“Bless me Father, for I have sinned…”
These words mark the beginning of the confession rite for Roman Catholics, as well as some Anglicans and Lutherans. When I was an Evangelical, I scoffed at the whole thing. “Why confess your sins to a man?” I would ask “when you can confess your sins directly to God!” For non-Catholics, especially Evangelicals, the whole practise of sacramental confession seems like an exercise in futility.
Part of this misunderstanding is based on a common Protestant misreading of a couple passages of Scripture…
If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins, and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness. — 1 John 1:9
For there is one God, and one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus. — 1 Timothy 2:5
From these two passages, Evangelicals formulate the argument that we only need confess our sins to God directly, and that no human priest can act as a mediator between God and man. That sounds like a pretty watertight argument, eh? Well, if that’s all the Bible ever said about the matter, the Evangelicals would be right, and the whole practise of sacramental confession would be a colossal waste of time, and quite possibly sacrilegious. However, that’s not all the Bible has to say about the matter. Evangelicals are very good about formulating their own principles on just a few passages of Scripture. On most matters, like the Atonement and Resurrection, this is sufficient. However, on more technical matters, like sacramental confession, this is wholly inadequate.
To be clear, a Catholic doctrine doesn’t need to always be spelled out in Scripture in order to be valid (learn more here). Sacred Scripture is just a cross-section of authentic Christian beliefs and practises. It is not a comprehensive encyclopedia of it. The Evangelical tendency to treat the Bible as an encyclopedia, rather than just a cross-section, causes them to stumble into numerous errors and over-simplifications. Nevertheless, in this particular case of sacramental confession, there is plenty of Biblical material for a Catholic to stand on.
Therefore, confess your sins to one another, and pray for one another, that you may be healed. The prayer of a righteous man has great power in its effects. — James 5:16
If we are to confess our sins only to God, what is the Evangelical to make of this passage? It specifically tells us that healing of sins comes by confessing them “one to another” as in “one person to another,” and that the “prayer of a righteous man has great power.” What!?! If you’re an Evangelical, who doesn’t believe in sacramental confession, this Biblical passage presents some serious problems. On the one hand you would believe that we are only to confess our sins to God, because Jesus is the only mediator between God and man. Then on the other hand, this obscure passage tells us to confess our sins to each other, so that they may be healed? What a minute! Shouldn’t confession to God alone be sufficient? Now we need to confess our sins to each other too!?! What is meant by this? Are we to stand in front of a congregation during Church and confess our sins? Or are we supposed to talk about them in casual conversation with other Christians? Indeed, there are Evangelical congregations who engage in both acts, but when they do, that sort of obliterates the whole “confess your sins only to God” motif.
So right from the start, if you present this one obscure passage to an Evangelical, he is immediately forced to modify (significantly) his assertion that we are only to confess our sins directly to God.
To understand the practice of sacramental confession, we need to look at the theology behind it. The Catholic Church does not teach that priests have magical powers. Nor does it teach that priests are somehow magically able to replace God. Rather, what it teaches is this. It’s all about authority. Almost everything in the Christian faith is really all about authority.
When Jesus Christ was ministering on earth, he went from one sinner to another, telling them, “your sins are forgiven.” The Jewish Scribes and Pharisees were incensed by this, and asked rhetorically “Who can forgive sins but God?” In other words, they were emphatically stating that only God can forgive sins…
On one of those days, as he was teaching, there were Pharisees and teachers of the law sitting by, who had come from every village of Galilee and Judea and from Jerusalem; and the power of the Lord was with him to heal. And behold, men were bringing on a bed a man who was paralysed, and they sought to bring him in and lay him before Jesus; but finding no way to bring him in, because of the crowd, they went up on the roof and let him down with his bed through the tiles into the midst before Jesus. And when he saw their faith he said, “Man, your sins are forgiven you.” And the scribes and the Pharisees began to question, saying, “Who is this that speaks blasphemies? Who can forgive sins but God only?” When Jesus perceived their questionings, he answered them, “Why do you question in your hearts? Which is easier, to say, ‘Your sins are forgiven you,’ or to say, ‘Rise and walk’? But that you may know that the Son of man has authority on earth to forgive sins”—he said to the man who was paralysed—“I say to you, rise, take up your bed and go home.” And immediately he rose before them, and took up that on which he lay, and went home, glorifying God. And amazement seized them all, and they glorified God and were filled with awe, saying, “We have seen strange things today.”
