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Besides the Anglican Church (as far as I'm aware) no Protestant Church practices confession.

John 20:23 (ESV) says:

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

Jesus here is speaking to his 12 disciples.

Since Protestants don't hold the view that you need to confess your sins to anyone but God in order to receive forgiveness, why would Christ need to give the disciples the authority to forgive/not forgive sins?


Related but definitely not the same question: Protestant Interpretation of John 20:23 in Light of Matthew 9:8?

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  • Even if Jesus gave the apostles the ability to forgive or withhold forgiveness, that does not mean just anyone has this ability. Nor could one know for sure who else might also have this power. We know Jesus can forgive sins, so why isn’t that sufficient? Feb 14 at 4:00
  • @MattCremeens All you have done is restated why I ask my question. We do know that Jesus can forgive sins. So why did he give the disciples the ability to forgive sins? Even if that practice isn't continued today, what would be the reason behind it?
    – Luke Hill
    Feb 14 at 4:35
  • then this is a good question. I think I'm going to follow this post and see what answers you get. As an FYI, in the Presbyterian Church I grew up in, we did do a general confession as sort of a liturgy. Usually I appreciated it but sometimes I found myself accidentally confessing to sins I hadn't committed yet. My gut is telling me the answers you get will be something along the lines that Jesus enjoyed giving special powers to his apostles as a way of affirming their witness to the world of His purpose, power and might, both now and in the afterlife. Feb 14 at 15:26
  • @MattCremeens In relation to your comment at the end about "affirming witness" the ability to forgive sins wouldn't be necessary to do that. Evangelism doesn't require the ability of forgiveness in the sense of offering grace!
    – Luke Hill
    Feb 14 at 17:23
  • 1
    I don't think there is a protestant concensus. There are Anglicans and Lutherans (at a minimum) who count Confession/Absolution/Reconciliation as sacramental or even a Sacrament.
    – bradimus
    Feb 14 at 18:53

4 Answers 4

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It is likely that Jesus, here in John 20:23, is not conferring authority or some special ability on a select few but is elucidating a responsibility to them which resides in all who receive the Holy Spirit.

The following, from Abarim Publications treats ἀφίημι, which the KJV renders as remit:

our verb may describe a not minding something or letting something pass or permitting someone to do something (Matthew 3:15). It's in this sense that this verb describes the Father's attitude toward our debts and trespasses: he doesn't simply forgive and forget, but allows people to temporarily act immaturely to give them a chance to find righteousness and cling to it. Only in that case all previous failings are expunged, but those who do not arrive at righteousness will surely be presented with the bill they have run up during their lives. The famous unforgivable sin against the Holy Spirit (Matthew 12:32, Mark 3:29, Luke 12:10) is based on precisely that principle: the Holy Spirit leads people to righteousness and going against the Holy Spirit is mathematically equal to not going to where forgiveness happens. It's a logical consequence, not a penalty, and also shows how Matthew 6:12-15 ties into Isaiah 43:25 and Romans 4:7 but also Matthew 12:36 and John 5:29. In this same sense, the power that the Son of Man has to "disregard" sins may not be shared by the person who offers to "remove" a speck of dust from a brother's eye (Matthew 7:4). Apparently, it requires serious spiritual powers to truly allow someone to find their own way to perfection, and on their way remain safe from the "help" of faultfinders, who are really self-appointed judges in disguise. Ultimately, no one other than the Creator has a say in who made it and who didn't, and until then we are prudent to realize that we're all on this journey together. The primary principle of consciousness is that it consists of things it is conscious of. In other words: when you see a speck in your brother's eye you are actually seeing a beam in your own. Had you had no beam in your eye, you would not have noticed the speck in your brother's. The healthy attitude toward both speck and beam is of course neither denial nor cover up, but confession and contrition.

We are to forgive as we have been forgiven by God in Christ. The Lamb of God has taken away the sin of the world and who are we to retain any of it. Shall we receive forgiveness of our un-payable debt of sin against God Almighty and then turn and choke our fellow servants for some sin against ourselves which, as far as the divine economy is concerned, has been taken away by the Lamb?

