Is Confession to a Priest Necessary for Forgiveness?

[The following is a question sent in by one of the readers of this blog. If you have a Bible or Theology question, you would like to ask, send it to me through the contact form on my About page.]

I’ve been doing a bit of thinking regarding the concept of confession during my research on multiple different aspects of Christianity, and I’ve come across the Catholic concept that requires confession to a priest. However, my beliefs have never required it but then again I don’t recall ever having researched the subject! The question is, how do you view the concept of confession, and is there any Biblical support for that view? Once again, sorry to bother you with this question. Keep well!

Church ConfessionsThe practice of confessing sins to a priest is not explicitly commanded anywhere in Scripture, though it is derived from various passages. For example, 1 John 1:9 tell us to confess our sins, and James 5:16 tells us to confess our sins to one another. The context of James 5:16 talks about how a person who is sick should call the elders of the church to pray over him, and if this person has committed sin, he should confess it. Therefore, this confession is in the context of having the elders pray over him, and so some see this as an instruction for people to confess their sin to priests, who somewhat function as “elders” or spiritual “overseers” in their church.

The Catholic Church also uses John 20:23 to defend the practice of confessing sins to priests. In this text, Jesus gives the Holy Spirit to His apostles and tells them that if they forgive people their sins, they will be forgiven, and if they do not forgive people, they will not be forgiven. Since the Catholic Church believes in apostolic succession, they argue that the authority to forgive sins was passed down from the apostles through the Pope to the priests.

So is the Catholic Church right in requiring people to confess sins to a priest?

Well, I agree that confession of sins to one another is a valuable spiritual practice. There is something beneficial and helpful about telling other Christian brothers and sisters where you have wronged them, and asking for their forgiveness. Also, bringing your hidden sins into the light so that others can keep you accountable and give you help in overcoming such temptations is also extremely valuable.

But Scripture does not limit our confession just to a priestly class. Even if it did, 2 Peter 2:5-9 reveals that we are all “priests.” Every believer in Jesus is a member of the holy priesthood. Revelation 1:6 and 5:10 also describes the church as a Kingdom of Priests. Each one of us is functions in a priestly role within the rule and reign of God.

Part of the problem with the debate about confession of sins is simply due to confusion about what confession does. I have counseled many Christians who wrongly believe that confession of sins is required in order to receive forgiveness. They think that if they do not confess a sin, it will not be forgiven, and if they die without confessing a sin, they will go to hell.

I know that there are some passages that seem to teach this (such as Matt 6:15; 1 John 1:9), but the confusion on these passages is due to several factors–such as bad English translations, poor theology, and a failure to study the verses in their historical, cultural, and grammatical contexts. I don’t have time to make all these corrections in this article here, so let me just provide the basic biblical teaching on confession and forgiveness.

The word “forgiveness” should often be translated “release.” The biblical concept of “forgiveness” is not primarily about having our sins washed away. Instead, most of the time when forgiveness is mentioned, it is about gaining a “release” from our sins. That is, sin enslaves us, and forgiveness is the key that helps us get victory over sin. Confession is an important step in gaining that release, that victory over sin. Confession to God and others helps us recognize that we have a problem with a particular sin, and we want God’s help and the help of others to stop committing that sin. This is primarily what the Bible means by “forgiveness.”

priest confessionBut what about having our sins washed away? Ah, well, while the Bible sometimes uses the word “forgiveness” in this way, it usually uses other terms. And in every case, we are taught that when it comes to having the penalty for sin removed from us, when it comes to having our sins cleansed, everything has already been done for us in the person and work of Jesus Christ. Confession of sins is not necessary for this sort of cleansing. Every sin of every human being in all the world throughout all time has already and completely been forgiven in Jesus Christ. He paid for all our sins—past, present, and future—in His body on the cross. We do not need to confess our sins to be forgiven by Him. He freely cleanses us from all sin (1 John 1:7).

So do you need to confess your sins to a priest?

Well, it is not wrong, but the things they tell you to do for penance might give you a bad idea about how forgiveness is granted, and it is unlikely that saying “Hail Mary’s” will give you the release from sin that true forgiveness is supposed to grant. A better practice is to go to God in prayerful confession, admitting to Him that what you did was wrong, and thanking Him that He has already cleansed you of this sin in Jesus Christ, and then ask Him to give you the strength and wisdom to keep from committing this sort of sin in the future. If your sin involved other human beings, or if you believe you need their help in keeping free of this sin, or you need their counsel, advice, or accountability, you should also confess this sin to another person you trust, or to a group of such people, who will love you no matter what and will help you through the temptations and addictions of this particular sin.

So confess your sins to God and to one another to gain release and victory over them, for you have already been cleansed of these sins through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, and your life should begin to match the reality that is already true of you in Jesus Christ.

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  1. Christopher Bowen says

    Confession of your sins to a priest is dead wrong. I don’t see how you can say otherwise in light of the rest of your excellent article.

