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 even know where to begin 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 whereby all sins, including future ones are forgiven at the moment of salvation, and why as Catholics we would disagree with that view. In the third post I reviewed the common view among Protestants that there is no longer need for a intermediary regarding the confession of sins as there was in the Old Covenant and why as Catholics we would also disagree with that premise.
I now turn our attention to what the New Testament actually teaches us about the confession and forgiveness of sins. Protestants in general will turn to Mark 2:7 where Jesus has implied that he has the authority to forgive sins, and the scribes respond “Why does this man speak thus? It is blasphemy! Who can forgive sins but God alone?” This story is told both in Mark 2:1-12 and Matthew 9:1-8. Friends brought a paralytic lying on a stretcher to Christ, hoping that he would heal him. Matthew 9:2 records that when Jesus saw their faith he said “Take heart, my son; your sins are forgiven.” Imagine what a surprise that would have been to all who were there. They anticipated Christ would simply heal the man so he could walk. Instead, Jesus forgave his sins.
That caused quite a stir among the crowd. “And behold, some of the scribes said to themselves, ‘This man is blaspheming.’ But Jesus, knowing their thoughts, said, ‘Why do you think evil in your hearts? For which is easier, to say, “Your sins are forgiven,” or to say, “Rise and walk”? But that you may know that the Son of man has authority on earth to forgive sins’—he then said to the paralytic—’Rise, take up your bed and go home.’ And he rose and went home.”(Matthew 9:3-7) It is interesting that in this exchange the focus of Christ is on his human nature – the “Son of man” has authority on earth to forgive sins. What is even more interesting is how Matthew wraps up this event in his Gospel – “When the crowds saw it, they were afraid, and they glorified God, who had given such authority to men” (Matthew 9:8). While the scribes correctly knew that only God could forgive sins, there is also recognition they understood that God had shared that authority with men.
And Scripture is clear that Jesus does share his authority with his apostles. During his time with them, he gives them authority over unclean spirits and demons, and the power to heal people (Mark 6:7-13, Luke 9:1-2). He tells them that “He who receives you receives me, and he who receives me receives him who sent me” (Matthew 10:40). He reiterates that at the Last Supper when he tells them that “Truly, truly, I say to you, he who receives any one whom I send receives me; and he who receives me receives him who sent me.” (John 13:20) And then he makes a quite bold and astounding statement to them — “He will glorify me, for he will take what is mine and declare it to you. All that the Father has is mine; therefore I said that he will take what is mine and declare it to you.” (John 16:14-15)
“But that you may know that the Son of man has authority on earth to forgive sins” (Matthew 9:6, Mark 2:10). “I said that he will take what is mine and declare it to you.” (John 16:15) Do we take Christ at his word, and that he shares the authority he’s been given on earth with his apostles?
And if we still do not believe that would apply to the forgiveness of sins, Jesus then gives them that specific authority after the resurrection. First, he reminds them that “As the Father has sent me, even so I send you.” (John 20:21) Did the Father not send Christ to earth to forgive sins? (Matthew 9:6) And then, he breathes on them and tells 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 20:22-23)
For Catholics this passage seems pretty cut and dried – Jesus gives the apostles the authority to either forgive, or retain sins. The catechism says this in CCC1441 “Only God forgives sins. Since he is the Son of God, Jesus says of himself, ‘The Son of man has authority on earth to forgive sins’ and exercises this divine power: ‘Your sins are forgiven.’ Further, by virtue of his divine authority he gives this power to men to exercise in his name.”
When Protestants reject this passage they can provide a variety of reasons they believe it’s not meant to be taken literally. One of the most common is that Jesus is simply telling them to preach the Gospel, because that is how people will receive him and have their sins forgiven. From the Catholic view, he clearly gives them the authority to forgive sins, and to minimize it to simply “preach the Gospel” doesn’t do justice to the text. Another common objection is that nowhere in the passage does it refer to people actually confessing their sins. From the Catholic perspective that seems to be clearly implied – how can a decision be made whether to forgive or retain someone’s sins without knowing the sins? Another interpretation is that the apostles were given authority to forgive sins committed against the Church, but not God. No where in Scripture are sins separated in this way though, nor in this passage. Catholics tend to simply take Christ at his word here – as he was sent by the Father, he is now sending his apostles (John 20:21). He was given authority on earth to forgive sins (Matthew 9:6), and all that he has, he has declared to the apostles (John 16:14-15). And by his authority, whose sins they forgive are forgiven, and whose sins they retain are retained (John 20:22-23). And we glorify God, who has given such authority to men (Matthew 9:8).
