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Can the Church forgive sins?


"Who can forgive sins but God alone?" -Mark 2:7 RSV


Jesus Christ forgives sins

Jesus, in His earthly ministry, demonstrated His authority to forgive sins.

When Jesus saw their faith, he said to the paralyzed man, "My son, your sins are forgiven." Now some of the scribes were sitting there asking themselves: "Why does the man talk in this way? He commits blasphemy! Who can forgive sins except God alone?" Jesus was immediately aware of their reasoning, though they kept it to themselves, and he said to them: "Why do you harbor these thoughts? Which is easier, to say to the paralytic, 'Your sins are forgiven.' or to say, 'Stand up, pick up your mat, and walk again'? That you may know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins" (he said to the paralyzed man), "I command you: Stand up! Pick up your mat and go home." The man stood and picked up his mat and went outside in the sight of everyone. They were awestruck; all gave praise to God, saying, "We have never seen anything like this!" Mark 2:5-12

Jesus selected certain men who became His disciples, and He gave them a share in His mission. In order that they may carry out their Master's work, Jesus equipped them with the power and authority to proclaim the good news of salvation and to perform many great works like those He Himself performed.

He then went up the mountain and summoned the men he himself had decided on, who came and joined him. He named twelve as his companions whom he would send to preach the good news; they were likewise to have authority to expel demons. Mark 3:13-15

Jesus now called the Twelve together and gave them power and authority to overcome all demons and to cure diseases. Luke 9:1

With that they went off, preaching the need of repentance. They expelled many demons, anointed the sick with oil, and worked many cures. Mark 6:12

"You are the Christ"

At Caesarea Philippi, prompted by Jesus' questioning, Simon Peter made his famous profession of faith:

Simon Peter replied, "You are the Christ, the Son of the living God." Matthew 16:16 RSV

And Jesus answered him, "Blessed are you, Simon Bar-Jona! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father who is in heaven. And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the powers of death shall not prevail against it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven." Matthew 16:17-19 RSV

Here Jesus explicitly promised to make Peter the visible foundation of the Church, and promised him absolute governing authority over it. Implicit in the power of the keys is the power to forgive sins.

Because many non-Catholics dispute the meaning of this passage, let us examine Jesus' reply more closely.

Who is the Rock?

Non-Catholics usually assert that "this rock" of verse 18 refers to Christ, or to Peter's profession of faith. However this position is difficult to defend, on several grounds.

Grammatical evidence

-Throw mother from the train a kiss

First, according to the rules of grammar, the phrase, "this rock" relates to the closest noun: Peter's name -unless the text makes readily apparent that an exceptional usage is present. The verse in question gives no such indication, but rather is plain, simple and direct. Peter's profession of faith, ("Thou art the Christ, the Son of the living God.") is two verses earlier, remote by comparison with Peter's name, which is present in the clause adjacent "this Rock". To interpret "petra" as referring to Christ or to Peter's profession of faith requires grammatical gymnastics that are difficult to justify in light of the simplicity of Jesus' point-blank declaration. Here is an illustration:

Suppose you, a design engineer, were approached by your manager who pointed at you in the presence of witnesses and boldly declared, "You are Engineer Extraordinaire, and on this Engineer I will build my next design project." How would you interpret your manager's statement?

Answer 1:
"Hooray, now I'm called Engineer Extraordinaire, and I am being appointed to a key role in the next design project!" Or would you think,

Answer 2:
"Great, now I'm Engineer Extraordinaire. But God, the Creator, really is the designer of everything, so I guess God is being placed in charge of the next project."

Answer 1 is a natural, sensible interpretation of the manager's simple statement. Answer 2 is silly for two reasons: 1) it fails to recognize that nothing in the statement indicates that it refers to a third party. The least complicated way of interpreting the sentance leads directly to a straitforward meaning -that the engineer receiving the recognition is the one being appointed to the new task; 2) Answer 2 is silly also because of its irrelevant misapplication of the obvious fact that all creative power ultimately comes from God. The manager's statement does not challenge God's status as Creator, because God can manifest His power and authority in any person He chooses.

