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A Biblical Look at Confession

December 16, AD 2013 33 Comments

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.”
“Whats that?”
“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).

 

About the Author:

Shaun McAfee is a veteran of the Air Force and current civilian in the Army Corps of Engineers as a Contract Specialist. He blogs at ShaunMcAfee.com. Currently he is pursuing a Masters in Dogmatic Theology with Holy Apostles College and Seminary where he also serves as the Social Media Director. He also works for Patrick Madrid's Envoy Institute as the Social Media Administrator. A convert to Catholicism, he loves learning, explaining, sharing, and defending the faith. He is married and has two boys named Gabriel and Tristan. They live in Omaha, NE.
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  • nannon31

    The Church by its authority restricts formal Penance to going to a priest but it could in the future centuries change that if priests are scarce in say Siberia or Samoa etc.. It could return to James chapter 5 which urges people to “confess to one another” but it notes…to someone righteous like Elijah who may have been a Levite but also could have been from Benjamin or Gad according to Jewish traditions. In short James 5 doesn’t reference his origins but only his being righteous. What if there is both a priest shortage and a righteous person shortage say in Siberia or Samoa? What then? Then people will go to God directly and help the poor as penance per Isaiah wherein God will make your scarlet sins white as snow. But ordinarily right now by authority from God to the Church, if there are priests in your area, they are necessary excepting unusual situations like an abuse victim who trusts no priest in their very rural area…then epikeia obtains…the virtue whereby a person must omit the letter of the law while not omitting confession to God directly in their case.

    • Guest

      GREAT comment. Thanks for the participation nannon31

    • Phil Steinacker

      Unfortunately for your argument, the Church reserves some priestly functions to ordained priests alone: Confirmation, Extreme Unction (Sacrament of the Sick), Confession, and Holy Orders (by the bishop, whose station lives out the fullness of the priesthood).

      While the Church has established Extraordinary Ministers of Holy Communion to dispense the consecrated Body & Blood of Christ, She has NOT bestowed upon laity the authority to actually perform such Consecration – again, reserved exclusively to the ordained priesthood “in persona Christi.”

      Your suggestion denies the mind of the Church that the priest dispensing these Sacraments acts in the Person of Jesus Christ, reminding us that “I must decrease so that He may increase” is the application of “in persona Christi” to the Sacraments and to the Mass.

      The Church will permit laity to perform the Sacrament of Penance when She allows laity to consecrate the bread and wine into the Body and Blood of Jesus – right after She ordains teh first woman priest.

      Ain’t. Gonna. Happen.

      Evah.

      • nannon31

        Phil,
        If you were lost on an island, you could receive foregiveness from God and the Eucharist directly from him. Research spiritual communion: http://www.catholicnews.com/data/stories/cns/1103366.htm

      • Well of course. It’s basic Catholic theology that God isn’t limited by His sacraments.

      • nannon31

        Actually John, since in a recent poll, over 40% of Catholics in Camden County N.J. said that Christ committed little sins while He was on earth, I suspect that the percentage of elderly Catholics especially going forward who know of spiritual Communion at all will be a small percent of Catholics…when in fact they all should know St. Alphonsus’ prayer and that being elderly in bed is no dimunition of sacramental life…not one iota as to the essence of Communion. If 1% know that, I’d be surprised…not 1% of Catholic avid readers but 1% of Catholics worldwide.

      • Oh, that’s a shock to hear. There’s work to be done carrying the full message of hope to all. Excuse my presumption: I’m a recent convert, so I’ve had to study the Catechism recently. But isn’t it wonderful? Believe me, for I’d been happily Pentecostal for nearly 40 years: the Catholic Church is the real one!

      • nannon31

        A black security guard from Holiness Church used to challenge my 16 years of Catholic education with Bible quotes and his knowledge forced me to read scripture…all of which I read in the ensuing years thanks to him and God who brought about the duel in the first place.

      • Non-Catholics have access to fewer means of grace, I know that now for sure; but many make great use of what they have received. May God bless that dear security guard and bring him home – “keep the best wine till last”!

      • hat

        How can you say the Catholic Church is more valid than any other one? What are the implications for non-Catholics?

      • The Catechism clearly states that all baptised Christians are in some way ordered to the Church. I wouldn’t use the word ‘valid’. Perhaps ‘complete’.

    • hat

      I like the idea of confessing my failings and wrongdoings. I do it with my good friends that I trust. They provide me with feedback.

      • nannon31

        Are they righteous like Elijah which James 5 requires if you are proceeding by scripture only? Most modern friends can lack severity not about you but about the sin.

