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NO HUMAN CAN FORGIVE SINS – ONLY GOD CAN FORGIVE SINS
The Catholic Church uses certain Bible verses to support its belief that priests can forgive sins. Here are some of those verses, along with an explanation of how they do not imply that priests have the power to forgive sins:
- John 20:21-23 (ESV): “Jesus said to them again, ‘Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, even so I am sending you.’ And when he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you withhold forgiveness from any, it is withheld.'”
Explanation: This verse is often interpreted by Catholics as Jesus giving the apostles the power to forgive sins. However, it is important to note that Jesus was speaking to His apostles, who had a unique role in establishing the early Church. This authority was not necessarily passed down to every priest throughout history. Furthermore, the forgiveness of sins is ultimately granted by God, and priests act as intermediaries or channels of God’s forgiveness through the ministry of reconciliation.
- Matthew 16:19 (ESV): “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.”
Explanation: Catholics interpret this verse as Jesus giving Peter (and by extension, the apostles and their successors) the authority to make decisions about the forgiveness or retention of sins. However, it is important to understand that this authority is not independent of God’s judgment. The binding and loosing mentioned here refers to the proclamation and application of God’s forgiveness based on His divine principles, rather than priests having the power to forgive sins on their own accord.
- James 5:14-16 (ESV): “Is anyone among you sick? Let him call for the elders of the church, and let them pray over him, anointing him with oil in the name of the Lord. And the prayer of faith will save the one who is sick, and the Lord will raise him up. And if he has committed sins, he will be forgiven. Therefore, confess your sins to one another and pray for one another, that you may be healed.”
Explanation: Catholics often cite this passage to support the practice of confessing sins to priests. However, it is important to note that James encourages mutual confession and prayer among believers rather than specifying a confession exclusively to priests. The forgiveness mentioned here comes from God in response to the prayers of the faithful community rather than through a specific priestly absolution.
- Matthew 9:6 (ESV): “But that you may know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins”—he then said to the paralytic—’Rise, pick up your bed and go home.'”
Explanation: This verse demonstrates that Jesus had the authority to forgive sins during His earthly ministry. It does not necessarily imply that this authority is transferred to priests. In fact, throughout the New Testament, forgiveness of sins is consistently attributed to God alone, and Jesus is depicted as the ultimate mediator between God and humanity.
In summary, while the Catholic Church may interpret certain verses as supporting the idea that priests can forgive sins, these interpretations are not universally agreed upon among Christians. The biblical evidence suggests that forgiveness of sins ultimately comes from God alone, and priests act as mediators or channels of God’s forgiveness through the sacraments and the ministry of reconciliation.
Understanding What the Bible Says about Confession
Confession Definition: A declaration or an acknowledgment, publicly or privately, (1) of what a person believes or (2) of his sins.
Is the rite of reconciliation, including auricular confession (personal confession into the ear of a priest), as taught by the Catholic Church Scriptural?
The way in which the priest is addressed
The traditional formula, still often used, is: “Bless me, Father, for I have sinned. It has been [length of time] since my last Confession.” (U.S. Catholic magazine, October 1982, p. 6).
Matthew 23:1, 9, ESV: “Then Jesus said to the crowds and to his disciples, . . . ‘And call no man your father on earth, for you have one Father, who is in heaven.'”
Sins that can be forgiven
“The Church has always taught that every sin, no matter how serious, can be forgiven.”—The Catholic Encyclopedia (bearing the nihil obstat and the imprimatur), R. C. Broderick (Nashville, Tenn.; 1976), p. 554.
Hebrews 10:26, ESV: “For if we go on sinning deliberately after receiving the knowledge of the truth, there no longer remains a sacrifice for sins.”
Mark 3:29, ESV: “But whoever blasphemes against the Holy Spirit never has forgiveness, but is guilty of an eternal sin.”
How to show penance
Frequently the confessor directs that the penitent say a specified number of “Our Fathers” and “Hail Marys.”
Matthew 6:7, ESV: “And when you pray, do not heap up empty phrases as the Gentiles do, for they think that they will be heard for their many words.”
Matthew 6:9-12, ESV: “Pray then like this: ‘Our Father in heaven, . . . forgive us our debts.'” (Nowhere in the Bible are we commanded to pray to or through Mary. See Philippians 4:6)
Romans 12:9, ESV: “Let love be genuine. Abhor what is evil; hold fast to what is good.”
Did Jesus give authority to His apostles to forgive sins?