Linguistic evidence- Petros vs. petra

Sometimes those who reject the plain meaning of Matthew 16:18 base their objections on the Greek of the New Testament. The verse records Jesus as giving Simon the new name, "Petros", yet refers to building the church on "petra". In Greek "petra" means "a (mass of) rock"1, whereas "Petros" is the masculine form of petra, and usually means, "a (piece of) rock"2 This implies, they say, that Jesus is identifying Himself as "Rock" and Peter as a "small stone", thereby emphasizing a contrast between Peter and Christ, the "only" foundation of the Church. However, this reasoning is flawed.

To understand the name of Peter as "Rock" it is important to consider the language in which this exchange was spoken. Through much of the Mediterranean world Greek was the common language of culture and commerce. Therefore, most of the New Testament was written in Greek, so that it could be read by the greatest number of people in that part of the world. But Aramaic -not Greek- was the everyday language of the Jews of Palestine, including Jesus and His disciples. Even the New Testament gives evidence to this historical fact: it records verbatim a saying of Jesus as he hung dying on the cross:

"Eli, Eli, lama sabachthani?", that is, "My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?" Matthew 27:46 RSV

These words of Christ are neither Hebrew nor Greek, but Aramaic.

In Aramaic the word for "a massive rock" is "kepha"3. When transliterated into Greek, "Kepha" is rendered "Cephas". The Aramaic origin of the name is substantiated in numerous passages in which "Cephas", the Greek transliteration of the Aramaic "Kepha" appears for Peter's name. Among these are:

"'So you are Simon son of John? You shall be called Cephas' (which means Peter)." John 1:42 RSV

What I mean is that each one of you says, "I belong to Paul." or "I belong to Apollos," or "I belong to Cephas,"... 1 Corinthians 1:12 RSV

...he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve. 1 Corinthians 15:5 RSV

What Jesus declared is, "You are Kepha, and on this kepha I will build my church." It's difficult to avoid the plain meaning of this saying: that Jesus was promising to build His church with Simon Peter as its foundation.

Whether Matthew's gospel was originally written in Aramaic and very soon afterward translated into Greek -as many scholars believe- or it was originally written in Greek, in either case the problem arose of translating the Aramaic words of Jesus into Greek. "Rock", in Greek, is "petra". Matthew (or his translator) had no difficulty translating "on this kepha I will build my church" into "on this petra I will build my church." But a problem arose when trying to translate Simon Peter's new name, Kepha, into Greek. "Petra" would not suffice, because this noun is of feminine gender, and consequently would not be appropriate for a man's name. Nor could he retain the neuter noun, "Kepha", as he could not expect most of his audience to understand this Aramaic word. So the author selected the masculine form of the same Greek word: "Petros", from which comes "Peter". Unfortunately, "petros" was an already existing word which can mean "a small stone". So there is the possibility of misunderstanding the meaning of the Greek unless one is aware of the Aramaic origin of the text. Again, the evidence points strongly to these conclusions: Jesus made his declaration to Simon in Aramaic, and the name Jesus gave to Simon is "Kepha", which means "Rock".

Incidentally, "petros" is not used once in all of Scripture with the meaning of "a small stone". "Petros" is used in Scripture only to identify Peter, and never in any other context. If Jesus was calling Himself "Rock" and Peter only a small stone, why did Jesus not use the Aramaic word for "a small stone", which is "evna"?4

And even if Matthew had understood Jesus to mean that Peter was only a stone compared to the Rock of Christ, why did he translate the saying in such a way that it could be easily misunderstood? Why fail to make this "little stone" versus "immovable rock" distinction clear? Why did he not translate Peter's name "Kepha" into the Greek word "lithos", which does not derive from "petra"? Lithos indicates "a stone", and occurs numerous times throughout the New Testament!5 -Reason? Because Matthew witnessed Peter's profession of faith, heard the declaration of Jesus to Peter, and was perfectly clear on the point that Jesus was equating Kepha with kepha, and appointing Peter to be the prime overseer of the Church after Jesus would return to the Father.

