All forgiveness comes from the sacrificial death of Christ, but how is that forgiveness applied to individual souls? Baptism was given to take away original and actual sin, but this sacrament was to be given only once. So for post-baptismal sins, Christ instituted the sacrament of reconciliation. Christ, while on earth, forgave sins (Matt 9:6), and forgave them as a man, because God "had given such authority to men" (Matt 9:8). Since He would soon return to heaven, Jesus gave this power to forgive to other men, namely the Apostles. The Apostles, in turn, gave this power to bishops, and they in turn gave it to other bishops and priests, through Holy Orders. Thus, the ministry of reconciliation continued, and was available to the Church in every age. This is a gift given by Christ to the Apostles that could not have died with them. It would make no sense to have men forgive sins in the earliest church, then not have that gift pass along for all ages.
But who forgives? Protestants quote passages that show that only God forgives sins: "I, am he that blots out your transgressions for my own sake, and will not remember your sins" (Is. 43:25). When a priest absolves a penitent of his sins, he does it "in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit." It is God, however, who does the forgiving. He just does so through the priests, who have the ministry of reconciliation (2 Cor. 5:19). The scribes were correct in saying, "who can forgive sins but God alone" (Mark 2:7). When the priest says "I absolve you," Christ says "I absolve you," and sins are thus forgiven. "Christ . . . gave us the ministry of reconciliation" (2 Cor. 5:18), "We are ambassadors for Christ" (2 Cor 5:20), and "What I have forgiven, if I have forgiven anything, I have done it in the name of Jesus" (2 Cor. 2:10).
But this ministry of reconciliation pre-dates even the New Testament. Leviticus 19:20-22 states: "If a man lies carnally with a woman . . . they shall not be put to death . . . but he shall bring a guilt offering for himself to the Lord, to the door of the tent of meeting, a ram for a guilt offering. And the priest shall make atonement for him . . . before the Lord for his sin which he has committed, and the sin which he has committed shall be forgiven him." Here, the priest intercedes on behalf of the sinner for the forgiveness of his sin. Thus, the man is forgiven through the priest.
Jesus gave the Apostles the power to forgive sins in John 20:21-23: "As the Father has sent me, so I send you. Then he breathed on them and said, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained'". The only other time in the Bible where God breathed on man was when God gave Adam a soul (Gen. 2:7), stressing the importance of the sacrament of penance.
Implied in this power to forgive and retain is the idea of auricular confession. How could the Apostles know what to forgive and what to retain if they were not told the sins that had been committed? Thus, auricular confession has always been a part of the sacrament.
Forgiveness is not once-and-for-all at the time of conversion, otherwise Jesus would not have said, "forgive our debts" and, "if you forgive men their trespasses, your heavenly Father also will forgive you; but if you do not forgive men their trespasses, neither will your heavenly Father forgive your trespasses" (Matt. 6:12-15). Besides, if forgiveness, past, present, and future takes place at the time of conversion, then it makes no sense to give the Apostles power to forgive.
Protestants who tackle the passage in John claim that what the passage really says is this: The Apostles were to go and preach the Gospel. He who believed, his sins would be forgiven. He who did not believe, his sins would be retained. To support this, Protestants cite various passages that mention justification by faith. For instance: "Through this man forgiveness of sins is proclaimed to you, and by him every one that believes is freed from everything from which you could not be freed by the law of Moses" (Acts 13:38-39); "And he said to them, ‘Go into the world and preach the gospel . . . He who believes and is baptized will be saved; but he who does not believe will be condemned'" (Mark 16:15-16). Of course, none of these passages deal with post-baptismal sin, like John 20 does; they just discuss the initial justification of faith through belief and baptism. Nothing in John 20 has to do with preaching, proclaiming, and the direct forgiveness of God at the moment of belief.