John 20:21-23, ESV: “Jesus said to them again, ‘Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, even so I am sending you.’ And when he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you withhold forgiveness from any, it is withheld.'”
How did the apostles interpret and implement this teaching about forgiveness? While there is no biblical record of the apostles listening to private confessions and absolving sins, the Bible sets out the requirements for receiving forgiveness from God. With the guidance of the Holy Spirit, the apostles could discern if individuals were meeting these requirements and declare whether or not God had forgiven them.” would be a possible rewrite of the given question. For examples, see Acts 5:1-11, also 1 Corinthians 5:1-5 and 2 Corinthians 2:6-8.
Viewpoints of scholars as to the origin of auricular confession differ
The Catholic Encyclopedia, by R. C. Broderick, states: “Since the fourth century auricular confession has been the accepted method.”—P. 58.
The New Catholic Encyclopedia says: “Many contemporary historians, both Catholic and Protestant, trace the origins of private penance as a normal discipline to the churches of Ireland, Wales, and Britain, where the Sacraments, including Penance, were administered usually by the abbot of a monastery and his priest-monks. With the monastic practice of confession and public and private spiritual direction as the model, repeated confession and confession of devotion seem to have been introduced for the laity. . . . However, it was not until the 11th century that secret sins were absolved at the time of confession and before the fulfillment of penance.”—(1967), Vol. XI, p. 75.
Historian A. H. Sayce reports: “The ritual texts show that both public and private confession was practiced in Babylonia. Indeed, private confession seems to have been the older and more usual method.”—The Religions of Ancient Egypt and Babylonia (Edinburgh, 1902), p. 497.
What are the beliefs of conservative Christians as to confession?
We Publicly Confess Our Faith
Romans 10:9, 10, ESV: “Because, if you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. For with the heart one believes and is justified, and with the mouth one confesses and is saved.”
Matthew 10:32, 33, ESV: “So everyone who acknowledges me before men, I also will acknowledge before my Father who is in heaven, but whoever denies me before men, I also will deny before my Father who is in heaven.”
When We Sin against God
Matthew 6:6-12, ESV: “But when you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will reward you. Pray then like this: ‘Our Father in heaven, . . . forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors.'”
Psalm 32:5, ESV: “I acknowledged my sin to you, and I did not cover my iniquity; I said, ‘I will confess my transgressions to the LORD,’ and you forgave the iniquity of my sin.”
1 John 2:1, ESV: “My little children, I am writing these things to you so that you may not sin. But if anyone does sin, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous.”
When We Have Wronged Our Neighbor or When We Have Been Wronged
Matthew 5:23, 24, ESV: “So if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go. First be reconciled to your brother, and then come and offer your gift.”
Matthew 18:15, ESV: “If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault, between you and him alone.”
Luke 17:3, ESV: “Pay attention to yourselves! If your brother sins, rebuke him, and if he repents, forgive him.”
Ephesians 4:32, ESV: “Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you.”
When We Have Committed a Serious Sin and Need Spiritual Help
James 5:14-16, ESV: “Is anyone among you sick? Let him call for the elders of the church, and let them pray over him, anointing him with oil in the name of the Lord. And the prayer of faith will save the one who is sick, and the Lord will raise him up. And if he has committed sins, he will be forgiven. Therefore, confess your sins to one another and pray for one another, that you may be healed.”
Proverbs 28:13, ESV: “Whoever conceals his transgressions will not prosper, but he who confesses and forsakes them will obtain mercy.”
When Someone Sins But Failed to Seek Help
Galatians 6:1, ESV: “Brothers, if anyone is caught in any transgression, you who are spiritual should restore him in a spirit of gentleness. Keep watch on yourself, lest you too be tempted.”
1 Timothy 5:20, ESV: “As for those who persist in sin, rebuke them in the presence of all, so that the rest may stand in fear.”
1 Corinthians 5:11-13, ESV: “But now I am writing to you not to associate with anyone who bears the name of brother if he is guilty of sexual immorality or greed, or is an idolater, reviler, drunkard, or swindler—not even to eat with such a one. For what have I to do with judging outsiders? Is it not those inside the church whom you are to judge? God judges those outside. ‘Purge the evil person from among you.'”
The Biblical Perspective on Confession
Should we, according to the Scriptures, acknowledge and confess our wrongdoings? And if so, to whom should we confess?
Let us humbly acknowledge that as human beings, we are not immune to making mistakes. All of us have erred at some point in our lives. But how do we feel after committing an error?