Theological argument

Jesus Christ is the founder and Head of his Body, the Church. He is its principal and invisible foundation, and without Him the Church would be lifeless as a headless body. But in Matthew 16:17-19 Jesus gives Simon a new calling and a new name to signify it: "Rock". This reveals the nature of the mission Peter would fulfill as the visible foundation of the Church on earth. Peter derives his mission and authority from Jesus, so Peter can be the Church's foundation on earth only because Christ is the Church's cornerstone in heaven:

"So then you are no longer strangers and sojourners, but you are fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God, built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus himself being the cornerstone, in whom the whole structure is joined together and grows into a holy temple in the Lord..." Ephesians 2:20 RSV

And the wall of the city had twelve foundations, and on them the twelve names of the twelve apostles of the Lamb. Revelation 21:14 RSV

Similarly, consider this: what word describes a person who tends sheep? A shepherd, of course, and Jesus identifies Himself as one:

"I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep." John 10:11 RSV

But later, Jesus confirmed Peter in the role of shepherd over the Church:

...Jesus said to him, "Feed my sheep." John 21:17 RSV

Certainly Jesus is not contradicting Himself, nor is He relinquishing His role as the first among shepherds. But here He delegates to Peter a shepherding function which Christ, in His wisdom, made an essential part of His Church. Peter can be shepherd of the Church only because Christ is the pre-eminent Good Shepherd who commissions Peter to service. Peter as shepherd does not challenge or diminish Christ as Shepherd. Rather, Peter gives glory to Christ through faithfulness to his calling.

Binding and Loosing

Keys are a symbol of authority.

Then I saw an angel come down from heaven, holding the key to the abyss and a huge chain in his hand. He seized the dragon, the ancient serpent, who is the devil or Satan, and chained him up for a thousand years. The angel hurled him into the abyss, which he closed and sealed over him. Revelation 20:1-2

"Woe to you lawyers! You have taken away the key of knowledge. You yourselves have not gained access, yet you have stopped those who wished to enter!" Luke 11:52

"I hold the keys of death and the nether world." Revelation 1:18

Scripture attributes supreme authority to the one who bears David's key.

I will place the key of the House of David on his shoulder; when he opens, no one shall shut, when he shuts, no one shall open. Isaiah 22:22

"The holy One, the true, who wields David's key, who opens and no one can close, who closes and no one can open,..." Revelation 3:7

"Full authority has been given to me both in heaven and on earth..." Matthew 28:18

He who possesses the keys of authority permits or denies passage or membership. In promising Peter the keys to the kingdom of heaven, Jesus gave him full authority over the kingdom of heaven on earth. Although this authority is full, it is not arbitrary...

Now, Scripture teaches that it is unforgiven sin that excludes one from God's kingdom:

Make no mistake about this: no fornicator, no unclean or lustful person -in effect an idolater- has any inheritance in the kingdom of Christ and of God. Ephesians 5:5

Can you not realize that the unholy will not fall heir to the kingdom of God? 1 Corinthians 6:9

He carried me away in spirit to the top of a very high mountain and showed me the holy city Jerusalem coming down out of heaven from God... but nothing profane shall enter it, nor anyone who is a liar or has done a detestable act. Revelation 21:10,27

"Angels will go out and separate the wicked from the just and hurl the wicked into the fiery furnace, where they will wail and grind their teeth." Matthew 13:49-50

Since unforgiven sin prevents entry to God's kingdom, and since the keys to the kingdom signify the authority to permit or deny entry, therefore the power of the keys includes the power to forgive or retain sins6.

"Truly, I say to you, whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven." Mark 18:18 RSV

"The words bind and loose mean: whomever you exclude from your communion, will be excluded from communion with God; whomever you receive anew into your communion, God will welcome back into his."7

After the Resurrection, Jesus explicitly confirmed this authority in Peter, by giving him -and the other disciples in union with him- the gift of the Holy Spirit and the power to forgive or retain sins.