Then came Peter to him, and said, Lord, how oft shall my brother sin against me, and I forgive him? till seven times? Jesus saith unto him, I say not unto thee, Until seven times: but, Until seventy times seven. Therefore is the kingdom of heaven likened unto a certain king, which would take account of his servants. And when he had begun to reckon, one was brought unto him, which owed him ten thousand talents. But forasmuch as he had not to pay, his lord commanded him to be sold, and his wife, and children, and all that he had, and payment to be made. The servant therefore fell down, and worshipped him, saying, Lord, have patience with me, and I will pay thee all. Then the lord of that servant was moved with compassion, and loosed him, and forgave him the debt. But the same servant went out, and found one of his fellowservants, which owed him an hundred pence: and he laid hands on him, and took him by the throat, saying, Pay me that thou owest. And his fellowservant fell down at his feet, and besought him, saying, Have patience with me, and I will pay thee all.  And he would not: but went and cast him into prison, till he should pay the debt. So when his fellowservants saw what was done, they were very sorry, and came and told unto their lord all that was done. Then his lord, after that he had called him, said unto him, O thou wicked servant, I forgave thee all that debt, because thou desiredst me: Shouldest not thou also have had compassion on thy fellowservant, even as I had pity on thee? And his lord was wroth, and delivered him to the tormentors, till he should pay all that was due unto him. So likewise shall my heavenly Father do also unto you, if ye from your hearts forgive not every one his brother their trespasses. - Matthew 18:21-35

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This is from a footnote in my ESV Bible and I trust it represents the majority protestant position on this verse.

The expressions they are forgiven and it is withheld both represent perfect-tense verbs in Greek and could also be translated, "they have been forgiven" and "it has been withheld," since the perfect gives the sense of completed past action with continuing results in the present. The idea is not that individual Christians or churches have authority on their own to forgive or not forgive people, but rather that as the church proclaims the gospel message of forgiveness of sins in the power of the Holy Spirit (see v. 22), it proclaims that those who believe in Jesus have their sins forgiven, and that those who do not believe in him do not have their sins forgiven--which simply reflects what God in heaven has already done.

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  • I simply don't see the necessity of making this claim then. Jesus could have said "Tell them that the Lord will forgive them if they believe and will not if they do not." It seems incredibly odd to give the ascription of power.
    – Luke Hill
    Feb 14 at 19:50
  • For what it's worth, the Amplified Bible appears to attempt to word it in a way that makes this idea more clear (much in the same way you just did in your comment: "If you forgive the sins of anyone they are forgiven [because of their faith]; if you retain the sins of anyone, they are retained [and remain unforgiven because of their unbelief].” I gave you a +1 as I think it's a very good question that got me thinking and I appreciate your desire to get at the truth behind the words. Feb 14 at 20:13
  • I think this is going in the right direction. Jesus told them at another point to wipe the dust of a town that would not receive them from their sandals as a testimony against them. Feb 14 at 21:20
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I will give a Lutheran view, in which both private & public confessions occurs with absolution. The former is done most often in private counseling sessions where inner (emotional) healing needs to occur. Although, there are also Lutheran churches that set aside time for private confession and a few even have confessional booths.

In the Augsburg Confession, the official position of the Lutheran church states:

... private absolution should be retained and not allowed to fall into disuse.

On a typical Sunday morning, following a time of public confession, a Lutheran pastor will say the following:

As a a called & ordinated minister...I (announce) forgive you all your sins in the name of the Father, Son & Holy Spirit.

Note that the words are not "may you be forgiven" or "we forgive you." Rather, it is an unconditional focus on the objective grace of forgiveness proclaimed through the spoken word.

In the Lutheran view of the Rite of Absolution, the pastor is acting persona Christi in proclaiming God's forgiveness. The reception of the Word of forgiveness is independent of how one feels and is not dependent on how well a person owns up to their shortcomings. Psalm 19:12 states: "Who can understand his errors?" The Lutheran Augsburg Confession states:

Our churches teach that private absolution should be retained in the churches, although listing all sins is not necessary for Confession. For, according to the Psalm, it is impossible. "Who can discern his error?"

