The Biblical Basis for Confession of Sins to a Priest
On the evening of the Resurrection, Jesus appeared in the midst of the apostles and said to them:
“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)
Jesus says, “As the Father has sent me, so I am sending you.” Elsewhere in the gospels, Jesus tells the apostles that the Father has sent him into the world with “all authority”. In like manner, Jesus commissions them with the authority He has been given – authority the apostles will need to carry out the mission He has entrusted them with.
Notice that Jesus prefaces his remarks about forgiveness by saying, “Receive the Holy Spirit.” Fr. Dowling rightly notes here that the capacity to have the Holy Spirit dwelling within us is a far greater thing than the ability to forgive sins. If the former is possible, the latter does not seem impossible.
Unless we assume that Jesus has also given the apostles the ability to read minds, this passage presupposes that there is a hearing of the sins in order for a judgment to be made as to whether the sins should be forgiven or retained, depending on whether or not the person is truly sorry for his or her sins. Without sorrow for sins, there can be no forgiveness; even God cannot forgive an unrepentant sinner or hardened heart. In saying “if you do not forgive them, they are not forgiven”, Jesus precludes the possible argument that He was merely giving the apostles the authority to preach the message of forgiveness. Clearly, the apostles were to judge and forgive or retain the sins of men.
Matthew’s Gospel provides another important passage revealing God’s intention for the power Jesus shares with His Church:
“Some men brought to him a paralytic, lying on a mat. When Jesus saw their faith, he said to the paralytic, “Take heart, son; your sins are forgiven.” At this, some of the teachers of the law said to themselves, “This fellow is blaspheming!” Knowing their thoughts, Jesus said, “Why do you entertain evil thoughts in your hearts? Which is easier: to say, ‘Your sins are forgiven,’ or to say, ‘Get up and walk’? But so that you may know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins…” Then he said to the paralytic, “Get up, take your mat and go home.” And the man got up and went home. When the crowd saw this, they were filled with awe; and they praised God, who had given such authority to men.” (Matthew 9:2-8)
The central focus of this story is not the healing of the paralyzed man but the revelation of the authority of Jesus. Why does this passage indicate that this authority has been passed on to the Church? Verse eight says, “When the crowd saw this, they were filled with awe; and they praised God, who had given such authority to men.” Under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, Matthew records correctly that the authority to forgive sins had been given not to a single man, Jesus, but to men. We can know this because he is not quoting the comments of the crowd in this verse but ascribing to them the proper reason for why they were filled with awe. Additionally, we know that Matthew wrote this passage some 15-20 years after the event described thus giving us the assurance that he had plenty of time to reflect upon the truth of what he has just written and had seen the forgiveness of sins through confession in actual practice in the early Church. If this were not the case, then Matthew would not have written as he did.
Paul also talks about the ministry of forgiveness that has been passed on from Jesus. In his second letter to the church in Corinth we read:
“All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ and gave us the ministry of reconciliation: that God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ, not counting men’s sins against them. And he has committed to us the message of reconciliation. We are therefore Christ’s ambassadors, as though God were making his appeal through us. We implore you on Christ’s behalf: Be reconciled to God.” (2 Corinthians 5:18-20)
Here Paul speaks of both the message and the ministry of reconciliation. Forgiveness of sins is proclaimed as part of the good news; actual reconciliation through confession and absolution is administered through the sacrament. In this way, the Church completes the mission of Jesus by preaching, by baptizing, and by forgiving sins.
Note, too, the use of the pronouns “we”, “us”, and “you” in this passage. When speaking strictly of the ministry of reconciliation, Paul says that God “gave us the ministry of reconciliation” and that “we are therefore Christ’s ambassadors as though God were making his appeal through us.” Then, he says “We implore you” to be reconciled. Clearly, there are two groups: those who have the ministry of reconciliation and those to whom he is speaking of being reconciled. The “you” – his audience – to whom he is speaking does not share in that ministry. Therefore, we can understand that some have the responsibility to reconcile men to God and some do not. This ministry is consistent with the function of the priesthood. For example, consider the following passage from the Gospel of Matthew:
“When he came down from the mountainside, large crowds followed him. A man with leprosy came and knelt before him and said, “Lord, if you are willing, you can make me clean.” Jesus reached out his hand and touched the man. “I am willing,” he said. “Be clean!” Immediately he was cured of his leprosy. Then Jesus said to him, “See that you don’t tell anyone. But go, show yourself to the priest and offer the gift Moses commanded, as a testimony to them.” (Matthew 8:1-4)