— Luke 5:17-26
Okay, so let’s take a look at what happened in this passage. Jesus told a paralytic man that his sins were forgiven. The Scribes and Pharisees accused him of blasphemy for this, correctly stating that nobody could forgive sins but God. Then Jesus showed them he had the authority to forgive sins, because he is God! He demonstrated this by healing the paralysed man. So now we’ve demonstrated, through Scripture, that Jesus had the authority to forgive sins because he is God, and he demonstrated this by his miracles. This alone doesn’t help us much, because it only demonstrates that Jesus can forgive sins, because he is God. However, the Scriptures don’t stop there. They go on to tell us something more…
On the evening of that day, the first day of the week, the doors being shut where the disciples were, for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them and said to them, “Peace be with you.” When he had said this, he showed them his hands and his side. Then the disciples were glad when they saw the Lord. Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, even so I send you.” And when he had said this, he breathed on them, and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.”
— John 20:19-23
Okay, with this passage the Evangelical now has a serious problem. Above we demonstrated that Jesus alone has the power to forgive sins because he is God, but here in this passage we see something amazing happen. Jesus actually decided to share that divine power with his apostles! This in no way means they are divine, but because Jesus is divine, he can do whatever he wants. If he wants to share the authority to forgive sins with mere mortals, that’s his business, and he can do it.
Let’s recap what he said. Jesus said to his apostles: “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.”
From this we know the apostles were given this divine authority…
- by the Holy Spirit,
- to forgive sins,
- to retain sins.
It’s shocking really, to think that Jesus would (by the indwelling of the Holy Spirit) bestow his divine authority upon certain men to forgive sins. At this point the Evangelical must concede the at least the apostles had the authority of Jesus to forgive sins. If they don’t, they directly deny Scripture. That means Peter could forgive sins. Matthew could forgive sins. James could forgive sins. John could forgive sins. etc. They could all forgive sins with the exact same authority as Jesus, because he gave it to them. Again, see the above passage. To deny this is to deny Scripture. Evangelicals pride themselves in following Scripture, so this needs to be pointed out to them.
However, the question now begs to be asked, could the apostles in turn bestow this authority upon others? Or was this just a one-time thing reserved only for the apostles? If the latter, then we have to ask why? Why would Jesus bestow this gift just as a one-time thing upon them at all? Why would they need it if all successive generations would just “go directly to God” for forgiveness? It doesn’t make sense really if it’s just a one-time thing. Again, Scripture assures us that it’s not. In the earliest days of the infant Church, Peter rose up and spoke as follows…
“So one of the men who have accompanied us during all the time that the Lord Jesus went in and out among us, beginning from the baptism of John until the day when he was taken up from us—one of these men must become with us a witness to his resurrection.” And they put forward two, Joseph called Barsab′bas, who was surnamed Justus, and Matthi′as. And they prayed and said, “Lord, who knowest the hearts of all men, show which one of these two thou hast chosen to take the place in this ministry and apostleship from which Judas turned aside, to go to his own place.” And they cast lots for them, and the lot fell on Matthi′as; and he was enrolled with the eleven apostles.
— Acts 1:21-26
Here we see that the apostles themselves were able to choose a successor to replace Judas Iscariot. Matthias was not in the upper room with them when Jesus bestowed the authority to forgive sins. So are we to assume that only the 11 apostles had that authority and Matthias was left out? Are we to assume that Matthias was the apostle with lesser apostolic authority, lacking the authority to forgive sins? That would be rather silly, wouldn’t it? And there is nothing in Scripture to indicate this. In every respect, Matthias appears to have all the authority of the other apostles, yet he wasn’t in the room when Jesus bestowed this authority to forgive sins upon the original eleven. There is no indication that he had less authority though. Thus, when the eleven apostles enrolled him with them, they bestowed upon him their own authority, passing along what Jesus had given to them. This would include the authority to forgive sins.
