Confessing to a Priest 



“Confessional in rococo style.” Photo taken by JoJan. Licensed under Creative Commons ShareAlike 3.0 Unported

One of the stumbling blocks I encountered on my way to becoming Catholic was the idea of confession to a priest. Growing up as a Baptist, I had always been taught to privately confess my sins to God in prayer. So, why would I need some guy, sitting in a confessional booth, to forgive my sins? Likewise, many of my non Catholic friends who took my recent survey (found here), also lament the idea of telling someone else their sins and having them be forgiven. Isn’t this God’s job?

The short answer to that question is yes! Only God can forgive sins. But, God can also use his creation to communicate his forgiveness. Something similar to this, which almost all Christians accept, is the inerrancy of scripture. As Christians, we believe that God used men, as sinful and broken as they all were, to write his holy word. Something only that God could do was communicated through his creation. Likewise, priests, when absolving someone of their sins, do so not on their own authority, but on Christ’s. They have been given the gift to forgive sins in Jesus’ name. 

“But where does the Bible say….” Stop right there! I’ve got you covered. In the words of my pastors growing up “If you have you Bibles with you this morning, turn to John 20:21-23.” The gospel of John reads:

21 [Jesus] said to them again, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you. 22And when he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the holy Spirit. 23Whose sins you forgive are forgiven them, and whose sins you retain are retained.” (Taken from the NAB on the USCCB website)

Jesus, in these verses, sends the apostles with his authority (v. 21) and gives them the gift of the Holy Spirit to forgive OR retain sins (22-23). Jesus knew we would need this process because he intimately knows our humanity. It’s tough to tell our sins to another person, but we may be tempted to overlook the gravity of our sin without doing so. Confession is also one of the greatest experiences of God’s grace that I have ever received. Don’t let fear keep you from this great gift!

So what do you think? Was this helpful? Leave your comments and/or questions in the comments section and be sure to share with a friend. 

Peace be with you!

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11 thoughts on “Confessing to a Priest 

  1. Love this post! I am a Cradle Catholic turned Baptist returned Catholic. Can you tell me how the Baptists interpret this scripture, as to me, it is pretty clear what it says.

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  2. Hey, Jill! Welcome back to the Church! To be honest, I had never seriously considered this passage until I started my journey toward the Church. I have had, however, conversations about it with a couple of Baptist friends. One friend honestly admitted that he was not sure as to what this passage referred to and said that it might have been a special dispensation for that time (so only for the apostles). My other friend contended that this means that we all have the power to proclaim the forgiveness of Christ to the world. I saw this explanation to be a bit of a stretch especially when you couple these verses with the authority to “loose and bind” given to St. Peter. Anyway, I have yet to hear a compelling refutation for the Catholic take. They have the power, through Christ, to forgive or retain sins and that ministry carries on through their successors.

    Thanks for the comment and kind words!

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    1. Thanks! I will tell you, as you already know. The feeling of freeness you have when you leave the confessional, it is beyond description. It’s a beautiful sacrament!

      Liked by 1 person

  3. I read your comment on my post at Patheos, and felt so blessed to find someone else out there who had to make that journey from Baptist to Catholic with some of the same confusions and misgivings. Again, thank you for your thoughts and for taking them time to post that remarkable video!

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    1. Thank you, Cynthia, for your post! It’s so nice to hear the stories of others who have come into the church! You probably already know of it, but the Journey Home on EWTN is another wonderful resource. It’s all about telling the stories of converts. Blessings on your Sunday and thanks for stopping in!

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  4. Hey Case. Do you find it at all problematic to base such a doctrine as the forgiveness of sins on one verse, when there are so many other verses of Scripture that would seem to shed more light on the nature of forgiveness, namely, that we do not have to confess our sins to a priest for forgiveness? That is why I would have to agree with your friend (hehe) about the whole special dispensation bit. It seems when we look at Scripture that the apostles are literally the foundation upon which the Church was built, and that that foundation is thus unique. Essentially there will be no apostolic succession that will have the specific kind of authority given to these first apostles as foundation layers. At least that is what I infer from Ephesians 2:20: “having been built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Jesus Christ Himself being the chief corner stone.”

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    1. First of all, thank you for reading my post, Danny! I hope you and Hannah are having a great time in Texas.

