This has to be one of the most common questions about the Catholic Faith. The quick answer is because God wants us to. How can I possibly say that? Well, let’s take a look and see…
- What Scripture says about God using ministerial priests to stand in on earth for the One High Priest, Jesus.
- That sin is a community affair. It separates us from God and also separates us from communion with our fellow Christians. So, reconciliation must be made to the community, not just to God.
- How Jesus uses matter in the physical world to communicate his grace and power to us.
- How Penance relates to eternal forgiveness.
- Answers to Protestant objections.
Let’s start with a the Scriptural Support:
John Martignoni gives a 2 minute answer from Sacred Scripture in this video:
In case you missed some of those scriptures, here is the overview from his website:
In James 5:16, God, through Sacred Scripture, commands us to “confess our sins to one another.” Notice, Scripture does not say confess your sins straight to God and only to God…it says confess your sins to one another.
In Matthew, chapter 9, verse 6, Jesus tells us that He was given authority on earth to forgive sins. And then Scripture proceeds to tell us, in verse 8, that this authority was given to “men”…plural.
In John 20, verses 21-23, what is the 1st thing Jesus says to the gathered disciples on the night of His resurrection? “Jesus said to them, ‘Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, even so I send you.'”
How did the Father send Jesus? Well, we just saw in Mt 9 that the Father sent Jesus with the authority on earth to forgive sins. Now, Jesus sends out His disciples as the Father has sent Him…so, what authority must Jesus be sending His disciples out with? The authority on earth to forgive sins.
And, just in case they didn’t get it, verses 22-23 say this, “And when He had said this, He breathed on them, and said to 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.’”
Why would Jesus give the Apostles the power to forgive or to retain sins if He wasn’t expecting folks to confess their sins to them? And how could they forgive or retain sins if no one was confessing their sins to them?
The Bible tells us to confess our sins to one another. It also tells us that God gave men the authority on Earth to forgive sins. Jesus sends out His disciples with the authority on earth to forgive sins.
When Catholics confess our sins to a priest, we are simply following the plan laid down by Jesus Christ. He forgives sins through the priest…it is God’s power, but He exercises that power through the ministry of the priest. –John Martingnoni “Two Minute Apologetics” (bold mine).
God alone forgives sin.The Old Testament tells how God chose to use priests to participate with him in atonement. In Leviticus 19:20-22:
“If a man lies carnally with a woman… they shall not be put to death… But he shall bring a guilt offering for himself to the Lord… And the priest shall make atonement for him with the ram of the guilt offering before the Lord for his sin which he has committed; and the sin which he has committed shall be forgiven him.
In II Cor. 2:10:
And to whom you have pardoned anything, I also. For, what I have pardoned, if I have pardoned anything, for your sakes have I done it in the person of Christ…
That is exactly what a priest does in Confession-he stands in the person of Christ.
Three chapters later, St. Paul gives us the reason why he could forgive the sins of others: “All this is from God, who through Christ reconciled us to himself and gave us the ministry of reconciliation” (II Cor. 5:18)
Is any one among you sick? Let him call for the elders (presbyters or priests) 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.
Tim Staples Answers Some Protestant Objections:
ONE PRIEST OR MANY?
A major obstacle to Confession for many Protestants (me included when I was Protestant) is that it presupposes a priesthood. As I said above, Jesus is referred to in Scripture as “the apostle and high priest of our confession.” The former priests were many in number, as Hebrews 7:23 says, now we have one priest—Jesus Christ.
The question is: how does the idea of priests and confession fit in here? Is there one priest or are there many?
I Peter 2:5-9 gives us some insight:
… and like living stones be yourselves built into a spiritual house, to be a holy priesthood, to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ… But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people…
If Jesus is the one and only priest in the New Testament in a strict sense, then we have a contradiction in Sacred Scripture. This, of course, is absurd.