Protestants often quote 1 Timothy 2:5: "There is one mediator between God and men, the man Jesus Christ," so priests cannot mediate forgiveness. But we share in the mediatorship of Jesus. When one prays for another, he is acting as a mediator, but Jesus is still the one mediator because He is the only one that mediates between men and God, other human mediators interceding between men and Jesus Christ, for all men have to go through Jesus. Even Protestants must admit that men are mediators in a secondary way, because God conveys His forgiveness through the preaching of men by which sins are forgiven (Rom. 10:12-15).
Protestants sometimes bring up alleged sexual scandals with regards to confession. Yes, the sacrament has been known to sometimes be a cause for scandal, but with regards to the sexual, this is extremely exaggerated, and besides, the abuse of the sacrament should not abolish its use, since the practice was instituted by Christ Himself. No one calls for the shutting down of all schools because some children have been the victims of abuse by teachers.
Protestants point to the story of Simon Magus, and say that Peter told Simon to "pray that the Lord may pardon you" (Acts 8:22), not to confess his sin to him. However, Peter already knew Simon's sin, and although the Sacrament of Penance was in a more primitive form, did intercede for his forgiveness, as Simon said: "Pray for me to the Lord" (Acts 8:24). This would be no different than a priest asking a penitent to pray an act of contrition (as per v. 22), then praying for absolution (as per v. 24).
And finally, Protestants make this charge: "the most personal facts of every Catholic heart, which should be known only to God, are made known to priests in their most intimate details." There are a couple things wrong with this statement. First, the "intimate details" of sins are never made known to the priests unless the penitent for some reason discloses that information. And secondly, sin affects the whole Mystical Body of Christ (1 Cor. 12:26), it is not just "between me and my God." The priest represents the entire Church, and therefore reconciles the penitent to the Church against which the offense was made. And as for the "personal facts of every Catholic heart," the Bible tells us to "confess your sins to one another" (Jas. 5:16), and at the Last Judgment, the sins of all men will be made known to all men anyway.
God could have arranged that sins be forgiven directly by God. But he did not. Why did He choose to have men confess through the priests? First, He wanted to give us a lesson in humility, which one does not get when confessing straight to God. Second, He wanted to give us the assurance of forgiveness, and there is no better way to do this than to have us hear the words of absolution. Lastly, He wanted us to receive good advice on what to do about the sin in our lives. Besides this, the Catholic is seeking forgiveness the way God wanted us to, and the Catholic also receives the sacramental graces that do not come along with confessing directly to God.
The sacrament of penance was in place in the early church. Then, unlike now, sins known to the public were confessed before the assembly, while other sins were confessed privately. Penance was severe, and took place before absolution. Although some things have changed, the practice of priestly confession and absolution dates back to the first century.
The Didache (Didache 4:14, 14:1 [A.D. 70]) "Confess your sins in church, and do not go up to your prayer with an evil conscience. This is the way of life. . . . On the Lord's Day gather together, break bread, and give thanks, after confessing your transgressions so that your sacrifice may be pure".
Ignatius of Antioch (Letter to the Philadelphians 3 [A.D. 110]) "For as many as are of God and of Jesus Christ are also with the bishop. And as many as shall, in the exercise of penance, return into the unity of the Church, these, too, shall belong to God, that they may live according to Jesus Christ".
Irenaeus of Lyons (Against Heresies 1:22 [A.D. 189]) "[The Gnostics] have deluded many women. . . . Their consciences have been branded as with a hot iron. Some of these women make a public confession, but others are ashamed to do this, and in silence, as if withdrawing from themselves the hope of the life of God, they either apostatize entirely or hesitate between the two courses".
Tertullian (Repentance 10:1 [A.D. 203]) "[Some] flee from this work [confession] as being an exposure of themselves, or they put it off from day to day. I presume they are more mindful of modesty than of salvation, like those who contract a disease in the more shameful parts of the body and shun making themselves known to the physicians; and thus they perish along with their own bashfulness" (ibid., 21) "The Church has the power of forgiving sins. This I acknowledge and adjudge" (Modesty 1 [A.D. 220]) "I hear that there has even been an edict set forth . . . The Great Pontiff--that is, the bishop of bishops [Pope]--issues an edict: ‘I remit, to such as have discharged penance, the sins both of adultery and of fornication'".
