People ask Catholics why they confess their sins to a priest. Protestants claim it’s unbiblical while others believe it’s outdated. So, the question remains, “Why do Catholics confess their sins to a priest?” It’s a good question. After all, shouldn’t we go straight to God and not some man? Isn’t God the only one who can forgive sins anyway?
Yes! Only God can forgive sins.
Catholics can and do confess their sins only to God. We can confess our sins at the beach, before bed, in church, and any other place. In fact, there are multiple times throughout the Mass that we ask for God’s forgiveness. So, if that’s true, then why go to a priest for confession?
The reason is because that’s the way God set it up. Throughout the Old Testament (see Leviticus 5:1-11), God is clear that He forgives sins, but through the priest. It is the same in the New Testament also, where Jesus forgives our sins but through a priest.
Confession was His design for several reasons, as we will see. Even though it is God who actually forgives a person’s sins, the priest is the channel of that forgiveness and has such authority from the Lord.
Where is this found in the Bible?
In John 20:21-23, we observe Jesus giving His power and authority to men, the Apostles and first bishops of the Church, so they could forgive sins. Here is what it says:
“As the Father has sent me, so I send you. When He said this, He breathed on them and said, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit, whose sins you forgive will be forgiven and whose sins you retain will be retained” (John 20:21-23).
Let us look at this deeper: It begins, “As the Father has sent me, so I send you. Now, ask the question: why was Jesus sent into the world? For redemption! Jesus came to earth to forgive us our sins and to reconcile people back to God. Now, Jesus is sending the Apostles out to perform the exact same thing with the exact same authority, which brings us to our second point.
After commissioning the Apostles in the above verse, Jesus “Breathes on them and said, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit.” He breathes into them the power and authority of God. This is only the second time in the entire Bible that God breathes on someone. The other time was in the Garden of Eden, when God breathed life into Adam. Now, Jesus breathes the power of the Holy Spirit into the Apostles in order for them to complete their mission of going out and continuing Jesus’ ministry of forgiving sins and reconciling people back to God.
Then, after commissioning them and giving them the Spirit and authority, Jesus concludes by telling them, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit, whose sins you forgive will be forgiven and whose sins you retain will be retained.” In a nutshell, the apostles are told they will forgive men’s sins (vs. 23). These men received the commission from God Himself to forgive sins, or for various reasons to not forgive them (i.e., if people are not truly repentant, etc.).
How are the priests and bishops supposed to forgive people’s sins if people do not confess them? Priests are not mind readers. Furthermore, (though the confessional box didn’t come into existence until much later), history shows that people have always confessed their sins in church and to a priest, and that they were given penance.
Notice Jesus in this passage did not say to the Apostles, “Just tell people to confess their sins directly to me.” He did not say, “Confess to God directly.” No. Rather, Jesus Himself gave to the Apostles the authority to forgive sins.
When a Catholic goes to Confession, they confess their sins to God. They tell God their sins but through the priest who is the instrument God has chosen. The priest acts in the person of Christ (1 Cor. 2:10, Jms. 5:14-15) and as His human representative (1 Cor. 5:17-21) to forgive sins in this “ministry of reconciliation.”
Why is this?
Confession is primarily for confessing Mortal sins, (extremely serious sins – Jn. 5:16 – not small everyday ones – though you can do those too). There are seven main reasons why Jesus set up the Sacrament of Confession for a priest and desires for us to go:
1. It is because we are beings who are made up of body and soul. We are both spiritual and physical beings who need to see, hear, touch, and experience. Therefore, God uses, as He does in everything, physical means to communicate to us spiritual and unseen realities. (water in baptism, bread and wine for the Lord’s Supper, etc.).
2. Building off the above reason, we can know all of our sins are forgiven. We hear from the priest the actual words “Your sins are forgiven, go in peace.” Even if you don’t feel like you are forgiven, or if you feel like it was too easy, remember that Jesus had all of His clothes ripped off and then was nailed to a cross. He took our sins and guilt. He suffered for us and died in our place so we could be set free!
3. When we state our sins aloud to a priest, we hear what we need to work on.
4. It is very humbling to go before another man. Pride is why the devil was kicked out of heaven, and since pride is the root of all sin, by going to another man, we humble ourselves, conquer our pride, and put ourselves back onto the path of relationship with God.