Initially, the natural response may be to hide or conceal our wrongdoing. Isn’t that often the case? However, our conscience may start to trouble us thereafter. (1 John 3:4; Rom. 2:14, 15) Haven’t you experienced the desire to have a clear conscience and to be in harmony with God, prompting you to confess your transgressions, seek forgiveness, and move forward? But should we indeed confess, and if so, to whom?
The Bible makes it evident that the act of acknowledging and confessing our sins holds great significance. When John the Baptist proclaimed repentance for transgressions against the Law, many Jews “were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins.” (Mark 1:4, 5, Common Bible) Furthermore, Jesus encouraged his disciples to pray, saying, “Forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors.” (Matt. 6:12, CB)
Regarding sins committed against God, it is evident that we should admit our wrongs to Him and seek His forgiveness. (Compare Psalm 32:3-5.) However, what about the times when we wrong our fellow human beings? The Scriptures instruct us to reconcile with the person whom we have harmed. Let us take note of Jesus’ words during the Sermon on the Mount, addressed to the Jews: “if you are offering your gift at the altar, and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother, and then come and offer your gift [to God].” (Matt. 5:23, 24, CB) This counsel implies admitting our wrongdoing to the person we have harmed and taking steps to reconcile with them. This applies not only to strangers but also to our own family members.
The Biblical Perspective on Confession and Adultery
What should someone do if they have committed adultery? Adultery is viewed as a sin in the eyes of God. However, it is not only a sin against God but also a sin against one’s spouse, as the marriage covenant grants exclusive rights to sexual relations. (Matt. 19:5, 6; 1 Cor. 6:16) Therefore, if a person has committed adultery, how can they expect God’s forgiveness unless they confess their sin to their spouse?
Similarly, we may wonder if an engaged person should confess past immorality to their prospective spouse. Many couples choose to let the past remain undisclosed. They recognize that even if one of them had engaged in immorality years ago, perhaps before becoming a Christian, that past act was not a sin against the person who will become their spouse. Hence, Jesus’ counsel in Matthew 5:23, 24 does not require confessing to the prospective spouse. However, some individuals in this situation may choose to “clear the slate” and prevent any possibility of it coming to light later with potentially damaging consequences. Whether now or later, if a Christian is asked about their past and is obliged to answer, they cannot lie to keep it secret. (Col. 3:9)
Regarding another aspect of confession, you may have come across recent headlines such as “Vatican Reforms Confessional—Less About Sex, More on Taxes.” As widely known, Roman Catholics are expected to confess serious sins to a priest authorized to grant absolution. The Council of Trent in 1551 decreed that sacramental confession is of divine origin and necessary for salvation by divine law. They emphasized the justification and necessity of private confession as practiced in the Church since its early days. (New Catholic Encyclopedia, Vol. 4, p. 132)
In support of auricular confession to a priest who grants absolution, theologians often refer to Jesus. It is undeniable that Jesus declared forgiveness of sins. When a paralyzed man was brought to him in faith, Jesus said, “Your sins are forgiven you.” Some objected, so Jesus added, “But that you may know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins… I say to you, rise.” And the man was healed! (Luke 5:18-26, CB) Notice that Jesus could declare sins forgiven but could also heal the man. Is the same true for those who claim to “absolve” sins today? Additionally, it is worth noting that the account does not mention the man making any auricular confession.
Some may refer to John 20:22, 23, where the resurrected Jesus told his apostles, “If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.” (CB) However, there is no mention of the need for auricular confession to the apostles or others in this passage.
The Biblical Perspective on Confession and Auricular Confession
If Jesus had indeed instituted auricular confession, wouldn’t we expect to find evidence in the Bible of the apostles hearing such confessions? It would be reasonable to assume so, especially considering that the Council of Trent claimed auricular confession, with absolution of sins, was practiced in the Church from the beginning. However, despite recommending the practice, Jesuit professor J. L. McKenzie admits, “The origins of auricular confession are obscure; it is old, at least as old as the late patristic period [ending about 749 C.E.], but it was not the original discipline of penance.” (The Roman Catholic Church) Furthermore, the New Catholic Encyclopedia acknowledges in its article on penance, “There is no scriptural evidence that the Apostles, other than St. Paul, exercised the power of forgiving sins.”