The Catechism also says in CCC1442 that “Christ has willed that in her prayer and life and action his whole Church should be the sign and instrument of the forgiveness and reconciliation that he acquired for us at the price of his blood. But he entrusted the exercise of the power of absolution to the apostolic ministry which he charged with the ‘ministry of reconciliation.’ The apostle is sent out ‘on behalf of Christ’ with ‘God making his appeal’ through him and pleading: ‘Be reconciled to God.’”
St. Paul speaks of this ministry of the apostles in 2 Corinthians 5:18-20 – “All this is from God, who through Christ reconciled us to himself and gave us the ministry of reconciliation; that is, God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting to us the message of reconciliation. So we are ambassadors for Christ, God making his appeal through us. We beseech you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God.” St. Paul is writing to an established community of Christians who have already heard and responded to the Gospel, yet still need to be offered the “ministry of reconciliation.” This can only be speaking to post-Baptismal sin that has entered their life requiring them to be reconciled to God.
Another very common objection to the requirement to confess our sins to a priest is a view that Scripture teaches we are to confess our sins to God directly. The verse usually cited to support this is 1 John 1:9 – “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just, and will forgive our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness.” But while this verse teaches we are to confess our sins in order to receive forgiveness, it does not specify how we are to do that, nor does it say that the way to do that is to confess directly to God. This is again where Catholics would see a “both/and” rather than an “either/or.” As Catholics we are encouraged to make a daily examination of conscience, and confess any sins directly to God. We are also required to confess any mortal sins to a priest, as well as make a general confession at least once a year. But we are encouraged to make use of the sacrament of Reconciliation often. Frequent confession can be seen as treating the wound to our soul caused by sin so that infection does not deepen.
And while there is no Scripture that tells us we are to confess our sins directly to God, there is one that instructs us to confess our sins “to one another.” This is found in James 5:16. A common objection to the Catholic understanding of the verse is found here:
“James 5:16 speaks of confessing our trespasses ‘to one another,’ but this is not the same as confessing sins to a priest as the Roman Catholic Church teaches. Priests / church leaders are nowhere mentioned in the context of James 5:16. Further, James 5:16 does not link forgiveness of sins with the confession of sins ‘to one another.’”
Frankly the author of this article is wrong on both counts. In direct context priests/church leaders are specifically mentioned, as is the forgiveness of sins as a result of this confession. James records a liturgical rite whereby people confess their sins in the presence of the clergy and community.
“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. 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 5:14-16)
And while I’m not aware of any examples in the New Testament of a person confessing their sins directly to God, we do see examples of people opening confessing their sins to others. This is the expectation as people come to be baptized by John the Baptist – “Then went out to him Jerusalem and all Judea and all the region about the Jordan, and they were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sin.” (Matthew 3:5-6). And we see in Acts Chapter 19 that others besides the apostles had taken it upon themselves to try to expel demons in the name of Christ without success, as they had not been given the authority by Christ to do so. This event so impacted the community that some of those who had been involved in the occult repented – “Many also of those who were now believers came, confessing and divulging their practices” (Acts 19:18). And indeed if we study Church history we find that in the early church, public confession of sins to the community in the presence of the elders was the norm. This highlights the reality that no sin, no matter how secret is really “private” in nature. All sin impacts not just the individual, but the community as well. Later in church history it is decided that the priest can represent both Christ and his authority given to forgive sins as well as the community who has been harmed by our sin, and private confession to a priest becomes the norm.
There is another interesting passage where St. Paul writes to the Corinthians about forgiving someone who has caused harm to the community, which indicates the person did not only need to seek forgiveness from God for their sin. It’s interesting because even though Paul himself was not personally offended, he extends his forgiveness “in the presence of Christ.” The KJV renders that verse as Paul saying “To whom ye forgive any thing, I forgive also: for if I forgave any thing, to whom I forgave it, for your sakes forgave I it in the person of Christ” (2 Corinthians 2:10). Because of the authority given to the apostles by Christ, they acted “in persona Christ” – in the person of Christ. As Christ was sent was sent by the Father, he sent his apostles (John 20:21). Christ was given authority on earth to forgive sins (Matthew 9:6) and all that he had the Father declared to the apostles (John 16:14-15). And by his authority, whose sins they forgive are forgiven, and whose sins they retain are retained (John 20:22-23). And we glorify God, who has given such authority to men (Matthew 9:8) that we may be healed (James 5:14-16).