Sacrament of Confession:
Definition of Terms:
The Sacrament of Confession, also known as Reconciliation or Penance, is a practice where individuals confess their sins to a priest, who, acting with the authority given them by Christ (John 20:21-23), offers absolution and guidance. This sacrament is practiced in various Christian denominations, including Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, and some Anglican and Lutheran communities. The sacrament offers assurance to the believer that they have indeed been forgiven their sins through a mediator authorized by Christ to give absolution. The sacrament not only offers reconciliation with God, but also with the greater Christian community. This, especially in the case of public scandals, is seen as both signifying and strengthening the unity of the Church.
Old Testament Roots:
The concept of confession and seeking forgiveness can be traced back to the Old Testament. In Leviticus 5:5-6 and Numbers 5:6-7, individuals were instructed to confess their sins before God and offer sacrifices for atonement. The Day of Atonement (Yom Kippur) described in Leviticus 16 involves confessing sins and making atonement for the community. Leviticus 19:20-22 illustrates the role of the priest in acting as mediator and God’s instrument of forgiveness. This role of the Old Covenant priesthood mediating the forgiveness of sins did not negate Christ’s role as mediator, but rather anticipated it. This is true in the New Covenant as well, as Christ can be seen conferring this authority upon the Apostles.
New Testament Basis:
Christ, as the one true mediator between God and men (1 Tim 2:5), grants authority to the Apostles to act in His name, saying; “As the Father has sent me, even so I send you” (John 20:21-23). Paul commands us all to act as mediators when he says, “supplications, prayers and intercessions to be made for all men” (1 Tim 2:1-2), but Paul goes on to say in 1 Tim 2:7, “For this I was appointed a herald and an apostle.” The term apostle comes from the Greek apóstolos which translates as ‘One sent’, implying a ‘messenger’ or mediator. Christians partake in Christ’s distinct role as Mediator through our membership in His Body (Gal. 2:20). As members of His Body, we share in both His mediation and priesthood (1 Peter 2:5-9).
Just as God empowered his priests to be instruments of forgiveness in the Old Testament, Jesus Christ delegated this authority to his New Testament ministers. In Matthew 16:19 and 18:18, He gives the authority to bind and loose to Peter and the apostles. In John 20:21-23, Jesus breathes on the Apostles, imparting the Holy Spirit and conferring upon them the authority to forgive or retain sins. In this passage, Christ isn’t simply instructing them to declare forgiveness, but rather He explicitly indicates that they possess the power to retain sins, implying an authority to grant absolution.
The Church, as a community of believers, is responsible for guiding and supporting its members. In Matthew 18:15-18, Jesus instructs a process for dealing with sin within the Church. The Church’s authority to impose penance and even excommunication can be found in 1 Corinthians 5:1-5, where Paul instructs the Corinthian church to expel a member involved in gross sin. Paul’s authority to grant absolution to this individual is later demonstrated in 2 Cor. 2:10, where Paul says, “What I have forgiven, if I have forgiven anything, has been for your sake in the presence of Christ.”
Reconciliation is not only vital for the health of the individual, but also for the health of the Church. In James 5:14-17 believers are encouraged to confess their sins to one another for healing. This not only provides a sense of relief for the one confessing, but also promotes the healing of relationships, especially if an injured party is involved. This can take place on a spiritual level as well. When members of the Church partake of the Eucharist, they become united with the Body of Christ. Paul cautions that if one unites himself with a prostitute, then he also unites that prostitute to Christ’s Body (1 Cor. 6:15-16). Paul then warns against receiving the Eucharist unworthily, as it can bring judgment upon oneself (1 Corinthians 11:27-30). Therefore, Confession prepares believers and purifies them before partaking in the Eucharist.
The Early Church:
In the early Church, publicly known sins (such as apostasy) were often confessed openly in church. Penances also tended to be performed publicly and took place before rather than after absolution. Penances were often much lengthier, sometimes lasting years or even lifetimes. The Didache, a first-century Christian document, mentions confession: “In church, confess your sins, and do not come to your prayer with a guilty conscience” (Didache 4:14). Hippolytus of Rome (2nd century) details a penitential process in his “Apostolic Tradition.” Cyprian of Carthage (3rd century) speaks of confessing sins to priests for reconciliation.
Spiritual and Psychological Benefits:
Confessing one’s sins can have tremendous spiritual and psychological benefits for individuals. Confession provides an opportunity to confront and process negative emotions associated with guilt, shame, and regret. Addressing these emotions can lead to emotional healing and a greater sense of inner peace by alleviating feelings of anxiety over wrongdoing.
Admitting one’s mistakes and taking responsibility through confession also provides accountability and can motivate individuals to make positive changes in their behavior. Confession encourages self-reflection and self-awareness allowing for personal growth. It can help individuals realign with their personal values and ethical principles. This can result in a renewed sense of purpose and a commitment to living both morally and ethically.
Above all, Confession provides a profound personal reassurance that one’s sins have been forgiven. This assurance differs from a general reminder that “God loves you and forgives you when you’re sorry.” Instead, it’s intimately linked to particular sins and bears a personalized nature, as it’s specifically directed at the individual confessing. Additionally, this assurance is strengthened by the understanding that the priest granting absolution has been authorized by Christ to pardon sins on His behalf. As a result, when someone departs the confessional, they can genuinely affirm that they carry the knowledge and certainty of their forgiveness.
1 John 1:9
“If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just, and will forgive our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness”
The Gospel of John 20:21–23
“As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” 22 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 them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.”
1 Cor. 11:27
“Whoever, therefore, eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be answerable for the body and blood of the Lord.”
“If a man lies carnally with a woman… they shall not be put to death… But he shall bring a guilt offering for himself to the Lord… And the priest shall make atonement for him with the ram of the guilt offering before the Lord for his sin which he has committed; and the sin which he has committed shall be forgiven him.”
2 Cor. 2:10:
“And to whom you have pardoned anything, I also. For, what I have pardoned, if I have pardoned anything, for your sakes have I done it in the person of Christ.”
2 Cor. 5:18
“All this is from God, who through Christ reconciled us to himself and gave us the ministry of reconciliation”
“Is any one 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 sick man, 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. The prayer of a righteous man has great power in its effects. Elijah was a man of like nature with ourselves and he prayed fervently that it might not rain… and… it did not rain…”
The Gospel of Matthew 18:18
“Truly I tell you, whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.”
Church Father Quotes:
“Confess your sins in church, and do not go up to your prayer with an evil conscience. This is the way of life. . . . On the Lord’s Day gather together, break bread, and give thanks, after confessing your transgressions so that your sacrifice may be pure” (Didache 4:14, 14:1 [A.D. 70]).
The Letter of Barnabas
“You shall confess your sins. You shall not go to prayer with an evil conscience. This is the way of light” (Letter of Barnabas 19 [A.D. 74]).
Ignatius of Antioch
“For as many as are of God and of Jesus Christ are also with the bishop. And as many as shall, in the exercise of penance, return into the unity of the Church, these, too, shall belong to God, that they may live according to Jesus Christ” (Letter to the Philadelphians 3 [A.D. 110]).
“For where there is division and wrath, God does not dwell. To all them that repent, the Lord grants forgiveness, if they turn in penitence to the unity of God, and to communion with the bishop” (ibid., 8).
Irenaeus of Lyons
“[The Gnostic disciples of Marcus] have deluded many women. . . . 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]).
Clement of Alexandria
“Confession is the reception of a gift we have not deserved.” – The Stromata (Miscellanies) 2.6.36
Tertullian of Carthage
“By this repentance and joy which is the consequence of confession, we recover God’s grace.” – On Repentance 6
“[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]).
Hippolytus of Rome
“[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]).
Origen of Alexandria
“The soul that has sinned shall die, for it repents not; that is, it does not make confession.” – Homilies on Ezekiel 3.14
“[A final method of forgiveness], albeit hard and laborious [is] the remission of sins through penance, when the sinner . . . does not shrink from declaring his sin to a priest of the Lord and from seeking medicine, after the manner of him who say, ‘I said, “To the Lord I will accuse myself of my iniquity”’” (Homilies on Leviticus 2:4 [A.D. 248]).
Cyprian of Carthage
“The apostle [Paul] likewise bears witness and says: ‘ . . . Whoever eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord unworthily will be guilty of the body and blood of the Lord’ [1 Cor. 11:27]. But [the impenitent] spurn and despise all these warnings; before their sins are expiated, before they have made a confession of their crime, before their conscience has been purged in the ceremony and at the hand of the priest . . . they do violence to [the Lord’s] body and blood, and with their hands and mouth they sin against the Lord more than when they denied him” (The Lapsed 15:1–3 (A.D. 251]).
“Of how much greater faith and salutary fear are they who . . . confess their sins to the priests of God in a straightforward manner and in sorrow, making an open declaration of conscience. . . . I beseech you, brethren, let everyone who has sinned confess his sin while he is still in this world, while his confession is still admissible, while the satisfaction and remission made through the priests are still pleasing before the Lord” (ibid., 28).
“[S]inners may do penance for a set time, and according to the rules of discipline come to public confession, and by imposition of the hand of the bishop and clergy receive the right of Communion. [But now some] with their time [of penance] still unfulfilled . . . they are admitted to Communion, and their name is presented; and while the penitence is not yet performed, confession is not yet made, the hands of the bishop and clergy are not yet laid upon them, the Eucharist is given to them; although it is written, ‘Whosoever shall eat the bread and drink the cup of the Lord unworthily, shall be guilty of the body and blood of the Lord’ [1 Cor. 11:27]” (Letters 9:2 [A.D. 253]).
“And do not think, dearest brother, that either the courage of the brethren will be lessened, or that martyrdoms will fail for this cause, that penance is relaxed to the lapsed, and that the hope of peace [i.e., absolution] is offered to the penitent. . . . For to adulterers even a time of repentance is granted by us, and peace is given” (ibid., 51:20).
“But I wonder that some are so obstinate as to think that repentance is not to be granted to the lapsed, or to suppose that pardon is to be denied to the penitent, when it is written, ‘Remember whence thou art fallen, and repent, and do the first works’ [Rev. 2:5], which certainly is said to him who evidently has fallen, and whom the Lord exhorts to rise up again by his deeds [of penance], because it is written, ‘Alms deliver from death’ [Tob. 12:9]” (ibid., 51:22).
Aphrahat the Persian Sage
“You [priests], then, who are disciples of our illustrious physician [Christ], you ought not deny a curative to those in need of healing. And if anyone uncovers his wound before you, give him the remedy of repentance. And he that is ashamed to make known his weakness, encourage him so that he will not hide it from you. And when he has revealed it to you, do not make it public, lest because of it the innocent might be reckoned as guilty by our enemies and by those who hate us” (Treatises 7:3 [A.D. 340]).
Basil the Great
“It is necessary to confess our sins to those to whom the dispensation of God’s mysteries is entrusted. Those doing penance of old are found to have done it before the saints. It is written in the Gospel that they confessed their sins to John the Baptist [Matt. 3:6], but in Acts [19:18] they confessed to the apostles” (Rules Briefly Treated 288 [A.D. 374]).
“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]” (The Priesthood 3:5 [A.D. 387]).
Ambrose of Milan
“For those to whom [the right of binding and loosing] has been given, it is plain that either both are allowed, or it is clear that neither is allowed. Both are allowed to the Church, neither is allowed to heresy. For this right has been granted to priests only” (Penance 1:1 [A.D. 388]).
Augustine of Hippo
“Therefore do not hide your wounds; let them be seen; lay open what you have concealed, and disclose what you have hidden. Show your wounds to the physician, and he will heal them.” – Sermons 391.1
“Let no one say: ‘I do penance secretly; I only confess secretly to God.’ Openly do what you secretly do; confess publicly what you confess secretly; do penance in the sight of all, that you may likewise find pardon before God.” – Sermons 361.3
“Therefore, let him who confesses confess what he knows; let him who knows not confess with the words ‘I do not know’; let him who says, ‘It is secret,’ make public what is secret and hidden.” – Sermons 361.3
“Confession is a sign of humility. It is not the humiliation of the proud sinner, but the humility of the exalted saint.” – Expositions on the Psalms 33.1
Jerome of Stridon
“If the serpent, the devil, bites someone secretly, he infects that person with the venom of sin. And if the one who has been bitten keeps silence and does not do penance, and does not want to confess his wound . . . then his brother and his master, who have the word [of absolution] that will cure him, cannot very well assist him” (Commentary on Ecclesiastes 10:11 [A.D. 388]).
“Do not be ashamed to confess your sins, but be ashamed not to repent.” – Homilies on Psalm 94* 8.2
Pope Gregory the Great
“Before all else, confession of our sins humiliates the devil; it takes away from him his arms.” – Homilies on the Gospel 19.6
Brooke Westcott, Anglican New Testament scholar
“confess our sins” means not only acknowledge them, but acknowledge them openly in the face of men” (The Epistles of St. John, 23).
David Rensberger, New Testament scholar
“Confession of sin was generally public (Mark 1:5; Acts 19:18; James 5:16; Didache 4:14, 14:1), and that may well be the case here. The use of the plural “sins” (rather than “sin,” as in 1:8) is a reminder that not just an abstract confession of sinfulness but the acknowledgement of specific acts is in mind” (Abingdon New Testament Commentary 1,2,3 John, 54).
Richard Hooker (Anglican Theologian):
“The benefit we have by confession… whereof the necessity is not so great as to bind the Church of God, but so great that a very number of the ancient fathers have thought it as necessary a duty as any of the former, wherein the common received law of Christianity hath ever been and is that secret and private confession which only the canons exacted.” – Of the Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity, Book 5