Why must sins be confessed to a priest for absolution?

James 5:16 says to confess your sins to each other. Catholic priests, as Christ's ambassadors (or vicars) through whom God is making his appeal (2 Corinthians 5:20), not only have the power to bind and loose in heaven and on earth (Matthew 16:19, 18:18), but also have the authority to forgive sins (John 20:23). These powers have been passed down through the ages from the original apostles on to succeeding bishops and priests. When a believer sins, they must seek pardon not on conditions of their own choosing but on those which God has determined through the Church. What the priest says during confession when he forgives is, "By the power invested in me by the Church, I absolve you of your sins." The power of God to forgive is then passed through the priest to the repentent soul. After this, there is still a penance to be administered (1 Corinthians 11:32). Here are the primary reasons for confession to a priest:

  • Believers are commanded to confess their sins in order to be forgiven and reconciled to God.
  • Priests and bishops, as the successors of the apostolic fathers to whom Christ gave the keys of his kingdom -- to judge and forgive sins -- are the only men qualified to absolve sins.
  • Original sin is forgiven at baptism, while mortal sin is only forgiven at each instance of confession.
  • The penalty for sin, death and eternal damnation, is greatly reduced to lesser, temporal punishments, such as purgatorial sufferings.
  • As a sacrament, confession is required before Communion, lest the sinner be judged unworthy at the altar by God.
  • In confession, the shame of the sin is part of the penance.
  • The soul is relieved of the burden of guilt.
  • The priest is able to pass judgment on the sin, as well as the condition of the heart, and decide whether or not further restitution is due.
  • Satisfaction, or penance, suffices as punishment for the sins confessed, provides divine discipline, and helps to prevent further offenses of the same crimes.
  • If a sinner does not accuse themselves before a priest, then the devil will accuse them before God.

        Again Jesus said, "Peace be with you! As the Father has sent me, I am sending you." And with that he breathed on them and said, "Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive anyone his sins, they are forgiven; if you do not forgive them, they are not forgiven." (John 20:21-23)

The act of Catholic confession -- contrition, confession, and satisfaction -- was commanded in the Didache between the first and second century, deemed an Apostolic rule by Pope Leo the Great in the fifth century, ratified as the Sacrament of Penance at the Council of Trent in 1551, and canonized at the Fourth Lateran Council in 1215. Forgiveness of sins committed after baptism is granted through the priest's absolution to those who, with true sorrow, confess all conscious sins at least once a year and resolve to sin no more. The priest, in turn, judging that the confession was heartfelt and the intentions to change are true, pronounces absolution of sins (assurance that those sins are forgiven by God) and imposes the satisfaction (penance or retribution, often a collection of prayers or devotional exercises). This whole procedure, held in secret, is called the "tribunal of penance" because it is a judicial process in which the penitent is at once the accuser, the person accused, and the witness, while the priest pronounces judgment and sentence. The grace conferred is deliverance from the guilt of sin and, in the case of mortal sin, from its eternal punishment and hence, reconciliation with God. Finally, the confession is made not in the secrecy of the penitent's heart, nor to a layman as friend and advocate, nor to a representative of human authority, but to a duly ordained priest with requisite jurisdiction and with the "power of the keys" (the power to bind and loose and forgive sins). All mortal sins must be confessed during penance. If any are knowingly withheld, then the one who confesses voids the sacrament, is guilty of sacrilege, and prevents further sins from being remitted (allowances are made for accidentally forgotten sins which were not confessed in a timely manner).

        "Blessed is he whose transgressions are forgiven, whose sins are covered. Blessed is the man whose sins the LORD does not count against him and in whose spirit is no deceit. When I kept silent, my bones wasted away through my groaning all day long. For day and night your hand was heavy upon me; my strength was sapped as in the heat of summer. Then I acknowledged my sin to you and did not cover up my iniquity. I said, 'I will confess my transgressions to the LORD' -- and you forgave the guilt of my sin." (Psalm 32:1-5)

