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(Last Updated: 05 May 2002 )
Only God Can Forgive Sins
Confession Before the Time of Christ
Confession in the Epistles
The Words of Absolution
The ScenarioA confessional; priest is waiting; a Questioning Catholic enters.
PRIEST: Hello there my child. What would you like to talk about this fine day?
QUESTIONING CATHOLIC: Hello, Father O'Dooley. I have a problem.
P: Well, that's what the confessional's for, isn't it my son? Shall we begin?
QC: Well, no, you see, that's the problem Father. The confessional and everything.
P: Oh, it's been a while then, has it?
QC: No Father, it's not that. It's just that I've been, well, there's this girl, you see...
P: Ohh, that sort of problem. Never fear, my child, the grace of God knows no bounds.
QC: No, Father, I don't think you understand. There's this girl I work with at the racetrack, she trains the horses while I muck out the stables, you see, and we get to talking sometimes. And she's not a Catholic, Father.
P: Oh, she's in the racing industry but not Catholic? Strange. Reminds me of a joke I heard once; there was this horse and a priest, you see...
QC: Father, Father, about my problem, Father... we talk about the Church and Jesus and the Bible and things like that.
P: Splendid subjects, every one of them.
QC: Anyway, I mentioned the other day that I was going to go to confession, and she told me that it was a terrible deception, because only God can forgive sins. And then she started quoting a whole lot of Bible verses at me.
P: Oh, did she now?
Only God Can Forgive SinsQC: She sure did. And I have to confess, she was very convincing, and to be honest I think she's right. We shouldn't confess our sins to anyone but God.
P: Well, now, it's very good that she knows her Bible. Tell me some of what she said.
QC: OK, Father, I have some of it written down. First of all, she said that in Isaiah chapter 43, God says "I, even I, am he that blotteth out thy transgressions for mine own sake, and will not remember thy sins."
P: Oh, she's a King James'er. Very good. Anything else?
QC: Well, she said that Hebrews 3:1 and 7:22-27 tell us Jesus is our one and only true High Priest and that there are not many priests, but one in the New Testament. And the Bible makes it clear in 1 John 2:2 that Jesus 'is the propitiation for our sins,' and not some priest, 'and not for ours only, but also for the sins of the whole world'. And how can we Catholics claim priests act in the role of mediator in confession when 1 Timothy 2:5 tells us, 'For there is one God, and one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus'?"
P: Oh, very good. Well, you've come to the right place. Let's have a look at this together shall we? By the way, that's a strange accent you've got there - you're not really Irish are you?
QC: No, I'm a sort of Welsh/Scottish half-breed.
P: Well, we won't hold that against you. I see you have a Bible there.
QC: Yes, she gave it to me. She even highlighted parts of it for me.
P: Ohh, I'll bet she did. Well, where shall we start? Here, do you know what this is? [Holds up Catechism]
QC: Well, it's not the Bible, is it?
P: No, it's the Catechism of the Catholic Church. Every home should have one. It tells you what we really believe. And here's what it says about forgiveness of sins, in paragraph 1441: "Only God can forgive sins". Well, what a surprise!
QC: So, what are you doing here then?
P: Well now, let's not be in too much of a hurry. Jesus could forgive sins, couldn't he?
QC: Yes he could, because he's God. Which is why we should confess our sins directly to him, not to some power-hungry priest - uh, no offense. That's what she said.
P: Do you think that Jesus, if he wanted to, could pass this authority of his to men who could act in his name?
QC: Well, I dunno...
Confession Before the Time of ChristP: Let's have look at how they did it in the old days, before Vatican II, in the time of Moses. Let's read Exodus 10, starting at verse 16: "Then Pharaoh called Moses and Aaron in haste, and said, "I have sinned against the LORD your God, and against you. 17 Now therefore, forgive my sin, I pray you, only this once, and entreat the LORD your God only to remove this death from me." 18 So he went out from Pharaoh, and entreated the LORD."
Interesting, don't you think, that Moses is being asked to forgive sin, and that he acts as a go-between for Pharaoh and God, a minister of some kind.
QC: Well, yes, but Pharaoh was a pagan, he probably didn't know better, and he certainly didn't have any sort of relationship with God.