But was the case involving Paul an instance of an apostle or priest hearing a confession and granting absolution? No, it was not. The case concerned a congregation expelling and later reinstating a man who had sinned. Writing from Ephesus, Paul advised the Corinthian congregation in Europe to expel or disfellowship a man engaged in immorality. This case serves as an illustration of the application of Jesus’ words in John 20:23. How so? Well, it was evident that the sins of the Corinthian man had to be viewed as “retained.” The congregation could not consider his sins as “forgiven” since the Bible clearly states that God does not forgive an unrepentant sinner. (1 Cor. 5:1, 9-13; Isa. 1:16-18; 55:7) However, later, presumably after the man repented, Paul wrote again and urged the congregation to “forgive and comfort him.” (2 Cor. 2:7, CB) Once again, there is no mention of any auricular confession to a priest or apostle in this case.
The Bible does, however, encourage believers to “confess [their] sins to one another.” (Jas. 5:16, CB) What does this mean? Let’s consider the context.
James wrote that if someone is spiritually sick, which would indicate the commission of serious sins, they should “call the elders of the church, and let them pray over him.” (The Corinthian man should have done that instead of persisting unrepentantly in his sin.) God does not authorize the elders themselves to forgive sins; that is something only He can do. (1 John 1:9) However, when someone has confessed to God without attempting to hide or cover up their sins, spiritually qualified elders can pray for them, provide counsel, and offer support. (Prov. 28:13; Gal. 6:1)
What can be the result of such confession? James adds, “The Lord will raise him up, and if he has committed sins, he will be forgiven.” (Jas. 5:14, 15, CB)
Confession of Sins: Man’s Way or God’s?
Over the centuries, the practice of confession has undergone significant changes among Catholics. In the early years of the Catholic Church, confession and penance were only required for serious sins. Religion in the Medieval West describes this period, stating, “Until the late sixth century, the penitential system was very harsh: the sacrament could be administered only once in a lifetime, confession was public, and the penance was long and severe.”
Just how severe were these penances? In 1052, one penitent was required to walk barefoot all the way from Bruges in Belgium to Jerusalem! Christianity in the West 1400-1700 mentions that Catholics could still be found in the year 1700, kneeling up to their necks in icy water at holy wells and springs to perform their penitential prayers. As absolution was withheld until after the completion of the penance, many would delay their confession until they were on their deathbeds.
When did the modern practice of confession begin? Religion in the Medieval West states, “A new form of penance was introduced in France in the late sixth century by Celtic monks. This was auricular confession, in which the penitent confessed his sins privately to a priest, and it was an adaptation of the monastic practice of spiritual counseling.” In the earlier monastic practice, the monks would confess their sins to one another to receive spiritual help in overcoming their weaknesses. However, in auricular confession, the church claimed for the priest a much greater “power or authority to forgive sins.” (New Catholic Encyclopedia)
But did Jesus truly give some of his followers such power? What did he say that has led some to reach this conclusion?
“The Keys of the Kingdom”: Opening the Way to Heaven
During one occasion, Jesus Christ spoke to the apostle Peter and said, “I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven: whatever you bind on earth shall be considered bound in heaven; whatever you loose on earth shall be considered loosed in heaven.” (Matthew 16:19, The Jerusalem Bible) What did Jesus mean by “the keys of the kingdom”? We can gain a better understanding by examining another instance when Jesus used the word “key.”
Jesus once addressed the Jewish religious leaders who were knowledgeable in the Mosaic Law, saying, “Woe to you lawyers! For you have taken away the key of knowledge. You did not enter yourselves, and you hindered those who were entering.” (Luke 11:52, JB) He mentioned preventing others from entering, but where were they prevented from entering? Jesus tells us in Matthew 23:13, “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you shut the kingdom of heaven in people’s faces. For you neither enter yourselves nor allow those who would enter to go in.” (JB) The Jewish religious leaders, in a sense, closed the door on many individuals by depriving them of the opportunity to be with Jesus Christ in heaven. The “key” that these religious leaders had taken away did not pertain to the forgiveness of sins. Rather, it referred to the key of divine knowledge.
Similarly, when Peter was given “the keys of the kingdom,” it did not signify the power to dictate to heaven whose sins should be forgiven or retained. Instead, it represented Peter’s great privilege of opening the pathway to heaven by proclaiming the divinely provided knowledge through his ministry. He fulfilled this role first for the Jews and Jewish proselytes, then for the Samaritans, and finally for the Gentiles. (Acts 2:1-41; 8:14-17; 10:1-48).
