A friend of mind had just learned of my decision to join the Catholic faith. He was nice about it, that is, he didn’t give me the “whore of babylon” reaction.
He dropped me off after a slice of pizza and said, “You know, there’s just one thing I could never do.”
“Confession. I could never confess to a priest.”
“Don’t want to or just don’t understand it?”
“Don’t understand it. It makes no sense.”
“I know what you mean. I didn’t understand it either, but you know where Jesus appears to the Apostles in John 20…” I went on with my elevator speech.
“Well that’s your interpretation, and you guys use a different Bible.”
“Right, but first of all, we both use the Gospel of John. But what did the early Christians use? They didn’t have a Bible.”
“What? Of course they did.”
“No, I assure you, the Scriptures weren’t all written the night of Pentecost.”
I was immediately cut off with, “No, Shaun, stop – please. I don’t want to hear it.” If I learned one thing for sure in Patrick Madrid‘s graduate course in Apologetics with Holy Apostles College and Seminary, it is that any argument between Protestants and Catholics eventually boils down to Sola Scriptura. It’s really a conversation for another day, or lifetime. Here though, let’s talk about how to discuss confession with your objector.
A frequent objection is the need to confess sins to a priest in order to be forgiven. Many objectors will call it an “invention”. I used to object as well, citing the Church’s medieval need of knowing the private lives of each of their adherents. Silly reasons like that were enough for me, but there exist better objections. One is that it doesn’t say anywhere in the Bible that we need to confess to a priest. Let me give praise to this objection for wanting evidence in the Scriptures. To this objection I will give three points to support the Catholic position and also a conclusion.
Objection: Confession is not biblical.
On the contrary:
Need of Confession
First, we need to understand that as human persons we are subject to imminent and sometimes frequent sin. Paul tells us in Romans 3:23, “All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God,” and that implies the need for forgiveness and reconciliation. No Protestant would disagree. So the question is: do we need to confess to God the Father at all? Yes. Jesus, when asked how to pray, includes “forgive us our debts (sins), as we forgive our debtors” (Matthew 6:12). If that’s not enough, John writes, “If we confess our sins, he [God the Father] is faithful and just, and will forgive our sin and cleanse us from all unrighteousness,” which is unmistakable proof that the scriptures require confession of sins (1 John 1:9). The plurality of our sins implies the plurality of confessing.
Jesus’ Authority to Forgive Sins
Indeed one won’t argue the value in confession to God. But we also know from Scripture that Jesus, a separate person of the Trinity, has the authority to forgive sins: “The Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins” (Matthew 9:6). Forgiving sins is a regular part of Jesus’ ministry, on earth. Right after his baptism and temptation, he is immediately doing three things: forgiving sins, healing, and teaching. These highlights of His ministry did not die with him and there must have been some means of continuing His ministry on earth.
Authority given to the Apostles
After His resurrection He appears to the 11 and says:
“As the father has sent me, so I am sending you … receive the Holy Spirit. Whose sins you forgive are forgiven them, and whose sins you retain are retained” (John 20:21-23).
Was Jesus talking about general forgiveness in social interaction or a real authority? The answer is in the words of Jesus. The word “sent” (Latin, apostello) is translated “to go to a place appointed” and the “sending” (Latin, pempo) is simply “to send”. Therefore, they [ the Apostles] are sent from Jesus as He was sent by God. The objector also has to understand the difference in “like” and “as” where “like” shows likeness (similarity) and “as” shows sameness. “As the father has sent me, so I am sending you” is ‘I am sending you with the authority I was sent with.’
Not enough on the “authority” part? Jesus makes it quite clear when He says “Whoever listens to you, listens to me. Whoever rejects you rejects me. And whoever rejects me rejects the one who sent me” (Luke 10:16). That’s not out of context as Jesus is talking about the unrepentant towns to which the Apostles were sent with His authority. There is a clear link between repentance and the authority of the Apostles!
Conclusion: Ambassadors of Christ
Jesus left earth though, and left us a church to continue His ministry. Remember, His ministry consists of healing and teaching, as well as forgiveness of sin (Matthew 9:35, 9:6, respectively). So as the Church is His body, truly, He must have left a way in which the ministry can continue for ultimate salvation. He had the authority to forgive sins on earth and the Church continues this so long as there is an ongoing need to forgive sins. Paul clearly tells us, “All this is from God, who through Christ reconciled us to himself and gave us the ministry of reconciliation” (2 Corinthians 5:18). Paul then writes, “we are ambassadors of Christ” (20). Ambassadors are delegated officials sent with the authority of their higher official. Paul was indeed saying that He, as an Apostle, was trusted with the authority of the one who sent him.
There is no mistake to be made here, the Church has the authority to forgive sins. First, there is a clear need to confess sins to God in plurality. Second, Jesus had the authority to forgive sins, it was a regular part of His ministry on earth. Third, Jesus left earth but His ministry needed to continue and this authority was given to the Apostles.
The Protestant must answer this question: if each part of Jesus’ ministry was commissioned to the Apostles, why exclude forgiveness of sins? That is, if Jesus gives His Church, His own Bride, His authority to cast out demons (Mark 16:17), heal (18), and preach the Gospel (15), why is the last part of his ministry, forgiveness of sin (John 20:23), excluded? I follow-up with the answer given by Jesus to the same objection when told He was blaspheming for forgiving sin:
“Which is easier, to say, ‘Your sins are forgiven,’ or to say, ‘Rise and walk’?” (Matthew 9:5). Further, Matthew writes, “When the crowds saw this they were struck with awe and glorified God who had given such authority to human beings” (9:8).
Remember: this ministry and authority is not due to the goodness of the priest, or the poiousness of the Church. Indeed there are bad people in the Church, but the Church is intimately identified with Jesus (Romans 12:5, 1 Corinthians 12:13, 27, Ephesians 1:22-23, Colossians 1:17) who is blameless and holy (Ephesians 5:27).