Confession debate with Protestant


Hey, I could use some help in defending the ability for a priest to forgive sins. I was having a debate with a Protestant and we were talking about the verse in John where Jesus says to the apostles “Whatever sins you forgive are forgiven, and whatever sins you retain are retained…” Her argument was that Jesus didn’t give man any ability to discern the heart of men, so how could they forgive sins if man wasn’t pure in his motives? Her point was that anyone could walk into a confession booth and have a priest absolve their sins but the confessor’s motives might not be pure yet they would get absolution and forgiveness anyway. I know this isn’t the truth, and you need a heart of contrition and reconciliation but when I tried to explain that, she just used the verse over again and said “It doesn’t say anything about having the proper heart, it just gives the apostles the ability to forgive sins… period. If they have the ability to forgive, then they can forgive without properly discerning the motives of a human being asking for forgiveness”.

Honestly, I was a little bit at a loss as how to properly respond. If I argued that contrition and pure motives are required for the person asking forgiveness, then she argued that Jesus never said that was necessary and simply gave the power to forgive sins to man. If I argued that they can forgive sins anyway, then she used it as an example of how the Catholic Church will let anyone into a confession booth and gain absolution, but their motives aren’t pure, and they just live to go sin again knowing that they can confess it away at the next confession.

Also, this person tried to explain away the John verse where Jesus gives the power of forgiveness to the apostles. Something about the greek for forgiveness implied sins that had already been forgiven, so Jesus couldn’t have meant what he said.

Can anyone help me with all of this? I know the Catholic position is correct but I don’t know how to best argue it. I also need some greek analysis on that particular verse in John so I can better defend what Jesus seems to be obviously saying to the apostles. Thanks.


Well, she’s partially right in that Jesus didn’t give man the ability to judge another’s heart. But it appears that she’s looking at confession/absolution as a sort of mechanical cheap and easy grace first, and second missing the point that the priest is acting in the person of Christ, not replacing Christ.

Perhaps Jesus didn’t say this in context of John, but it’s clear from his other teachings that one must be contrite. This is a good example of how not considering the entirety of Scripture can lead to fauly conclusions.

This doesn’t make any sense. Seems your friend thinks that we Catholics believe that the Catholic Church has greater authority than the Almighty himself. That and she seems to have latched onto the notion of “cheap grace” obtained through the sacraments.

Not to mention the fact that one can walk into a Baptist Church, Lutheran Church, etc., go through their rituals for confessing, and “live to sin again”

And not to mention, that her position seems to couch a little Sola Scriptura in it.

I’d suggest asking her interpretation of grace as received through the sacraments, in this case reconciliation. I’ll bet it’s heavy on the notion of “cheap grace”.


If the priest forgives the sin, it is forgiven. But if the person confessing has not been honest and sincere, then that person has added another sin which, since it was not confessed, was not forgiven. So there is no way to “fake out” the sacrament. Those who confess honestly and sincerely have all their sins forgiven. Those who do not, walk out of the confessional with sin on their soul.


We do believe that priests have the gift of discernment. It is a Gift of the Holy Spirit. They hear confessions all the time and I’m sure they can tell if someone is sincere or not. Moreover, if someone confesses the same sins every time, the priest will know that the person has no intent to reform and will withhold absolution. It is not a rubber stamp.

The Church teaches that lying to the priest in Confession is a mortal sin. She teaches that if you withhold confessing a mortal sin, even if the priest has spoken the words of absolution, there is none, because of that unconfessed mortal sin. If you lie to the priest and you have made no firm resolve to amend your life and not sin anymore, then there is no forgiveness. Knowing this and intending either to lie to the priest or withhold a mortal sin, what possible point would there be to going to Confession? It would be much easier just not to recieve Communion.

This is an acusation I used to hear from my ex-Baptist mother, that Catholics can sin during the week, go to confession and be absolved, go to ‘church’ on Sunday then go right back to sinning again on Monday. This is extremely judgemental. How do they know the disposition of a Catholic’s heart when they are in the confessional? Why do they automatically assume that the Catholic has impure motives? No one forces us into the confessional. If someone is so concerned about being in a state of grace to receive Communion that they actually go to confession, they will not be lying to the priest or intending to go on committing that sin in the future. It takes a lot of courage and humility to confess to a priest. I don’t see anyone taking this Sacrament lightly.