Hippolytus (Apostolic Tradition 3 [A.D. 215]) "Grant this your servant, whom you have chosen for the episcopate, [the power] to feed your holy flock and to serve without blame as your high priest, ministering night and day to propitiate unceasingly before your face and to offer to you the gifts of your holy Church, and by the Spirit of the high-priesthood to have the authority to forgive sins, in accord with your command".
Origen (Homilies in Leviticus 2:4 [A.D. 248]) "When the sinner . . . does not shrink from declaring his sin to a priest of the Lord and from seeking medicine, after the manner of him who say, 'I said, "To the Lord I will accuse myself of my iniquity'".
Cyprian of Carthage (The Lapsed, 28) "Of how much greater faith and salutary fear are they who . . . confess their sins to the priests of God in a straightforward manner and in sorrow, making an open declaration of conscience. . . . I beseech you, brethren, let everyone who has sinned confess his sin while he is still in this world, while his confession is still admissible, while the satisfaction and remission made through the priests are still pleasing before the Lord".
Aphraahat (Treatises 7:3 [A.D. 340]) "You, then, who are disciples [priests] of our illustrious physician [Christ], you ought not deny a curative to those in need of healing. And if anyone uncovers his wound before you, give him the remedy of repentance. And he that is ashamed to make known his weakness, encourage him so that he will not hide it from you. And when he has revealed it to you, do not make it public, lest because of it the innocent might be reckoned as guilty by our enemies and by those who hate us".
Basil the Great (Rules Briefly Treated 288 [A.D. 374]) "It is necessary to confess our sins to those to whom the dispensation of God's mysteries is entrusted. Those doing penance of old are found to have done it before the saints. It is written in the Gospel that they confessed their sins to John the Baptist [Matt. 3:6], but in Acts [19:18] they confessed to the apostles".
John Chrysostom (The Priesthood 3:5 [A.D. 387]) "Priests have received a power which God has given neither to angels nor to archangels. It was said to them: 'Whatsoever you shall bind on earth shall be bound in heaven; and whatsoever you shall loose, shall be loosed.' Temporal rulers have indeed the power of binding; but they can only bind the body. Priests, in contrast, can bind with a bond which pertains to the soul itself and transcends the very heavens. Did [God] not give them all the powers of heaven? 'Whose sins you shall forgive,' he says, 'they are forgiven them; whose sins you shall retain, they are retained.' What greater power is there than this? The Father has given all judgment to the Son. And now I see the Son placing all this power in the hands of men."
Ambrose of Milan (Penance 1:1 [A.D. 388]) "For those to whom [the power to bind and loose] has been given, it is plain that either both are allowed, or it is clear that neither is allowed. Both are allowed to the Church, neither is allowed to heresy. For this right has been granted to priests only".
Jerome (Commentary on Matthew 3:16:19 [A.D. 398]) "We read in Leviticus about lepers, where they are ordered to show themselves to the priests, and if they have leprosy, then they are to be declared unclean by the priest. . . . Just as in the Old Testament the priest makes the leper clean or unclean, so in the New Testament the bishop or presbyter binds or looses not those who are innocent or guilty, but by reason of their office, when they have heard various kinds of sins, they know who is to be bound and who is to be loosed".
Augustine (Adulterous Marriages 2:16:16 [A.D. 419]) "I realize what the incontinent can say: . . . that if a man, accusing his wife of adultery, kills her, this sin, since it is finished and does not perdure in him, if it is committed by a catechumen, is absolved in baptism, and if it is done by one who is baptized, it is healed by penance and reconciliation".