The pope himself cannot remit guilt, but only declare and confirm that it has been remitted by God. -Martin Luther, Thesis #6, 1517
Last week Pope Francis announced that for a year priests are allowed to forgive the sin of abortion. His motivation is compassion for those who have felt, for one reason or another, the need to terminate the life of their child. As far as I can tell, this is a well meant expression of mercy… with one huge theological problem: neither the papacy, nor the church can limit or dictate forgiveness for sins.
The practical reality of life on the ground for Roman Catholicism is that the Roman Catholic Church, via its leadership, is the dispenser of God’s mercy to people. When we look to the Bible, however, we find that it is God alone who may forgive sin.
Recall the famous incident in Capernaum from Mark 2. Jesus is preaching in a home and it was so crowded there was no room for anyone to get in. Four friends of a man paralyzed got creative and lowered their friend through the roof (awesome moment, by the way). Jesus looks at the man and says, “Son, your sins are forgiven” (Mark 2:5).
When he said this, the religious leaders of the community in attendance took offense. Jesus was blaspheming! They knew that only God can forgive sins (Mark 2:7). Jesus, aware of their attitude, objects to their objection. He asks which is harder, to say “your sins are forgiven” or “rise, pick up your bed, and walk.”
Side note: which is harder? In that moment, the speech act of forgiveness seems easier because it cannot be visually verified, and the healing seems “harder” in the sense that it cannot be faked and will yield empirical evidence. However, surely a righteous God forgiving sin is harder than the Creator of the universe healing a broken body. I digress…
Crucially, Jesus does not object to their premise; he agrees: only God is able to forgive sins. Instead, he proves his own right to forgive sins by performing the healing: “‘But that you may know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins’—he said to the paralytic— ‘I say to you, rise, pick up your bed, and go home’” (Mark 2:10-11). Jesus says I will prove to you I am God, and therefore that I can indeed forgive sins.
Back to the issue at hand. If the Pope can declare certain sins forgivable for certain times, why wouldn’t he declare all sins forgivable at all times? This is exactly what Martin Luther was asking in Thesis #82, “Why does not the pope liberate everyone from purgatory for the sake of love (a most holy thing) and because of the supreme necessity of their souls?” It was a rhetorical question (and for the record purgatory is another RCC doctrine that is shockingly absent from the Bible). The short answer is, because the pope doesn’t forgive, only God does.
But aren’t there passages where Jesus gives the church authority to forgive? What about John 20:22-23? In that passage Jesus says to his disciples: “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you withhold forgiveness from any, it is withheld.” Jesus is giving the church the authority to preach the gospel, and therefore offer forgiveness to sinners via the gospel. There’s a huge difference between announcing forgiveness of sins and accomplishing forgiveness of sins.
The disciples announce forgiveness by preaching the gospel. If a person repents and believes, the disciples can affirm “you are forgiven”—not because of church policy but because of the cross of Christ. If someone rejects the gospel and refuses to repent and believe, the disciples can accurately announce, “you are not forgiven”—not because of their power, but because the person has rejected God’s vehicle of forgiveness: the gospel.
Forgiveness is not a function of the church, but of the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. In Colossians Paul writes, “He has delivered us from the domain of darkness and transferred us to the kingdom of his beloved Son, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins” (Colossians 1:13-14). In 1 John the apostle John writes, “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness” (1 John 1:9). Forgiveness is God’s work.
Priests don’t need permission to forgive sins, because they don’t do it. Jesus died to pay the penalty for sin and conquered death in resurrection; therefore any person can be forgiven by confessing their sin to God and turning to Jesus in faith. Or, in the words of Martin Luther:
Any Christian whatsoever, who is truly repentant, enjoys plenary remission from penalty and guilt, and this is given him without letters of indulgence. -Martin Luther, Thesis #36, 1517
The wrong of abortion may be forgiven because of the cross of Jesus Christ, and don’t let the pope tell you otherwise. God’s grace is sufficient, and it’s available all the time.