      I would start by saying that this doctrine isn’t based on one verse alone. I’m sorry if it seemed that I was implying that. As I said in a comment above, there are others like Peter’s unique role to loose and bind (which had other implications as well) and, as you know, we are commanded to confess our sins to one another (James 5:16). Also, we have good historical evidence which shows the essential nature of confession within the early church. I’d be curious as to your interpretation of Jesus’ words to the apostles (in regards to forgiving and retaining sin) if it were only meant to be a special dispensation for that time. Did the apostles have the authority to forgive and retain sins? If so, what use was that gift if it was extinguished altogether upon the apostles death? If we don’t need it now, why then?

      On apostolic succession I’ll make a few observations. First, I don’t think anyone denies the fact that the apostles were the foundation on which the church was built. Indeed, their spot in history is unique. But, the Bible never states that the apostles authority ended with them. In fact, we have a clear demonstration of the fact that once an apostle died another took his place (acts 1:26). In any case, I’d say you would be hard pressed to find scripture that explicitly supports the cessation of apostolic authority. Without it, who has the final say after all?

      Lastly, I’ll leave you with a link to several quotations on the necessity of confession. As you know, the early church resorted to public confessions (ouch), and the form of confession has since changed somewhat (phew!). That, however, doesn’t deny for a second the reality that confessing ones sins was absolutely essential. Take note too of how many of these quotes are before the time of Constantine (just in case the argument was to be made that he ushered in this practice). I just can’t see how,outside of one’s personal interpretation of scripture, the practice of confession to a successor of the apostles can be avoided.

      Peace, brother!

      http://www.catholic.com/tracts/confession

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  5. I also thought about the James text as well. There definitely is a need to confess and ask for prayer and help from our brothers and sisters in time of need, because the effectual fervent prayer of righteous man (not a priest, or even an apostle) avails much. I do have a hard time extrapolating from there and setting up a priesthood for that function. The text does not seem to warrant such a hierarchical view, in my opinion.

    As far as binding and loosing are concern, I do not think it is talking about sin essentially. Later on in Matthew’s gospel, the same language is used in the context of two believers squashing a quarrel as binding and loosing, implying that if we will do this on earth, God will do the same for us. Having said that, I don’t think the exclusive Petrine reading is warranted. Peter stands in as a type of all believers who can have the power to bind and loose because of the access Christ has given all of us by His sacrifice. The rock is the revelation (not the man Peter) that Christ is Messiah.

    And since I am Pentecostal, I actually do believe that there are present day apostles. Yet, I think (as you say as well), that they are not as unique as the first ones.

    Thanks for the engagement. I do respect the Catholic position, and would become one if I didn’t have so many other things hindering me from doing so. But we can chat about that some other time.

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    1. Thanks for the response. I would be very happy to walk with you through your difficulties with the Church. Just let me know what you need and I’ll write a post about it sometime!

      I’ll just say this because I think it strikes at the heart of our discussion. You and I can argue scripture until we are blue in the face and no one will come out victorious. We can all point to passages and glean from them what we will. That doesn’t mean we are being dishonest, but we all filter the Bible through our particular biases and traditions. No one is immune. That said, we must then look for the tradition that has the authority to make definitive claims on scripture. As you know, having taken a class on him, that is exactly the dilemma Newman came up against. First he said the Bible was sufficient, but soon saw the wide variety of interpretations that plagued the Protestant camp. Then he turned to the church fathers but didn’t find a living voice that could speak the truth for today. Finally, he realized that it was only the Church of Rome that had any legitimate claim to authority. Only it could trace its roots all the way back to Peter and the apostles.

      Just take your interpretation of Peter being named the rock upon which the church was built. First, I’ll point out that the church accepts BOTH interpretations of the passage. Of course, his recognition of Christ’s identity is essential to the foundation of the Church. But, don’t overlook the extremely important things that happen to Peter: he receives a name change (highly significant in scripture), he has the power to bind and loose, AND he is given the keys of the kingdom. The last part is fulfillment of Isaiah 22. Peter is the new prime minister of the Davidic kingdom which Christ now fulfills. Compare the two scenes and you’ll see the significance of Christ’s words. A key was placed on the prime ministers shoulder and whatever he opened couldn’t be shut, what was shut couldn’t be opened, etc. The stories track alongside one another. ALSO, the prime minister role was one of succession. Because of the preciseness of Jesus’ words, and the function of the office (to tend to the kingdom while the king is away….something that still needs to be taken care of) we can rest assured that the church was indeed built upon Peter AND his profession of faith.

      Love discussing this stuff. Peace, bro.

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