Gospel Reflection for Today: Can Bishops and Priests Forgive Sins on Behalf of God?
By Qianbei, China
After becoming a Catholic, I would see bishops and priests in their white robes all the time, offering Mass for the congregation. After sinning, we would kneel before a priest, confess our sins, and then he would recite the prayer of absolution in God’s name, and we were forgiven. I couldn’t help but revere the bishops and priests, and every time I sinned, I would rush to find a priest for confession, putting my hopes of entering the kingdom of heaven onto his shoulders. One time, when there was an Easter celebration being held in a cathedral, witnessing the spectacle of about 6,000 parishioners all kneeling together before the priests, asking them for blessings, I felt even more reverence for them. I thought that getting into the kingdom of heaven definitely meant leaning on the clergy, and that they were my guides.
One day I ran into a brother named Cheng, who had been out of town for work for a while. I was surprised to hear him say that bishops and priests couldn’t forgive our sins on behalf of God. The moment he said this I stood up and said angrily, “What? They can’t forgive our sins in God’s name? How is that possible? That has been our faith as Catholics for thousands of years!”
Brother Cheng didn’t get angry at all about me being so unreasonable, but he smiled and said, “Brother, calm down. We, so let’s take a look at what God says. Think about it—is there any biblical basis for the clergy being able to forgive us on behalf of God? Did the Lord Jesus ever say that? Has the Holy Spirit said that? Is that in the Bible? What prophet, seer, bishop, or priest can replace God to forgive our sins?”
“How could there not be a biblical basis?” Saying this, I whipped out my Bible and read very confidently, “It says in Matthew 16:15–19, ‘Jesus saith to them: But whom do you say that I am? Simon Peter answered and said: Thou art Christ, the Son of the living God. And Jesus answering, said to him: Blessed art thou, Simon Bar-Jona: because flesh and blood hath not revealed it to thee, but my Father who is in heaven. And I say to thee: That thou art Peter; and upon this rock I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it. And I will give to thee the keys of the kingdom of heaven. And whatsoever thou shalt bind upon earth, it shall be bound also in heaven: and whatsoever thou shalt loose upon earth, it shall be loosed also in heaven.’ The Scripture here shows us that Peter was chosen and established by God, and that the Lord Jesus put the keys to the heavenly kingdom in Peter’s hands along with the authority to forgive people’s sins. And the Catholic Church has had its hierarchy for so many generations. The Pope has come down through the generations from Peter—at this point we’ve already had more than 260. The Pope, the cardinals, the bishops, and the priests are all handpicked and established by God. They all have the authority to forgive us of our sins. When I’ve sinned, I can kneel before a bishop or priest to confess. They can forgive my sins on God’s behalf. We’ve practiced this for almost 2,000 years—how can you say it’s wrong?”
“These Bible verses you mentioned are God’s words when He chose Peter, and Peter truly was appointed by God. God also called on him to shepherd the churches. But God never said anything about passing Peter’s authority on to the Pope. When the Lord Jesus said this, there was no Pope, and there were no cardinals, bishops, or priests. These practices were all established by later generations, not by God. The Lord Jesus never said anything like that, the Holy Spirit never said anything like that, and the prophets never foresaw that. Is it really appropriate to apply this one thing God determined for Peter to all bishops and priests? Is that in line with God’s will? And if not, isn’t that offending God’s disposition?”
My heart dropped into my stomach when Brother Cheng said this. I figured that when Jesus said this, there were only 12 disciples following Him, so there really couldn’t have been any bishops or priests. What if the Lord Jesus handing the keys of the kingdom of heaven over to Peter didn’t mean He was handing them over to our bishops and priests? But this had been our belief as Catholics for 2,000 years—how could that be wrong?
Seeing I wasn’t saying anything, Brother Cheng continued his fellowship. “Actually, God personally bears witness and designates someone to be used by the Holy Spirit for His work in each age. On top of Peter, who was personally selected by the Lord Jesus as we just talked about, in the age of the Old Testament Moses was chosen by God. In Exodus 3:7–10, God personally tells Moses to lead the Israelites out of Egypt. Peter and Moses were personally designated by God and had God’s words as proof. But the Catholic clergy don’t have this, and they don’t have the Holy Spirit as a witness. This means that God has not personally appointed them, so we can’t say that they were designated by God.”
