The scriptural roots of Confession to a Priest

Image of Confession with Padre Pio “Gotcha! Mark 2:7 says, ‘Who can forgive sins but God alone?‘, but you Catholics say we are supposed to confess our sins to a priest… a mere human man! See? The Catholic Church is not scriptural!”

Many non-Catholics struggle with the concept of confession to a Priest, so do many Catholics for that matter, because they misunderstand it’s purpose and fail to see it explicitly stated in scripture. In truth, the idea of sharing one’s most secret, darkest, and damning actions with a man, a person they might see again face to face, can be utterly repelling to them. “Will he judge me for what I’ve told him?” They might say to themselves. “Will he share my secrets with others?” They prefer, instead, to retreat to private quarters and confess “directly to God” (c.f. Mt. 6:6), quoting verses such as 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. 1” Or even Romans 10:9-10, “because, if you confess with your lips that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. 10 For man believes with his heart and so is justified, and he confesses with his lips and so is saved. 2” But, do these verses refute the Catholic understanding, and practice, of confession to a Priest? Or, does the Catholic, by confessing to a Priest, NOT confess theirs sins directly to God? These are the questions I want to explore in greater detail.

When a non-Catholic throws out a “gotcha” verse, the Catholic has to cover an awful lot of “biblical ground” in order to help him understand where in scripture we find “this or that” Catholic teaching. The real “trick” is to get the non-Catholic to listen to the argument with an open mind, and without trying to move on to some other topic before we finish our apologetic. Its not an easy process, but we are called to always be ready to give an account for the hope the lies within us in 1 Peter 3:15… just don’t forget St. Peter also tells us to do so in charity (never an easy thing for me). What most non-Catholics lack is a “big picture” view of sacred scripture. Generally speaking, they fail to see the design, getting caught up in individual verses without seeing how they fit into the over all story of salvation history. As the old saying goes, “they can’t see the forrest for the trees!”

The biblical roots of confession to a priest is no exception. Its “signature” can be found throughout scripture, but, there is no explicit verse that says “you must confess you sins to a Catholic Priest!” So does this mean that you shouldn’t confess to a priest? Does it mean that its either confess to a priest or to God? I would ask, where in scripture does it say that it must be explicitly stated in scripture before it is to be believed? (Before you say 2 Tim. 3:16-17, read my article “2 Timothy 3:16-17 and Sola Scriptura.”) The Church has practiced confession to a Priest from the very beginning, the extra biblical evidence is explicitly clear. So then, why would they do this IF it was not the intent of God? I would argue they wouldn’t! “Ok then” you might respond, “IF it’s the will of God… then why don’t we see it in scripture?” I would argue we do, so come with me on a journey through salvation history and let’s discover it together!

Let’s go back to the beginning, back to the Garden of Genesis to witness the first confession scripture has to offer. In Genesis 3:7 Adam and Eve, through the sin of disobedience, the choice they made to save their flesh and forego their souls, killed God’s grace within them. They were now both naked and ashamed just seven verses after being both naked and NOT ashamed in the one flesh union of man and woman of Genesis 2:25… what a tragic change for humanity! In 3:8, they “…heard the sound of the Lord God walking in the garden in the cool of the day, and the man and his wife hid themselves from the presence of the Lord God among the trees of the garden.3” In my article, “The sound which Adam heard”, I delved into the significance of this moment and how we too often imagine that sound as wrestling leaves and snapping twigs instead of what it really was, the sound of the God of all creation coming in glory like the sound of “rushing waters” (Acts 2:2), or the trumpet blasts of His arrival on Siani (Ex 20:18). This sound shook them to their bones, and in fear, they hid from God! One of my main points in that article was that when we are living in sin we fear God’s judgement, and thus hide from him when He comes calling. However, when we are living in a state of grace we relish in His presence, and do not fear His coming. Fear, therefore, is as a result of our sin and not because of His majesty!

