One frequent complaint about “those Catholics” involves the sacrament of Confession. The complaint is this: Why should I confess to a man, when only Jesus can forgive? I can confess to Jesus.
Interestingly, there’s no error in this question. Yes, you can confess your sins to Jesus, and you should. You should apologize to God the moment you realize you’ve sinned, because all sin is a sin against God.
And it’s possible that Jesus would forgive you on the spot. So, why should we receive sacramental absolution? I’ll give you to reasons that are 100 percent Biblical.
In the book of James, we are admonished to confess our sins to men:
Therefore confess your sins to each other and pray for each other so that you may be healed. The prayer of a righteous person is powerful and effective.
That’s pretty black-and-white, don’t you agree? Confess your sins to each and pray for each other that you may be healed.
If you think about that second part, to pray for healing, you might sense that confessing to Jesus, even confessing to each other, does not guarantee absolution, pardon, and remission of sins. If it did, why would need to pray for another’s healing? Just let Jesus take care of it, right?
But that’s not what James tells us. He says we must confess and pray for the healing of others.
So, we can confess to any Christian, right? Well, yes. It’s fine to confess to others, but how do you know doing so guarantees Christ’s forgiveness? James doesn’t give us any guarantees, does he?
Well, if you want a guarantee of absolution, you must confess to a priest and have him give you the guarantee.
Jesus instituted the sacrament of confession Himself when he gave the Apostles the power to forgive or retain sins:
When He had said this, He breathed on them and said, “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive anyone his sins, they are forgiven; if you withhold forgiveness from anyone, it is withheld.”
It’s really hard to argue with that, isn’t it? Jesus is as black-and-white as James. No need or room for interpretation.
And notice to whom Jesus gives this binding authority to forgive or retain sins. Jesus is not speaking to a large gathering of disciples. He is alone with the Apostles, the anointed first bishops. He confers the power to forgive by breathing the Holy Ghost on them. Clearly, the Apostles, and not all men, received a special authority through Christ’s act.
When a priest tells us our sins are forgiven, he is speaking in persona Christi, or in the person of Christ. Yes, Christ forgives, but He gave the authority to forgive to His Apostles, not to every Christian. That’s why we go to Confession: to hear the priest guarantee that Heaven has forgiven us.
So, there we have two powerful, black-and-white Bible passages to prove a) we should confess our sins to other men, and b) if we want a guarantee that Jesus forgave us, we must hear it from an anointed priest, an heir of the Apostles. But, there’s a human element involved, too.
Confession and Absolution Free Your Mind
Does anything feel better than knowing someone you’ve wronged has forgiven you? That your venial sin against a friend or loved one has been resolved? No grudges held?
That’s what happens when you receive absolution after a good confession. You are free to go and sin no more. Father John Hardon explains all the spiritual and psychological benefits of frequent sacramental confession here, summarized below:
Correct bad habits
Become more sinless
Become conformed to Christ
Become more submissive to the Holy Ghost
Sacramental confession was instituted by Christ. That should be enough for anyone. But, like all things instituted by Christ, confession provides temporal benefits as well. And who couldn’t use a clean conscience about now?
If confession is the thing holding you back from Catholicism, please read and reflect on James 5:16 and John 20:22-24.