I really didn’t know what to say to this, but I was thinking to myself that that is recorded in the Scripture, that there really are words from God to prove that He appointed Peter and Moses, so what if my beliefs were false?
Brother Cheng went on. “Brother, there’s a passage we can read to better understand whether the bishops and priests were really appointed by God.” His words interrupted my train of thought, and I saw him getting a laptop out of his bag. Then he read this solemnly: “The work carried out by the one who is used by God is in order to cooperate with the work of Christ or the Holy Spirit. This man is raised up among man by God, he is there to lead all of God’s chosen ones, and he is also raised up by God in order to do the work of human cooperation. With someone such as this, who is able to do the work of human cooperation, more of God’s requirements toward man and the work that the Holy Spirit must do among man can be achieved through him. Another way of putting it is like this: God’s aim in using this man is so that all those who follow God can better understand God’s will, and can attain more of God’s requirements. Because people are incapable of directly understanding God’s words or God’s will, God has raised someone up who is used to carry out such work. This person who is used by God can also be described as a medium through which God guides people, as the ‘translator’ who communicates between God and man. Thus, such a man is unlike any of those who work in God’s household or who are His apostles. Like them, he can be said to be someone who serves God, yet in the essence of his work and the background of his use by God he differs greatly from the other workers and apostles. In terms of the essence of his work and the background of his use, the man who is used by God is raised up by Him, he is prepared by God for God’s work, and he cooperates in the work of. No person could ever do his work in his stead—this is human cooperation that is indispensable alongside the divine work. The work carried out by other workers or apostles, meanwhile, is but the conveyance and implementation of the many aspects of the arrangements for the churches during each period, or else the work of some simple provision of life in order to maintain the church life. These workers and apostles are not appointed by God, much less can they be called those who are used by the Holy Spirit. They are selected from among the churches and, after they have been trained and cultivated for a period of time, those who are fit are kept on, while those who are unfit are sent back to where they came from” (“Concerning God’s Use of Man”).
He continued to fellowship. “We can see here that while God is working, there are a lot of people who cooperate with His work, and they can be roughly divided into two categories. The first is those who are used by the Holy Spirit—those are the ones God personally selects and appoints. Not just anyone can do the work of those used by the Holy Spirit, because their work requires the protection and guidance of the Holy Spirit. That’s why they’re able to guide us to understand God’s will, and to practice and enter into God’s words. When we accept their guidance and watering, we’re sure to be spiritually fulfilled and we’ll continue to grow in life. We’ll be able to understand more truths, grow closer to God, and know Him better and better. The second type of person who cooperates with God’s work is the workers and disciples, and this includes the bishops and priests, but they can’t be called people used by the Holy Spirit. That’s because most of them studied in a seminary for a few years or were chosen for consecration by a superior. Their sermons and fellowship are mostly just theology and biblical knowledge—they really don’t have much of the Holy Spirit’s enlightenment and illumination. They just do the simple tasks of keeping church life going. There’s simply no comparing this with the nature and achievements of the work of Moses and Peter. So we can see that they definitely were not personally appointed by God.”
Then it suddenly dawned on me. He was right! There were no words of God confirming the bishops and priests. They were all selected from within the church, or they’d graduated from a seminary. How could they be appointed by God? At this thought, I said to Brother Cheng, “You mean, even though the clergy lead parishioners to follow God, they are not put in place by God and they cannot forgive people’s sins on God’s behalf?”
