Can sins be forgiven by confession to men? The Bible teaches us that only by confessing our sins can we achieve forgiveness from God. How do we know this? Again, the Bible tells us these facts. Let’s start with the Old Testament. In II Samuel 12:13, David confesses his sins to Nathan and was given assurance from Nathan that his sins were forgiven. From the New Testament we see many verses regarding confessing sins, however, we will stick to only the verse pertaining to the authority that God gave man. Look at John 20:22-23 it states that Jesus “breathed” on them and said:
(John 20:22-23) Receive ye the Holy Ghost: Whose soever sins ye remit, they are remitted unto them; and whose soever sins ye retain, they are retained.
How can anyone take this out of context, this passage is as clear as day? God has given man the authority, by the power of the Holy Spirit, to forgive sins. It is interesting to note that there is only two places in the Bible that the term “breathe” is found as an action performed by God. The first, of course, is in the Old Testament Genesis 2:7 when God “breathes” the breath of life into man. In John 20:22, God again “breathes” the gift of life into man (the gift of Eternal Life) in that He is giving His representatives the authority to assist in purifying the souls of men, thus giving them life. Let us look at verses to support confession:
(Acts 19:18) – And many that believed came (to the Apostles), and confessed, and shewed their deeds.
(Matt. 18:18) Again, Jesus gives the apostles authority by stating: Whatsoever ye shall bind on earth shall be bound in heaven: and whatsoever y shall loose on earth, shall be loosed in heaven.
(2 Corinthians 2:10) Paul said: If I forgave anything, to whom I forgave it, for your sakes forgave it I in the person of Christ.”
( 2 Cor. 5:18-20) Paul states; (read the whole verse) And all things are of God, who hath reconciled us to himself by Jesus Christ, and hath given to us the ministry of reconciliation (the ministry of forgiving sins); to wit, that God was in Christ, reconciling the world unto himself, not imputing their trespasses unto them; and hath committed unto us the word of reconciliation. Now then we are ambassadors for Christ, as though God did beseech you by us; we pray you in Christ’s stead, be ye reconciled to God.
It is easy for us to say in our head “Jesus I am sorry for the sin I committed” however, this type of confession is hardly the type of confession Jesus intended for us–especially when the Bible states otherwise! To stand in front of a representative of Christ, whom God has given the authority to be His stand-in, and actually state aloud the sin, which was committed with true contrition, is not an easy thing to do–think about it? Once an individual goes to confession and actually states the sin aloud with true contrition, it is guaranteed that a relief and cleansing will immediately follow, as well as a strong sense of forgiveness–there is no doubt that you are forgiven–you know! Confession gives the penitent a fresh start to perhaps work with a strong passion to never commit the sin. Not only does confession cleans the soul, it is pleasing to God and He fills the soul with graces.
Confession to Priest
First, Jesus did give the power to forgive sins to human beings. In John 20:21-23, Jesus says, “As the Father has sent me, even so I send you.” Then he breathed on them, saying, “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.” This is the bedrock on which the sacrament of confession stands or falls.
The meaning of this passage is clear to Catholics: Jesus, who alone has the power to forgive or retain sins (Mark 2:10; Luke 5:24), transmits that power to the apostles. But Evangelicals usually have a different take on John 20:21-23. One of the most popular is that Jesus sent the apostles to preach the gospel and to inform hearers that if they have faith in him their sins are forgiven, and if they do not believe in him their sins are retained. This “preaching only” interpretation comes from reading John 20:21-23 in light of 1 Timothy 2:5, in which Paul says that Jesus is the one and only mediator between God and us. Because Evangelicals approach the text believing that Jesus could not have really given the apostles this power, they conclude that he instead commissioned them to preach about the forgiveness and retention of sins. The Evangelical then draws a parallel between John 20 and the “Great Commission” texts, as they are referred to by many Protestants, where Jesus commanded the apostles to “go into all the world and preach the gospel to the whole creation” (Mark 16:15; cf. Matt. 28:18-20, Luke 24:47). John was saying the same thing but using different words. To the Evangelical mind, John is saying, “Whoever believes the gospel, you can declare their sins to have already been forgiven through the preaching of the cross.” Of course, that is not what the text says. Jesus clearly commissioned the apostles to carry out his ministry of reconciliation as his agents.
Priests Act In Persona Christi
But Paul teaches that Jesus is the one and only mediator between God and us (1 Tim. 2:5), so isn’t the priest an unnecessary intermediary? Shouldn’t Christians confess their sins directly to God?
Catholics do confess their sins directly to God both within and outside the confessional. Jesus advocated praying directly to the Father to ask forgiveness for our sins (Matt. 6:12), and Catholics do this communally at every Mass and in prayer groups, and individually during private prayer. But Catholics also believe that Jesus gave the Church a unique role in his ministry of reconciliation by entrusting it with his power to forgive and retain sins. It is useful to clarify what happens in the sacrament of confession. During confession, the priest perpetuates this ministry by acting in persona Christi, “in the person of Christ.” In other words, when Catholics receive absolution from the priest for sins confessed, it is Jesus’ forgiveness that is granted, not the priest’s.
An essential principle of the ministerial priesthood is that God works through men who have a special spiritual role within the Church to communicate his grace and truth. Both Catholics and Evangelicals affirm Paul’s teaching that Jesus is the sole mediator between God and us, but Catholics recognize that Jesus was at liberty to allow his mediation to be worked through the apostles and their successors in the Church.
We see Jesus giving specific power to the apostles to perpetuate his presence and ministry not only in John 20:21-23 but also in other Gospel accounts: Jesus confers his authority to baptize, saying, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit” (Matt. 28:18-19); he also gives Peter and the apostles the power to teach and to excommunicate within the Church in a way that would be ratified in heaven (Matt. 16:18; 18:19).
Jesus chose to use the apostles as his instruments. Most Evangelicals will agree that this instrumentality is at work in their own pastors, who perform baptisms in their churches. In a similar way, God employs priests as ministers of forgiveness in the sacrament of confession.
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