I Peter plainly teaches all believers to be members of a holy priesthood. Priest/believers do not take away from Christ’s unique priesthood, rather, as members of his body they establish it on earth.
FULL AND ACTIVE PARTICIPATIO (Participation!)
If one understands the very Catholic and very biblical notion of participatio, these problematic texts and others become relatively easy to understand. Yes, Jesus Christ is the “one mediator between God and men” just as I Tim. 2:5 says.
The Bible is clear. Yet, Christians are also called to be mediators in Christ.
When we intercede for one another or share the Gospel with someone, we act as mediators of God’s love and grace in the one true mediator, Christ Jesus, via the gift of participatio in Christ, the sole mediator between God and men (see I Timothy 2:1-7, I Timothy 4:16, Romans 10:9-14).
All Christians, in some sense, can say with St. Paul, “…it is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me…” (Gal. 2:20)
PRIESTS AMONG PRIESTS
If all Christians are priests, then why do Catholics claim a ministerial priesthood essentially distinct from the universal priesthood? The answer is: God willed to call out a special priesthood among the universal priesthood to minister to his people. This concept is literally as old as Moses.
When St. Peter taught us about the universal priesthood of all believers, he specifically referred to Exodus 19:6 where God alluded to ancient Israel as “a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.” St. Peter reminds us that there was a universal priesthood among the Old Testament people of God just as in the New Testament. But this did not preclude the existence of a ministerial priesthood within that universal priesthood (see Exodus 19:22, Exodus 28, and Numbers 3:1-12).
In an analogous way, we have a universal “Royal Priesthood” in the New Testament, but we also have an ordained clergy who have priestly authority given to them by Christ to carry out his ministry of reconciliation as we have seen.
– , Is Confession In Scripture?, Catholic Answers (Bold mine)
Jesus, The Lamb Of God who takes away the sins of the world, offered himself as the once-for-all sacrifice to atone for our sins so ministerial priests no longer offer animal sacrifices for atonement of sins. But note that in James 5, we are instructed to call presbyters to pray for healing and to hear confession of sin. Jesus gave the church the authority to give us grace through 7 sacraments. But note that in James 5, we are instructed to call presbyters to pray for healing and to confess our sin to them. Jesus gave the church the authority to offer 7 sacraments to us. And, it has been said that Heaven and Earth Kiss in the sacraments!
The sacraments are efficacious signs of grace, instituted by Christ and entrusted to the Church, by which divine life is dispensed to us. The visible rites by which the sacraments are celebrated signify and make present the graces proper to each sacrament. They bear fruit in those who receive them with the required dispositions. -CCC
Did you catch that? They “make present the graces”! Divine life is dispensed to us! They bear fruit! These are good things, friends.
Jesus uses the material world to communicate his power to us and to give us graces through the sacraments. He came to earth to save us in the flesh. He didn’t just pray for the blind man, he used mud to heal him. The woman with the issue of blood touched his clothes and was healed. A man was healed by touching Elisha’s bones. He uses bread and wine. He uses water to baptize us into his death, burial and resurrection. His blood IS New Covenant-in Luke 22:20 Jesus says ‘this is the cup of my blood the blood of the new testament, the blood of the new covenant’.
In this video, Fr John Muir explains how Jesus uses matter to communicate his power to people. Did you baptize yourself? Or did God use a mediator to confer that sacrament to you? Fr Muir gives a great analogy of a pen and a priest that explains the way Jesus works through a priest. He also points out that God isn’t bound by the sacraments. And he rightly points out that the Sacrament of Reconciliation is a privilege!
In The Sacrament of Reconciliation, we confession our sins to Jesus. The priest isn’t “another Jesus” we are confessing to, he is standing in on earth for Christ.
