Roman Catholics believe that priests have power to forgive sins as taught by Christ himself.
John 20:23 If you forgive anyone his sins, they are forgiven; if you do not forgive them, they are not forgiven.” (NIV)
Paul also declares that God has given the ministry of reconciliation to the Church. Catholics interpret this ministry of reconciliation to be the power of forgiving sins and bringing the repentant sinner back to God.
2 Cor 5:18-19 All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ and gave us the ministry of reconciliation: that God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ, not counting men’s sins against them. And he has committed to us the message of reconciliation. (NIV)
God has also given the disciples the power of “binding” and “loosing” which Catholics believe refer to the power of granting and refusing forgiveness.
Matthew 18:18 “I tell you the truth, whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven. (NIV)
Catholics also teach that confession of one’s sins to the priest is taught by the following verses.
Acts 19:18 (NIV) Many of those who believed now came and openly confessed their evil deeds.
James 5:16 (NIV) Therefore confess your sins to each other and pray for each other so that you may be healed. The prayer of a righteous man is powerful and effective.
Protestants believe that priests cannot forgive sins because the Bible speaks of God alone as the forgiver of sins.
Ex 34:6-7 6 “The LORD, the LORD, the compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, abounding in love and faithfulness, 7 maintaining love to thousands, and forgiving wickedness, rebellion and sin. (NIV)
The Jews understood this and were furious each time Jesus claims to forgive someone.
Luke 5:20-21 (NIV) When Jesus saw their faith, he said, “Friend, your sins are forgiven.” 21 The Pharisees and the teachers of the law began thinking to themselves, “Who is this fellow who speaks blasphemy? Who can forgive sins but God alone?” (See also Luke 7:48-49)
John 20:23 is not talking about forgiveness of sins in the context of salvation. When Jesus offered Himself on the cross, he made perfectly holy forever those who believed in Him.
“Day after day every priest stands and performs his religious duties; again and again he offers the same sacrifices, which can never take away sins. But when this priest had offered for all time one sacrifice for sins, he sat down at the right hand of God…. For by one sacrifice he has made perfect forever those who are being made holy” Hebrews 10:11-12,14
Despite having been made perfect forever (which results in salvation and eternal life), Christians still have to confess their sins on a regular basis in order to walk close to God.
If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness. (1 John 1:9)
Those who walk in willful obedience receive God’s punishment, which is intended to bring us to the right path.
…because the Lord disciplines the one he loves, and he chastens everyone he accepts as his son.” (Hebrews 12:6)
God also uses the church to discipline Christians who have committed serious sins.
It is actually reported that there is sexual immorality among you, and of a kind that even pagans do not tolerate: A man is sleeping with his father’s wife. 2 And you are proud! Shouldn’t you rather have gone into mourning and have put out of your fellowship the man who has been doing this? 3 For my part, even though I am not physically present, I am with you in spirit. As one who is present with you in this way, I have already passed judgment in the name of our Lord Jesus on the one who has been doing this. (1 Corinthians 5:1-3)
Later, this person who received discipline repented and Paul told the Corinthian church in his second letter to them to forgive him and bring him back to their fellowship.
6 The punishment inflicted on him by the majority is sufficient. 7 Now instead, you ought to forgive and comfort him, so that he will not be overwhelmed by excessive sorrow. 8 I urge you, therefore, to reaffirm your love for him. (2 Corinthians 2:6-8)
The way the early church leaders understood John 20:23 can be seen from their actions. We can see examples of them enforcing church discipline and forgiveness. But we cannot find any examples of them pronouncing forgiveness as if they, like Jesus, could say “I forgive you.” We cannot find any instance in the New Testament of an apostle forgiving the sins of anyone. Instead, they go everywhere proclaiming the forgiveness of sins through Jesus Christ.
Acts 13:38 “Therefore, my brothers, I want you to know that through Jesus the forgiveness of sins is proclaimed to you. (NIV)
In another verse, Jesus tells his disciples to preach the forgiveness of sins in His name.
Luke 24:47 and repentance and forgiveness of sins will be preached in his name to all nations, beginning at Jerusalem. (NIV)
Likewise in 2 Cor 5:1819, one sees that the ministry of reconciliation is not the authority to forgive sins but simply a message of reconciliation that God has reconcilied the world to Himself through Christ. (verse 19)
Matthew 18:18 which talks about `binding’ and `loosing’ has often been misunderstood. Nowhere in the Bible does the words `binding’ and `loosing’ mean `refusing forgiveness’ and `extending forgiveness’ respectively. The words mean `restricting’ and `freeing’ respectively as can be seen from the following verses.
Rom 7:2 For the woman which hath an husband is bound by the law to her husband so long as he liveth; but if the husband be dead, she is loosed from the law of her husband.(KJV)
2 Tim 2:9 Wherein I suffer trouble, as an evil doer, even unto bonds; but the word of God is not bound. (KJV)
The verse Matt 18:18 has also been mistranslated. The words “bind” and “loose” are in the future perfect tense. Therefore, it refers to `bind’ and `loose’ as completed actions, not as future actions. The verse has been translated more accurately by the Amplified Bible:
“…whatever you bind (declare to be improper and unlawful) on earth must be what is already bound in heaven, and whatever you loose (declare lawful) on earth must be what is already loosed in heaven.”
In other words, Jesus is instructing the disciples to be careful not to forbid or permit anything except that which is forbidden or permitted in heaven.
Acts 19:18 is altogether another thing from the secret confession that Roman Catholics practise. We see that in the above instances, there were public confession of sins. In Protestants Churches, public confession of sins is practised when converts and members give a testimony of their life before they knew Christ, but secret confession to a priest was not the rule of the early church.
Finally, James 5:16 is rather a proof against secret confession to the priest. `Confess your sins to each other’ implies that it is as much the duty of the priest to confess to the layman, as the layman to the priest.