P: Maybe so, maybe so. 'Tis a good point, to be sure. But let's not be too hasty. Look at Leviticus, chapter 5, verse 5, where Moses is giving the law to God's chosen people: "When a man is guilty in any of these, he shall confess the sin he has committed, 6 and he shall bring his guilt offering to the LORD for the sin which he has committed, a female from the flock, a lamb or a goat, for a sin offering; and the priest shall make atonement for him for his sin."
Hoo, confession and a priest to make atonement. Well, well, well. And that sort of thing's all through Leviticus chapter 4 and chapter 5 you know. Reminds me of another passage, in the book of Numbers, chapter 5: "And the LORD said to Moses, 6 "Say to the people of Israel, When a man or woman commits any of the sins that men commit by breaking faith with the LORD, and that person is guilty, 7 he shall confess his sin which he has committed; and he shall make full restitution for his wrong, adding a fifth to it, and giving it to him to whom he did the wrong."
Well, confession with some penance. Look at that! But it goes on...
"8 But if the man has no kinsman to whom restitution may be made for the wrong, the restitution for wrong shall go to the LORD for the priest, in addition to the ram of atonement with which atonement is made for him."
Interesting, isn't it? And do you know what a scapegoat is?
QC: Yes, it's me. I'm the one who always gets the blame when my little sister does something wrong.
P: Well let me show you where the word comes from - Leviticus 16 describes what the high priest does on the Day of Atonement: "And when he has made an end of atoning for the holy place and the tent of meeting and the altar, he shall present the live goat; and Aaron shall lay both his hands upon the head of the live goat, and confess over him all the iniquities of the people of Israel, and all their transgressions, all their sins; and he shall put them upon the head of the goat".
Now the point here is that if the high priest is to confess all the iniquities of the people of Israel, he has to know what they are, doesn't he? They have to be confessed to him first.
QC: That's all very interesting, but that's the Old Testament. We're under grace now, not under law.
P: Well, confession is a beautiful grace, to be sure. Let's look at the New Testament then, shall we? I think we'll find that the practice God begun in the Old Covenant is not removed in the New, it's fulfilled! Read Mark chapter 1, verses 4 and 5 for me.
QC: "4John did baptize in the wilderness, and preach the baptism of repentance for the remission of sins. 5And there went out unto him all the land of Judaea, and they of Jerusalem, and were all baptized of him in the river of Jordan, confessing their sins."
P: Well, well, confession to a mere man. How strange! And let's look at Jesus. Forgiveness of sins was a big part of his ministry now, wasn't it? But let's see what the Bible says about the capacity in which he did it. Read Matthew 9:6-8, the passage about Jesus healing the paralytic man.
The GospelsQC: "that ye may know that the Son of man hath power on earth to forgive sins, (then saith he to the sick of the palsy,)" - that's the paralytic, right? - "Arise, take up thy bed, and go unto thine house. 7And he arose, and departed to his house. 8But when the multitudes saw it, they marvelled, and glorified God, which had given such power unto men."
P: Very good. Notice that the people praise God that he has given such authority to men, plural. Don't you think that's significant?
QC: Well, I guess it would be significant if the people Matthew was writing to were going to confession all the time. But that's what you still have to prove, isn't it.
P: Actually, no, since confession has always been the ancient practice of the Church, we don't have to prove anything. It's your friend who's inventing things here, so she's the one who has to prove something - she has to show that Jesus told us to stop doing confession. But, just to set your mind at ease, I'll prove it to you anyway. First, let's go back to where we started: only the Lord can forgive sins, but if he decides to give his authority to other men then it's still him who is behind the forgiveness.
In Matthew chapters 16 and 18, Christ gives his apostles the power to bind and loose. Are you familiar with those passages?
QC: Uh, yes I am Father. They are rather convincing, aren't they? It's funny, neither of them have been highlighted in this Bible.
P: 'Tis passing strange, to be sure. Anyway, Jesus also said to his disciples that "He who hears you hears me, and he who rejects you rejects me, and he who rejects me rejects him who sent me." - there's certainly some authority he's delegating there! And after giving his authority to his disciples, they passed that authority on in the same way to their successors. But we still haven't come to the best passage on this. That's in John chapter 20. But first, do you think Jesus was sent by God to forgive sins?