“Whatever You Bind on Earth”: Authority to Maintain Congregational Order
Later, the words spoken by Jesus to Peter were reiterated to the other disciples. Jesus solemnly said, “Truly, I say to you, whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.” (Matthew 18:18, JB) What authority did Christ delegate to the disciples in this statement? The context reveals that he was addressing the resolution of conflicts between individual believers and the maintenance of a clean congregation free from unrepentant evildoers. (Matthew 18:15-17)
In matters involving serious violations of God’s law, responsible men within the congregation would have the responsibility to judge and determine whether a wrongdoer should be “bound” (considered guilty) or “loosed” (acquitted). Did this mean that heaven would simply follow the decisions of humans? No. As Bible scholar Robert Young indicates, any decision made by the disciples on earth would align with heaven’s decision, rather than precede it. He suggests that Matthew 18:18 should be literally translated as: “Whatever you bind on earth shall be that which has already been bound in heaven.”
Indeed, it is unreasonable to believe that any imperfect human could make decisions that would have binding authority in heavenly courts. It is far more reasonable to understand that Christ’s appointed representatives would follow his instructions in order to maintain a clean congregation. They would do this by making decisions based on principles that were already established in heaven. Jesus himself would guide them in this endeavor. (Matthew 18:20)
Is any human capable of fully “representing Christ as the fatherly judge” to the extent of determining the eternal fate of a fellow worshiper? (New Catholic Encyclopedia) In the practice of confession, priests typically grant absolution, even though there is an underlying belief among Catholic theologians that true repentance is rare. (The New Encyclopædia Britannica) In fact, when was the last time you heard of a priest refusing absolution or acquitting a wrongdoer? Most likely, individual priests do not consider themselves capable of judging whether a sinner is genuinely repentant or not. So why do they claim the power to grant absolution?
Imagine a court of law where a compassionate judge routinely acquitted criminals, including persistent lawbreakers, simply because they went through a ritual of admitting their crimes and expressing remorse. While this might satisfy wrongdoers, such a misguided concept of mercy would undermine respect for justice. Could it be that the practice of confession in the Catholic Church actually reinforces a pattern of sin? (Ecclesiastes 8:11)
Ramona, who has confessed as a Catholic since she was seven years old, comments on her experience: “Confession does not produce a desire to avoid sin in the future. It fosters the idea that God is all-forgiving, and whatever actions our imperfect flesh leads us to do, He will forgive. It does not cultivate a deep longing to do what is right.”
But what about Jesus’ words recorded in John 20:22, 23? There, Jesus told his disciples, “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you withhold forgiveness from any, it is withheld.” (JB) Does this verse not specifically grant authority to the disciples to forgive sins?
When taken in isolation, this passage might appear to suggest so. However, when these words are considered alongside the account in Matthew 18:15-18 and the broader teachings of the Bible regarding confession and forgiveness, what conclusion must we draw? That in John 20:22, 23, Jesus gave his disciples authority to expel unrepentant individuals who committed serious sins from the congregation. At the same time, Christ granted his followers the authority to extend mercy and forgive those who genuinely repented. Jesus was certainly not instructing his disciples to confess every sin to a priest.
Therefore, those entrusted with responsibility within the congregation were authorized to decide how to handle those who committed grave sins. These decisions would be made under the guidance of God’s Holy Spirit and in harmony with God’s directions provided through Jesus Christ and the Holy Scriptures. (Compare Acts 5:1-5; 1 Corinthians 5:1-5, 11-13.) These responsible men would respond to heavenly direction rather than imposing their own decisions on heaven.
“Confess Your Sins to One Another”: Seeking Spiritual Help
So, when is it appropriate for Christians to confess their sins to one another? In the case of serious sin (not every minor failing), an individual should confess to responsible overseers within the congregation. Even if a sin is not grave but weighs heavily on one’s conscience, there is great value in confessing and seeking spiritual assistance.