The Lutheran theologian, George Stoeckhardt, writes:

A believing Christian does not make the pulse of his faith-life the criterion of his state of grace... The believer rather makes this conclusion: O, how godless I still am. Out of my heart godless thoughts continue to arise. There is no doubt but that I am a poor, unworthy sinner. My sin is ever before me. But now God’s Word tells me, that God has already declared godless Sinners righteous. Thus I belong without any doubt whatsoever in the number of those whom God justifies (St. Römerbrief, p. 185).

The focus of absolution in the Lutheran tradition is that, in confession, the penitent makes an act of contrition and the pastor acting in persona Christi announces the formula of absolution.

It's like having the charismatic gifts of healing and being prompted by the Holy Spirit to speak forth to that person in need, "be healed in the name of Jesus." This is why in the Lutheran tradition the laying on of hands often occurs at the same time as private absolution is given.

The proclaimed Word of God does the work of inner healing. In absolution there is not only an impartation of the Holy Spirit to work forgiveness, but healing gifts (including deliverance) are given as well. That is why Martin Luther said, "...where sins are forgiven, there is life and salvation as well."

Martin Luther once observed:

To be convinced in our hearts that we have forgiveness of sins and peace with God by grace alone is the hardest thing.

Luther also writes:

Sins are forgiven in two ways: First, sin is driven out of the heart and grace is poured in; only God does this. Second, the forgiveness of sins is proclaimed; one man does this to another. Christ, however, does both: He puts the Spirit into the heart and outwardly proclaims it with words. This is a proclamation and public preaching of the inward forgiveness.

Jesus says, "if you withhold forgiveness from any, it is withheld.” In the Lutheran tradition, if people don't want to confess their need for God's salvation, that is their problem. It's not like a pastor is saying "go to hell" to all those who don't confess. Rather, people who reject God's forgiveness self exclude themselves on their own from God's reconciling grace of having life in His presence.

Luther's little comment at the end of his exhortation to Confession in his Large Catechism defines the Rite of Confession & Absolution in terms of grace:

If you were a Christian then you ought to be happy to run more than a hundred miles to Confession and not let yourself be urged to come. You should rather come and compel us to give you the opportunity. For in this matter the compusion must be the other way around: we must act under orders, you must come into freedom. We pressure no one, but we let ourselves be pressured, just as we let people compel us and administer the Sacrament. (LC V. 30-31)

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Christians are called to follow in the footsteps of Jesus.

Simply put, disciples learn at the feet of the teacher so that they can go out and do what the teacher does. As Christians, we are called upon to act in the manner of Christ, and in so doing, assume His authority. That includes the forgiveness of sins. As this verse shows, we are given the authority to forgive sins, as Jesus does. As Matthew 6:14-15 shows, we are also called upon to forgive all those who sin against us, as Jesus does:

For if you forgive other people when they sin against you, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive others their sins, your Father will not forgive your sins.

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  • So then why would Jesus include the part about “withholding forgiveness”? It seems like he wouldn’t want his disciples to withhold sins or they wouldn’t be forgiven (under your answer)
    – Luke Hill
    Feb 13 at 22:31
  • @LukeHill To make it clear what the correct course of action is.
    – nick012000
    Feb 13 at 22:34
  • Except Jesus specifically allows his followers to not forgive, and "fails" to mention the consequences.
    – Luke Hill
    Feb 13 at 22:36
  • @LukeHill, the Lord gives His disciples free will. They are free to forgive and withhold sin. But in doing so, they open themselves up to not being forgiven by God. But when filled with the Holy Spirit who is Jesus, our God and Father as stipulated in Isaiah 9, God may see the true state of the sinful person and what is in them, and it will be the Holy Spirit who acts to forgive or withhold.
    – user52134
    Jun 21 at 20:41

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