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Anonymous wrote:

Hey, John —

What bothers me about having to confess sins to a priest, is that it is not man's job to forgive us our sins, only God can do this.

  • Can you help me to understand what confessing to a priest would do?

I look forward to hearing from you.


  { Can you help me to understand what confessing to a priest does, when only God can forgive sins? }

John replied:

Hi, Anonymous —

Let me attempt to explain Confession and Sacraments, in general.

You are quite right that only God can forgive sins and that is exactly what happens in the Sacrament of Confession. The priest acts "in the person of Christ."

Before we can discuss the priest's authority, we must first understand our authority as Christians. Jesus told us that whatever we do or ask "In His Name", He shall do or grant. First of all, what we do and ask must be according to His will.

"Doing something in His name" does not just mean tagging the action or prayer with the ending
"in Jesus name we pray". No, it is acting with the power of attorney. Mark 16:17 says:

"in my name they will drive out demons."

This authority is given to those that believe. In Matthew 28, Jesus commands us to baptize in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. Notice, Jesus does not say, "tell people to baptize themselves." No, God uses a third party to be the minister of Baptism, even though there are always exceptions. There are many that come to Christ and can't get baptized, or don't know the need for baptism, and so on. This does not mean that Jesus can't give them a Spiritual Baptism (what we call a Baptism of Desire). But under normal circumstances, Baptism is needed and must be administered by a third party.

The point here is that Jesus is doing the Baptism through the minister. So, as you can see, God uses people to mediate or dispense His grace, even if this simply takes the form of sharing the Gospel. God could have just revealed Himself to every individual, just as He did to Paul on the road to Damascus, but instead, He uses people like me and you and, in particular, His Church (which is His Body) as a means by which most people will hear and believe in the Good News.

So now we've established this principle of mediation. Let us deal with the sacrament of Confession.

Here are some Scriptures:

8 Wherefore I beseech you that ye would confirm your love toward him. 9 For to this end also did I write, that I might know the proof of you, whether ye be obedient in all things. 10 To whom ye forgive any thing, I forgive also: for if I forgave any
thing, to whom I forgave it, for your sakes I forgave it in the Person of Christ;

2 Corinthians 2:8-10

Here we see Paul forgiving in the person of Christ

15 "If your brother sins against you, go and show him his fault, just between the two of you. If he listens to you, you have won your brother over. 16 But if he will not listen, take one or two others along, so that 'every matter may be established by the testimony of two or three witnesses.' 17 If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church; and if he refuses to listen even to the Church, treat him as you would a pagan or a tax collector.

Matthew 18:15-17

Here we see the authority to forgive being given to the Church.

13 Is any among you afflicted? let him pray. Is any merry? let him sing psalms. 14 Is any sick among you? let him call for the elders of the church; and let them pray over him, anointing him with oil in the name of the Lord: 15 And the prayer of faith shall save the sick, and the Lord shall raise him up; and if he have committed sins, they shall be forgiven him. 16 Confess your faults one to another, and pray one for another, that ye may be healed. The effectual fervent prayer of a righteous man availeth much. [helps a lot.]

James 5:13-16

In verse 14 we see that the elders are to be called. This Greek word for elder is Presbyter, which was eventually shortened to prest or priest. So the person who is sick or sin should call for the Priest and confess his sins.

And finally:

21 Again Jesus said, "Peace be with you! As the Father has sent me, I am sending you." 22 And with that he breathed on them and said, "Receive the Holy Spirit. 23 If you forgive anyone his sins, they are forgiven; if you do not forgive them, they are not forgiven."

John 20:21-23

There is no getting around this text. Some would like to write this off by saying;

"Well, the Apostles are just to announce, that folks who accept Christ, have their sins forgiven".

Well, that is a stretch and a half. The text is clear. In order to be able to forgive sins, the Apostles would have to hear a Confession. Because they were also given the authority to retain them, as well, the Apostles were required to ascertain if the person had an intention to continue in that sin or not.

This would require a lot more then leading some one in the "sinners prayer" and sending them off.

As Catholics, we believe (and can prove from history and Scripture) that our Bishops are descendants of the Apostles. Today's Bishops, and the priests under their authority, continue this same mission of Reconciliation some 2000 years after Pentecost.

Now Let's talk about the advantages of Confession.

On a purely psychological level, it is one thing to ask for forgiveness, and quite another to hear the words "I absolve you" [of your sins.]

More importantly, any Sacrament is a supernatural encounter with Christ. Christ guaranteed that He would act in the Sacrament, and therefore, the person receives grace from Confession.

Allow me to explain further:

  • Most of us know that we sin and repent, but our repentance is not always a full repentance.

  • In other instances, we may actually repent but our "feelings" deceive us; we may feel like we really don't feel bad about our sin.

  • Other times, we know we need to have remorse, but we don't. Therefore repentance is an act of faith only. We do it out of obedience but it is half-hearted.

In all these cases, Jesus — through His Church and the priest — make up what is lacking in our contrition in order to absolve us. This has a dual effect:

  1. It absolves us, giving us a fresh slate, in spite of our inadequate Confession. This is possible because we are obediently acting in faith to, at least, admit our sin and with an act of the will, resolve to amend our lives. Further, we are willing to humble ourselves by submitting to Holy Mother Church.

  2. The grace, which we receive in the Sacrament, strengthens us in our attempt to amend
    our lives.

Essentially going to a priest for Confession is very much like going to a Doctor when you are sick. God is ultimately The Great Physician: "by His stripes we are healed". (Isaiah 53:5) All healing comes from God. 

  • God heals our body physically through medical doctors.

  • Well, the exact same thing is true for Confession: God, Himself, directly heals our souls spiritually through the priest.

Hope this clarifies the issue for you and your friends.


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