Do we really think God didn’t know what had transpired with Adam and Eve? It’s as if we sometimes think, “poor God, He really doesn’t know where Adam and Eve are!” Really, we believe this? It amazes me how we can sometimes think along these lines. Of course God knew where Adam and Eve were hiding, and of course He knew what they had done. Only, like a “good father”, who, after his child has stolen a cookie from the cookie jar, their face smeared in chocolate, confronts them in hopes of coaxing out their confession, “son, have you eaten a cookie from the jar I told you not to eat?” The first step in reconciliation is a repentant heart, but notice that the Father comes to meet His children where they are at, however, He’s just not willing to leave them there. Coaxing them out of the bushes he begins to draw out from them their confessions, “Have you eaten of the tree of which I commanded you not to eat?4” (Gen. 3:11).

Forgiveness is easily given, however, actions have consequences, and just as God the Father respects our free will, not forcing us to do the right thing, so to does He NOT remove the consequences of our free-will choices. Rather, the Father will give us the opportunity to perform penance, linked to our sin, as we strive toward reconciliation with Him, and each other. For what “good Father” would keep his children from truly learning from their mistakes by not allowing them to experience the consequences of their actions? What good parent would not allow their wayward children to express their repentance, and remorse, through penance? After all, if they are truly sorry for their sins, they would be willing to make it right. When parents “protect their kids” from such consequences, what do we call their kids? Spoiled brats! (C.f. Eli the Priest in 1 Samuel 2:22-36) And, “If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father who is in heaven give good things to those who ask him!5” (Matthew 7:11)?

After the confession of Adam and Eve, the Father gives to each their penance, in toil will Adam now labor to bring forth the bread from the ground, in pain will Eve now bear life, both will loose the splendor of their communion with God in the Garden, and their relationship with each other will be marred until the end of time. They were created in the image and likeness of God (c.f. Gen. 1:26), which they perverted in their sin, however, after hearing their confessions, and assigning their penance, the Father would restore the dignity of His prodigal children by clothing their nakedness!

Genesis 3:21 (RSVCE)

21 And the Lord God made for Adam and for his wife garments of skins, and clothed them.

Like the Prodigal son in Jesus’ parable of Luke 15:11-32, who feared his father’s judgment, but, found only his father’s mercy, so to does Adam and Eve find only the mercy of the Father in the confessional of the Garden Sanctuary! This same pattern of the Father meeting his prodigal children, hearing their confession, giving them penance, and restoring their dignity is repeated in Genesis 4 with Cain, and elsewhere throughout salvation history. We sinners fear God’s judgment more than we seek His mercy… if only we would remember Jesus’ words in John 12:47, “for I did not come to judge the world but to save the world.6

This is the first, and one of the most important, stops in our journey to discover the sacrament of reconciliation in scripture, namely confession to a Priest. The pattern is critical for us to see, however, the “why” is just as important. God the Father, wants to meet us where we are at, by sending to us a “Father” and a “Priest”(c.f. Judges 18:19), whose job is to “to act on behalf of men in relation to God, to offer gifts and sacrifices for sins.7 (Hebrews 5:1)! God the Son, allows men to participate in His role as the one mediator between God and man, to reconcile man to God. In essence, God utilizes the man’s faculties, his body, his voice, etc., to become present personally to the sinner. A good example of this can be found in 2 Samuel 12, when, after King David had sinned, taking Bathsheba into his bed and plotting the murder of her husband, God sent Nathan to hear the confession of David and to give to him penance.

2 Samuel 12:7–15 (RSVCE)

7 Nathan said to David, “You are the man. Thus says the Lord, the God of Israel, ‘I anointed you king over Israel, and I delivered you out of the hand of Saul; 8 and I gave you your master’s house, and your master’s wives into your bosom, and gave you the house of Israel and of Judah; and if this were too little, I would add to you as much more. 9 Why have you despised the word of the Lord, to do what is evil in his sight? You have smitten Uriah the Hittite with the sword, and have taken his wife to be your wife, and have slain him with the sword of the Ammonites. 10 Now therefore the sword shall never depart from your house, because you have despised me, and have taken the wife of Uriah the Hittite to be your wife.’ 11 Thus says the Lord, ‘Behold, I will raise up evil against you out of your own house; and I will take your wives before your eyes, and give them to your neighbor, and he shall lie with your wives in the sight of this sun. 12 For you did it secretly; but I will do this thing before all Israel, and before the sun.’” 13 David said to Nathan, “I have sinned against the Lord.” And Nathan said to David, “The Lord also has put away your sin; you shall not die. 14 Nevertheless, because by this deed you have utterly scorned the Lord, the child that is born to you shall die.” 15 Then Nathan went to his house. And the Lord struck the child that Uriah’s wife bore to David, and it became sick.

