One common definition of absolution is “the formal remission of sin imparted by a priest, as in the sacrament of penance.” The Roman Catholic Church centers its teaching on the need for absolution, and the priest’s role in obtaining that forgiveness, on a single passage in the Gospel of John. “If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; If you retain the sins of any, they are retained” (John 20:23). But does this passage teach the necessity of the Catholic practice of absolution? Does the Bible speak of or condone the practice of absolution?
Regarding the forgiveness of sins, the Bible is clear that God alone can forgive sins (Mark 2:7; Luke 5:21), and Christ, being God, has the power to do so, but He never communicated any such power to His apostles, nor did they ever assume any such power to themselves or pretend to exercise it. In fact, it is the mark of antichrist to attempt anything of the kind because, in doing so, one usurps the divine prerogative and places himself in God’s seat. Rather, John 20:23 is to be understood only in a doctrinal or ministerial way, by preaching the full and free remission of sins through the blood of Christ, according to the riches of God’s grace. To as many as repent of their sins and believe in Christ, all disciples of Christ can confidently declare that all their sins are forgiven for Christ’s sake and to His glory.
In John 20:23, Jesus is speaking directly to His disciples. It is important to note here that He is not just talking to the 11 apostles but also to other followers of Jesus called disciples (see Luke 24), as well as to all who would ever follow Him. This is important because the Catholic Church holds that only their priests (through a “passing of the absolution torch” called apostolic succession) have the authority to grant absolution.
If absolution from sin is the meaning of Jesus’ words in John 20:23, then we must ponder exactly what His intention was when He gave His followers authority to forgive sin (or not). Did He make them judges and invest in them power to pass judiciary sentence, granting or withholding divine pardon, as the Catholic Church teaches? Or did Jesus make them His ambassadors to proclaim forgiveness through faith in His name, as Christians believe? In other words, can a sinner receive forgiveness directly from God through faith, or must he avail himself of the Catholic priest’s mediation? The Bible is clear: no priest is needed to mediate between God and man, “For there is one God and one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus” (1 Timothy 2:5). The Catholic teaching of absolution is not scriptural.