Sacraments


Confession Explained

by Mark Bonocore


  A very passionate Evangelical Protestant writes to me, saying...

<< Wrong again. God forgives me DIRECTLY when I repent. I don't need to go to any church to get forgivness. >>

Fine. Then you apparently don't believe that the Church is truly the Body of Christ. Nor do you do what Scripture commands you to do. For example, in James 5:16, we are commanded to confess our sins to one another. And this is said in the context of the healing and forgiving ministry of the presbyters (priests) of the Church: James 5:14-15, a ministry rooted in Jesus' commission to the Apostles in John 20:21-23 ("...As the Father has sent me, even so I send you...If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained").

Yet, do you Fundamentalist Protestants ever do this? Do you listen to the command of James 5:16? Not at all. Thus, you deny the Scriptures and pick-and-choose what to believe and follow and what to reject. You are, therefore, not truly a "Bible Christian."

As for you not having to go to the Church for forgiveness, tell me: Can one Baptize oneself? Or, rather, do you need someone else, someone who is already a believer, to Baptize you?

Indeed, according to the Bible, it is THE CHURCH that received the Holy Spirit (John 14-16; 20:22; 1 Cor 12), and it is THE CHURCH that is commissioned to Baptize all nations for the forgiveness of sins (Acts 2:38; Matt 28:19; Mark 16:16). So, if you cannot be Baptized without the Church, how can you return to God in repentance without the Church?

Once again, you apparently do not believe that the Church is the Body of Christ. In this, you assume that your sins only affect you and God. Yet, that's not the case at all. When I sin, I not only sin against God and myself, but against the entire Body of Christ -- the Church. And this is clear in Scripture: 1 Cor 12:26. Thus, if I sin against God, I also sin against His Church. And, since the Church is holy, spotless, and without blemish (Ephesians 5:27), when I sin (mortally) I cut myself off from the Church. I, therefore, need to be reconciled to God WITHIN HIS CHURCH, or I am not reconciled to God at all. The Catechism of the Catholic Church explains:

1440. Sin is before all else an offense against God, a rupture of communion with him. At the same time it damages communion with the Church. For this reason conversion entails both God's forgiveness and reconciliation with the Church, which are expressed and accomplished liturgically by the sacrament of Penance and Reconciliation (cf. Vatican II LG 11).

But, my Evangelical friend goes on to say...

<< But of course, this is again opposite of what the head of the Roman church says. Remember "...no forgivness directly from God." >>

We never said that there is no forgiveness directly from God. Yet, one can never be sure that God forgives you unless that forgiveness is given to you INCARNATIONALLY by the Church. If you sin against the Body, you must be reconciled to the Body. Yet, since you fail to appreciate the significance of Christ's Incarnation (and how the Church is an extension of that Incarnation), you do not recognize the truth of this; and you reduce your relationship with God to a strictly spiritual level -- that is, to the level of a relationship which any Jew could have had with God before Christ's Incarnation. Thus, you do not appreciate the gift of Emmanuel (God with us who became flesh, Matt 1:23; John 1:14).

So again, is the Church the Body of Christ or isn't it?

As for forgiveness coming directly from God, let me give you yet another example:

In Luke 7:36-50, we are told of the sinful woman who came into the house of Simon the Pharisee and wept at Jesus' feet. In v. 48, Jesus tells her: "Your sins are forgiven," and thereafter dismisses her in peace.

Now, this woman had obviously heard about Jesus and listened to Him speak to the crowds. She knew that He was the Messiah, and she knew that the Kingdom of God was at hand, and that she was called to repentance. Now, given all this, she could have gone to the Temple or to some lonely mountain side and prayed to God the Father, and He would have forgiven her because of the sincerity in her heart. Yet, instead, she bursts into the Pharisee's house and repents at the feet of Jesus. Why? What is this meant to show us? It shows us that Jesus came in the flesh -- that He intended this woman FEEL His hands and to HEAR the words: "Your sins are forgiven." That He intended this woman to experience inter-personal contact; and to KNOW that her sins were forgiven. For, He Who was manifested in the flesh (1 Tim 3:16; Col 2:9) told her this directly.