Clearly, God allowed Nathan, a man, to be used in this fashion, to hear the confession of David and to draw him to repentance, giving him penance, yet we wouldn’t say that David only confessed to the man, but, rather, to God through the man! Notice too that David never questioned Nathan about his authority call him out of the “bushes”. You would think David would have protested if Nathan had overstepped his bounds, “hey, I will confess my sins directly to God thank you very much!” However, David accepted Nathan’s penance as though it was God who issued it, with fasting and praying, displaying his repentant heart. Then, after the child died, David was blessed with another child with Bathsheba, Solomon, who would be his successor to the throne.

Want an even more explicit Old Testament reference to confession to a Priest? Turn to Leviticus chapter 4 & 5, and you will find plenty to choose from. There the Lord God commands Moses to instruct the people on what to do if they commit various sins. In general, they are to bring an animal offering to the “Tent of Meeting” (the Tabernacle) and offer a sacrifice on the Alter before God. The type of animal they had to bring depended on the sin they committed, some animals were more expensive than others thus constituting a much greater sacrifice financially for the family.

Leviticus 5:5–6 (RSVCE)

5 When a man is guilty in any of these, he shall confess the sin he has committed, 6 and he shall bring his guilt offering to the Lord for the sin which he has committed, a female from the flock, a lamb or a goat, for a sin offering; and the priest shall make atonement for him for his sin.

The sinner would meet the Priest at the door of the tent, who would give them the knife to slit the throat of the animal while he would capture the blood in order to pour it out on the Alter of God. The Priest was responsible for ensuring the ritual was performed according to the Law, the will of God, but, the blood was on the hands of the sinner. (Think about that for a moment… you commit a sin and a living animal had to die to make atonement! The very act should cause the sinner to really think twice… there are deadly consequences to our actions.) Question, how would the Priest know if the animal brought to be sacrificed was in keeping with the sin committed unless the sinner confessed the actual sin to him? Do you think they were on the “honor system?” Of course not! How long do you think it would take for everyone to start showing up with the least expensive animal for the most grave offenses against God? The sinners had to confess their sins to the Priest who made sure the appropriate sacrifice was being made for the offense committed. So confession to a Priest is nothing new, not much has changed in that regard, rather it’s the blood poured out, or whose blood was poured out, that has transformed this act of reconciliation!

So these few examples (more could be provided) from the Old Testament show us how God has established a pattern of reconciliation with sinners, as well as laid out His use of men (Father’s and Priest’s) to manifest his mercy to that sinner in this process. Let’s now turn to the opening verse of this article in the New Testament, Mark 2, and see how it might shed light upon our journey.

Mark 2:3–12 (RSVCE)

3 And they came, bringing to him a paralytic carried by four men. 4 And when they could not get near him because of the crowd, they removed the roof above him; and when they had made an opening, they let down the pallet on which the paralytic lay. 5 And when Jesus saw their faith, he said to the paralytic, “My son, your sins are forgiven.” 6 Now some of the scribes were sitting there, questioning in their hearts, 7 “Why does this man speak thus? It is blasphemy! Who can forgive sins but God alone?” 8 And immediately Jesus, perceiving in his spirit that they thus questioned within themselves, said to them, “Why do you question thus in your hearts? 9 Which is easier, to say to the paralytic, ‘Your sins are forgiven,’ or to say, ‘Rise, take up your pallet and walk’? 10 But that you may know that the Son of man has authority on earth to forgive sins”—he said to the paralytic— 11 “I say to you, rise, take up your pallet and go home.” 12 And he rose, and immediately took up the pallet and went out before them all; so that they were all amazed and glorified God, saying, “We never saw anything like this!”

Can you see how insistent Jesus is to say “your sins are forgiven?” Do you think Jesus didn’t know the scribes would question in their heart whether He was blaspheming in His forgiving the paralytic’s sins? Of course He knew, but, so that “…you may know that the Son of man has authority on earth to forgive sins”, Jesus goes out of His way to say “your sins are forgiven!” This is a teachable moment and Jesus is using it to its max potential. Jesus clearly establishes to all, that God the Father has sent Him into the world, not to judge but to bring reconciliation… to forgive sins! Forgiveness and reconciliation is the mission of the Son.

If you turn to the same event in Matthew’s Gospel, chapter 9, you will find a very interesting point in verse 8, “then the crowds saw it, they were afraid, and they glorified God, who had given such authority to men8.” Did you catch that? Such authority was given not to “a man”, but, rather, to “men”… plural! Now the question arises, who are these “men” that have received this authority from God if it does not just pertain to Jesus, the one mediator between God and man? For that we must turn to John 20.

John 20:19–23 (RSVCE)

19 On the evening of that day, the first day of the week, the doors being shut where the disciples were, for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them and said to them, “Peace be with you.” 20 When he had said this, he showed them his hands and his side. Then the disciples were glad when they saw the Lord. 21 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.”

Do you see what I mean by having to cover so much “biblical ground?” If you would like more evidence for the Priesthood of the twelve, see my Catholic Apologetics Series on the subject. Can you think of another biblical account of God “breathing” on man? I hope you answered Genesis 2:7 where God “” What is the inference? God’s breath, his very life, animates the body establishing His life within it. What “body” is being animated with the breath of God here in John 20? The Church! (Furthermore, this “breath”, or “wind” has a significant meaning in John’s Gospel. It is the Holy Spirit that hovers over the waters of baptism, like the waters of creation, that bring about a new birth in Christ Jesus – c.f. John 3 and Genesis 1). It is the Church that is being animated, given its life for the mission God has established for it to perform. Look at what Jesus says in verse 21, “As the Father has sent me, even so I send you.” What did God the Father send the Son to do? Among other things, He was sent not to judge but to save the world (John 12:47), He was sent to forgive sins (Mark 2:10), and to bring light to a dark world (John 12:35). So now does Jesus send His twelve (Judas will be replaced in Acts 1:42) to carry on His mission of reconciliation.

How are the twelve to perform this mission? Easy, by either forgiving or retaining sins is how. Question then, how are the twelve to decide whether or not to forgive or retain any sins, unless they are told what those sins are? Just like the Priest, who received the sinner at the door of the Tabernacle in Leviticus, had to hear the confession first, so to do the twelve have to hear the confession of the sinner prior to either forgiving or retaining their sin. Only unlike before, when you had to cut the throat of the animal, having its blood on your hands, to be poured out on the Alter… now, it is not an ordinary animal you bring to the confessional, but, rather, it is the “Lamb, standing as though slain” (Revelation 5:6) whose blood has been poured out for the remission of sins! No longer will the blood of bulls and goats do!

Hebrews 10:12–14 (RSVCE)

12 But when Christ had offered for all time a single sacrifice for sins, he sat down at the right hand of God, 13 then to wait until his enemies should be made a stool for his feet. 14 For by a single offering he has perfected for all time those who are sanctified.

So that you would know that God has given His authority to “men” to forgive sins, He has breathed upon them life itself! Now, like Nathan, God uses the faculties of these fallible men, you might even say fools to confound the wise (1 Cor. 1:27), in order to make His presence personally felt by every sinner. These “fathers” (see my article on “Call no man father”), these Priests, are not sent to judge, but, rather, to bring God’s mercy to His prodigal children. Jesus has sent them throughout all the world to bring home all His the lost sheep (c.f. Luke 15 and Mt. 28:19-20). Whose authority do they posses? God’s! Who has breathed on them? God! Who commanded them to either forgive or retain sin? God! It is God’s doing, not the invention of men!

