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We must confess sins just as Jesus told us to

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We must confess sins just as Jesus told us to
Graham Osborne

Photo Caption: The Confession, a 19th Century painting by Giuseppe Molteni, depicts a woman confessing her sins and seeking repentance, just as commanded by Jesus in the Bible. (Fondazione Cariplo/

Many Protestants, and unfortunately, many Catholics, object to confessing their sins to a priest. The argument often goes that we have only one high priest (Heb 3:1) and “one mediator between God and men … Christ Jesus” (1 Tim 2:5). Only God can forgive sins, they say, so I confess my sins directly to God.

The interesting thing is that you get no real argument from Catholics on most of these points! But, the Church would add that this is only half the story.

While Jesus is certainly our high priest and mediator, and only God can forgive sins, this absolutely does not preclude the possibility that Jesus could share this authority with men. And it is very clear from Scripture that he did just that!

Consider John 17:18: “As you sent me into the world, so I sent them (his disciples) into the world.” Listen to the authority Jesus is giving to the disciples here – the same authority the Father sent him with. Luke 10:16-18 is similar: “He who hears you hears me.”

His disciples replied, “Lord, even the demons are subject to us because of your name …,” to which Jesus answered: “Behold, I have given you the power to tread upon … the full force of the enemy.”

Particularly illuminating is Mark 6:7-13: “He called the twelve … and gave them authority over the unclean spirits. And they cast out many demons, and anointed with oil many that were sick and healed them.”

It is not only God who can drive out demons or miraculously heal; he can choose to give that power to men.

But the stunner comes in John 20:21-23, where Jesus unquestionably gives his disciples exactly what the Catholic Church claims: the authority to forgive sins. “As the Father has sent me, so I send you … Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.” Incredible! This is the Scriptural foundation for the Catholic sacrament of confession, and our question is unequivocally answered!

We see a similar authority echoed in Matthew 16:16-20. Jesus gives Peter the incredible authority of “the keys to the kingdom of heaven,” and then declares (first to Peter and then to all the disciples in Matthew 18:18), “whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.” This “binding and loosing” was rabbinic language of the time pertaining to both the forgiving of sins and the authoritative teaching of doctrine.

But noteworthy here is that these verses all imply confession out loud. If the Apostles were to “retain” or “bind or loose” anyone’s sins, they would necessarily have to know what they were first – they would have to be confessed.

Let’s turn to the early Church for some further insight. Without a doubt, confession to a priest was the practice of early Christians. In the case of particularly serious public sins (like apostasy for example), these often had to be confessed out loud to the whole assembly, rather than just privately to the priest.

For example, the Didache (an early Christian writing from 70AD) states: “Confess your sins in church … On the Lord’s Day gather together, break bread, and give thanks, after confessing your transgressions so that your sacrifice may be pure.”

In 215 AD, St. Hippolytus transcribed the prayer of ordination of a bishop: “God ... Pour forth that power… you gave to your beloved Son … which he bestowed upon his holy Apostles … and grant this, your servant, whom you have chosen for the episcopate (office of bishop), the power… by the Spirit of the high priesthood to have the authority to forgive sins, in accord with your command.”

Similarly, St. Cyprian, martyred Bishop of Carthage, wrote in 251 AD: “Of how much greater faith are they who ... confess their sins to the priests of God … while they are still in this world … while the satisfaction and remission made through the priests are still pleasing before the Lord.”

St. John Chrysostom, one of the greatest preachers in Christian history, answers our question in 387 AD with perfect scriptural clarity: “Priests have received a power that God has given to neither angels nor archangels. It was said to them: ‘Whatsoever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven; and whatsoever you loose shall be loosed.’ Temporal rulers … can bind only the body. Priests, in contrast, can bind with a bond that pertains to the soul, and transcends the very heavens. Did (God) not give them all the powers of heaven? ‘Whose sins you shall forgive,’ he says, ‘they are forgiven them; whose sins you shall retain, they are retained.’ What greater power is there than this? The Father has given all judgment to the Son. And now I see the Son placing all this power in the hands of men (Mt 10:40; Jn 20:21-23).”

Finally, there is a communal aspect of sin as well. When one part of the body of Christ suffers, the whole body suffers (1 Cor 12:26). So in confession, the priest also represents the body of Christ, and helps restore us to full communion with it, also helping us make reparation through a just but merciful penance for any damage our sins may have caused.


Last Updated on Thursday, 06 July 2017 08:57  

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