There are other places in Scripture where we see this authority to forgive sins being passed from apostles to others…
All this is from God, who through Christ reconciled us to himself and gave us the ministry of reconciliation; that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting to us the message of reconciliation. — 2 Corinthians 5:18-19
Is any among you sick? Let him call for the elders of the church, and let them pray over him, anointing him with oil in the name of the Lord; and the prayer of faith will save the sick man, and the Lord will raise him up; and if he has committed sins, he will be forgiven. — James 5:14-15
Hence, I remind you to rekindle the gift of God that is within you through the laying on of my hands — 2 Timothy 1:6
Now as the Church evolved over the first and second century, the distribution of apostolic authority was parcelled out to different ministers, according to need. For example; bishops were given full apostolic authority, allowing them to perform every one of the seven sacraments. Bishops have the apostolic authority to…
- Confession (the authority to forgive sins)
- Matrimony (marriage)
- Holy Orders (ordain others to ministry)
Presbyters, on the other hand, were given all sacramental authority, minus Confirmation and Holy Orders. This allowed them to care for the bishop’s flock, but not confirm new members with the gift of the Holy Spirit, or confer Holy Orders (ordination to ministry) upon others. These two sacraments were reserved for the bishop alone. So presbyters have the apostolic authority to…
- Confession (the authority to forgive sins)
- Matrimony (marriage)
However, you’ll notice that Confession (the authority to forgive sins) is listed among the authority of a presbyter. Today we typically use the word “priest” to describe the office of presbyter, even though their official job title is still presbyter. This is why we go to a “priest” or presbyter for the sacrament of confession.
The role of deacon is similar to a priest, but the bishop distributes even less apostolic authority to him. Deacons have the apostolic authority to…
- Matrimony (marriage)
In addition, a Catholic deacon can assist in some liturgical functions, but cannot officiate them. He may also have many other duties within the Church, including the faculties to preach homilies/sermons. In a very real sense, a Catholic deacon does just about everything an Evangelical pastor does.
So the reason why I spelt out the various apostolic authorities of these three offices within the Catholic Church (bishop/presbyter/deacon) is to demonstrate how all authority comes from Jesus Christ himself. He is the author of it, and it flows directly from him. He chose to distribute various aspects of his authority (including the authority to forgive sins) to his apostles, who in turn distributed it to bishops. The bishops in turn distribute various authorities to their presbyters and deacons, with the authority to forgive sins directly to the presbyters (or “priests”).
Yes, Catholics have solid Biblical ground to stand on when it comes to sacramental confession. This is something God simply wants us to do, and the fact that Jesus gave this authority to his apostles demonstrates that beyond the shadow of a doubt.
Now a common misunderstanding in the Evangelical mind is that Catholic confess their sins to the priest and then ask the priest for forgiveness. This is wrong. The priest does not forgive us, God does, using the ministry of the priest. All forgiveness, always comes from God. The priest simply acts as a conduit or channel, according to the authority that was given to him by Jesus Christ (see above). When Catholics are finished confessing their sins to God, before his priest, this is the prayer of contrition they are required to say…
O my God, I am heartily sorry for having offended Thee, and I detest all my sins because of Thy just punishments, but most of all because they offend Thee, my God, Who art all-good and deserving of all my love. I firmly resolve, with the help of Thy grace, to sin no more and to avoid the near occasions of sin.
You will take note, the prayer is addressed to God, not to the priest.
The purpose of sacramental confession is to assure one of forgiveness. Yes, it is possible to confess your sins directly to God and be forgiven, but do you really have any assurance of that forgiveness? No. You have a moral assurance, in the sense of a reasonable expectation that God is merciful, but you have no real assurance, because God (through his ministers) has not specifically told you that you are forgiven. This is why Jesus enabled his apostles with his authority to forgive sins. He wanted us to have the assurance that our sins really are forgiven when we confess them with true sincerity. We know we have absolute assurance of God’s forgiveness when the priest says the following…
“God, the Father of mercies, through the death and resurrection of his Son has reconciled the world to himself and sent the Holy Spirit among us for the forgiveness of sins; through the ministry of the Church, may God give you pardon and peace, and I absolve you from your sins in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.”
As a matter of fact, the Catholic practise of sacramental confession is a lot more Biblical than the Evangelical practise of “confessing your sins to God alone.” The Catholic practise takes into account ALL the Scriptures associated with confessing our sins. Whereas the Evangelical practise simply takes into account only a select few, while ignoring others. At best, the Evangelical has no Biblical ground to stand on in criticising sacramental confession. At worst, the Evangelical is actually missing out on the full grace that God intended all of Christ’s followers to have.