Many people think that the Sacrament of Confession is a waste of time and that they cannot confess all their sins to a priest who is a “mortal man like them”; that it is better to confess directly to God. Recently, one of my Facebook friends tried arguing with me on this. I also received other similar questions on the Sacrament of Confession recently; for this reason, I have decided to come up with this post. This post will explain to us biblically on the need to confess our sins to God, through the priest who acts “in persona Christi” (in the person of Christ)
Well, nobody is preventing anyone to confess his/her sins directly to God, “but our sins are also against our brothers and sisters, and against the church. This is why it is necessary to ask forgiveness from our brothers and sisters and from the church in the person of the priest” (according to Pope Francis). Besides, the right thing ought to be done in the right manner. Let us now turn to the Holy Scripture and understand this necessity.
According to Leviticus 19: 20-22, a man who committed adultery had to bring a guilt offering for himself to the door of the Tent of Meeting (the holy place where the Ark of the Covenant, which contained God’s true presence was kept). But then it adds “And the priest shall make atonement for him …before the Lord for his sin…and the sin which he has committed shall be forgiven.” (see also Leviticus 5: 5-6). The priest could not make atonement if he were not aware of the man’s sin. He is acting as a mediator for the repentant sinner.
Having said this, an objection may arise, and it is: “Well that is the Old Testament, but now we have Jesus, who suffered for our sins”. Therefore, what does the New Testament have to say?
Matthew 3: 16 (and Mk 1: 5): “. . . they were baptized by him (John the Baptist) in the river Jordan, confessing their sins.” Thus, John who prepared the way for Christ listened to confessions of sin. We learn also in Luke’s account of John the Baptist how he freely confessed that he was not the Christ (Luke 3: 16-17). He doubtless heard countless confessions of sin, but he knew where forgiveness of sin came from. This we see at the moment he approached Jesus; he declared, “Behold the Lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the world” (John 1: 29).
Jesus then sent his disciples to baptize throughout Judea (John 3: 22) and they too, doubtless heard the confessions of many sinners as they travelled from village to village. So Jesus used his disciples and John the Baptist to hear confessions of sins, however, this is not the sacrament of confession.
Let’s see how the New Testament shows men receiving the authority to forgive sins in God’s Name. According to Matthew 9: 6-8: Jesus tells us that he was given authority on earth to forgive sins (a power reserved to God) and proves it with miraculous healing. The Scripture also notes this same authority was given to “men”. Is this merely a figure of speech? No, John’s Gospel makes it clear Jesus intended to confer this authority to men (cf. John 20: 21-23: In his very first resurrection appearance, our Lord gave this awesome power to his Apostles with the words: “RECEIVE THE HOLY SPIRIT. IF YOU FORGIVE THE SINS OF ANY, THEY ARE FORGIVEN; IF YOU RETAIN THE SINS OF ANY, THEY ARE RETAINED.”
How could they forgive sins if the sins were not confessed? They could not. This authority comes through the gift of the Holy Spirit which precedes it. Does this remind us what He told Peter (Mt. 16: 19) and then the other apostles (Mt. 18:18)? “I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.” This includes sins. Jesus allows us to receive spiritual consolation and counsel in this beautiful Sacrament of the Church. We see this awesome power in other sacraments as well; an example of this is the Sacrament of “Anointing of the Sick”.
Again, let us consider James 5: 14-17: “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 …” Notice that the command does not say confess your sins straight to God. In the context of this verse, a person is told to “summon the presbyters (elders) of the church” (James 5:14). Presbyter is the Greek word for priest.
Having said this, does it mean that the priest forgives sins? Better still, who forgives sins? Only God has the authority to forgive sins. Yet, this authority is mediated through others. The Jews questioned why Christ was forgiving sins because they did not realize He was God. We must not forget that Jesus is also a man. The Church makes us realize that the Priest forgives sins by the POWER OF GOD when he pronounces the words of absolution: “I absolve you from your sins in the name of the FATHER and of the SON and of the HOLY SPIRIT.” Christ passed on this authority to forgive sins to his apostles and they in turn “laid hands” on other good men (this is the sacrament of Holy Orders) in order to continue the saving mission of Christ. How are we to understand this?
Laying of hands as described earlier is an act of ordaining men of goodwill to continue God’s service. This is known as Apostolic Succession. The role of apostolic succession in preserving true doctrine as received by Christ is clearly illustrated in the Bible. To make sure that the teachings and mandate Christ granted to them would be passed down after the deaths of the apostles, Paul said to Timothy, “What you have heard from me before many witnesses entrust to faithful men who will be able to teach others also” (2 Tim. 2:2). Look at 1Timothy 4:14, where Paul reminds Timothy that the office of bishop had been conferred on him through the laying on of hands. Notice in 1Timothy 5:22 that Paul advises Timothy not to be too quick lay hands on anyone (this shows that the act of laying of hands in the context of which it was described is to confer authority to another, it is not just a simple act). In Titus, Paul describes the apostolic authority Titus had received and urges him to act decisively in this leadership role.
Therefore, the Bishops are the Successors of the Apostles, and the faculty of confession is primarily reserved to them; this faculty is granted to priests by their respective Local Ordinaries (the Bishops).
Hence, based on the Biblical evidence, we see that the forgiveness of sins is explicitly tied to confessing to a priest, who has the authority to forgive sins, which is given by Christ. Christ thus heals the relationship through the priest and we are reconciled to both God and the Church – healing the two-fold damage done in our relationships. Little wonder this Sacrament is also called SACRAMENT OF RECONCILIATION.
From what we have seen so far, it is apposite to make clear the requirements for Confession. What does it require to make a good Confession?
Three things are required of a penitent in order to receive the sacrament worthily:
1. He must be contrite—or, in other words, sorry for his sins.
2. He must confess those sins fully. This is so, because, our Catechism makes us realize that anyone who willfully conceals a serious sin in confession is guilty of a great sacrilege by telling a lie to the Holy Spirit in making a bad confession
3. He must be willing to do penance and make amends for his sins.
Here comes the ultimate question: “When last did you go to confession? When last did you approach this source of grace, of mercy and forgiveness? We should endeavour to go to confession as soon as we fall into sin and make a firm purpose of amendment. This sacrament gives grace to those who receive it worthily. Even the Pope goes to confession… How much more we (the flock). Think about it.


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Chinaka Justin Mbaeri

A staunch Roman Catholic and an Apologist of the Christian faith. More about him here.

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