Perhaps something in the Catechism will help.
The Sacrament of Penance and Reconciliation

1456 Confession to a priest is an essential part of the sacrament of Penance: "All mortal sins of which penitents after a diligent self-examination are conscious must be recounted by them in confession, even if they are most secret and have been committed against the last two precepts of the Decalogue; for these sins sometimes wound the soul more grievously and are more dangerous than those which are committed openly."54

When Christ’s faithful strive to confess all the sins that they can remember, they undoubtedly place all of them before the divine mercy for pardon. But those who fail to do so and knowingly withhold some, place nothing before the divine goodness for remission through the mediation of the priest, "for if the sick person is too ashamed to show his wound to the doctor, the medicine cannot heal what it does not know."55
1466 The confessor is not the master of God’s forgiveness, but its servant. The minister of this sacrament should unite himself to the intention and charity of Christ.71 He should have a proven knowledge of Christian behavior, experience of human affairs, respect and sensitivity toward the one who has fallen; he must love the truth, be faithful to the Magisterium of the Church, and lead the penitent with patience toward healing and full maturity. He must pray and do penance for his penitent, entrusting him to the Lord’s mercy.

How does she believe confessing in one’s heart works? Does Jesus automatically forgive them? How do they know they are forgiven? Why do they go on sinning afterwards? Is it because they believe that forgiveness is automatic and they can go on committing that sin and they believe Jesus will just keep forgiving them ad infinitum? Or perhaps she is among those who believe that they can keep sinning all their lives because Jesus has already paid for all their sins? A snow covered dung-heap is still a pile of do-do.


In the verse Jesus also says “…whose sins you retain are retained.” The apostles have the ability to retain and forgive sins. How will they know which sins to retain and/or forgive unless they are confessed to them? The verse is pretty clear, and was interpreted as such in the early Church.


I had a discussion with a rigid born-again Protestant, who said, “I don’t believe in Confession.” I knew she was looking for a theological argument on this and I just said, “I don’t believe in predestination, either,” I don’t understand it and don’t intend to argue about it. but what I will say about Catholic sacrament of Penance is that it is private, personal and cleansing. At least, we don’t go rolling around the floor, frothing and foaming at the mouth, confessing to the entire congregation, as though it were some ‘Elmer Gantry’ sideshow… Do you believe in that type of confession?” No answer, she just shut up.


A “little”? That’s all her position is.

Ridiculous argument. Once, when a Protestant friend asked me why 1 Cor 7:13 (or whatever the verse was) doesn’t say anything about xyz, half tongue in cheek, half very seriously I said, “That’s what the rest of the Bible is for.”

Tell her to pick a doctrine she thinks the Bible teaches and have her give you the chapter and verse. Then hold her feet to the fire. Does the verse say all that she is alleging it says, without having to bring in other verses to complete or flesh out the teaching? And if it does, does the verse mention that this teaching is still true today? Does it mention that she’s supposed to be reading the Bible in the first place? If she brings up a verse abiout others finding truth in the Bible, hold her feet to the fire. Where does it say in the Bible that she should be doing the same? If she brings up Acts 17:11 where the Bereans search the scriptures to see if what Paul says is true, ask her where her name is in that passage.

Honestly, I was a little bit at a loss as how to properly respond. If I argued that contrition and pure motives are required for the person asking forgiveness, then she argued that Jesus never said that was necessary and simply gave the power to forgive sins to man. If I argued that they can forgive sins anyway, then she used it as an example of how the Catholic Church will let anyone into a confession booth and gain absolution, but their motives aren’t pure, and they just live to go sin again knowing that they can confess it away at the next confession.

Obviously John 20:21-23 gives priests the ability to remit or retain people’s sins. No, most priests aren’t able to “read hearts”. That’s part of the reason people need to confess those sins - So that priests will know what they’re dealing with and then they do their best accordingly. Will an occasional impenitent individual slip through and be told his sins are forgiven? Sure. It happens. But by their own fault, their sins are not forgiven anyway. Confession is very real and efficacious, but it is not “magic”. Will the opposite be true? Will a priest refuse to aboslve someone who they think is not sorry but whoo really is? Sure. That happens too, probably on extremely rare occasions. But the solution to that is also very simple: If you’re the penitent, if you need to, go to another priest. If you’re sincere, this does not translate into “priest shopping”.

As far as people sinning, then being forgiven, only to go back out and sin some more, does your friend ever ask for forgiveness from other people? If so, why when she will just end up making mistakes over and over again in life? Better to just not say you’re sorry? Or best to make amends every single time you offend someone and attempt to refrain from offending in the first place?

Also, this person tried to explain away the John verse where Jesus gives the power of forgiveness to the apostles. Something about the greek for forgiveness implied sins that had already been forgiven, so Jesus couldn’t have meant what he said.

Ask her about this one again. As far as I know the Greek says pretty much the same exact thing as the English does.




