Non Catholics and, sadly, some Catholics, are very adept at either purposefully or unknowingly misrepresenting a host of church customs, beliefs and traditions. Of those practices most often misunderstood by non-Catholics, the sacrament of confession has got to be at the top of the list.
License to Sin?
Many non-Catholic Christians wrongly believe that the practice of confession is, in effect, a “license to sin,” effectively allowing unscrupulous Catholics to, as a close colleague of mine once put it, “rape, pillage and plunder to their hearts’ content during the week” as long as they confess it on the weekend. Catholics, for their part, often do little to correct — and much to reinforce — this notion by jovially saying things like “that’s okay; I’ll just confess it later.”
Of course, any faithful practicing Catholic knows this is not the true intent or the function of the Sacrament of Reconciliation. In fact, knowingly committing a sin with the intention of confessing it later could invalidate the sacrament altogether if there truly is no remorse or contrition on the part of the sinner. A real confession requires sorrow and repentance, and an intention to avoid future sins. In short, the popular notion of a Saturday sinner and Sunday saint is a complete misrepresentation of Catholic beliefs and practices.
So what of this idea of confession, then? As is the case with nearly ever other question of doctrine and practice within the non-Catholic Christian community, there are a host of ideas and beliefs regarding the question of redemption and the forgiveness of sins. From “once saved, always saved” to predestination and everything in between, the questions most often asked are, “must we confess our sins at all once we have been baptized?”, and if so, “why go to a priest if we can just go directly to God?”
Once Saved, Always Saved?
In order to determine whether or not confession is necessary, we must first understand whether or not we can lose our chance at salvation to begin with. Many fundamentalist congregations espouse the belief of “once saved, always saved,” in essence saying that Jesus Christ died once and for all for all of our sins and that once we accept and believe in Him, all of our sins are washed clean: past, present and future.
Some have gone so far as to suggest that those who are truly members of Christ’s church stop sinning altogether once they accept Jesus and are baptized. This belief, if correct, would obviously invalidate the necessity of confession in any form, much less to a priest or minister.
So can we lose our salvation? Can we be assured of our salvation? As with most all Christian doctrine, the answer is far more nuanced than a simple “yes” or “no” answer would allow. The truth is that the Bible implies, and the early Christians believed, that we are all “works in progress.” That’s why Saint Paul tells us to work out our salvation with fear and trembling (Phillipians 2:12).
It is quite true the Bible contains several verses that tell us that whoever believes in Jesus shall have eternal life. John 3:36 specifically and clearly tells us: “He who believes in the Son has eternal life…”. Clearly, then, looking at this verse it would seem that if we just believe, we will have our eternal reward.
Working it Out
But then why does St. Paul exhort us to workout our salvation with fear and trembling? Why does St. James tell us that faith without works is dead? Even more curious, if all that is required for salvation is belief, why then does St. James write, “You see that a man is justified by works and not by faith alone.” (James 2:24 NASB)? In fact, the only place in the Bible where you will find the words “by faith alone,” it is (importantly) preceded by the word NOT.
So can we sin once we are come into Christ? Or are we given grace to resist sin through our acceptance of Jesus? Can we, after obtaining the salvific Grace, lose our salvation? Are we saved in an instant, or are we saved over time, or were we saved once and for all in those agonizing hours on the cross on Calvary and in the glorious resurrection?
The Catholic “Both-And”
As with so many questions about the Catholic faith, the answers to these questions do not have to be mutually exclusive. In fact, the answer to all of the above is a resounding “Yes!” In Catholicism, the answer is almost always a “both-and” as opposed to an “either-or.”
For the Catholic, it is not at all inconsistent to understand that we were all saved the instant Jesus gave up His life for us and in His resurrection. We understand that God’s grace can shield us from sin. But we also understand, as we’ve seen the Bible express, that we must always be working on our salvation and that just as we must take the step to reach out and accept the Grace that has been freely offered to us from God, we can also reject it, both now and even after having received it, and we can also help other to return to christ, as James again informs us:
“My brethren, if any among you strays from the truth and one turns him back, let him know that he who turns a sinner from the error of his way will save his soul from death and will cover a multitude of sins.” (James 5:16, 19, 20 NASB)
In this one brief verse, we see that a faithful person can turn away from Christ and then again choose to turn back. Doesn’t quite sound like “once saved, always saved,” does it?
All Fall Short
So what is confession all about, then? First and foremost, it is a recognition that we are all sinners and that we will continue to be sinners up to the day we die. From a practical standpoint, even adherents to the idea of “once saved, always saved” know this to be true.
If we understand what sin is, the fact that we all fall short of the Glory of God, that we all fail at times to truly live the way God intends us to, then we recognize that all of us sin daily. A misunderstanding of sin would be to only associate it with “the big stuff,” like adultery, murder, stealing, etc.