To the Catholic Church, this power to bind and loose is not only spiritual, but judicial and unlimited. Priests, therefore, are required by Christ's conferrence of power and authority to forgive those who seek forgiveness. As John 20:21-23 records Jesus saying to his discples, "As the Father sent me, I am sending you. And with that he breathed on them and said, 'Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive anyone his sins, they are forgiven; if you do not forgive them, they are not forgiven.' " Apostles are not told to grant or withhold forgiveness nondiscriminately, they must act judicially, forgiving or retaining according as the sinner deserves. This was a permanent institution in the Church by Christ himself after his resurrection. It was not given to the laity, so that the average Christian believer could forgive the sins of another other than the offenses commited against them personally (Colossians 3:13, Ephesians 4:32), but to bishops and priests, the successors of the apostolic fathers to whom Christ granted the authority. Confession was held in such high regards by Catholics that those who needed to confess in the absence of a priest often confessed to a neighbor out of contrition, although without the power of absolution (a practice primarily of the Middle Ages and not necessarily encouraged or promoted by the Church). Up until the thirteenth century, some deacons, of necessity, were granted the power to hear confessionals, administer certain portions of the sacramant of penance, and even absolve sins in extreme or emergency cases, however, the Synod of Poitiers in 1280 put an end to this and made it clear that this power was reserved only for priests and bishops.

        "Is any one of you sick? He should call the elders of the church to pray over him and anoint him with oil in the name of the Lord. And the prayer offered in faith will make the sick person well; the Lord will raise him up. If he has sinned, he will be forgiven. Therefore confess your sins to each other and pray for each other so that you may be healed. The prayer of a righteous man is powerful and effective... My brothers, if one of you should wander from the truth and someone should bring him back, remember this: Whoever turns a sinner from the error of his way will save him from death and cover over a multitude of sins." (James 5:14-16, 19-20)

The original Protestant argument against penance was that Christ absolved sins once for all (Colossians 2:13), and absolution of sins by a priest was nothing more than a declaration that the sins were forgiven by the faith of the repentant confessor. Martin Luther said that any Christian, even a woman or a child, could absolve sins just as a priest or bishop. Of the seven sacraments (rites ordained by grace) which was believed that Christ bestowed on the Catholic Church, Protestants only recognized two: baptism and Communion. Penance was considered nothing more than a superfluous form of baptism, whereby it was again and again declared that sins were once more washed away. The Catholic understanding of penance as a necessary sacrament was that baptism was a spiritual rebirth which washed away all previous sin (particularly the original sin of Adam), while penance was required to forgive all subsequent sin after baptism. The primary objections within the Catholic Church itself began in the second century by those who argued against the forgiveness of sins altogether after baptism (only one chance). Others came in the form of certain sins argued not to be covered by penance, such as capital sins or apostasy, or limitations in the power of the priest to forgive, thus leaving more grevious sins to God alone (held by Tertullian and the Montanists in the third century).

Protestants and Evangelicals today hold that an individual believer can and should confess their sins to God through Jesus Christ because only God knows our hearts (1 Samuel 16:7, 1 Chronicles 28:9, 29:17, 2 Chronicles 6:30, 32:31, Psalm 17:3, 26:2, 44:21, 139:23-24, Proverbs 16:2, 21:2, Jeremiah 11:20, 17:9-10, 20:12, Acts 15:8, Hebrews 4:13). According to Acts 26:18, Jesus told Paul that sanctification after forgiveness of sins was by faith. Even so, the Catholic Church condemns any form of confession that omits the custom of the sacrament, believing that God retains sin until remitted by the Church. By Catholic definition, confession is the avowal of one's own sins made to a duly authorized priest for the purpose of obtaining their forgiveness through the power of the keys. It should be noted that priests are bound by solemn vows to keep secret the confessions they hear, upon threat of sacrilege, deposition of office, monastery confinement, and perpetual penance for a most grevious act. Public confession, which was once practiced for the confession of capital sins (murder, adultery, and idolatry) up until the sixteenth century, is no longer required by the Catholic Church.

        "That if you confess with your mouth, 'Jesus is Lord,' and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. For it is with your heart that you believe and are justified, and it is with your mouth that you confess and are saved." (Romans 10:9-10)

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Reference sources: Catholic Answers (http://www.catholic.com); ReligiousTolerance.org - Early Christian History as Viewed by Roman Catholics (http://www.religioustolerance.org/chr_hirc.htm); Fast Facts on False Teachings - Roman Catholicism (chapter 14, pp 211-232), by Ron Carlson and Ed Decker, ©1994 by Harvest House Publishers; New Advent Catholic Encyclopedia (http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/); Wikipedia (http://www.wikipedia.org/)