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Defending Catholicism: Where is Confession in the Bible?

One of the greatest treasures of the Church, her ability to heal people of their sins, is constantly under attack. This world obviously craves the miraculous release offered in this Sacrament - look no further than the sudden proliferation of psychologists and psychiatrists over the last fifty years and the corresponding increase in prescriptions for psychotropic medications. 

Mankind replaces with drugs what God offers for free! Instead of accepting God's release from our addictions, we discover all new ones. 

Nonreligious people seem to have long ago dismissed the idea of sin, so what would they be confessing? Confession - even contrition - has become incomprehensible to them. That is,  apart from the historically aberrant need for psychotropic medications described above. 

More often than not, the Sacrament of Confession is attacked by Protestants and such on Biblical grounds. This is somewhat strange given the strong foundation for the Sacrament - all Sacraments for that matter - in Scripture. While it is true that the Sacraments were not fully formed during Jesus' ministry, their elements, foreshadowing, and trajectory are nevertheless obvious from the text. 

Also, if you are just looking for what to do in the confessional, check out this article. This article is a step-by-step guide to Confession with an Act of Contrition and two Examinations of Conscience. 

Scriptural Basis for Confession - Where is Confession in the Bible?

Below, I'll list the common Biblical arguments against Confession and show you how they can be easily dismissed with Scripture. But first, here's one of the strongest Biblical foundations for the Sacrament of Confession, John 20:21-23:

(21) Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, even so I send you.” (22) And when he had said this, he breathed on them, and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit. (23) If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.”

Here we see that Jesus is giving his disciples the power to forgive (and retain) sins to his ministers, the disciples. Boom! Pretty straightforward. 

Protestants will argue (as here) that the tense of the verb in "they are forgiven" indicates that Jesus' ministers are not doing the forgiving, but merely pronouncing the fact that God has already forgiven the sins. This argument acts as a diversion: focus on God's role; ignore the minister's role. It is true that God does the forgiving. It is not true that the role of the priest or minister is irrelevant - this would mean Jesus is just wasting his words. Are Jesus' instructions just meaningless? And what about the "retaining" of sins part? Jesus' ministers are given the keys to unlock and lock.

This is not the only time Jesus speaks about forgiving/retaining and binding/loosing. This power to bind and loose is also specifically reserved to the Church, through the office of the papacy, at Matthew 16:18-19:

(18) And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the powers of death shall not prevail against it. (19) I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.”

There are plenty more Biblical foundations for Confession, too! These are provided below as responses to common Protestant objections. Also, these are all just the references from the New Testament. There are a lot more passages about Confession in the Old Testament, cf. Lev 19:20-22, as well as the writings of the Apostolic Fathers, cf. Didache 4:14, 14:1 - we're just getting started! 

For more on the Sacrament of Penance and Reconciliation, also check out the Catechism of the Catholic Church, paragraphs 1422-1498.

Now, here's a list of common Protestant objections:

Objection #1: Only God can forgive sin. 

Here's the objection as stated in "The Cripplegate," an evangelical blog site:

The Pharisees hated the fact that Jesus forgave sin (Matt 9:3). They knew that it was something only the creator of the universe was allowed to do. When Jesus healed the paralitic [sic] man the Pharisees were ready to lynch him for saying that he forgave him of his sin. It’s incredible that the Pope could think that he has the power to absolve someone of sin, give them some work to do and send them on their way absolved of sin. The only one with the power to forgive sin is God himself (1 John 1:9), and thankfully he does not leave it up to us to be the judges of whether someone deserves forgiveness or not.

So is this truly what the Bible says? Is God the only One with the power to forgive sins, and no one can forgive sin in God's name? Cripplegate cites 1 John 1:9, above, to support this claim, so what does 1 John 1:9 say? Here's the passage from the RSV-CE Bible (I'll always give you the surrounding verses, because citing verses without context, i.e. "proof-texting", is irresponsible):

(8) If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. (9) If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just, and will forgive our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness. (10) If we say we have not sinned, we make him a liar, and his word is not in us.

Hmmm ... this verse actually encourages us to "confess our sins." No where does this verse refute that Jesus' priests have been empowered to forgive sins in Jesus' name.  

Even the Pope goes to Confession! St. Peter's Basilica 3/28/2014

Objection 1A: Do I have to confess my sins to a priest? A priest is just a man - what power does he have to forgive sin?

First off, it's true. It's not the priest who forgives sins. The priest forgives sins in Christ's name, in persona Christi. As it is written at John 20:21-23, Jesus empowered the disciples to forgive sins in His name. Jesus hands over his authority to the new priesthood of the Twelve which he ordained at the Last Supper, cf. John 13. 

Jesus gave his Apostles power to heal the sick, cleanse lepers, raise the dead, and cast out devils (Matthew 10:7-8). In the same way, He also gave them power to absolve sins. That is, they healed people who were spiritually sick, spiritually lepers, and spiritually dead. 

