Why Do I Have To Confess My Sins To A Priest?
Often I am asked: "Why do I have to confess my sins to a priest?" The short answer to that question is: because that is what Jesus wants us to do.
To understand the full force of what Jesus wants of us we have to understand other Biblical teachings.
Only God can forgive sin
Our starting point is the fact that it is God, and only God who forgives sins. For example, in Isaiah 43:25 we read, "I, even I, am he who blots out your transgressions, for my own sake, and remembers your sins no more." Yes, God does forgive our sins. But, there is a further question, how does God forgive our sins?
How does God forgive sin
To answer this question we look to the scriptural context, that is, the pattern of how God operates in the Old and the New Testament. For example, in the Old Testament we read in Leviticus 19:20-22: "If a man sleeps with a woman who is a slave girl promised to another man but who has not been ransomed or given her freedom, there must be due punishment. Yet, they are not to be put to death...the man must bring a ram to the entrance of the Meeting Tent for a guilt offering to the Lord. With the ram of the guilt offering, the priest is to make atonement for him before the Lord for the sin he has committed, and his sin will be forgiven."
In this passage, we have a clear example of how God forgives sin. The sinner comes with his gift, the ram. Then the priest makes atonement. God has given to the priest the ministry of reconciliation. God uses the priest to make his forgiveness known to the sinner. The priest is the instrument God uses to extend his forgiveness. It is God who does the forgiving; the priest is the means God uses.
This pattern that God established in the Old Testament continues in the New Testament. God forgives our sins using a priest as his instrument.
In the New Testament, Jesus is our priest
At times someone will state that while God does use a priest to forgive sins, in the New Testament there is only one priest, and that one priest is Jesus Christ so we should confess our sins only to Jesus. To prove this they sometimes quote St. Paul's Letter to the Hebrews which states, "The Lord has sworn and will not change his mind: You are a priest forever...Because of this oath, Jesus has become the guarantee of a better covenant. Now there have been many of those priests, since death prevented them from continuing in office; but because Jesus lives forever, he has a permanent priesthood. Therefore, he is able to save completely those who come to God through him, because he always lives to intercede for them." (Heb 7:23-24,25)
Jesus shares his priesthood with us
Jesus is the high priest of the New Covenant. But, does Jesus possess the priesthood alone or is it possible that he has shared something of his priesthood with us? We know the answer to that for we read in the first Letter of Peter 2:5, "You also like living stones are being built into a spiritual house to be a holy priesthood offering spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ," or Peter 2:9: "But you are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people belonging to God..."
Peter teaches us that all who are baptized into Christ Jesus are members of his holy priesthood. How can it be that Jesus is the only high priest of the New Covenant and that we also are a holy priesthood? It is because Jesus our only high priest has made it possible for we who are joined to Christ to participate in his priesthood. We who profess faith in Jesus Christ take nothing away from his unique priesthood but rather participate in it by continuing his priesthood on earth. The essence of priesthood is the offering of a sacrifice. Jesus is high priest because he offered to the Father the sacrifice of Himself on the cross. We participate in his sacrifice when we come together to offer the sacrifices of the Eucharist. Thus we are, as St. Peter wrote, a holy priesthood.
Perhaps we can understand this better by comparing the concept of priesthood with that of mediator. A mediator is one who intercedes for another, who brings peace between two persons or groups. Writing to his disciple Timothy, St. Paul says: "There is one God, and there is one mediator between God and Man, the man Christ Jesus." (1Tim 2:5) Jesus is the one mediator between God and man, but we who have faith in Jesus are called to be mediators in Christ. When we pray for one another, when we share the gospel with one another, we are acting as mediators of God's love in Christ Jesus. In fact, St. Paul says: "Watch your life and doctrine closely. Persevere in them, because if you do, you will save both yourself and your hearers." (1Tim4:16) We know that by ourselves we save nobody. But in Christ, we can participate in his task of salvation. In doing this, we share in Christ's works of mediation.