Why? Why would God want us to confess to men and not to Him directly? There are several good reasons for this, but, here are just two. One, we need the humility! Our pride and selfishness have corrupted us and the only antidote to this venom is pure humility. The effort of meeting God, through the man, in the confessional, kneeling and confessing our sins, is a great act of humility which speaks volumes to God about our resolve to seek reconciliation. The mark of contrition is a penitent heart! Two, God knows our weakness.. He know our doubts. We can certainly recoil to our bedrooms, behind locked doors, away from any other human person, and confess to God. However, no matter how contrite you maybe, you will not hear God’s voice say to you, “I absolve you of your sins!” Oh, how the devil loves to taunt you with your sins. You and I both know how difficult it is for us to forget our past sins with the Devil whispering into our ears! “How can you be a Christian? Your a lier, a murder, an adulterer and more! God can not forgive a sinner like you!” The Lord knows that you need not just theoretical assurance of His forgiveness, but actual assurance of His forgiveness. So the Lord has sent to you a man, who’s job it is to “father” you to heaven, to hear your confession, to give to you penance, and to say to you the sweetest words you will ever actually hear, “I absolve you of all your sins!”

But why does he not say “Jesus forgives you of all your sins?” Because Jesus is there, in the confessional with you, using that man’s faculties to make Himself personally present to you. Just as David made his confession to God through the man Nathan, so do we sinners make our confession’s to God through the man, the Priest! You have total assurance because you actually heard Jesus forgive you through the man He sent to heal your soul of the sickness of sin.

James 5:14–16 (RSVCE)

14 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. 16 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.

James here gives us a glimpse into sacramental confession being practiced in the first century. In verse 14 he says to call the “elders” for anyone who is sick. The Greek word for “Elder” is πρεσβύτερος (presbyteros) which is literally translated as “elder”, however, it is the Greek word where we get the English word for Priest. So its not just an “older” Christian, but rather a Priest, an ordained minister assisting the Bishop who is called to provide the sacraments to the sick person in this passage. Notice that James says to confess your sins to “one another” in verse 16. Question, who is the “one another” James had in mind here? Is it your best friend? Is it some stranger? Perhaps its your spouse he’s referring to? Well, what’s the context of the passage? It is the Elder of course… so we are to confess our sins to the πρεσβύτερος, the Priest that we are supposed to call when we are either sick or have sins to confess! Notice too what James didn’t say, namely to confess your sins directly to God. Rather, the witness of scripture, and salvation history, is to confess our sins to the Priest, the father, whom God has breathed upon with His life, and sent to bring us His reconciliation.

James 5 may provide the most explicit verse in scripture for confession to a Priest, however, its the design laid out over all of salvation history that establishes the best defense for this Sacrament. God deeply desires to reconcile us with Him, to do so He sent forth His Church to make Him personally present to us, to hear and forgive our sins because it is the blood of the one mediator, Jesus Christ, that has sent them to us! Yes, only God can forgive sins, however, it is God who has established Priestly confession, and not the other way around. So when you confess your sins to the Priest, you are confessing your sins to God Himself. He is calling you out from the “bushes”, heed His voice and relish in His presence rather than fear His coming. Display your contrite heart through your act of humility, and meet the Father in the confessional that he may, once again, restore your dignity as a Child of the Most High God!

About the Author:

Joe McClane – The Catholic Hack! – is the director and events coordinator for Fullness of Truth Catholic Evangelization Ministries, as well as an a Catholic New Media producer & Evangelist. He is married to his lovely wife Michelle and they have five children. The Catholic Hack | Catholic Apologetics, Theology & More!
1 Catholic Biblical Association (Great Britian). (1994). The Holy Bible: Revised Standard Version, Catholic edition, translated from the original tongues, being the version set forth A.D. 1611, Old and New Testament revised A.D. 1881-1885 and A.D. 1901 (Apocrypha revised A.D. 1894), compared with the most ancient authories and revised A.D. 1952 (Apocrypha revised A.D. 1957) (1 Jn 1:9–10). New York: National Council of Churches of Christ in the USA.

