son; your sins are forgiven.” And behold, some of the scribes said to themselves, “This man is blaspheming.” But Jesus, knowing their thoughts, said, “Why do you think evil in your hearts? For which is easier, to say, ‘Your sins are forgiven,’ or to say, ‘Rise and walk’? But that you may know that the Son of man has authority on earth to forgive sins”—he then said to the paralytic—“Rise, take up your bed and go home.” And he rose and went home. When the crowds saw it, they were afraid, and they glorified God, who had given such authority to men.
So let’s recap:
- Jesus forgives the paralytic of his sins.
- The Scribes (Luke mentions the Pharisees as well) object that this idea of men forgiving sins is blasphemous.
- Jesus doesn’t respond by revealing His Divinity.
- Rather, He responds by claiming that He has the authority to forgive sins.
- Jesus proposes a test to prove that He has the ability to forgive sins: His ability to perform miraculous physical healings points to His ability to invisibly forgive sins.
- After He successfully heals the paralytic of his physical ailments, the people glory God for giving such authority to men.
So if the Apostles and their successors can forgive sins, what should we be looking for? First, we should look for some sign that Jesus passed on His authority. Second, we should look to see whether or not the Apostles could substantiate their alleged ability to forgive sins. So do we see those two things?
I. Does Christ Pass On His Own Authority?
After the Resurrection, we see at least three instances of Christ entrusting the Apostles with His own authority. First, there’s the end of Matthew’s Gospel (Matthew 28:18-20):
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, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you; and lo, I am with you always, to the close of the age.
In the Great Commission, the Apostles are (and by extension, the Church is) commissioned in Christ’s own authority.
Second, immediately before the Ascension, He says to them (Acts 1:6-8):
So when they had come together, they asked him, “Lord, will you at this time restore the kingdom to Israel?” He said to them, “It is not for you to know times or seasons which the Father has fixed by his own authority. But you shall receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you shall be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria and to the end of the earth.”
Jesus says of the Holy Spirit, in turn (John 16:13), “When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth; for he will not speak on his own authority, but whatever he hears he will speak, and he will declare to you the things that are to come.” So Christ is imparting His authority through the Holy Spirit at Pentecost.
This point shouldn’t be overlooked: although the Holy Spirit is Himself Divine, as the Third Person of the Holy Trinity, Christ presents Him as acting through Christ’s own authority. Compare this to John 8:28, in which He says: “When you have lifted up the Son of man, then you will know that I am he, and that I do nothing on my own authority but speak thus as the Father taught me.” So the Second Person of the Trinity acts on the Authority of the First, and the Third acts on the authority of the Second, and none of this implies that the Second or Third Persons are less omnipotent or Sovereign. It’s Divine humility, and might be part of the explanation for why Christ presents Himself as acting on authority, rather than directly claiming the sovereign authority to forgive sins.
Finally, and most specifically, we see Jesus empower and commission the Apostles on Easter Sunday itself, specifically giving them the authority to forgive sins (John 20:19-23):
On the evening of that day, the first day of the week, the doors being shut where the disciples were, for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them and said to them, “Peace be with you.” When he had said this, he showed them his hands and his side. Then the disciples were glad when they saw the Lord. Jesus said to them again, “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.”
Why does Christ claim the power to forgive sins? Because He has authority given to Him, as He is sent by the Father. And here, He sends the Apostles, and gives them the authority to forgive sins.
So that’s the first of the two things we should be looking for. What about the other?
II. Do the Apostles Perform Miracles?
If you’ve read the Book of Acts, you already know the answer to this. The Apostles are repeatedly presented as performing miracles, but there’s one in particular worth mentioning, Acts 3:1-10,
Now Peter and John were going up to the temple at the hour of prayer, the ninth hour. And a man lame from birth was being carried, whom they laid daily at that gate of the temple which is called Beautiful to ask alms of those who entered the temple. Seeing Peter and John about to go into the temple, he asked for alms. And Peter directed his gaze at him, with John, and said, “Look at us.” And he fixed his attention upon them, expecting to receive something from them. But Peter said, “I have no silver and gold, but I give you what I have; in the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, walk.” And he took him by the right hand and raised him up; and immediately his feet and ankles were made strong. And leaping up he stood and walked and entered the temple with them, walking and leaping and praising God. And all the people saw him walking and praising God, and recognized him as the one who sat for alms at the Beautiful Gate of the temple; and they were filled with wonder and amazement at what had happened to him.
So in the name of Jesus Christ — that is, in the Name of the One who gave them authority — Peter miraculously heals a man. Now recall Christ’s words, “For which is easier, to say, ‘Your sins are forgiven,’ or to say, ‘Rise and walk’? ”
Even the Scribes and Pharisees recognized that it would be absurd to say that Jesus could perform healing miracles but couldn’t forgive sins: the healing miracles are signs of the miraculous internal transformations brought about by forgiveness. But that’s exactly the kind of absurd mental contortion you would have to go through to claim that the Apostles could cause a lame man to walk, but couldn’t forgive his sins. In other words, to Jesus’ obviously-rhetorical “which is easier” question, you would have to give the answer He obviously didn’t intend; and that’s a refusal to believe that we don’t see even the Scribes or Pharisees willing to publicly commit.
The Scribes, Pharisees, and Protestants are right that it belongs to God, by right, to forgive sins, just as it belongs to God, by right, to heal the lame. But it would be an arbitrary restriction on God’s sovereignty if He couldn’t give others the authority to act in His Name. The Father gives such authority to the Son. The Son gives such authority to the Holy Spirit, and to the Apostles and the Church (it’s worth noting here in passing that in Luke 10:16, Jesus tells the Seventy He sends out, “He who hears you hears me, and he who rejects you rejects me, and he who rejects me rejects him who sent me”).
Sins aren’t forgiven in the priest’s own name, just as miracles aren’t performed in the priest’s own name. Here’s the formula for absolution:
God, the Father of mercies, through the death and resurrection of his Son has reconciled the world to himself and sent the Holy Spirit among us for the forgiveness of sins; through the ministry of the Church may God give you pardon and peace, and I absolve you from your sins in the name of the Father, and of the Son, + and of the Holy Spirit.
In other words, just as Peter worked the healing of the lame man in the Name of Jesus, the priest works the healing of the wounded soul in the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.