When the risen Saviour appeared to his disciples after his resurrection, he entrusted them with an important mission. He commissioned them to make known God’s mercy to the world, by the power of the Holy Spirit. This is what he told them: “If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you withhold forgiveness from any, it is withheld” (John 20:23).
The Lord, who alone has the prerogative to forgive sins, gave to the disciples the responsibility to forgive! How was this to be done? What was the role of the apostles and disciples in this regard? The correct answer is not to be found in human opinion or church tradition, but in the very Word of God. The same Scripture which teaches that the disciples forgave sins also informs us how this was actually done. It leaves nothing open or to our imagination.
The Gospel according to Luke also mentions the mission with which Jesus entrusted his followers. Furthermore, it elaborates how they were required to forgive. "Thus it is written, that the Christ should suffer and on the third day rise from the dead, and that repentance and forgiveness of sins should be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem. You are witnesses of these things” (24:46-48). So the early disciples proclaimed or preached repentance and forgiveness in the name of Christ, and so many people obtained deliverance from their guilt as they embraced the gospel by faith.
The Acts of the Apostles confirms this fact. Peter preached that “to him all the prophets bear witness that everyone who believes in him receives forgiveness of sins through his name” (10:43). The apostle Paul expresses the same conviction: “Let it be known to you, therefore, brothers, that through this man forgiveness of sins is proclaimed to you, and by him everyone who believes is freed from everything from which you could not be freed by the law of Moses” (13:38-39).
From the very start, Christ’s followers forgave people by the preaching of the gospel. Those who rejected the message and disbelieved were warned that they are still lost in their sins, but those who accepted the good news were assured of their forgiveness from God. They were told, “your sins are forgiven for his name’s sake” (1 John 2:12).
One may respond, “True, God forgives a person who hears the gospel and believes in Christ. But what about sins committed after conversion? Didn’t the apostles also have the role to hear confession, give absolution and assign deeds of penitence?”
Once again it is wise to search the answer in the pages of the New Testament. Nowhere do we read in the Acts or the epistles that the early church leaders practised auricular confession, or taught Christians to confess to a priest. There is no record that they gave absolution or penitence.
This does not mean that Christians didn’t confess their sins. It is well-known that they admitted their faults with each other, as is proper, and forgave one another (James 5:16; Ephesians 4:32). But this is a far cry from confession to a priest. More importantly, Christians appealed directly to God the Father for his forgiveness. Jesus himself taught them to pray: “Our Father who art in heaven ... forgive us our sins as we also forgive those who sin against us” (Matthew 6:9-12). The all-knowing God, who searches the heart, certainly hears the cry of his children and forgives them.
What shall be your choice? You may seek forgiveness by confessing to a priest and do penance, even though this practice isn’t taught in Scripture. Or else, you may obey God’s Word, repent of your sins and trust in his Son Jesus Christ to find peace with God. Then, along your way as his disciple, you should seek daily God’s paternal forgiveness through your prayers. Of all the decisions you have to make throughout your life, this must be one of the greatest.
Further Reading: The Forgiveness of Sins