Forgiveness vs Delegated Forgiveness
Passages which teach that forgiveness comes by Jesus Christ (e.g. Luke 24:47) are not at odds with Christ's delegating His own power to grant that forgiveness, since He is merely delegating that power to others, and not ascribing it to another source of forgiveness. Much less are passages which show Jesus bypassing any other minister in forgiveness of sins - hopefully for obvious reasons. In other words, the assertions, "all forgiveness comes from Jesus Christ," and "Christ delegated the ministry of reconciliation to other men," cannot possibly be at odds with one another.
Likewise, passages such as those which record the Our Father do not contradict there being sins which this prayer (or another similar) is not intended to blot out.
To be sure, if a murderer committed murder, and consequently had perfect contrition for his sin, one can safely say that the objective case of such a hypothetical person could be forgiven that sin without any other recourse - not that one doesn't exist, but that the seed of his faith is all he brings to such a recourse anyway, and so it adds nothing to what he already has (i.e. still making it a sin to not make use of that recourse if it is within his power, because he presumes on God's mercy, or his contrition being sufficient, whereas only God could know that).
However, who usually has such contrition for such a heavy sin (as opposed to say, being rude to someone, for which it might be said to easier to muster up a real contrition without too much difficulty)? For such situations in which the person doesn't place any hope in his own contrition, having committed murder, fornication, adultery, serious or dangerous lies, etc., the Lord gave another recourse, to give us the surety the heart can't provide - and the medicine we need not to commit the same sin in the future, avoid the peril that comes with such.
This other recourse is confession, "when [the sinner] does not shrink from confessing his sin to a priest of the Lord, and from seeking medicine" (Origen, Homily on Leviticus 2).
Why would Jesus offer us another means of forgiveness than merely asking in prayer? This is wise for many reasons. Among them:
- Easy forgiveness leads to easiness of comission of that sin again (whereas confession to another man is humiliating and pricks one's pride)
- Forgiving sin, but not offering a means of re-sanctification, is akin to healing someone, but then stripping off the protective bandage meant to cover it until the fresh wound heals (whereas administering some penance with the sin, is a means to ensure that progress is sanctification is being made, where the sin caused progress to be lost or even altogether destroyed)
- For justice's sake it's fitting that creatures who sinned against God should after sinning offer to God instead some act of penance, especially since they didn't deserve forgiveness, not to earn the forgiveness already granted, but to align themselves in thanksgiving with what ought to be instead of what happened - especially if this sin was public, and damaged God's reputation before others (who would, say, break one of Jesus' paintings, if He had any, and upon being forgiven, would not attempt to repay or make amends? not a Christian)
- Granting assurance of forgiveness via a clear vocalized "I forgive you in the name of...," (i.e. via physical ministers) and not leaving it up to the man's heart to ensure his forgiveness ('I believe I have repented and thus am forgiven...' which might be sufficient for light sins), is not only spiritually therapeutic, but also gives a solid basis and confidence to begin living life firmly resolved not to commit those same crimes again, without the worry that accompanies such fallen-heart based security
Moreover, certain passages prove this distinction between forgiveness obtained by prayer, and forgiveness obtained by the ministry of someone else (namely, the presbyter, or priest):
James 5:13-15 Is any of you sad? Let him pray. Is he cheerful in mind? Let him sing. 14 Is any man sick among you? Let him bring in the presbyters of the church, and let them pray over him, anointing him with oil in the name of the Lord. 15 And the prayer of faith shall save the sick man: and the Lord shall raise him up: and if he be in sins, they shall be forgiven him.
As does, indeed, the very notion of delegated forgiveness by the agency of men:
John 20:21-23 He said therefore to them again: Peace be to you. As the Father hath sent me, I also send you. 22 When he had said this, he breathed on them; and he said to them: Receive ye the Holy Ghost. 23 Whose sins you shall forgive, they are forgiven them; and whose sins you shall retain, they are retained.
