The Biblical Roots Of Confessing Your Sins To A Priest
Why do I have to confess my sins to a priest? Why can’t I just go directly to God? As a Catholic, I've been asked these questions sooo many times so I thought I might as well explain the theology behind it in a blog...
Confession Was Instituted By Jesus:
In the Second Letter of St Paul to the Corinthians, Paul states “All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ, and has given us the ministry of reconciliation.” - 2 Corinthians 5:18
The sacrament of reconciliation is rooted in the mission that Christ gave the apostles, and their successors, authority to forgive sins so that they would bring forth God’s forgiveness and mercy into His world. If Jesus instituted a way for us to draw near to Him and receive His grace, why would we choose to take a different path?
“Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” 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.” – John 20:21-23
In this passage of Scripture, Jesus is speaking directly to the apostles after His resurrection. Notice how Jesus breathed on them. Through echoing the Garden of Eden account in Genesis, where God breathed life into Adam, the Gospel of John intends to highlight the significance of the power and authority to forgive sins which was given to the apostles. In order for the apostles to retain sins, it would imply that they would need to have full knowledge of those sins and hence, this would mean that the sins had to be orally confessed.
Through apostolic succession, this authority to forgive sins has been passed on to priests and bishops to this day, an unbroken chain of succession which can be traced all the way back to Christ. The priest during confession is “In Persona Christi” – which in Latin means “In the person of Christ”. Therefore, the priest is simply a vessel through which we can receive God’s healing mercy. When the priest hears our confessions, it is not the priest that offers absolution but Christ that absolves you from your sins.
Confession Was Part Of The Early Church:
In the early church writings, many references to apostolic succession and the Sacrament of Reconciliation are prevalent. In the first century writings of the Didache, it states “Confess your sins in church” which is emphasised further in later church writings.
For instance: both Cyprian of Carthage and Ambrose of Milan, agree that through apostolic succession, priests have the authority to forgive sins. Cyprian’s commentary on Confession (AD 251), states that the forgiveness of sins can only take place “through the priests”. Ambrose, similarly, states “this right is given to priests only.”
The Sacrament of Reconciliation has been a part of Sacred Tradition before the Bible was even compiled in the 4th Century and through Apostolic Tradition, we can receive God’s healing mercy and sacramental graces due to the unbroken chain of succession of Popes, Bishops, Priests and Deacon.
Confession Offers Us Healing:
Other early church writings provide a commentary on the healing aspect of the Sacrament of Reconciliation, through which the priest has the antidote of absolution.
“If the serpent, the devil, bites someone secretly, he infects that person with the venom of sin. And if the one who has been bitten keeps silence and does not do penance, and does not want to confess his wound . . . then his brother and his master, who have the word [of absolution] that will cure him, cannot very well assist him” – Jerome (AD 388)
It is often quoted “the church is a hospital for sinners, not a museum for saints.” What we need to recognise is that sin not only affects our relationship with God and others, but it also creates in us spiritual wounds, in need of healing. Through Confession, God is able to speak through the priest and give us advice, to help us get rid of any blockage of sin that separates us from God.
What fascinated me was that the word in the New Testament referring to mercy “έλεος” has the same prefix as the word for Olive Oil: “ελαιόλαδο”. Olive Oil was known for its medicinal purposes, hence through being derived of the same prefix, it would suggest that God’s mercy is a form of spiritual healing, which can be accessed through the Sacrament of Reconciliation.
“Are any among you sick? They should call for the elders of the church and have them pray over them, anointing them with oil in the name of the Lord. The prayer of faith will save the sick, and the Lord will raise them up; and anyone who has committed sins will be forgiven. Therefore, confess your sins to one another, and pray for one another, so that you may be healed.” – James 5:16
The Epistle of James makes it clear that those who confess their sins “to one another”, implying the elders or priests of the Church, will be forgiven and healed. Jesus’ sacrifice on the Cross took away the eternal punishment of sin, which separated us from God, but the Sacrament of Reconciliation was instituted by Jesus, to heal us from the temporal punishments of sins that have wounded us internally.
Confession Prepares Us For Communion:
“On the Lord’s Day gather together, break bread, and give thanks, after confessing your transgressions so that your sacrifice may be pure” – Didache (AD 70)
In some of the earliest church documents, such as the Didache written in the 1st century, it refers to the Sacrament of Reconciliation in preparation for receiving Holy Communion at Mass. It all stems from a Bible passage in First Corinthians:
“So anyone who eats this bread or drinks this cup of the Lord unworthily is guilty of sinning against the body and blood of the Lord. That is why you should examine yourself before eating the bread and drinking the cup. For if you eat the bread or drink the cup without honouring the body of Christ, you are eating and drinking God’s judgment upon yourself.” – 1 Corinthians 11:27-29
Before receiving the Eucharist (the Body, Blood, Soul and Divinity of Jesus Christ) we are called to examine whether we are worthy enough to partake in the Communion meal. The Church teaches that if we are in a state of mortal sin, we cannot receive Communion and if we were to, we would be guilty of the sinning against the Lord. Therefore, whilst in the state of mortal sin, until we go to Confession, we are spiritually dead.
“If you see your brother or sister committing what is not a mortal sin, you will ask, and God will give life to such a one—to those whose sin is not mortal. There is sin that is mortal; I do not say that you should pray about that.” – 1 John 5:16
All sins create wounds, but the Bible distinguishes between mortal sins, which are grave sins that cause spiritual death and venial sins, which include lesser offensives that cause spiritual sickness. We are required to go to Confession as soon as we have committed a mortal sin, however we may also confess our venial sins too.
The 3 Conditions Necessary For A Mortal Sin Are:
· The offence must be a grave matter.
· The person must have had full knowledge of the evil committed.
· The person must have freely consented.
Mortal sin is intentionally choosing to turn away from God and commit grave evil, therefore the Sacrament of Reconciliation is absolutely essential in order for us to heal the malignant tumour we have caused in our spiritual life.
Confession Is A Place Of Victory:
Every Christian undergoes their first conversion, by turning to Christ through Baptism, through which they are welcomed into the community. Every Christian is also called to a second conversion, through Confession where they return back to God after they have sinned post their baptism.
“When he saw them, he said, “Go, show yourselves to the priests.” And as they went, they were cleansed.” – Luke 17:14
In Luke’s Gospel, Jesus heals the 10 Lepers and instructs them to go back to the priests to be welcomed back into the community. Confession is an invitation to be received back into the community. When we are baptised, we go through a priest to be received into the community. Yet, when it comes to Confession, everyone wants to go directly to God.
I think this is out of fear of being vulnerable, but Confession is an invitation to practice humility. One of the requirements of a practising Catholic is to go to Confession at least once a year, if not more often or when needed.
Confession was never meant to be a place of shame or embarrassment, but rather a place of victory, to wipe away the weight of our sin and shame. At the end of the day, we are all sinners, in need of God’s amazing grace…
“Let us therefore approach the throne of grace with boldness, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need.” – Hebrew 4:16
I hope that gives you a brief outline of why Catholics go to Confession. It's been a Christian practice ever since the 1st Century, so the Church to this day continues with this tradition.
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