Today I was encountered by some Protestant who ignorantly said, “No man, no church, no religion can forgive sin.” I quoted him John 20:23 which says, “Whose sins you forgive are forgiven; whose sins you retain are retained.” He then told me this.
“That verse doesn’t say you can forgive sins because people confess to you like the Catholic priest do. You can not forgive someone else’s sin.. they have to go before God themselves.”
Let’s look at the verse. Upon entering the house, Jesus Christ breathed upon the Eleven and told them, “Receive the holy Spirit” and shortly after, “Whose sins you forgive are forgiven them, and whose sins you retain are retained” (John 20:22-23). What else could this possibly mean? Jesus Christ gives his closest disciples the authority to forgive sins not on a mere personal level but in a sacramental way, a way in which is binding in Heaven as they received this power upon receiving the Holy Spirit. Other similar passages make this clear that the clergy of the Church have the authority to forgive sins, an authority in which its effects are in Heaven and from Heaven as Jesus told Saint Peter and the Eleven, “Whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven; and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven” (Matthew 16:19, 18:18). Jesus gave the Eleven the power to expel demons and cure the sick in His Name (rf. Mark 6:13). So why not to forgive sins as well? We see the early Church taught sacramental confession in public.
“To all them that repent, the Lord grants forgiveness, if they turn in penitence to the unity of God, and to communion with the bishop . . .” ~ Saint Ignatius of Antioch (Letter to the Philadelphians 8:1)
We see that the Church practiced sacramental confession in which Christians came to the bishop, repenting of their sins in penitence.
“Some of these women make a public confession, but others are ashamed to do this, and in silence, as if withdrawing from themselves the hope of the life of God, they either apostatize entirely or hesitate between the two courses . . .” ~ Saint Irenaeus of Lyons (Against Heresies 1:22)
Here we see that some “make a public confession” and “others are ashamed to do this” and by doings so, those who “are ashamed to” publicly make a confession of one’s sins “apostatize entirely”, thus losing communion with God and the Church, thus are excommunicated and their sins “retained” as we saw in earlier passages. Saint Hippolytus wrote a prayer, perhaps for priestly ordination or episcopal consecration, saying that “by the high priestly Spirit he may have authority to forgive sins” (cf. Apostolic Tradition, no. 3).