For two reasons, this must be understood of delegated forgiveness via men in the church:
"Whose sins you forgive" means that the forgiveness is granted by the men to whom the authority is given, namely the apostles (and according to James, all presbyters)
"Whose sins you forgive, they are forgiven them," cannot mean, "When you forgive others, others have been forgiven by you" as if Christ were to say, when water is water, it is water; especially since the tense of the verb in Greek forbids such an absurdity (which in fact literally says, "whose sins you shall forgive, they have been forgiven them") meaning that God has bound in heaven what they shall bind on earth (Matthew 18:18 )
"Forgiven, ... Nevertheless"
For example, David who committed adultery and murdered the husband of the woman, God forgave him when he confessed said sin before Nathan the prophet. However, God required something of David, to make him learn that he was forgiven at His expense:
2 Samuel 12:13-14 And David said to Nathan: I have sinned against the Lord. And Nathan said to David: The Lord also hath taken away thy sin: thou shalt not die. Nevertheless, because thou hast given occasion to the enemies of the Lord to blaspheme, for this thing, the child that is born to thee, shall surely die.
Notice that for such a grave sin, David felt that he was not able to just 'Our Father' himself out of this one, as though he had sinned in some minor way. Hence, the prophet, Nathan, must assure him that he is forgiven. Nevertheless, he is assigned a penance, one might say, or suffering, for having sinned, to cause him to learn what sin is - not so that he can earn that forgiveness, but learn something from Him who granted it. God didn't do this for no reason - He does nothing for no reason. God did it to help David learn about sin. It's no different for us Christians, who must learn that we were bought with a price, and that those whom the Lord loves, he chastizes for their own sanctification.
Hebrews 12:5-10 And you have forgotten the consolation, which speaketh to you, as unto children, saying: My son, neglect not the discipline of the Lord; neither be thou wearied whilst thou art rebuked by him. 6 For whom the Lord loveth, he chastiseth; and he scourgeth every son whom he receiveth. 7 Persevere under discipline. God dealeth with you as with his sons; for what son is there, whom the father doth not correct? 8 But if you be without chastisement, whereof all are made partakers, then are you bastards, and not sons. 9 Moreover we have had fathers of our flesh, for instructors, and we reverenced them: shall we not much more obey the Father of spirits, and live? 10 And they indeed for a few days, according to their own pleasure, instructed us: but he, for our profit, that we might receive his sanctification.
Prayer for Light Sin; Confession for Grevous Sin
So asking forgiveness can blot out sin, but not all kinds of sin - for our own benefit.
There is no tension or contradiction present at all. There would be, however, if one denied the need of this ministerial mode of forgiveness, because they would make it (that is, as well as the power to accomplish it given in John 20/Matthew 18) an absolute superfluity, and moreover contradict the unanimous tradition of presbyters being those whom recourse is had for grievous sin in the church. The evidence for which need not even be epitomized by one representative quotation from the early Church, because of the ubiquity and unanimity of this conception of the Scripture, and of the practice itself of confessing to the priest. However, here are just a few:
Just as in the Old Testament the priest makes the leper clean or unclean, so in the New Testament the bishop and 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 loosed. (St. Jerome, Commentary on Matthew 3:16-19)
"Forgiveness of sins." You have [this article of] the Creed perfectly in you when you receive Baptism. Let none say, "I have done this or that sin: perchance that is not forgiven me." What have you done? How great a sin have you done? Name any heinous thing you have committed, heavy, horrible, which you shudder even to think of: have done what you will: have you killed Christ? There is not than that deed any worse, because also than Christ there is nothing better. What a dreadful thing is it to kill Christ! Yet the Jews killed Him, and many afterwards believed on Him and drank His blood: they are forgiven the sin which they committed. When you have been baptized, hold fast a good life in the commandments of God, that you may guard your Baptism even unto the end. I do not tell you that you will live here without sin; but they are venial, without which this life is not. For the sake of all sins was Baptism provided; for the sake of light sins, without which we cannot be, was prayer provided. What has the Prayer? "Forgive us our debts, as we also forgive our debtors." Once for all we have washing in Baptism, every day we have washing in prayer. Only, do not commit those things for which you must needs be separated from Christ's body: which be far from you! For those whom you have seen doing penance, have committed heinous things, either adulteries or some enormous crimes: for these they do penance. Because if theirs had been light sins, to blot out these daily prayer would suffice.
In three ways then are sins remitted in the Church; by Baptism, by prayer, by the greater humility of penance; yet God does not remit sins but to the baptized. ... (St. Augustine, Sermon to the Catechumens on the Creed)
It is necessary to confess our sins to those to whom the dispensation of God’s mysteries [i.e. the Sacraments] is entrusted [i.e. priests]. 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 they confessed to the Apostles, by whom also all were baptized [Acts 19:18]. (St. Basil the Great, Rules Briefly Treated)