  2. Davis Aasen says

    One would wonder why Jesus would give the Apostles the power to forgive sins if not to make use of that power for the salvation of souls? Particularly when this seems to align with the opinion of the Early Church. I.e. the Didache (70~150 AD) when it states “Confess your sins in church, and to not go up to prayer with an evil conscience. This is the way of life…” Or The letter of Barnabas (74 AD) “You shall judge righteously. You shall not make a schism, but you shall pacify those that contend by bringing them together. You shall confess your sins. You shall not go to prayer with an evil conscience. This is the way of light.” The list of Early Church examples of the importance goes on. I think that the weight of the opinions of the disciples of the Apostles falls heavily in line with the Catholic doctrine of Confession, and that this is worth taking into account when discussing the truth of any doctrine.

    • says

      Some of the difficulty is that we have lost the understanding of what confession and repentance mean and how to do them, and also what forgiveness entails. With a proper understanding of these words, I have no problem with saying that the apostles could forgive sins, or that you and I can as well!

      • Davis Aasen says

        I see. In an effort to find out the actuall meaning of those words, lets take a look. So when Jesus says, “Whose sins you shall forgive, they are forgiven them; and whose sins you shall retain, they are retained.” you would say that he is giving anyone with the Holy Spirit, not only the ability to forgive sins, and have them be actually forgiven, but the ability to hold sins unforgiven, and for those sins to be actually unforgiven? This seems doubtful as the intention of Christ. At the very least, his wording indicates that this is a real power, not simply an innovative way to proclaim the gospel.

        • Davis Aasen says

          I will also leave you with two more Early Church quotes to maybe shed a little light on how they viewed these terms.
          “[Regarding confession, some] flee from this work as being an exposure of themselves, or they put it off from day to day. I presume they are more mindful of modesty than of salvation, like those who contract a disease in the more shameful parts of the body and shun making themselves known to the physicians; and thus they perish along with their own bashfulness” (Repentance 10:1 [A.D. 203]).

          “[The Gnostic disciples of Marcus] have deluded many women. . . . Their consciences have been branded as with a hot iron. Some of these women make a public confession, but others are ashamed to do this, and in silence, as if withdrawing from themselves the hope of the life of God, they either apostatize entirely or hesitate between the two courses” (Against Heresies 1:22 [A.D. 189]).

          “[The bishop conducting the ordination of the new bishop shall pray:] God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. . . . Pour forth now that power which comes from you, from your royal Spirit, which you gave to your beloved Son, Jesus Christ, and which he bestowed upon his holy apostles . . . and grant this your servant, whom you have chosen for the episcopate, [the power] to feed your holy flock and to serve without blame as your high priest, ministering night and day to propitiate unceasingly before your face and to offer to you the gifts of your holy Church, and by the Spirit of the high priesthood to have the authority to forgive sins, in accord with your command” (Apostolic Tradition 3 [A.D. 215]).

          I realize these are not as early as the prior citations. However, they still predate the formation of the cannon of the books of the New Testament, so it is these opinions that would be passed down and used to even determine Holy Writ.

          • says

            Thanks for the quotes. Again, the first two have to do with confession and repentance, which is different than forgiveness. Even then, these are English translations, and so I would need to read them in the Greek (or Latin) to see what words they were using. Even then… I don’t necessarily agree with all the teachings and ideas of all the Apostolic Fathers.

        • says

          No, I would not say that. What I am saying is that there are different words for “forgiveness” in the Greek, and we need to understand what both mean and how both are accomplished. Even then, there is once-for-all forgiveness offered by God to everyone, no matter what, and there is fellowship-forgiveness which is for people already in relationship with one-another so that they can continue in fellowship. The bottom line is that the way most people think about forgiveness today is not at all the way people in biblical times thought about forgiveness.

      • Davis Aasen says

        I also want to throw an even more recent quote from Chrysostom in there.

        “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.’ 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.’ 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 [Matt. 10:40; John 20:21–23]. They are raised to this dignity as if they were already gathered up to heaven” (The Priesthood 3:5 [A.D. 387]).

      • Davis Aasen says

        I think that the first two quotes set up a choice between salvation, and not confessing. This would seem to overturn the idea that they considered confession, forgiveness and salvation differently. Particularly because I think we would find the Apostolic Fathers using the same Greek words you discussed in this article, and still using them in terms of salvation. Especially because they are much much closer to the biblical times, and therefore much more aware of how these terms would have been used. However, I can see that this stems from a fundamental disagreement in the nature of salvation. Putting that aside however, I really am interested, what do you think is the point of what Jesus says in John 20? Do you think that your interpretations aligns with that of the Apostles (using their disciples for discerning the apostles interpretation) ? I really am not trying to troll, I just enjoy discussion, so please let me know if I end up sounding trollish.

        • says

          No, you don’t sound trollish. I love good discussions like this as well. It just gets difficult in blog comments to respond properly to all the points each person is making.

          As to John 20:23…

          I started to write an explanation, but after it passed 300 words, I decided it would be better and easier to write a full post on the passage. I will try to post it in the next week or two.

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