Confession to a Priest - The Sacrament of Reconciliation

In John 20:21-23, Jesus tells the Apostles (sometimes referred to as the "12 disciples"):

"(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 are retained.'"

(Much of this explanation is taken from
Fr. Mario Romero's
Unabridged Christianity)

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 required.

  • 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" (Matt 16:18-19).
  • 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:
    1. The sinner repents
    2. He makes a verbal confession
    3. He is willing to do "penance" in order to offset the damage that his sins have caused
    4. 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 but healed."

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 Receive
the Sacrament of Reconciliation

  1. 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).

  2. 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])

  3. 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])

  4. 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" [Tobit 4:18])

  5. 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])

  6. We are accountable to someone else for our actions, which often makes a person act more responsibly.

  7. 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:

The Didache

"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. 70]).

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., 21).

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).

Forgiveness of Sins - Nazareth Resource Library

Early Church Fathers - on Confession