THE KEYS OF THE KINGDOM
This power to forgive sins was supposedly granted to Peter and the other Apostles in Matthew 16:19, 18:18 (“I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven”) and especially John 20:21-23 (“If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained”). However, it appears that Jesus was actually informing the disciples of the awesome responsibility that goes along with the tremendous privileges they had received. These extraordinary privileges and the commission to share them are the “keys of the kingdom”.
When Jesus talked about the keys of the kingdom He was referring to the Gospel of Christ’s sacrifice for our sins, which is literally the difference between eternal life and everlasting destruction. The disciples were made stewards of this life-giving knowledge. Thus they (and we also who believe) have the power to bind or loose by our decisions to share what we know or to be silent, or, worst of all, to misrepresent the gospel. Souls can either hear, believe and accept the Lord (be bound in heaven) or go their way in fatal ignorance (be loosed in heaven). We can either forgive those who have done us wrong, showing them through our actions a true picture of God so that they can find forgiveness from Him, or we can retain their sins (refuse to forgive) and thus block them from knowing the truth (the Gospel) of God’s willingness to forgive. Jesus shows us in these texts that with the tremendous light and privilege of the gospel comes an equally serious responsibility to be faithful with what we know. One of His most scathing rebukes was to the lawyers, who had the “key” of life-giving knowledge, but refused to use it—“Woe to you lawyers! For you have taken away the key of knowledge. You did not enter in yourselves, and those who were entering in you hindered” (Luke 11:52).
It is evident that these texts did not mean that God was bestowing upon a new priesthood the power to forgive sins, because there are no instances in the New Testament of anyone confessing their sins or receiving forgiveness from the Apostles or from anyone else. The prodigal son confessed his sins to his Father (who represented our Heavenly Father), who received him without any works of penance, putting on him a rich robe to cover his filthy garments (representing Christ’s righteousness which covers our sins). Even in the Old Testament period when there was a priesthood, David showed that the sinner comes directly to God for forgiveness: “Blessed is he whose transgression is forgiven…When I kept silent, my bones grew old through my groaning all the day long…I acknowledged my sin to You, and my iniquity I have not hidden. I said, ‘I will confess my transgression to the Lord’ and You forgave the iniquity of my sin” (Psalms 32:1-5).
John said “If we confess our sins, He (God) is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness” (1 John 1:9). This is a direct transaction with God through Christ, and the Apostle gives no further conditions. But according to Catholic teaching, our repentance and confession must be supplemented by works of penance in order to pay the full penalty for our sin. “After the reception of absolution in penance, there may and usually does remain some temporal debt to be discharged by works of satisfaction… If you punish your own sin, God will spare you; but in any case the sin will not go unpunished… God wants us to perform satisfaction in order that we may clear off our indebtedness to His justice… Though it is not necessary to confess the same sins over again, nevertheless we regard it as salutary to repeat the confession, because of the shame it involves, which is a great part of penance… St. Thomas gives the same reason for this practice: the oftener one confesses, the more is the (temporal) penalty reduced; hence one might confess over and over again until the whole penalty is canceled, nor would he thereby offer any injury to the sacrament… those who are in earnest about their salvation count no hardship too great whereby they can win back God's friendship”.
The last sentence gets to the heart of the doctrinal error. In the Catholic system God is the offended party and we must win back His friendship and satisfy His justice. But the Bible teaches that we are the ones who have estranged ourselves from God, made ourselves His enemies and rejected His love, and He is doing everything possible to win us back to Himself. “God demonstrates His own love toward us, in that while we were still sinners Christ died for us... For if when we were enemies we were reconciled to God through the death of His Son, much more, having been reconciled, we shall be saved by His life” (Romans 5:8-10).
 In the passage in Matthew 16, Peter had just been shown by the “Father who is in heaven” that Jesus is “the Christ, the Son of the Living God” (vs.16,17). In Matthew 18 Jesus had just told the disciples how they, sinners themselves, must deal with fellow believers who have fallen into sin (vs. 15-17). In John 20 they had just encountered the resurrected Jesus, He had filled them with the Holy Spirit and given them the Great Commission (“As the Father has sent Me, I also send you”) vs. 19-22.
 While it is true that the Apostle James wrote “Confess your trespasses to one another” (James 5:16), it should be kept in mind that this was a part of the healing prayer for the sick and involved mutual confession of sins, not one-way confession by a sinner to a priest. There is certainly nothing in this text suggesting that this is the sole means of obtaining forgiveness.
 Catholic Encyclopedia article “Penance”