The Church teaches that the priest ministers in persona Christi, in the person of Christ. In speaking to his disciples, Jesus said, “He who hears you hears me, and he who rejects you rejects me” (Lk 10:16). “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained” (Jn 20:22–23) I love Fr Muir’s analogy. A pen is an instrument we can use to communicate something to someone. The pen doesn’t know English. It doesn’t have any power in itself. But when it is used as an instrument, it can tell you what I am saying when I am not present in person! That’s why Jesus said to those whom he gave his authority, “Whoever hears you, hears me”. God alone forgives, He is the first cause, but priests are the instrumental cause.
That’s how Paul could say, For, what I have pardoned, if I have pardoned anything, for your sakes have I done it in the person of Christ…
During Confessions, the priest stands in for the person of Christ, and he also stands in as a representative of the Body of Christ, the members of the Church who are wounded by our sin. Sin is not a “no harm not foul” enterprise. It affects the whole body.
. . . . When any of its members sin, they all suffer. Moreover, because my sins wound the community and diminish its effectiveness, reconciliation must include the community and not just God. In the confessional, the priest is the representative of God and of the community. In the confessional, the priest represents the whole Christ, the Head (Jesus) and the members (the Church). –How Can I Explain to my Protestant Friends Why I Go to Confession? Catholic Answers
This video explains this concept:
The Sacrament of Reconciliation is Also Called the Sacrament of Penance
Why do we do Penance if we have been eternally forgiven? Protestants often say, all I have to do is rest in the Finished Work of Christ!
When God remits the eternal penalty for a sin, he may (and often does) choose to leave a temporal penalty to be dealt with.
Thus when he forgave David for his sin concerning Uriah, he still left David the temporal punishment of having his infant son die and having the sword pass through his house (2 Sam. 12:13ff).
Similarly, when Moses struck the rock a second time God forgave him (for Moses was obviously one of the saved, as his appearance on the Mount of Transfiguration llustrates), though he still suffered the temporal penalty of not being allowed to go into the promised land (Num. 20:12).
And finally, even physical death itself is a temporal penalty that is our due because of original sin, and it is a penalty which remains even when our sins are forgiven by Christ. “ –“Doing Penance” James Akin
Confession is a wonderful gift that Jesus has given us. He sends his grace like rain thought it. It is wonderful to receive his graces through the sacraments.
You were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and in the Spirit of our God.” One must appreciate the magnitude of the gift God has given us in the sacraments of Christian initiation in order to grasp the degree to which sin is excluded for him who has “put on Christ.” But the apostle John also says: “If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us.” And the Lord himself taught us to pray: “Forgive us our trespasses,” linking our forgiveness of one another’s offenses to the forgiveness of our sins that God will grant us.-CCC
After confession, we may still need to make “satisfaction” for the results of our sin. Note: this does NOT mean we are making satisfaction for our own sins! The CCC explains it:
Our sins affect our neighbor. One must do what is possible in order to repair the harm (e.g., return stolen goods, restore the reputation of someone slandered, pay compensation for injuries). Simple justice requires as much. But sin also injures and weakens the sinner himself, as well as his relationships with God and neighbor. Absolution takes away sin, but it does not remedy all the disorders sin has caused.62 Raised up from sin, the sinner must still recover his full spiritual health by doing something more to make amends for the sin: he must “make satisfaction for” or “expiate” his sins. -CCC This satisfaction is also called “penance.”
Expiate means to do something as a way to show that you are sorry about doing something bad. It is making amends for the harm our sin does to others.
Let’s say Johnny breaks a neighbor’s window in anger. He repents and asks the neighbor for forgiveness. Johnny is completely forgiven and back in good relationship with the neighbor. But there is still a broken window as the result of his anger. When Johnny offers to pay to repair the window he damaged, he isn’t paying for forgiveness or to be back in right relationship with his neighbor! He is making amends for the damage his sin did to his neighbor’s property. A loving parent would encourage Johnny to do make it right with his neighbor. Jesus said,
“And have you forgotten the exhortation which addresses you as sons? — ‘My son, do not regard lightly the discipline of the Lord, nor lose courage when you are punished by him. For the Lord disciplines him whom he loves, and chastises every son whom he receives.’ It is for discipline that you have to endure. God is treating you as sons; for what son is there whom his father does not discipline? If you are left without discipline, in which all have participated, then you are illegitimate children and not sons.