At the sight of the Lord the disciples rejoiced. "Peace be with you," he said again. "As the Father has sent me, so I send you." Then he breathed on them and said: "Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive men's sins, they are forgiven them; if you hold them bound, they are held bound." John 20:20-23

John, in the above passage, records the Greek word afihmi ("af-ee'-ay-mee") meaning, "forgive, remit, or put away".8 This is the same word used in other passages which also refer to the true eradication of sins:

But if we acknowledge our sins, he who is just can be trusted to forgive (afihmi) our sins and cleanse us from every wrong. 1 John 1:9

"Therefore, reform your lives! Turn to God, that your sins may be wiped away (afihmi)!" Acts 3:19


Peter and the other disciples, by the authority and direct command of Jesus Christ, truly were empowered to forgive sins in His name.


Further, Jesus confirmed Peter as the chief shepherd of the Church on earth:

"...but I have prayed for you that your faith may not fail; and when you have turned again, strengthen your brethren." Luke 22:31 RSV

"...Jesus said to Simon Peter, 'Simon, son of John, do you love me more than these?' He said to him, 'Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.' He said to him, "Feed my lambs.' A second time he said to him, 'Simon, son of John, do you love me?' He said to him, 'Yes Lord; you know that I love you.' He said to him, 'Tend my sheep.' He said to him the third time, 'Simon, son of John, do you love me?' Peter was grieved because he said to him the third time, 'Do you love me?' And he said to him, 'Lord, you know everything; you know that I love you.' Jesus said to him, 'Feed my sheep.'" John 21:15-17 RSV

In addition to -and distinct from- empowering the apostles to forgive sins, Jesus gave them powers to understand the Scriptures and preach the message of repentance.

Then he opened their minds to the understanding of the Scriptures. He said to them: "Thus it is written that the Messiah must suffer and rise from the dead on the third day. In his name, penance for the remission of sins is to be preached to all the nations, beginning at Jerusalem. You are witnesses of this. See, I send down upon you the promise of my Father. Remain here in the city until you are clothed with power from on high." Luke 24:45-49

Obedient to the Lord's command, the disciples awaited the Holy Spirit.

Suddenly from up in the sky there came a noise like a strong, driving wind which was heard all through the house where they were seated. Tongues as of fire appeared, which parted and came to rest on each of them. All were filled with the Holy Spirit. They began to express themselves in foreign tongues and make bold proclamations as the Spirit prompted them. Acts 2:2-4

After the descent of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost, the apostles began forcefully to exercise their powers of interpreting Scripture, preaching the Good News, and forgiving sin. Peter immediately displayed his leadership and power by delivering a message that caused the conversion of three thousand that very day (cf. Acts 2:14-41).

A reverent fear overtook them all, for many wonders and signs were performed by the apostles. Acts 2:43

Through the hands of the apostles, many signs and wonders occurred among the people. Acts 5:12

The people carried the sick into the streets and laid them on cots and mattresses, so that when Peter passed by at least his shadow might fall on one or another of them. Crowds from the towns around Jerusalem would gather, too, bringing their sick and those who were troubled by unclean spirits, all of whom were cured. Acts 5:15-16

Peter demonstrated a terrifying aspect of his authority to "bind and loose" in the fifth chapter of Acts. Ananias and Sapphira, unrepentant in their sin against the Holy Spirit, are rebuked by Peter and fatally struck down.

Paul referred to his own authority to forgive sins when he encouraged the church at Corinth to readmit a certain sinner to their fellowship: should now relent and support him so that he may not be crushed by too great a weight of sorrow. I therefore beg you to reaffirm your love for him... If you forgive a man anything, so do I. Any forgiving I have done has been for your sakes and, before Christ, to prevent Satan -whose guile we know too well- from outwitting us. 2 Corinthians 2:7,10-11

Even unbelievers who opposed the apostles recognized that they exercised great power:

"What shall we do with these men? Everyone in Jerusalem knows what a remarkable show of power took place through them. We cannot deny it." Acts 4:15-16

Did this apostolic power die with the first apostles?

