The Sacrament of Reconciliation perhaps highlights the division of beliefs between Catholicism and most Protestant faiths like no other. Differing understandings of authority, the nature of sin, the nature of the priesthood, what it means to be saved, how sins are forgiven – all of these come into play and since there are fundamental disagreements about many of these topics, it can be difficult to address all the different perspectives. In my first post I reviewed the concept that God’s discipline in our lives is necessary to bring forth holiness. In the second post I reviewed the concept that many Protestants profess that all sins, including future ones are forgiven at the moment of salvation, and why as Catholics we would disagree with that view.
As Catholics we understand that confessing our sins to a priest is part of the discipline that God gifts to us in order to help our growth in holiness – the holiness without which no one will see the Lord (Hebrews 12:14). As with many things, I often turn to this Evangelical site for their perspective:
“The concept of confession of sin to a priest is nowhere taught in Scripture. First, the New Testament does not teach that there are to be priests in the New Covenant. Instead, the New Testament teaches that all believers are priests. First Peter 2:5-9 describes believers as a ‘holy priesthood’ and a ‘royal priesthood.’ Revelation 1:6 and 5:10 both describe believers as ‘a kingdom of priests.’ In the Old Covenant, the faithful had to approach God through the priests. The priests were mediators between the people and God. The priests offered sacrifices to God on behalf of the people. That is no longer necessary. Because of Jesus’ sacrifice, we can now approach God’s throne with boldness (Hebrews 4:16). The temple veil tearing in two at Jesus’ death was symbolic of the dividing wall between God and humanity being destroyed. We can approach God directly, ourselves, without the use of a human mediator. Why? Because Jesus Christ is our great High Priest (Hebrews 4:14-15; 10:21) and the only mediator between us and God (1 Timothy 2:5). The New Testament teaches that there are to be elders (1 Timothy 3:1-7; Titus 1:6-9), deacons (1 Timothy 3:8-13), and pastors (Ephesians 4:11) – but not priests.”
From the Catholic perspective there are many things in this statement that are problematic. The first is the concept that because Scripture teaches that all believers in Christ are members of a holy priesthood, this means that a ministerial priesthood does not exist. That topic was covered thoroughly here. As Catholics we understand that just as the nation of Israel was a kingdom of priests (Exodus 19:6), that did not mean that there was not a ministerial priesthood in the Old Covenant. And the New Testament clearly shows a ministerial priesthood at work – the presbyters (often translated as elders) hold this priestly function as do the apostles.
Another problematic view in this statement is the position that because a ministerial priesthood existed in the Old Covenant, that meant that people could not approach God directly without the use of a human mediator. While the priests in the Old Covenant did indeed offer sacrifice on behalf of the people, this in no way meant that people could not approach God directly. It was very much a “both/and” situation, not an “either/or.” Consider for example King David who prays to God “I acknowledged my sin to thee, and I did not hide my iniquity; I said, ‘I will confess my trangressions to the Lord’; then thou didst forgive the guilt of my sin. Therefore let every one who is godly offer prayer to thee; at a time of distress, in the rush of great waters, they shall not reach him” (Psalm 32:5-6). We read in 2 Samuel 24:10 David says to God “I have sinned greatly in what I have done. But now, O Lord, I pray thee, take away the iniquity of thy servant; for I have done very foolishly.” David often speaks to God of his own sin and seeks forgiveness (Psalm 25:18, Psalm 38:18, Psalm 41:4, Psalm 51:2-14).
Nehemiah writes “Yea, I and my father’s house have sinned. We have acted very corruptly against thee, and have not kept the commandments, the statutes, and the ordinances which thou didst command thy servant Moses.” Nehemiah 1:6-7
And in Judges 10:10-16 we hear the people of Israel directly speaking to God about their sin – “And the people of Israel cried to the Lord, saying, ‘We have sinned against thee, because we have forsaken our God and have served the Ba′als.’ And the Lord said to the people of Israel, ‘Did I not deliver you from the Egyptians and from the Amorites, from the Ammonites and from the Philistines? The Sido′nians also, and the Amal′ekites, and the Ma′onites, oppressed you; and you cried to me, and I delivered you out of their hand. Yet you have forsaken me and served other gods; therefore I will deliver you no more. Go and cry to the gods whom you have chosen; let them deliver you in the time of your distress.’ And the people of Israel said to the Lord, ‘We have sinned; do to us whatever seems good to thee; only deliver us, we pray thee, this day.’ So they put away the foreign gods from among them and served the Lord; and he became indignant over the misery of Israel.”
So I am always at a loss and quite puzzled where this widespread idea originated or is found that people in the Old Covenant had no direct access to God and had to go through a priest as a mediator. They clearly could pray and ask God for forgiveness of their sins. But they also were required to approach the priest to offer sacrifice on their behalf.
And in this sense the above view is correct – there is no longer a need for priests of the Old Covenant to offer sacrifice on behalf of the people. Christ is the final sacrifice, and his sacrifice is for all people for all time. He is our offering to the Father, but a New Covenant priesthood is also necessary to offer this sacrifice on our behalf. As reviewed in detail in this post, we see St. Paul write in Romans 15:15-16 “But on some points I have written to you very boldly by way of reminder, because of the grace given me by God to be a minister of Christ Jesus to the Gentiles in the priestly service of the gospel of God, so that the offering of the Gentiles may be acceptable, sanctified by the Holy Spirit.”
So as Catholics we would disagree with the foundational principles in the above position and contend that there was nothing in the Old Covenant that denied people direct access to God, the fact that there was a ministerial priesthood in the Old Covenant did not mean that the nation of Israel was not in itself a holy priesthood (Exodus 19:6), and that there does exist a ministerial priesthood in the New Covenant that exists alongside the priesthood of believers as thoroughly covered here.
My next post will review the Scriptural basis that shows these priests of the New Covenant receive from Christ the authority to forgive our sins.