Jimmy Akin points out:
“Virtually nobody who has read the Old Testament will deny that the ancient Jews did acts of penance–external deeds of sorrow and reparation for sins–as part of their spiritual discipline…”
“Even now,’ declares Yahweh, ‘return to me with all your heart, with fasting and weeping and mourning.’ . . . Blow the trumpet in Zion, declare a holy fast, call a sacred assembly” (Joel 2:12)…
And of course the idea of fasting, like other penances, is clearly endorsed in the New Testament:
“When you fast, do not look somber as the hypocrites do, for they disfigure their faces to show men they are fasting. I tell you the truth, they have received their reward in full. But when you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face, so that it will not be obvious to men that you are fasting, but only to your Father, who is unseen; and your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you” (Matthew 6:16-18)
Come near to God and he will come near to you. Wash your hands, you sinners, and purify your hearts, you double-minded. Grieve, mourn, and wail. Change your laughter to mourning and your joy to gloom. Humble yourselves before the Lord, and he will lift you up” (James 4:8-10)
“Protestant pastors will often tell their congregations to humble themselves before the Lord so that they will be lifted up, but they completely rob the self-humbling (more bluntly, self-humiliation) of all its content because they fail to tell the congregations to humble themselves in the way James has indicated, i.e., “grieve, mourn, and wail; change your laughter into mourning and your joy into gloom.” Instead they will be told (if they are believers) that they don’t need to do any of that to humble themselves because they have already been forgiven by Christ..”
Excerpts from Jimmy Akin Doing Penance
Jesus didn’t tell us to “rest in my finished work”. Jesus said “he who perseveres to the end will be saved”. Of course, we don’t have the ability in ourselves to persevere without him and his finished work on the cross!
He will render to each one according to his works: 7 to those who by patience in well-doing seek for glory and honor and immortality, he will give eternal life; 8 but for those who are self-seeking[a] and do not obey the truth, but obey unrighteousness, there will be wrath and fury. Romans 2:6-8
Then the King will say to those at his right hand, `Come, O blessed of my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me.’ Then the righteous will answer him, `Lord, when did we see thee hungry and feed thee, or thirsty and give thee drink? And when did we see thee a stranger and welcome thee, or naked and clothe thee? And when did we see thee sick or in prison and visit thee?’ And the King will answer them, `Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brethren, you did it to me.’ Then he will say to those at his left hand, `Depart from me, you cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels; for I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me no drink, I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not clothe me, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.’ Then they also will answer, `Lord, when did we see thee hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not minister to thee?’ Then he will answer them, `Truly, I say to you, as you did it not to one of the least of these, you did it not to me.’ And they will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.”
Who then is the faithful and wise servant, whom his master has set over his household, to give them their food at the proper time? 46 Blessed is that servant whom his master will find so doing when he comes. 47 Truly, I say to you, yhe will set him over all his possessions. 48 But if that wicked servant says to himself, ‘My master is delayed,’ 49 and begins to beat his fellow servants4 and eats and drinks with adrunkards, 50 the master of that servant will come bon a day when he does not expect him and at an hour he does not know 51 and will cut him in pieces and put him with the hypocrites. In that place cthere will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.
Matthew 16:27 The faithful servant failed to persevere in Christ.
James 2:24, “You see that a man is justified by works and not by faith alone.”
This isn’t “Works salvation”, folks. This is how our faith works through love.
Keep in mind what Paul told the Christians of his day:”If we have died with him [in baptism; see Rom. 6:3–4] we shall also live with him; if we persevere we shall also reign with him” (2 Tim. 2:11–12)
When we confess our sins he is faithful and just to forgive them!
.So, “How Does Confession Work? This cool sketchpad video explains it: