The Sacrament of Penance is the practice of the Christian faithful confessing their sins to an ordained priest, who with the authority given them by Christ may then grant absolution, allowing the individual to be reconciled 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. Through Baptism, we become members of the Body of Christ. By partaking of the Eucharist, we become one with Christ’s Body, and thus one with each other. Every sin, however small, wounds us, and thus wounds the Body of Christ, -ie the members of the Church. When any of its members sin, they all suffer. The priest acts as a mediator in the sacrament of reconciliation, reconciling us with the Church in the same way that he acts as a mediator in the sacrament of baptism and inducts us as members into the Church.
It is important to understand the priest’s role as mediator in conjunction with Christ’s role as one, true mediator. For starters, all Christians agree that Christ is the one true mediator between God and men (1 Tim 2:5). However, in 1 Tim 2:1-2, St. Paul commands us all to act as mediators when he says, “supplications, prayers and intercessions to be made for all men…” Intercession is a synonym for mediation, as in Hebrews 7:24-25 where it says Jesus acts as a mediator and makes intercession. 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’, and it’s originally meaning was a ‘messenger’ or ‘envoy’, or mediator.
To further clarify this, Christ Himself says in John 20:21, “As the Father has sent me, even so I send you.” Christ was sent to act as mediator, proclaim the Gospel, and offer the world the forgiveness of sins. He now sends the Apostles with this same mission. As Christians, we all act as mediators, in a sense, by spreading the Gospel, evangelizing, and bringing others to Christ (Rom 10:14). This ability to share in Christ’s unique role as Mediator comes from our own role as members of Christ’s Body. As members of His Body, we share in His mediatorship, -as well as his priesthood (1 Peter 2:5-9)- because, just as Paul says in Galatians 2:20, “it is no longer I who live, but it is Christ who lives in me.”
Even though we all participate in Christ’s mediatorship and priesthood, that doesn’t preclude the existence of a separate ministerial priesthood. I Peter 2:5-9 is referring to Exodus 19:6 where God alluded to ancient Israel as “a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.” Although Israel was a universal priesthood, there also existed a ministerial priesthood (see Exodus 19:22, Exodus 28, and Numbers 3:1-12).
In Leviticus 19:20-22, it says, “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.” This shows the role of the priest in acting as mediator and God’s instrument of forgiveness, even though it is God doing the forgiving. 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.
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 John 20:21-23, Christ confers this authority when He says; “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, even so I send 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; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.” Christ, here, is not telling them to merely proclaim the forgiveness of sins, but rather He makes it clear that if they retain the sins of any, they are retained, thus inferring an authority. This authority is backed up by Matt. 16:19 and 18:18, where Christ tells Peter and the apostles: “Whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.”
This authority is later demonstrated in II 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.” and James 5:14-17; ”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.”
Over time, the forms in which the sacrament has been administered have changed. In the early Church, publicly known sins (such as apostasy) were often confessed openly in church. Penances also tended to be performed before rather than after absolution, and they were much stricter than those of today (ex: ten years’ penance for abortion) and of special significance was their recognition that confession and absolution must be received by a sinner before receiving Holy Communion, “whoever eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty of profaning the body and blood of the Lord” (1 Cor. 11:27).
The Historical Development of the Doctrine:
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:
The Didache (Written ca 70 A.D.)
“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 (Written ca 70 A.D.)
“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]).
St. Ignatius of Antioch (35-107 A.D.)
“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).
St. Irenaeus of Lyons (130-202 A.D.)
“[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]).
Tertullian of Carthage (155-240 A.D.)
“[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]).
St. Hippolytus of Rome (170-235 A.D.)
“[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 (184-253 A.D.)
“[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]).
St. Cyprian of Carthage (200-258 A.D.)
“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).
St. Aphrahat the Persian Sage (280-345 A.D.)
“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]).
St. Basil the Great (330-379 A.D.)
“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]).
St. John Chrysostom (347-407 A.D.)
“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]).
St. Ambrose of Milan (340-397 A.D.)
“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]).
St. Jerome (345-420 A.D.)
“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]).
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).