Forgiveness of Sins
We find in 1 John 1:9 what we find throughout the Scriptures, that God does indeed forgive us our sins. John tells us that “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just, to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all iniquity.” Only God has the power to forgive sins but we Catholics believe that He can exercise this power through men.
But what does Scripture say about Confession? First, its important for you all to realize that this belief in the forgiving of sins by priests is something that has been believed before the Scriptures were ever written. Makes sense since they wouldn’t be able to write about something unless they already believed it. This Tradition has been passed down to us and part of it was written down in an inspired fashion and found its way in our Bible.
In the parable of the prodigal son, the son asks for his share of the inheritance from the father in effect saying that his father’s dead to him. He leaves and squanders everything and finally realizes what he’s done and decides to return home. The father, seeing his son in the distance, runs out to meet him with a hug and a kiss. Through one loving gesture, the father forgives the son – and the son hasn’t even made his confession yet! When he does, it seems the father hardly listens. The confession is not the most important thing here; the important thing is that his son has returned home.
Let’s have a look at the story of the paralytic man that was brought down from the ceiling because the crowds were blocking their access to Jesus as found in Gospels of Mark and Matthew. In the Gospel of Mark the story begins in the second chapter and as his friends brought the man down from the ceiling and “[w]hen Jesus saw their faith, he said to the paralyzed man, “Son, your sins are forgiven.” (verse 5) But the scribes sitting there were outraged at what he spoke saying: “It is blasphemy! Who can forgive sins but God alone?” Those who believe that no man can forgive sins, that only God can do that, are on the same camp as the scribes in this story. Generally speaking, to be in agreement with the scribes of the time of Jesus is not a very good place to be. Well, Jesus answered their objections with: “that you may know that the Son of man has authority on earth to forgive sins” – he turned to the paralytic and said – “Rise, take up your mat and go home.” In verse 8, chapter 9 of Matthew’s version, we see the scribes reaction to this revelation. When they saw this miracle “they were filled with awe; and they praised God, who had given such authority to men.”
Notice this last word. Matthew didn’t write that the authority to forgive sins was given to a man, he said it was given to MEN, plural. So now the question is do all of us have this authority to forgive the sins of others whom we may not even know as Jesus could do? James clearly points to the fact that only some men were given this authority because he writes to go get the elders so that their sins may be forgiven (James 5:14-15). But who received this authority?
To answer this question all we need do is go to John 20:21. These events are happening on the day of our Lord’s rising from the dead. All of His followers left and scattered. His disciples, the twelve locked themselves into a room for fear of the Jews. Jesus then appeared to the apostles in that locked room and said: “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, even so I send you.” When He said this he “breathed on them” and said “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.” (verses 21 and 22)
There are a few things to consider in these short passages. First we need to remember that only the apostles were in that room on the first day of His Resurrection (except for Thomas and Judas who weren’t there).
Second, Jesus said that He sends these apostles in the same way that He, Himself was sent. Going back to the story of the healing of the paralytic in Matt 9 verse 6, we know that “the son of man has authority on earth to forgive sins”. Therefore Jesus sends the apostles with that same authority, the authority on earth to forgive sins. And since He also has the authority to give this authority to others, then so do the apostles who then hand this authority to their successors all the way down through history to today’s bishops and priests.
Third, Jesus tells them that if they forgive the sins of any they are forgiven BUT He also tells them that if they retain the sins of any they are retained. For the apostle to know which sins to forgive and especially which sins to retain they need to have some kind of knowledge of them therefore we see the need to CONFESS our sins to these apostles or successors.
To recap, there are three main reasons why we ought to go to Confession for the forgiveness of our sins. Firstly because it has been set up this way since the very early years of our children in the faith, the Jews (see Leviticus 5:5-6 for an example of this). Jesus taught this same idea of the forgiveness of sins through those He appointed and gave such necessary authority that the Jewish people never had.
Secondly, both John and James mention the need to confess our sins to each other. These men tell us to confess our sins to each other but more specifically James says that certain men have this power to forgive the sins of others (James 5:14-15).
Lastly, we know that Jesus has the authority on earth to forgive sins (Matt 9:6) and that Jesus sends His apostles with the authority to forgive sins as well as the authority to pass this authority on to their successors all the way through history to our bishops and priests of today.
So true sacramental forgiveness of sins is a fulfillment of the sacrificial system of the forgiveness of sins of the Jewish people. It is also the power of God working through men (bishops and priests) and is instituted by Jesus Himself when He breathed on them and passed on this power through apostolic succession to the bishops and priests of today.
If you were dying of cancer and you prayed everyday for God to heal you, God could easily heal you instantly. But before that happens you will no doubt constantly visit the doctor to help you. Now say you are healed by the doctors help. It’s not the doctor that healed you, it was God. The doctor was just the intermediary for God. God used the doctor to perform His miracle. This is the same way that God uses a priest to administer the sacrament of confession to us. Sin is like a cancer and we need to go to the doctor (priest) to be healed. So why go to confession? Because Jesus Christ our Lord and God set it up this way. Who are we to say that we don’t need to go?
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