Thus, just as there is one mediator between God and man, the man Christ Jesus, and we can and often do participate in the work of mediation so there is one high priest, Jesus Christ and we share in His priesthood.
Within the priesthood of all, Jesus calls a special group to be priests
Again, we have to look at the way God works. In the Hebrew scriptures, the Old Testament, God speaks to Moses and says: "Although the whole earth is mine you will be for me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation." (Ex 19:6). God called the entire nation a "kingdom of priests." But at the same time, God established the special priesthood of Aaron and Levi within the universal priesthood. "The Lord said to Moses: 'Bring the tribe of Levi and present them to Aaron the priest to assist him...appoint Aaron and his sons to serve as priests.'" (Num 3:5,10). So the pattern God developed in the Old Testament was that within the universal priesthood of the nation there was the specialized priesthood of Aaron and Levi.
To this group of priests, Jesus gave authority to forgive sins
This pattern God continues in the New Testament. During his ministry, Jesus had many disciples. From those, he gathered around himself a group of apostles, the twelve. Then after his resurrection shortly before he would ascend to the side of his Father, he met with this group in the Upper Room. There Jesus said to them, "Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, I am sending you." And with that he breathed on them and said, "Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive anyone his sins, they are forgiven; if you do not forgive them, they are not forgiven." (Jn 20:21-23)
Notice what Jesus says and when he says it. It is after the resurrection when Jesus is preparing to leave the Apostles that he says, "As the Father sends me, so also I send you." What did the Father send Jesus to do? Jesus came to reveal the good news of salvation, to preach the Gospel, and to redeem the world through the forgiveness of sins. Jesus now sends the Apostles to do what he has done, to continue his work in the world of preaching the good news and, with the authority of Jesus, to sanctify God's people through the forgiveness of sins.
Jesus spells this out. "If you forgive anyone his sins, they are forgiven; if you do not forgive them, they are not forgiven." What Jesus was talking about is the sacrament of reconciliation or confession. The only way someone - the Apostles - could make a decision whether a sin should be forgiven or not is by hearing the sin spoken out loud, confessed. This is the means Jesus established so that we can be sure of His forgiveness.
As I wrote at the beginning, the answer to the question why do I have to confess my sins to a priest is because that is what Jesus asked us to do; to speak our sins out loud to a priest who has been given the authority of Jesus to extend the forgiveness of Jesus to us. Who forgives sins - only God! How has God made it possible for us to be forgiven? Through a priest acting in the person of Jesus!
Other New Testament examples
Do we have any examples in the New Testament of the Apostles actually forgiving sins?
Once in writing to the Corinthians, St. Paul says: "Anybody that you forgive, I forgive; and as for my forgiving anything...I have forgiven it for your sake in the person of Christ." (2 Cor 2:10). Some Bibles translate the last phrase "...in the person of Christ" as "...in the presence of Christ." In Greek, the word that is translated sometimes as person and sometimes as presence is PROSOPON which is translated in Latin as PERSONA from which we get the English word person. But, in either case, Paul is extending forgiveness not in his own name but in the name of Christ.
Again in the Letter of James we read, "Is anyone sick among you? Let him call for the priests 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 sick man, and the Lord will raise him up; and if he has committed any sin, he will be forgiven. Therefore confess your sins to one another, that you may be healed."
The Greek word for priests is PRESBYTEROI. Sometimes this is translated as "elders." But in either case what James is saying is that we do not just go to anyone to be anointed or to receive forgiveness of our sins but we go to the priests or elders.
At times, too, the last line of this quote "confess your sins to one another" is taken by itself to argue that we can confess our sins to one another and not to a priest or elder. But the context clearly shows that James is saying we need to call for the priest or elder to have our sins forgiven. The sentence in question begins with the word "therefore" which is a word that connects what is in one sentence with what has gone before. What has gone before is that we call on the priests. Thus, the one another to whom we confess is the elder, that is, the priest.
God Bless You,
Fr. Tom Hanley