In Matthew 9:6 it is said that only “the Son of Man has the authority on earth to forgive sins.” But in Matthew 16:19 Jesus says that he will “give the keys of the Kingdom of Heaven” to Peter. And, he adds, “Whatever you forbid on earth will be forbidden in heaven, and whatever you permit on earth will be permitted in heaven.”
How do we sort out what seems like a contradiction? Either Jesus does, or does not, have all authority in these matters of grace and forgiveness. My Catholic friends believe that he gave this authority to Peter, and then through his leadership to the apostles. Through these bishops this power was passed along through the Catholic church as the sacramental body of Christ. This is one of those areas where I profoundly disagree with my brothers and sisters in the Catholic Church but my disagreement is often one of nuance more than irreconcilable doctrinal differences.
The ambassadors of Christ are given the power to proclaim the transcendent Word of God; yet in and by themselves they are totally incapable of this task. Similarly, these Spirit-given ambassadors are given the authority to actually forgive sins; i.e. to bind and to loose. But apart from the gospel and the Holy Spirit they are completely unable to bind and loose. So far I think most Christians would agree.
But Christ tells his disciples that they have the authority to forgive sins (John 20:23). He means that they will be enabled through the power of his Holy Spirit to utter his Word of forgiveness with his power. But this power and possibility are never their own in themselves. It becomes their possession only when the Spirit grants them illumination and moves them to declare God’s Word with Spirit-anointed power. Learning how to do this, in a mechanical and perfunctory way, simply will not do.
We thus conclude that in one sense only Christ can forgive sins, just as only Christ can proclaim the gospel with saving grace and power. My Catholic friends are prone to forget this in the midst of their sacramental wonder regarding their church. But evangelicals are just as prone to forget that the gospel and God’s forgiveness is granted on the basis of God-sent ambassadors being used by the Spirit as his ministers and priests.
Let me put this another way. A confessor has the power to convey the forgiveness of Christ; but he has no power to create forgiveness. Both Catholics and evangelicals could actually agree on this point but I am not holding my breath at the present moment.