|In John 20:21-23, Jesus tells the
Apostles (sometimes referred to as the "12
"(Jesus) said to them again, 'Peace be with
you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.' And
when he had said this, he breathed on them and said
to them, 'Receive the holy Spirit. Whose sins you
forgive are forgiven them, and whose sins you retain
(Much of this explanation is taken
Fr. Mario Romero's Unabridged
Before leaving earth and ascending into heaven, Jesus
endows His Apostles with the Holy Spirit and commissions
them to be human instruments of His forgiveness after His
death. Just as the Father has sent Jesus to carry out his
ministry of reconciliation and healing here on earth,
Jesus authorizes His Apostles to continue the ministry,
in His Name, here on earth. In order for the Apostles to
make a judgement as to whether to forgive or retain the
sins in question, a verbal confession is
- Jesus singles out Peter, by himself (a mere
sinful human being) and tells him
"...whatever you bind on earth
shall be bound in heaven; and whatever you
loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven"
- After delegating the ministry of reconciliation
to Peter, by himself, Jesus tells his other
appointed ministers (who were also mere sinful
human beings), "...whatever you
bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and
whatever you loose on earth shall be
loosed in heaven" (Matt 18:18).
- In James, we can see how God chooses to forgive
sin through the ministry of (mere sinful) human
beings: "Is anyone among you sick? He should
summon the presbyters [The English word
"priest" comes from the Latin word presbyter
- which comes from the Greek word presbyterous]
of the church, and they should pray over him and
anoint (him) with oil in the name of the Lord,
and the prayer of faith will save the sick
person, and the Lord will raise him up. If he
has committed any sins, he will be forgiven.
Therefore, confess your sins to one another
and pray for one another, that you may be
healed." (James 5:14-16).
- St. Paul speaks about the "ministry of
reconciliation" that Jesus bestowed upon him
and the rest of the Apostles: "And all this
is from God, who has reconciled us to himself
through Christ and given us the ministry of
reconciliation..." (2 Cor 5:17-20).
Since Jesus was interested in reconciling all
sinners and not just those who happened to
live during His time, he delegated the ministry
of reconciliation to His Apostles and disciples
so that, in His name, the forgiveness of
sins could be available to all people in all ages
after His death.
- St. Paul speaks about his ministry of the
forgiveness of sins to the Christian leaders in
Corinth: "Whomever you forgive anything, so
do I. For indeed what I have forgiven, if I have
forgiven anything, has been for you in the
presence of Christ, so that we might not be taken
advantage of by Satan..." (2 Cor 2:10-11).
- In Luke's Gospel Jesus sends His disciples out
into the world to do ministry. As they leave he
tells them, "Whoever listens to you listens
to me. Whoever rejects you rejects me. And
whoever rejects me rejects the one who sent
me" (Luke 10:16). In the Sacrament of
Penance, the Catholic priest (whose
ordination can be traced back in an unbroken line
to the Apostles) acts as the
"mouthpiece of Jesus" when he says to
the penitent: "I absolve you of your sins in
the name of the Father and of the Son and of the
Holy Spirit. Amen."
- In Matt 3:6, we read that, as people came forward
to be baptized by John the Baptist, they
"acknowledged their sins." The only way
for Matthew to be able to write that they were
"acknowledging their sins" would be if
they were audibly acknowledged in some
manner. If it was merely a silent internal
conversation between God and the person being
baptized, Matthew would certainly not have been
aware of it.
- In Acts 19:18, we read that certain new converts
"...came forward and openly acknowledged
their former sinful practices."
- Note how, in the parable of the Prodigal Son
(Luke 15:11-32), all of the elements of the
Sacrament of Penance are contained:
- The sinner repents
- He makes a verbal confession
- He is willing to do "penance"
in order to offset the damage that his
sins have caused
- He joyfully experiences reconciliation
Historically, the Roman Catholic Bishops are the
descendants, in an unbroken line, of the Apostles.
Because the Bishops can't be everywhere, they ordain
priests to represent them in local Church parishes.
Indeed, only God can forgive sins. The
priests are the human instruments of God's
forgiveness and Scripture tells us that they have
the power to "bind" and "loose"
people's sins in Jesus' name.
I have been asked by many Protestants, "Do you
ever pray directly to Jesus for forgiveness?" My
answer to them is "Yes. I go directly to Jesus and
He tells me to check out His 2000 year old confession
instructions that He has already conveniently written
down for me in John 20:21-23, Matt 16:18-19, Matt 18:18,
2 Cor 5:17-21, etc.
Consider this witty analogy. You are going on
vacation, so you ask your neighbor to cut your grass
while you are gone. Before you leave, you take your
neighbor to your shed so you can show him your lawnmower
and give him instructions on how to use it. After showing
him how to use the lawnmower, you leave for your
vacation. After 3 weeks, you return home to find your
neighbor on his hands and knees cutting the grass with a
pair of scissors. Your first reaction would probably be,
"Why didn't you use the tool that I left behind and
instructed you to use?"