He nodded his head and said happily, “That’s right. Only God is holy and is capable of forgiving sins. But as humans, every single one of us is corrupted by Satan, and we are chock full of satanic dispositions. We’re arrogant and self-assured, we won’t listen to anyone, and we always want to have final say. These satanic dispositions we live out represent Satan, so how could we represent God? Let’s look at a couple more passages and it’ll be clearer.” He handed me his laptop, and I read this: “A religious head is merely a leader, and cannot stand equal to God (the Creator). All things are in the hands of the Creator, and in the end they will all return to the hands of the Creator. Mankind was made by God, and regardless of the religion, every person will return under the dominion of God—this is inevitable. Only God is the Most High among all things, and the highest ruler among all creatures must also return under His dominion. No matter how high the status of a man, that man cannot take mankind to a suitable destination, and no one is able to class all things according to kind. Jehovah Himself created mankind and classed each according to kind, and when the end time arrives He will still do His own work Himself, classing all things according to kind—this work cannot be done by any apart from God” (“Knowing the Three Stages of God’s Work Is the Path to Knowing God”). “All of the actions and deeds of Satan are manifested in man. Today, all of the actions and deeds of man are an expression of Satan and hence cannot represent God. Man is the embodiment of Satan, and the disposition of man is unable to represent the disposition of God. Some people are of good character; God may do some work through such people’s character, and the work they do is directed by the Holy Spirit. Yet their disposition is unable to represent God. The work God does upon them is nothing more than working with and expanding on what already exists within. Be it prophets in ages past or those used by God, no one can directly represent Him. … Only the love, the will to suffer, the righteousness, submission, and humbleness and hiddenness of the incarnate God directly represent God. This is because when He came, He came without a sinful nature and came directly from God, without having been processed by Satan. Jesus is only in the likeness of sinful flesh and does not represent sin; therefore, His actions, deeds, and words, up to the time prior to His accomplishment of the work through crucifixion (including the moment of His crucifixion), are all directly representative of God. The example of Jesus is sufficient to prove that anyone with a sinful nature cannot represent God, and that the sin of man represents Satan. Which is to say, sin does not represent God, and God is sinless” (“Corrupt Man Is Incapable of Representing God”).
Brother Cheng continued his fellowship. “These two passages that we just read show us that priests and bishops are there only to guide us for a certain period of time. They are corrupt people who cannot remotely represent God, and they cannot forgive people’s sins on God’s behalf. Only God, the Creator, can forgive our sins. In the age of the New Testament, the Lord Jesus was Christ—He was never corrupted by Satan and His essence was holy, so He was able to do the work of redemption as God. But all of us humans have been corrupted by Satan. We live with our corrupt dispositions of the flesh—we live in sin. We’re full of arrogance, self-assurance, haughtiness, and self-importance. Everything we live out represents Satan, and no matter who says that their disposition can represent God, it is an arrogant thing to say, and it is insulting and blasphemous to God. And so, only Christ in the flesh represents God, because Christ is not of sin. But no sinful human being can represent God, so that means only Christ can do the work of forgiveness of sins. Priests and bishops cannot forgive people’s sins on God’s behalf.”
When he said this, a recent period of time came to mind, when we were really busy with work for the church. We asked a nearby priest to come and help share the load, but to our surprise, our church’s priest not only wasn’t appreciative when he found out, but even wanted to shoo the other priest off, saying the other one would want to usurp his place in the church. The other priest didn’t want to back down, either, but wanted to take all of the offerings made by congregation members for the work he’d done there and the Masses he’d performed. Those two priests really went head-to-head. Weren’t they just squabbling over the pulpit? Didn’t they just want to seize power and be the one to call the shots? I realized that priests hadn’t escaped sin, but they still had corrupt satanic dispositions, so how could they act on behalf of God? It really was blasphemy! I saw that what I’d been subscribing to really didn’t hold water.
A little embarrassed, I said, “Brother Cheng, today’s fellowship has shown me that the bishops and priests really aren’t chosen and appointed by God, but they’re also people corrupted by Satan who are still sinful. I’ve seen them quibble over small things and even vie over the pulpit. When they sin, they also seek out other priests for confession. How could they possibly forgive our sins on behalf of God? Only Christ can forgive people’s sins as God!”
Brother Cheng responded, “Thanks be to God! It’s wonderful that you can understand the truth.”
“Thanks be to God,” I agreed happily.