Listen to what Jesus says after healing the paralytic in Matthew 9:

(6) But that you may know that the Son of man has authority on earth to forgive sins”—he then said to the paralytic—“Rise, take up your bed and go home.” (7) And he rose and went home. (8) When the crowds saw it, they were afraid, and they glorified God, who had given such authority to men.

Does it say God gave "such authority to A MAN"? Is it Jesus alone who exercises this authority? No. The crowds glorified God because He had given such authority to MEN, namely the Twelve. 

Objection #2. The Bible says that if I believe that Jesus is Lord, I’ll be saved. Doesn’t the need for Confession mean Christ’s work was lacking in some way? 

The passage referred to here is Acts 16:31, which reads, "Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved." Sounds pretty simple, right? It does, if you just take that one verse out of context. Check out the verse in context. Acts 16 describes how Paul and Silas were released from prison by God's power and by the jailer:

(29) ... trembling with fear [the jailer] fell down before Paul and Silas, (30) and brought them out and said, “Men, what must I do to be saved?” (31) And they said, “Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved, you and your household.” (32) And they spoke the word of the Lord to him and to all that were in his house. (33) And he took them the same hour of the night, and washed their wounds, and he was baptized at once, with all his family. (34) Then he brought them up into his house, and set food before them; and he rejoiced with all his household that he had believed in God.

The Bible has quite a lot to say about salvation and forgiveness of sin. Even in this passage, the jailer does a lot more than just believe in the Lord Jesus. Not only is the jailer's whole family baptized, the jailer (a) washes their wounds, (b) brings them to his house, (c) gives them food ... oh, and (d) visits the imprisoned. Sound familiar? These are 4/7 of the Corporal Works of Mercy described at Matthew 25:34-40:

And, the jailer as well as his whole family is BAPTIZED. Not only is this a basis for Infant Baptism if there were any infants in the jailer's household, it shows the necessity for the jailer's sins to be forgiven in order to receive salvation. Why? Because all sins are forgiven in Baptism, both personal sin and Original Sin.

"Just believe" and it will set you on the right path, one which includes Baptism, forgiveness of sins, and doing the works of Jesus. But Saints Paul and Silas didn't say "believe and you are saved," they said "believe and you will be saved."

Objection #3: Why do I have to go to a priest for confession instead of going straight to God? After all, the Bible says that "there is one God, and there is one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus" (1 Tim. 2:5).

St. Paul says the following in his second letter to the Corinthians:

(18) All this is from God, who through Christ reconciled us to himself and gave us the ministry of reconciliation; (19) that is, God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting to us the message of reconciliation. (20) So we are ambassadors for Christ, God making his appeal through us. We beseech you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God. (21) For our sake he made him to be sin[d] who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God. (5:18-21)

Wow. That's a pretty strong voice defending the Sacrament of Reconciliation, no less than Saint Paul, himself! The apostles and their successors, i.e. bishops and priests, are merely ambassadors for Christ, on a mission from Jesus to forgive sins in Jesus' name. "All this is from God" - therefore, it is God's own choice to send sinners into the world to forgive sins in His Name. There may be other ways to accomplish this, but God chose this way. Maybe He's on to something? Maybe He who designed human nature has some special insight into how to heal it?

Objection #4: Confession is nothing more than a permission slip to keep sinning. Since people keep sinning even after going to Confession, doesn't that mean it doesn't work?

There is a bit of a false premise to this objection. The grace of Confession helps us avoid future sin - it's not a guarantee against future sin.

Of course, whose teaching is truly the "permission slip to keep sinning"? There are many  Protestant denominations that believe that no amount of sins can interfere with our salvation. Here are some of Martin Luther's own statements on this:

No sin can separate us from Him, even if we were to kill or commit adultery thousands of times each day (Saemmtliche Schriften, Letter No. 99, 1521).

A person that is baptized cannot, thou he would, lose his salvation by any sins however grievous, unless he refuses to believe. For no sins can damn him but unbelief alone (On the Babylonian Captivity of the Church, "Concerning the Sacrament of Baptism," 1520).

Not even committing murder can put us on the path of damnation?? You can see where Protestant teaching drastically differs from Catholic teaching. When Protestants say "once saved, always saved," they really mean it! Wouldn't this teaching be the true "permission slip to keep sinning"? Can this teaching be true? Of course not. The Apostle John says: "If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us" (1 John 1:8). And the Lord himself taught us to pray: "Forgive us our trespasses," cf. Luke 11:4, Matthew 6:12.

Have you heard any objections to the Sacrament of Confession/Reconciliation not listed above? Please comment below with these and I'll add them to the list. Let's see if we can get ALL the objections addressed in one place! Please help me with this.

Thanks for reading! Please remembers to comment below and share!

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