I think the best way to “argue” with the Protestants about any of the Sacraments, but especially the Sacrament of Mercy, is to recite the Divine Mercy Chaplet for the conversion of sinners at 3 P.M. as requested by our Lord. You may not see the effects of the graces imparted by this practice in front of you in your daily life, but you will be helping in a way that cannot be stopped! God is Merciful Love and His Mercy is an Ocean. Once it touches a soul, that soul can never be the same and will desire to be with it’s source. You can tell them the Truth then walk away and pray for them and trust Jesus to do the rest!


P.S. Many of the foks we talk to have a rhetoric that is very well grooved and when the recitation of pat answers to Catholic promptings is thickened by bigotry and fear Who else but Holy Spirit can we turn to for help! Many don’t want to believe - they just want to re-assure themselves they are right. Talk with such as these is frustrating and they tend to only give circular answers from rote mindless of what they are truely saying. Prayer can and does bust their groove!


As far as the heart is concerned we can never know a persons heart.

When someone wrongs us, we need to forgive them even before they ask. Actually we need to forgive them even if they never ask. It is part of the Our Father forgive us our debts (sins) as we forgive others. If we are not a forgiving people we will not be able to recieve forgiveness.

Being forgiven has very little to do with our hearts. It is recieving forgiveness that has to do with out hearts. Christ has already forgiven us. I doubt very much someone would go to confession to try and pull one over on God. He knows the heart. If you lied in confession you are continue to be in sin, even if the priest says you are forgiven. You are still in the same spot you started.


Very well said…




Thanks for the responses guys. I guess my main problem at this point is explaining how we know that if an unrepentant sinner is absolved by a priest in the confession booth, that he is not forgiven? Do we have some verses to back this up? The person I’m arguing with has the argument that John 20:23 simply tells us that Jesus gives the power to forgive sins to the apostles, period. It doesn’t say anything about the disposition of the individual sinner. It just says that if an apostle forgives sins, they are forgiven. So, in light of that, how can we argue that an unrepentant sinner in a confession booth can’t be forgiven by a priest simply because priests were given that power based on John 20:23? Thanks.


So, then, according to her Jesus either made a mistake or lied. Either is a strange position for a Christian to take, especially the latter.

– Mark L. Chance.


What about Matthew 7:21? “Not every one that saith to me, Lord, Lord, shall enter into the kingdom of heaven: but he that doth the will of my Father who is in heaven, he shall enter into the kingdom of heaven.”

Clearly, lying to a priest, asking forgiveness for sins you’re not really sorry for, and fully intending to commit those sins again are NOT the will of the Father.


I tried to address this in my post above but perhaps didn’t do so very clearly.

Either the verse states that Jesus has given priests the power to remit sins or it doesn’t, first of all. Your friend seems to be a little confused in first suggesting that priests are not given the power and then suggesting that the verse says that they do.

If her point is that they don’t and that the verse in question would have to mean that the unrepentant would also be forgiven if it did teach the power of the priesthood to forgive sins, her insistence is entirely arbitrary. As I said above, where is her verse backing up the idea that she should be defending truths with Scripture in the first place? Is it Acts 17:11? Well, that was the Bereans. The Bible doesn’t say anything explicitly about her using it to prove this or that or the other things. But I’d be willing to bet that she would be only too ready to explain that her using Scripture is a logical extension of Acts 17:11. Right? Well…The unrepentant sinner not being absolved of his sins is also a logical extension of John 20:21-23.

Make sense?

Don’t get sucked into the very anti-scriptural notion that “All of my beliefs must be explicitly stated in Scripture in order to be true.” Your friend does not follow that tenet. Neither should you.

I distinctly get the impression that this person’s beliefs are non-rational and that her “only hope” is Gail’s post above regarding prayer. But FWIW…



Well…you could answer that the most unrepentant sinner in need of absolution is the one who refuses to go to the Sacrament or even acknowleges their need of same. But that answer has risks.

I think the Scriptural references are excellent. Use those and see how you’re received. Then pray and trust God with the heart of the person involved. Perhaps in time, after a few such same answers from different parties and the example of the Church…



P.S. As for the examples given, what does it matter what state of soul remains in a person after a bad Confession to someone who doesn’t believe in Confession? :confused:


Since you are dealing with a Protestant, most likely they are driven by Sacred Scripture so research these verses and present them to him.
Mt 9:2-8 Son of Man has authority to forgive sins. Jn 20:23 - whose sins you forgive/retain are forgiven/retained. Jn 20:22 - breathed on them, “receive Holy Spirit” [recall Gn 2:7]
2Cor 5:17-20 - given us the ministry of reconciliation. Jam 5:13-15 - confess your sins to one another
Mt 18:18 - whatever you bind & loose on earth, so it is in heaven. 1Jn 5:6 - there is sin that is not deadly


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