Friday, October 20, 2006

Biblical Defense of the Sacrament of Confession

As promised, here is my defense of the Sacrament of Confession. "dremarshall" asked the following question in the Holy Culture Radio forum:
Do you still go to confession, is it important, if so why, and how does that apply biblically.
That is a good question, and I am happy to provide the answer.

Do I still go to confession? Most certainly! It is a regular part of my spiritual life. Is it important? Most certainly! Why? Because it is the means through which the Lord has willed to forgive our sins, particularly the most grievous ones. Catholics believe that mortal sin can only be forgiven through the Sacrament of Confession (cf. CIC, 960). Normatively speaking, a prayer will not suffice, for John has said: "There is sin which is mortal; I do not say that one is to pray for that" (1 Jn 5:16).

The biblical defense of this sacrament usually begins with Jn 20:
Jn 20:21-23 Jesus said to them again, "Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, even so I send you." 22 And when he had said this, he breathed on them, and said to them, "Receive the Holy Spirit. 23 If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained."
I have seen many people try to squirm their way around this passage, but the clear meaning is that Jesus has given his apostles the power to forgive sins. He tells us earlier in His ministry that the very reason he forgave sins as a man was to show that men would have this power:
Mt 9:2-8 And behold, they brought to him a paralytic, lying on his bed; and when Jesus saw their faith he said to the paralytic, "Take heart, my son; your sins are forgiven." 3 And behold, some of the scribes said to themselves, "This man is blaspheming." 4 But Jesus, knowing their thoughts, said, "Why do you think evil in your hearts? 5 For which is easier, to say, 'Your sins are forgiven,' or to say, 'Rise and walk'? 6 But that you may know that the Son of man has authority on earth to forgive sins" --he then said to the Paralytic--"rise, take up your bed and go home." 7 And he rose and went home. 8 When the crowds saw it, they were afraid, and they glorified God, who had given such authority to men.
God has indeed "given such authority to men," first, to the man-God Jesus Christ, and after His resurrection, to His apostles (and their successors), as Jn 20:21-23 reveals. This authority also applies to the temporal punishment or disciplinary measures due to sin, as we see in Mt 18:18, when Jesus tells the apostles, "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." Penances come by way of this authority, as do excommunications.

A few Protestant bible commentaries are helpful here:
1599 Geneva Study Bible: "He speaks not of just any policy, but of an ecclesiastical assembly, for he speaks afterward of the power of loosing and binding, which belonged to the Church, and he has regard for the order used in those days, at which time the elders had the judgment of Church matters in their hands, (John 9:22; 12:42; 16:2), and used casting out of the synagogue for a punishment, as we do now by excommunication."

Matthew Henry Complete Commentary on the Whole Bible: "What was said before to Peter is here said to all the disciples, and in them to all the faithful office-bearers in the church, to the world’s end. While ministers preach the word of Christ faithfully, and in their government of the church strictly adhere to his laws (clave non errante—the key not turning the wrong way), they may be assured that he will own them, and stand by them, and will ratify what they say and do, so that it shall be taken as said and done by himself.

He will own them, First, In their sentence of suspension; Whatsoever ye shall bind on earth shall be bound in heaven. If the censures of the church duly follow the institution of Christ, his judgments will follow the censures of the church, his spiritual judgments, which are the sorest of all other, such as the rejected Jews fell under (Rom. 11:8), a spirit of slumber; for Christ will not suffer his own ordinances to be trampled upon, but will say amen to the righteous sentences which the church passes on obstinate offenders. How light soever proud scorners may make of the censures of the church, let them know that they are confirmed in the court of heaven; and it is in vain for them to appeal to that court, for judgment is there already given against them. They that are shut out from the congregation of the righteous now shall not stand in it in the great day, Ps. 1:5. Christ will not own those as his, nor receive them to himself, whom the church has duly delivered to Satan; but, if through error or envy the censures of the church be unjust, Christ will graciously find those who are so cast out, Jn. 9:34, 35.

Secondly, In their sentence of absolution; Whatsoever ye shall loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven. Note, 1. No church censures bind so fast, but that, upon the sinner’s repentance and reformation, they may and must be loosed again. Sufficient is the punishment which has attained its end, and the offender must then be forgiven and comforted, 2 Co. 2:6. There is no unpassable gulf fixed but that between hell and heaven. 2. Those who, upon their repentance, are received by the church into communion again may take the comfort of their absolution in heaven, if their hearts be upright with God. As suspension is for the terror of the obstinate, so absolution is for the encouragement of the penitent. St. Paul speaks in the person of Christ, when he saith, To whom ye forgive any thing, I forgive also, 2 Co. 2:10."

The Fourfold Gospel: "What things soever ye shall bind . . . and what things soever ye shall loose. The binding and loosing here mentioned is limited by the context or the subject of which Jesus now treats. Binding represents exclusion from membership; loosing, the restoration to fellowship in cases of repentance. The church's act in thus binding or loosing will be recognized in heaven if performed according to apostolic precept or precedent. Hence it is a most august and fearful prerogative."

People's New Testament: "What was said to Peter (Matt. 16:19) is addressed to all the apostles. It is spoken to all a second time (John 20:23). All had the keys as well as Peter. The apostles were, under the direction of the Holy Spirit, to establish the rules of the church discipline, as well as to announce the conditions of salvation by the gospel. These rules and conditions, found in Acts and the Epistles, bind and loose men. As they were to speak and write as moved by the Holy Spirit, what they announced would be ratified in heaven."
Notice that the end of Matthew Henry's commentary quotes 2 Cor 2:10. Priests forgive sins "in the person of Christ" (in persona Christi). They represent his authority on earth for the forgiveness of sins. This phrase comes from Paul, in his description of his own authority to do this:
2 Cor 2:10 (KJV): "To whom ye forgive any thing, I forgive also: for if I forgave any thing, to whom I forgave it, for your sakes forgave I it in the person of Christ"

2 Cor 2:10 (Latin Vulgate) : "cui autem aliquid donatis et ego nam et ego quod donavi si quid donavi propter vos in persona Christi"
Some English translations have here "in the presence of Christ," but many others from across the spectrum of interpretative method (the KJV, Third Millennium Bible, Douay-Rheims, Bible in Basic English, Young's Literal Translation, Darby, and Webster translations) read "in the person of Christ." The New Living Translation reads "with Christ's authority" and the New Century Verson "As if Christ were with me." Thus, this verse is quite illustrative of the role of the priest in the forgiveness of sins.

It is important to remember that the power and authority to forgive sins (and to bind and loose punishments due to sin) is foremost God's power. Bishops and priests share in this authority only insofar as God has made them His instruments for this forgiveness, to make it real and pallatable on earth. Just as Jesus healed the sick man and forgave him of his sins, whenever the Church prays over a man, he is healed and his sins are forgiven:
James 5:14-15 Is any 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; 15 and the prayer of faith will save the sick man, and the Lord will raise him up; and if he has committed sins, he will be forgiven.
I hope that helps

Pax Christi,

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