The Bible writer James addresses this matter, stating, “Is anyone among you sick? Let him call for the elders of the church, and let them pray over him, anointing him with oil in the name of the Lord. And the prayer of faith will save the one who is sick, and the Lord will raise him up. And if he has committed sins, he will be forgiven. Therefore, confess your sins to one another and pray for one another.” (James 5:14-16, JB)
In these words, there is no indication of a formal or ritualistic auricular confession. Rather, when a Christian is burdened with sin to the extent that they feel unable to pray, they should reach out to the appointed elders or overseers of the congregation. These elders will pray with them and apply the comforting and strengthening words of God’s Scriptures, likened to the anointing of oil. (Psalm 141:5; compare Luke 5:31, 32; Revelation 3:18)
It is important to note John the Baptizer’s admonition to “bear fruit in keeping with repentance.” (Matthew 3:8; compare Acts 26:20) A truly repentant wrongdoer forsakes their sinful ways. Similar to the example of King David in ancient Israel, a repentant sinner who confesses their error to God will receive forgiveness. David wrote, “I acknowledged my sin to you, and I did not cover my iniquity; I said, ‘I will confess my transgressions to the LORD,’ and you forgave the iniquity of my sin.” (Psalm 32:5)
Penitential acts cannot earn such forgiveness; only God can grant it. He takes into account the demands of perfect justice, but His forgiveness is an expression of His love for humanity. His forgiveness is also a demonstration of undeserved kindness based on the ransom sacrifice of Jesus Christ, and it is extended solely to repentant sinners who turn away from what is deemed sinful in God’s sight. (Psalm 51:7; Isaiah 1:18; John 3:16; Romans 3:23-26) Only those forgiven by Jehovah God will attain eternal life. And to receive such forgiveness, we must make confession in accordance with God’s way, not man’s.
“Confess Your Sins”: Biblical Instruction
The inspired apostle John declares, “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.” (1 John 1:9, ESV) Do you confess your sins? And if so, do you follow the way that God has provided and instructed in His Word? Many people around the world enter confession boxes to make their confessions to a priest, while others do not. However, personal preferences, traditional practices, and human opinions should not dictate our actions. As Christians, we are guided by the Bible, which is a lamp to our feet and a light to our path. (Psalm 119:105)
The Catholic Encyclopedia explains confession as a practice where the confession is not made in the secrecy of one’s heart or to a layman as a friend and advocate, but rather to a duly ordained priest with the claimed power to forgive sins granted by Christ to His Church. However, it is essential to question the basis of these claims and the interpretation of biblical passages supporting this practice.
Does the Bible support the notion that only priests can forgive sins? Jesus Himself said, “Truly, I say to you, all sins will be forgiven the children of man, and whatever blasphemies they utter, but whoever blasphemes against the Holy Spirit never has forgiveness, but is guilty of an eternal sin.” (Mark 3:28-29, ESV) Not all sins are forgivable.
Regarding the belief in temporal punishment after death, the Bible teaches that after death, both the wicked and the righteous rest. (Job 3:17; Ecclesiastes 9:5) The soul that sins shall die, and the dead know nothing. (Ezekiel 18:4; Ecclesiastes 9:5) The punishment for the wicked is everlasting destruction, not eternal torment. (Matthew 25:46; Revelation 21:8)
The practice of auricular confession, where sins are confessed privately to a priest, finds its origins in ancient pagan practices of secret confession to priests. This practice gave significant power to the pagan priesthood over the lives of those who sought their counsel. The doctrine of penance was later reaffirmed in the Roman Catholic Church. However, this practice poses moral challenges for priests under vows of celibacy, and it has been associated with cases of abuse and misconduct.
It is important to examine the biblical passages often used to support auricular confession. Matthew 16:19 refers to the keys of the kingdom of heaven, representing the opportunity to enter the kingdom through the dissemination of divine knowledge. This authority was granted to Peter alone, not to all priests. Matthew 18:18 speaks about decisions made by the older men in the congregation regarding the retention or expulsion of an individual who has sinned against a brother. These decisions are already bound in heaven, as the Holy Spirit guides appointed overseers who apply biblical principles in their decision-making.
James 5:14-16 provides sound counsel for Christians who become spiritually sick, advising them to call upon the older men of the congregation for prayer and support. This does not describe the Catholic auricular confession, which delves into intimate details of one’s private life. The mature overseer offers prayer on behalf of the spiritually sick person, seeking God’s forgiveness and restoration through the Mediator, Christ Jesus.
In conclusion, it is important to confess our sins, but we must do so in accordance with biblical instruction. Confession should be made openly to one another within the congregation, seeking spiritual support and guidance from mature believers. Forgiveness ultimately comes from God, and it is through His grace and mercy that we find restoration. Let us follow the teachings of the Bible and seek forgiveness in the way that God has provided.
- AV – Authorized Version or King James Version (1611).
- CB The New Testament—A Translation in the Language of the People (1937; as printed in 1950), Charles B. Williams
- Dy Challoner-Douay Version (c. 1750; as printed in 1942)
- ESV The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Text Edition: 2016. Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.
- JB The Jerusalem Bible (1966), Alexander Jones, general editor
- KJV King James Version (1611; as printed in 1942)