"Jesus' intention to make Simon Peter the foundation 'rock' of His Church has a value that outlasts the apostle's earthly life. Jesus actually conceived His Church and desired her presence and activity in all nations until the ultimate fulfillment of history"9

"...go, therefore, and make disciples of all the nations." Matthew 28:19

"Go into the whole world and proclaim the good news to all creation." Mark 16:15

"In his name, penance for the remission of sins is to be preached to all the nations." Luke 24:47

" are to be my witnesses in Jerusalem, throughout Judea and Samaria, yes, even to the ends of the earth." Acts 1:8

"Therefore, as He wanted successors for the other apostles in order to continue the work of evangelization in the various parts of the world, so too He foresaw and desired successors for Peter who would be charged with the same pastoral mission and equipped with the same powers, beginning with the mission and power of being Rock,. i.e., the visible principle of unity in faith, love, the ministry of evangelization, sanctification and leadership entrusted to the Church."10


In summary:

1. Jesus explicitly gave Peter and the other disciples the power and authority to: interpret and proclaim the Word of God; shepherd the followers of Christ in a binding manner; forgive sins.

2. All these functions are essential and indispensible elements of the Church's mission.

3. The mission of the Church will last until the end of the world.

4. If the authority given the Apostles ended with their death, then the Church has been stripped of its power to carry out the mission given it by Christ.

5. Therefore, the true power to forgive sins in accordance with God's will has passed to the legitimate successors of the Apostles.


Miscellaneous references


"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."11

The spiritual effects of the sacrament of Penance are:
-reconciliation with God by which the penitent recovers grace;
-reconciliation with the Church;
-remission of the eternal punishment incurred by mortal sins;
-remission, at least in part, of temporal punishments resulting from sin;
-peace and serenity of conscience, and spiritual consolation;
-an increase of spiritual strength for the Christian battle.

Only priests who have received the faculty of absolving from the authority of the Church can forgive sins in the name of Christ.13

When Christ's faithful strive to confess all the sins that they can remember, they undoubtedly place all of them before the divine mercy for pardon. But those who fail to do so and knowingly withhold some, place nothing before the divine goodness for remission through the mediation of the priest, "for if the sick person is too ashamed to show his wound to the doctor, the medicine cannot heal what it does not know."14

According to the Church's command, "...after having attained the age of discretion, each of the faithful is bound by an obligation faithfully to confess serious sin at least once a year."15 Anyone who is aware of having committed a mortal sin must not receive Holy Communion, even if he experiences deep contrition, without having first received sacramental absolution, unless he has a grave reason for receiving Communion and there is no possibility of going to confession.16


1Strong's Exhaustive Concordance of the Bible, James Strong, et. al. Abingdon Press, Nashville.


3Catholicism and Fundamentalism, Karl Keating. Ignatius Press, San Francisco. p210.

4Who is the Rock?, Karl Keating. Catholic Answers, San Diego.

5Strong's Exhaustive Concordance of the Bible, James Strong, et. al. Abingdon Press, Nashville.

6Fundamentals of Catholic Dogma, Dr. Ludwig Ott. Tan Books and Publishers, Inc. Rockford, IL. p418.

7Catechism of the Catholic Church, n. 1445.

8Strong's Exhaustive Concordance of the Bible, James Strong, et. al. Abingdon Press, Nashville.

9Bishop of Rome is Peter's Successor. Address of Pope John Paul II on January 27, 1993. The Pope Speaks (July/August), Vol. 38, No. 4, 1993.


11Ordo paenitentiae, formula of absolution. (Catechism of the Catholic Church, n. 1449).

12Catechism of the Catholic Church, n. 1496.

13Catechism of the Catholic Church, n. 1495.

14Council of Trent (1551): DS 1680

15Council of Trent (1551): Codex Iuris Canonici, can. 989. (Catechism of the Catholic Church, n. 1457).

16Council of Trent (1551): Codex Iuris Canonici, can. 916. (Catechism of the Catholic Church, n. 1457).