      • hat

        Well I trust them more than anyone else and they know me very well. I have admitted many things of which I am ashamed.

        The problem I have in talking to priests and therapists is that they really don’t know you and can’t really give you any meaningful feedback.

      • Shaun Alexander McAfee

        hat, hello.
        Are you Catholic? You’re right about trust; it’s uber important and equally difficult to confess if you are looking for mentoring alongside your forgiveness. Some go purely for the pardon, but it shows a more contrite heart to engage in advice/feedback/mentoring. I have a priest that knows me like a friend – so he is who I choose when possible. That’s an option if you can find a priest to be your regular confidant. God bless you my friend.

      • hat

        I don’t see the point in asking for forgiveness unless you are trying to understand yourself and grow. Otherwise it just seems like you are begging to avoid ‘hell’.

      • Shaun Alexander McAfee

        Yes, it’s the difference between “perfect contrition” and “imperfect contrition.” One wishes to be forgiven, is truly sorry, while also avoid sin and anything leading to sin. The less desirable state is where one only wishes to be forgiven simply for the fear of hell. You’re all over it, hat!

      • hat

        I don’t even like the idea of asking for forgiveness. If I have wronged someone I would rather admit to what I have done and say I am sorry for the pain I have caused. If someone is truly sorry they won’t even ask for forgiveness.

      • Shaun Alexander McAfee

        Don’t you see that sin is against God? You ARE admitting what you have done and saying sorry. That’s confession.

      • hat

        Forgiveness is only sincere if you ask it from the people whom you have wronged.

      • I like all your testimonies on this touching issue, Hat. What you may be missing is the deep connection between forgiving others and being forgiven ourselves – Jesus said emphatically you can’t have the one without the other. And we need forgiveness, desperately. Not for some future insurance against Hell; but to be healed inside and changed now. The Catholic Sacrament of Penance – the confession and absolution thing – is a mystical grace conferred on His Church by our Lord which powerfully assists us to overcome sin and step into the joy and freedom of God’s children

      • hat

        There is no point in forgiving or asking forgiveness for something or for someone that will not change.

      • Even under those circumstances, the point as far as we are concerned is to achieve a change in ourselves – for that we can hope! Forgiving and asking forgiveness sets us free from guilt and shame. But to able to do so requires God’s help, and even then, time and patience and compassion toward ourselves.

      • hat

        I think hope is overrated. I am a realistic optimizer. The best way to fight guilt and shame is through honesty.

      • MarcAlcan

        I hope you realize that confessing sins is not about getting feedback. It means you are really sorry for having done the evil did that you committed and are now resolved to do better.
        While feedback may be helpful, what happens at confession is the forgiveness of our sins.
        The confessional is not the psychiatrists chaise lounge.

      • hat

        Well if you don’t need the feedback, what is the priest for? Just ask God yourself. He is everywhere, right?

      • MarcAlcan

        What do you need the priest for? Absolution. So that he can pass on to you God’s forgiveness as prescribed by Jesus Himself.

      • True enough. Confession, Penance and Absolution are wonderful Sacraments – certain actions the Church does which God works through. I really know that, because I had 40 years of faith without them, and now they are making a huge difference in me. But we have to be real on this issue: out there are millions of Christians who are faithful without them, as I was, and many think a priest just gets in the way between them and God. In explaining Catholic teaching, we have to balance what we say about the Sacraments by acknowledging that God is Himself not at all limited by them. What I have now got free from is that rather abstract and reductive Protestant approach which dispenses with what it reasons is not essential. I now say “yes” to every channel He uses to give me grace, for every one of them is helpful for the changes He is doing in my body, soul and spirit.

  • james

    Unfortunately, the one point overlooked is almost all of Jesus’ healing dealt with
    first, forgiving the sin before a bodily cure could be realized. It was not unknown
    by the disciples and people living in the first century that sin was transferable to
    the next human life. The moist adroit example of this is when Jesus cured a man
    blind from birth. Whose sin they asked: his or the parents. Jesus did not feed into this indecent speculation while at the same time abstained from refuting an older understanding of a larger theological nature. When JP II put the statue of the Buddha on the altar at Assisi and met with the Dali Lama he was giving us a glimpse of another world dimension to this very notion of sin and forgiveness.

  • Christian LeBlanc

    Even King David, who often conversed directly with God, had to confess out loud to Nathan, God’s authorized agent; and then hear the words of forgiveness from that same authorized agent; and then his penance.

    http://platytera.blogspot.com/2009/05/david-nathan.html

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