We must understand that what sin truly means is that we all fail to do what is asked of us by God. We all fail to treat others the way we always should. We gossip, we curse, we lose our temper, we become frustrated, we lose heart. Not one of us is constantly faithful, every moment of every day. We all, if we’re honest, have moments wherein we fall short. This is sin, both the little and the big. All of it is an affront to God, and all of it is why Jesus died, was buried and rose from the dead.
So if all of these are sins, if all of us fall short of where God wants us to be, it is easy to see where we may lose heart; it’s quite understandable, as I have been there myself, to see how one could easily fall under the delusion that they were not good enough for God. I say delusional because the Catholic starting point is that, since Adam’s fall, none of us are good enough for God without His intervention. And yet He says we’re good. In fact, despite our shortcomings and our sinful nature, He sent His Son, who was God incarnate, to live among us and let us torture Him and kill Him in one of the most brutal deaths possible, so that we could be made good and achieve what He always destined for us: to be joined to Him.
Eliminating the Middle Man
Can we go directly to God to confess our sins? Can forgiveness occur if we are truly and perfectly sorry for what we have done to offend God? Of course. God is the creator of the universe, the unmoved Mover of all things, the essence of being itself and Alpha and the Omega, and, most of all, pure love. God can do all things, and certainly can and does forgive those who come to him in faith with sorrow and repentance.
But we are human. We forget, and we need to be reminded. We need to be reassured. We need to know, to hear, that God forgives us, so we can persevere to the end. So God gave us the sacrament of reconciliation, so we can know that we are forgiven when we fall.
Why must we go to a priest to find absolution for our sins, when we could instead go directly to God? How can we know we are forgiven when the priest places his hand on our head and we hear the words of absolution? The short answer is because Jesus gave authority to the Church to do just that:
“So Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you; as the Father has sent Me, I also 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, their sins have been forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they have been retained.” (John 20:21-23 NASB)
Jesus first tell the apostles, and only the apostles, “As the Father sent me, so I send you.” How did the Father send Jesus? In Matthew 28:18, He tells us exactly in what manner He was sent: “All authority has been given to Me in heaven and on earth.” Thus, Jesus conferred His authority to the heads of His church.
“If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven; if you retain the sins of any, they have been retained.” Jesus gives the apostles the power not only to forgive sins, but to retain them as well. Not insignificantly, he breathes on them before granting this power. The only other instance of God breathing on man is in the creation, when He breathed life into Adam. Jesus is God, and God’s breathe is life. Jesus breathed life into His church, and in this same breath conferred upon It the power to forgive and retain sins.
On Whose Authority
Just as now, there were many in Jesus’ time who questioned the authority to forgive sins:
“And Jesus seeing their faith said to the paralytic, ” Son, your sins are forgiven.” But some of the scribes were sitting there and reasoning in their hearts, “Why does this man speak that way? He is blaspheming; who can forgive sins but God alone?” Immediately Jesus, aware in His spirit that they were reasoning that way within themselves, said to them, “Why are you reasoning about these things in your hearts? Which is easier, to say to the paralytic, ‘Your sins are forgiven’; or to say, ‘Get up, and pick up your pallet and walk’? But so that you may know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sin,” He said to the paralytic, “I say to you, get up, pick up your pallet and go home.” And he got up and immediately picked up the pallet and went out in the sight of everyone, so that they were all amazed and were glorifying God, saying, “We have never seen anything like this.” (Mark 2:5-12 NASB)
And just as in Jesus’ time, there is an answer now. Jesus demonstrated that He had been given the authority to forgive sins. In fact, He made it known that all authority had been given Him in Heaven and on Earth. And He clearly, unambiguously passed this authority to His church.
If confession were not something God wanted for us, there would be no reason for St. James to tell us, “Therefore, confess your sins to one another, and pray for one another so that you may be healed. The effective prayer of a righteous man can accomplish much.”(James 5:16 NASB)
Why Confession to a Priest?
So to those who ask why must we go to a priest to confess our sins, the answer is really a simple one. Because Jesus wants us to. Not because He needs us to do it for Him, but because He knows we need if for us. In the Sacrament of Confession, the priest acts “in persona Christi” — in the person of Christ. This means that Christ works through the priest to confer forgiveness. The priest is not a mediator, not a middle man, but instead an instrument through which Christ Himself tells us that we are, in fact, truly forgiven.
The truth of the matter is that there is nothing more reassuring than going to confession, bearing your soul before God in a physical, visible, material way, and hearing the words “you are forgiven.” This is how God reassures us. It is a gift He gives us so that we know we are truly good, that He loves us and that He will always love us, and that He does, in fact, truly forgive us.
Image courtesy Paul Lowery via Creative Commons