Tuesday, August 20, 2013

Can A Priest Absolve Sins?

A couple weeks ago this happened near my hometown:

Eventually they found the mystery priest (aptly named Father Dowling):

There is one statement from Dowling’s interview that I want to address today; namely, his claim to have been given the power to absolve this young lady of her sins.

Where does such power come from?

How in the world is a priest given the power to absolve sin? I thought only Jesus could forgive sins. Do you get bitten by a radioactive spider? Do you put on a black shirt and a collar, and declare yourself a sin-forgiver? Does this belief actually come from the Bible?

If you ask a Roman Catholic priest he will say that the power to absolve sin was given to the apostles (and their successors) in John 20:23. Here we read Jesus saying,

If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you withhold forgiveness from any, it is withheld.”

The Catholic prayer of absolution is based on this passage. A Catholic priest does not believe that he, in and of himself, has the power to forgive sins. It is a power that has been granted to him as a priest. He is a representative of the forgiven Christ. Christ alone forgives sin. But as he now reigns from heaven he does so through His Spirit working through His servants (priests).

Therefore, when a priest declares you forgiven you are indeed forgiven. You can have certainty because Christ has given His power (through the sacrament of penance) to His representatives.

A Protestant Response

I am not convinced by the Catholic interpretation of John 20:23. In order to accept this interpretation one would also have to accept the doctrine of apostolic succession. Because I believe in the priesthood of all believers I would have to say that the power to absolve sin (or to withhold forgiveness) was in the power of every believer, and that is not something that I find in the Scriptures.

Secondly, there is an assumption behind such a prayer. That assumption is that our sins are not all forgiven upon the moment of justification. Catholic doctrine denies that at the moment of conversion we are forgiven all sins: past, present, and future. This seems to me to deny our union with Christ. When Christ “canceled the record of debt” that stood against believers our sins were future. And yet they are forgiven. This because of our union with Christ—all that He has accomplished is given to us. Therefore, you and I do not need a priest to do for us what Christ has already done.

Which leads me to ask where is faith? Where is the gospel? Nowhere in Acts do I see the apostles doing anything similar to the Catholic practice of absolution of sins. They are not praying over people and saying, “your sins are forgiven”. They are doing the same thing that Jesus did—proclaiming the coming kingdom and saying, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand”. Upon reception of the gospel through faith then you might read something about declaring people forgiven.

Therefore, the rest of the Scriptures cause me to be unable to accept the Catholic interpretation of John 20:23.

So what is John 20:23 saying?

As I go about answering that question I want to be careful not to read the practice of absolution (either pro or con) into the text. This text really speaks to our union with Christ. It is here that we (the Bride of Christ) are empowered. It’s not mechanical, it’s not removed from the person of Christ or the work of the Spirit.

It’s not as if we go about proclaiming forgiveness apart from faith in the risen Christ. No, this is proclaiming the risen Christ. And when someone comes to know Christ the church through baptism and membership declares (not mechanically) that “their sins are forgiven”.

You can see the difference in the way that a Protestant and a Catholic discuss the Scriptures. You ask, “How do you know that the gospel of Mark is Scripture?”

Catholic: The Gospel of Mark is Scripture because the Church has declared it so.
Protestant: The Gospel of Mark is Scripture, therefore the Church declared it so.

There is a world of difference between the two.

Now to our question at hand. How do you I know that my sins are forgiven?

Catholic: My sin is forgiven because the Church has declared it so.
Protestant: My sin is forgiven, therefore the Church has declared it so.

I believe this is backed up by the past tense of “they are forgiven” and “it is withheld”. Those are past action with continuing results. Jesus is not telling us here to go about forgiving sins or to withhold forgiveness. Jesus is commissioning us to go and proclaim the gospel and to do so with the confidence that He is with us, working through us, and still shepherding His church from heaven.

For there is one God, and there is one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus…run to him.


  1. The priest says these words:
    "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. Amen."

    That is the form used for a 'confession' by my Church.

    Here is the form used by a priest if someone is actually injured and dying: (sorry for any ads, but this 'drama' does show the form)

    please know that 'annointing' of the sick is also biblical and is an ancient practice of Christians

    the priest does not 'forgive' in his own name . . . that is impossible, so the implication that he does that is false . . . he is a servant of Christ and is following the Scripture to the best of his belief in the Name of the Lord

    1. Where did I say that the priest "forgives" in his own name? I remember writing the exact opposite. Noting that in Catholic belief he is doing so as a representative of Christ.



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