QC: Yes, of course I do, Father.
P: Good. Now read John 20:21-23. Jesus is talking to his disciples.
John 20:21-23QC: "Then said Jesus to them again, Peace be unto you: as my Father hath sent me, even so send I you." Oh, I see your point. Jesus sent them out in the same way he was sent, which means - well, which could mean, that he sent them to forgive sins in his name.
P: Exactly. Keep reading.
QC: "And when he had said this, he breathed on them, and saith unto them, Receive ye the Holy Ghost: Whose soever sins ye remit, they are remitted unto them; and whose soever sins ye retain, they are retained." Oh.
Why didn't you show me this right at the start?
P: Because you don't see a big queue outside waiting for confession now, do you?
Can you see then that the apostles would have to hear someone's sins in order to know whether to forgive them or retain them; hence the Sacrament of Confession. In this passage Jesus is bestowing on the apostles his authority and his ministry: just like the Father sent him, he is sending them. And this ministry did not perish with the apostles - they were told to make disciples of all nations, and Jesus promised to be with them even until the end of the age (Matt 28:19-20).
Confession in the EpistlesQC: OK then: do you know of any priests in the New Testament using this authority?
P: Surely, surely. One of the greatest bishops the Church has known gives us a good example.
QC: Really? Which bishop might that be?
P: Bishop Paul, of course, in the diocesan newsletter Paul wrote to the church in Corinth. Why don't you read it for us, I like the way the King James puts it; 2nd Corinthians 2:10, where Paul forgives the repentant Corinthian man.
QC: "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". Hmm, "in the person of Christ" - that's interesting...
P: Yes it is. And in Acts chapter 19 we see the believers in Ephesus coming and confessing their sins to St Paul: Acts 19:18 - "Many also of those who were now believers came, confessing and divulging their practices."
And St James tells us, "14 Is any among you sick? Let him call for the elders of the church," - and the word for elders here is presbuteros, which is where we get the word priest - "and let them pray over him, anointing him with oil in the name of the Lord; 15 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. 16 Therefore confess your sins to one another, and pray for one another, that you may be healed" (James 5:14-16).
QC: Well, that says "confess your sins to one another", not to a priest.
P: But before you said we should only confess our sins to God, didn't you. So now at least you can see that there's more to the matter than that, can't you?
QC: Well, yes, that's a good point...
P: And if you look at the context, St. James is talking about the role of the priests. He's not saying we should confess our sins to just anyone. First, he's just told us to go to the priests in verse 14. Then, verse 16 begins with the word "therefore", which connects that verse back to the previous ones, so I think it's reasonable for us to conclude that it's the priests to whom St. James is telling us to confess our sins.
QC: OK Father, I feel a lot better now. So if I confess to you now, it's not really you who's doing the forgiving?
P: No, it's the Lord Jesus. I am just his humble servant. It is never the priest who forgives the sin, but Christ using the priest to bestow forgiveness on the people he loves. Listen to the words of absolution that we say:
The Words of Absolution"God, the Father of mercies, through the death and the resurrection of his Son has reconciled the world to himself and sent the Holy Spirit among us for the forgiveness of sins; through the ministry of the Church may God give you pardon and peace, and I absolve you from your sins in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit." See, it's God doing all the work.
QC: That's beautiful. I think, I think, well, you've been a lot of help, Father. Shall we make a start then?
P: Yes, let's make a start.
Appendix (from Catholic Answers tract, Forgiveness of Sins)."Is the Catholic who confesses his sins to a priest any better off than the non-Catholic who confesses straight to God? Yes.
"First, he seeks forgiveness the way Christ intended it to be sought. Second, by confessing to a priest the Catholic learns a lesson in humility, which is conveniently avoided when one confesses only through private prayer (and how we all desire to escape humbling experiences!). Third, the Catholic receives sacramental graces the non-Catholic doesn't get; through the sacrament of penance not only are sins forgiven, but graces are obtained. Fourth, and in some ways the most important, the Catholic is assured that his sins are forgiven; he does not have to rely on a subjective 'feeling.'
"Lastly, the Catholic can also obtain sound advice on how to avoid sin in the future, while the non-Catholic praying in private remains uninstructed."
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