When Jesus returns to earth on Judgement Day, he may
ask the same question to Christians who are not
celebrating the Sacrament of Penance. In going to Jesus
directly and bypassing the system that He has already set
up and told us to use, they are (in essence) saying
"Thanks, but no thanks. I know better than you how
my forgiveness is supposed to come about. I'll do it my
way if you don't mind."
When receiving the Sacrament of Penance, Catholics are
usually asked to do some penance to atone for his sins.
This does not mean that Christ's sacrifice on
the cross was insufficient. The official teachings of the
Church state that Jesus, "because he 'became
obedient unto death, even death on a cross,' makes amends
superabundantly for the disobedience of Adam"
(Catechism of the Catholic Church #411).
Asking for some sign of their interior conversion John
the Baptist tells his listeners: "Produce good
fruits as evidence of your repentance..." (Luke
3:8). In Heb 12:12-13, we read "So strengthen your
drooping hands and your weak knees. Make straight paths
for your feet, that what is lame may not be dislocated
The Biblical writer is saying that, after a person
sins, he should fortify himself spiritually so that he
can be more resolved in his walk with Christ. The penance
that the priest gives the penitent after his confession
is simply a prayer or an apostolic deed that is aimed
at restoring and strengthening his relationship with God
that was strained by his sinfulness. James writes,
"Draw near to God, and he will draw near to you.
Cleanse your hands, you sinners, and purify your hearts,
you of two minds. Begin to lament, to mourn, to weep. Let
your laughter be turned into mourning and your joy into
dejection. Humble yourselves before the Lord and he will
exalt you" (James 4:8-10).
Paul knew about the necessity for discipline in the
spiritual life: "...I drive my body and train it,
for fear that, after having preached to others, I myself
should be disqualified" (1 Cor 9:27). The penance
given by a priest is either some scripturally-based
prayer or to perform some act of Christian charity that
is aimed at "driving the penitent's body and soul
and training it" so that the person would be more
spiritually fit in his journey toward heaven.
Seven Good Reasons to
the Sacrament of Reconciliation
We are seeking
forgiveness the way Jesus designed it to be
sought (John 20:21-23, Matt 16:18-19, Matt 18:18,
James 5:14-15, Matt 9:1-8, 2 Cor 17-21).
Not only are our
sins forgiven, but Sacramental graces are
obtained to strengthen us spiritually. ("...
where sin increased, grace overflowed all the
more..." [Rom 5:20])
We are assured
of our forgiveness because we can audibly hear
it. Through the personal encounter of the
Sacrament, we are not dependant upon the
sometimes elusive feeling that we are
forgiven by God. (The woman caught in adultery
had the privilege of hearing that she
was forgiven [John 8:11])
We can obtain good advice on
avoiding sin in the future by someone who is
trained in the spiritual life. ("Seek
counsel from every wise man, and do not think
lightly of any advice that can be useful"
We are reconciled to the faith
community whom our sin has adversely affected.
("If anyone has caused pain, he has caused
it not to me, but in some measure (not to
exaggerate) to all of you. [2 Cor 2:5], "If
(one) part suffers, all the parts suffer with it;
if one part is honored, all the parts share its
joy." [1 Cor 12:26])
We are accountable to someone
else for our actions, which often makes a person
act more responsibly.
Mental health professionals tell
us that it is psychologically healthy to
"unload" our spiritual and emotional
"baggage" in the presence of another
human being who can listen in a non-judgmental
manner and can relate to us.
The act of confessing sins to a priest
has been practiced by the Christian Church since the time
of Christ. Consider these historical writings:
"Confess your sins in church, and do not go
up to your prayer with an evil conscience. This is
the way of life. . . . On the Lord's Day gather
together, break bread, and give thanks, after
confessing your transgressions so that your sacrifice
may be pure" (Didache 4:14, 14:1 [A.D.
The Letter of Barnabas
"You shall judge righteously. You shall not
make a schism, but you shall pacify those that
contend by bringing them together. You shall confess
your sins. You shall not go to prayer with an evil
conscience. This is the way of light. (Letter of
Barnabas 19 [A.D. 74]).
Ignatius of Antioch
"For as many as are of God and of Jesus
Christ are also with the bishop. And as many as
shall, in the exercise of penance, return into the
unity of the Church, these, too, shall belong to God,
that they may live according to Jesus Christ" (Letter
to the Philadelphians 3 [A.D. 110]).
"[T]the Church has the power of forgiving
sins. This I acknowledge and adjudge" (ibid.,
Cyprian of Carthage
"Of how much greater faith and salutary fear
are they who . . . confess their sins to the priests
of God in a straightforward manner and in sorrow,
making an open declaration of conscience. . . . I
beseech you, brethren, let everyone who has sinned
confess his sin while he is still in this world,
while his confession is still admissible, while the
satisfaction and remission made through the priests
are still pleasing before the Lord" (ibid., 28).
of Sins - Nazareth Resource Library
Church Fathers - on Confession