Now, would Jesus offer this gift to the woman and not to the rest of us today? Is our relationship with Jesus somehow less than this woman's? The woman experienced forgiveness IN THE FLESH. She HEARD someone tell her "Your sins are forgiven," and FELT someone offer that mercy to her. And Jesus wills us to have the same. This is why He gave His Church the authority to forgive sins -- so that we may HEAR the words, FEEL the touch of human compassion (as an extension of the Lord's own humanity); and KNOW for certain that we are forgiven. Further,

"This sacrament is rooted in the mission God gave to Christ in his capacity as the Son of man on earth to go and forgive sins (cf. Matt. 9:6). Thus, the crowds who witnessed this new power 'glorified God, who had given such authority to men' (Matt. 9:8; note the plural "men"). After his resurrection, Jesus passed on his mission to forgive sins to his ministers..." (from the Catholic Answers tract on Confession)

These ministers, who have been given the "ministry of reconciliation" (cf. 2 Cor 5:18f) have always been the Bishops and Priests of the Catholic Church, as seen in the writings of the early Christian Fathers and ecclesiastical writers:

ORIGEN (c. 244 AD)

In addition to these [kinds of forgiveness of sins], albeit hard and laborious: the remission of sins THROUGH PENANCE...when he [the sinner] does not shrink from DECLARING HIS SIN TO A PRIEST OF THE LORD AND FROM SEEKING MEDICINE....In this way there is fulfilled that too, which the Apostle James says: "If, then, there is anyone sick, let him call the PRESBYTERS [where we get PRIESTS] of the Church, and let them impose hands upon him, anointing him with oil in the name of the Lord; and the prayer of faith will save the sick man, and if he be in SINS, THEY SHALL BE FORGIVEN HIM [James 5:14-15; cf. John 20:21-23]." (Hom on Leviticus 2:4)

CYPRIAN OF CARTHAGE (c. 250 AD)

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....Indeed, he but sins the more if, thinking that God is like man, he believes that he can escape the punishment of his crime by not openly admitting his crime....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 PRIEST ARE STILL PLEASING BEFORE THE LORD. (The Lapsed 28)

JOHN CHRYSOSTOM (c. 387 AD)

Priests have received a power which God has given neither to angels nor to archangels. It was said to them: "Whatsoever you shall bind on earth shall be bound in heaven; and whatsoever you shall loose, shall be loosed" [Matt 18:18]. Temporal rulers have indeed the power of binding; but they can only bind the body. Priests, in contrast, can bind with a bond which pertains to the soul itself and transcends the very heavens. Did [God] not give them all the powers of heaven? "Whose sins you shall forgive," he says, "they are forgiven them; whose sins you shall retain, they are retained" [John 20:23]. What greater power is there than this? The Father has given all judgment to the Son. And now I see the Son placing all this power in the hands of men [cf. Matt 9:8; 10:40; John 20:21]. (The Priesthood 3:5)

AUGUSTINE (c. 395 AD)

When you shall have been baptized, keep to a good life in the commandments of God so that you may preserve your baptism to the very end. I do not tell you that you will live here without sin, but they are venial sins which this life is never without. Baptism was instituted for all sins. For light sins, without which we cannot live, prayer was instituted....But do not commit those sins on account of which you would have to be separated from the body of Christ. Perish the thought! For those whom you see doing penance have committed crimes, either adultery or some other enormities. That is why they are doing penance. If their sins were light, daily prayer would suffice to blot them out....In the Church, therefore, there are three ways in which sins are forgiven: in baptisms, in prayer, and in the greater humility of penance. (Sermon to Catechumens on the Creed 7:15; 8:16).

Yet, contrary to our Lord's desire (John 20:21-23; cf. James 5:14-16; 1 John 1:9) and the unanimous teaching and practice of the early Church, Fundamentalist or Evangelical Protestants have reduced Christianity to a purely "spiritual" religion. In this, they deny the significance of the Incarnation. They unwittingly deny that the Church is the Body of Christ, an extension of His very Incarnation based on the "one flesh" relationship between Christ and His Bride (Ephesians 5:25-32).

Mark Bonocore
The Catholic Legate
June 11, Year