2 Catholic Biblical Association (Great Britian). (1994). The Holy Bible: Revised Standard Version, Catholic edition, translated from the original tongues, being the version set forth A.D. 1611, Old and New Testament revised A.D. 1881-1885 and A.D. 1901 (Apocrypha revised A.D. 1894), compared with the most ancient authories and revised A.D. 1952 (Apocrypha revised A.D. 1957) (Ro 10:9–11). New York: National Council of Churches of Christ in the USA.

3 Catholic Biblical Association (Great Britian). (1994). The Holy Bible: Revised Standard Version, Catholic edition, translated from the original tongues, being the version set forth A.D. 1611, Old and New Testament revised A.D. 1881-1885 and A.D. 1901 (Apocrypha revised A.D. 1894), compared with the most ancient authories and revised A.D. 1952 (Apocrypha revised A.D. 1957) (Ge 3:8). New York: National Council of Churches of Christ in the USA.

4 Catholic Biblical Association (Great Britian). (1994). The Holy Bible: Revised Standard Version, Catholic edition, translated from the original tongues, being the version set forth A.D. 1611, Old and New Testament revised A.D. 1881-1885 and A.D. 1901 (Apocrypha revised A.D. 1894), compared with the most ancient authories and revised A.D. 1952 (Apocrypha revised A.D. 1957) (Ge 3:11). New York: National Council of Churches of Christ in the USA.

5 Catholic Biblical Association (Great Britian). (1994). The Holy Bible: Revised Standard Version, Catholic edition, translated from the original tongues, being the version set forth A.D. 1611, Old and New Testament revised A.D. 1881-1885 and A.D. 1901 (Apocrypha revised A.D. 1894), compared with the most ancient authories and revised A.D. 1952 (Apocrypha revised A.D. 1957) (Mt 7:11). New York: National Council of Churches of Christ in the USA.

6 Catholic Biblical Association (Great Britian). (1994). The Holy Bible: Revised Standard Version, Catholic edition, translated from the original tongues, being the version set forth A.D. 1611, Old and New Testament revised A.D. 1881-1885 and A.D. 1901 (Apocrypha revised A.D. 1894), compared with the most ancient authories and revised A.D. 1952 (Apocrypha revised A.D. 1957) (Jn 12:47). New York: National Council of Churches of Christ in the USA.

7 Catholic Biblical Association (Great Britian). (1994). The Holy Bible: Revised Standard Version, Catholic edition, translated from the original tongues, being the version set forth A.D. 1611, Old and New Testament revised A.D. 1881-1885 and A.D. 1901 (Apocrypha revised A.D. 1894), compared with the most ancient authories and revised A.D. 1952 (Apocrypha revised A.D. 1957) (Heb 5:1). New York: National Council of Churches of Christ in the USA.

8 Catholic Biblical Association (Great Britian). (1994). The Holy Bible: Revised Standard Version, Catholic edition, translated from the original tongues, being the version set forth A.D. 1611, Old and New Testament revised A.D. 1881-1885 and A.D. 1901 (Apocrypha revised A.D. 1894), compared with the most ancient authories and revised A.D. 1952 (Apocrypha revised A.D. 1957) (Mt 9:8). New York: National Council of Churches of Christ in the USA.

9 Catholic Biblical Association (Great Britian). (1994). The Holy Bible: Revised Standard Version, Catholic edition, translated from the original tongues, being the version set forth A.D. 1611, Old and New Testament revised A.D. 1881-1885 and A.D. 1901 (Apocrypha revised A.D. 1894), compared with the most ancient authories and revised A.D. 1952 (Apocrypha revised A.D. 1957) (Ge 2:7). New York: National Council of Churches of Christ in the USA.

About the Author: CatholicHack

Joe McClane is the General Manger of KSHJ 1430 AM on the Guadalupe Radio Network, Catholic radio in Houston, TX. Joe spent the last five years serving as the Director and Events Coordinator for the Fullness Of Truth Catholic Evangelization Ministries based in North Houston. Joe has been married, going on thirteen years, to Michelle, and they homeschool their five children. Joe and his family are parishioners of Annunciation Catholic Church in downtown Houston.
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