5. A person can get advice and help from the priest on how to avoid sin and do better. Also, if you find a priest you like and are comfortable with, you can talk to him often and he can help you through problems, struggles, and hardships in your spiritual or physical life.
6. You receive special graces and help from God in the Sacrament of Confession that give you the strength to do better in life, to be stronger against sin, and to follow Jesus more faithfully.
7. In addition, when you receive your penance, it takes away temporal punishment (which is the damage sin has done that needs to be atoned for). Our sins can be forgiven, but you need to make up for the temporal consequences. It’s like throwing a baseball through your neighbor’s window. You can go and apologize to him directly and be forgiven, and that is good. But it is not enough. The window is still broken and in need of fixing. So, real repentance confesses and makes right with God, but we also need to make up for wrong doing with our neighbor, ourselves, or others. Additionally, we need to do our best to avoid doing it again. This is like going to Confession, not just saying sorry, but having a whole life changing experience through it and setting things right.
There is a true story of a man who had not been to Confession in over 40 years. Naturally, he had an incredibly lengthy list of sins that took quite a long time to confess. After he finished confessing, the man heard nothing. Why didn’t the priest say anything? The man wondered if he would be kicked out of the confessional due to his large list of sins – or, perhaps the priest fell asleep. After all, it had been a while of confessing. The reason the priest didn’t respond is because he had come out of the confessional to where the man was. The priest pulled back the curtain and opened his arms for a hug. As the man hugged the priest and cried on his shoulder for sheer joy, the priest just said two words, “Welcome home.”
This and nothing less is the love of God for us. He is always there to welcome us home, get the past behind us, and to have a relationship with us. Confession is the quickest way to heaven. That is why we should go often. The more sins we have, the more right we have to God’s mercy and love. If you haven’t been in a long time and don’t remember how, just tell the priest, and he will gladly walk you through it.
Remember, Jesus says that when He forgives your sins He throws them as far as the East is from the West. Never to be thought of again. Jesus also told us that all of heaven REJOICES and celebrates over just one repentant sinner (Lk. 15:10). God Himself does too! Freedom and love are waiting!
Here are a couple prominent early Christians on Confession, so that people don’t think this was an invention of the “medieval Church” or something:
Hippolytus (215 A.D.) Talking about how the bishop conducting the ordination of the new bishop shall pray: “…Grant this your servant, whom you have chosen for the episcopate, [bishopric] to feed your holy flock and to serve without blame as your high priest, ministering night and day to propitiate unceasingly before your face and to offer to you the gifts of your holy Church, and by the Spirit of the high priesthood to have the authority to forgive sins, in accord with your command…” (Apostolic Tradition 3).
Cyprian, Bishop of Carthage (253 A.D.). “Sinners may do penance for a set time, and according to the rules of discipline come to public confession, and by imposition of the hand of the bishop and clergy receive the right of Communion. [But now some] with their time [of penance] still unfulfilled . . . they are admitted to Communion, and their name is presented; and while the penitence is not yet performed, confession is not yet made, the hands of the bishop and clergy are not yet laid upon them, the Eucharist is given to them; although it is written, ‘Whosoever shall eat the bread and drink the cup of the Lord unworthily, shall be guilty of the body and blood of the Lord’ [1 Cor. 11:27]” (Letters 9:2).
John Chrysostom, Archbishop of Constantinople (387 A.D.) – “Priests have received a power which God has given neither to angels nor to archangels. It was said to them: ‘Whatsoever you shall bind on earth shall be bound in heaven; and whatsoever you shall loose, shall be loosed.’ Temporal rulers have indeed the power of binding; but they can only bind the body. Priests, in contrast, can bind with a bond which pertains to the soul itself and transcends the very heavens. Did [God] not give them all the powers of heaven? ‘Whose sins you shall forgive,’ he says, ‘they are forgiven them; whose sins you shall retain, they are retained.’ What greater power is there than this? The Father has given all judgment to the Son. And now I see the Son placing all this power in the hands of men [Matt. 10:40; John 20:21–23]. They are raised to this dignity as if they were already gathered up to heaven” (The Priesthood 3:5).