The Bible teaches Confession to a priest [23 min. audio] A sincere person cannot deny the facts.
John 20:22-23- “[Jesus said to them]: Receive ye the Holy Ghost: Whose sins you shall forgive, they are forgiven them; and whose sins you shall retain, they are retained.”
Many non-Catholics think that confession to a priest is not taught in the Bible. According to them, to be forgiven of even serious sins one must simply believe in Jesus; or at the most, confess those sins directly to God. However, this position – that confession to a priest is not necessary for serious (i.e., mortal) sins after baptism – contradicts what is taught in the Bible.
IN THE OLD TESTAMENT, ONE HAD TO GO TO THE PRIEST TO BE FORGIVEN
If one committed a sin in the Old Testament, he couldn’t just confess the sin to God and be done with the matter. No, he had to go to the priest. This is taught throughout the book of Leviticus, one of the first books in the Old Testament. Here’s a good example of this:
Leviticus 5:1-10- “And if a soul sin… when he shall be guilty in one of these things... he shall confess that he hath sinned in that thing… And he shall bring his trespass offering unto the Lord for his sin which he hath sinned… And he shall bring them unto the priest, who shall offer that which is for the sin offering first… and the priest shall make an atonement for him for his sin which he hath sinned, and it shall be forgiven him.”
In this passage we see that the priest’s role was indispensable for the forgiveness of sin. This is taught throughout the Book of Leviticus and the other foundational books of the Old Testament. Here’s another example:
Leviticus 19:21-22- “And he shall bring his trespass offering unto the Lord, unto the door of the tabernacle of the congregation, even a ram for a trespass offering. And the priest shall make an atonement for him with the ram of the trespass offering before the Lord for his sin which he hath done: and the sin which he hath done shall be forgiven him.”
ONE HAD TO GO TO THE PRIEST TO BECOME CLEAN
Not only did one have to go to the priest to be forgiven of sins (as these and other passages make clear), but also to become clean. In the Old Testament, people would become unclean after having done certain things which God said made a person unclean. To become clean, the priest would have to be involved. Jesus makes reference to this in Luke 5:13-14.
Luke 5:13-14- “And he [Jesus] put forth his hand, and touched him, saying, I will: be thou clean. And immediately the leprosy departed from him. And he charged him to tell no man: but go, and shew thyself to the priest, and offer for thy cleansing, according as Moses commanded, for a testimony unto them.”
Leviticus 12:6-8- “And when the days of her purifying are fulfilled… if she be not able to bring a lamb, then she shall bring two turtles, or two young pigeons… and the priest shall make an atonement for her, and she shall be clean.”
Leviticus 13:27- “And the priest shall look upon him the seventh day: and if it be spread much abroad in the skin, then the priest shall pronounce him unclean: it is the plague of leprosy.”
Leviticus 14:11,19-20- “And the priest that maketh him clean shall present the man that is to be made clean… And the priest shall offer the sin offering, and make an atonement for him that is to be cleansed from his uncleanness… And the priest shall offer the burnt offering and the meat offering upon the altar: and the priest shall make an atonement for him, and he shall be clean.”
GOD HAD PRIESTS; GOD HAD A PRIESTHOOD; GOD RECONCILED PEOPLE THROUGH PRIESTS
Now, some might say: that was the Old Testament. What about in the New Testament, after Jesus has come? We will see that the New Testament teaches confession to a priest. But these points from the Old Testament are important to consider first because they demonstrate how God works and how He has worked throughout salvation history. God had priests; God set up a priesthood; God forgives and reconciles people through priests. People had to go to the priests to be forgiven.
In Numbers 3, we see a reference to a distinct line of priests, who alone are to handle this special ministry.
Numbers 3:10- “And thou shalt appoint Aaron and his sons, and they shall wait on their priest's office...”
Numbers 3:3 also says that priests’ hands were consecrated; but that has been removed from the Protestant Bible.
Numbers 25:11-13- “Phinehas, the son of Eleazar… Behold… he shall have it, and his seed after him, even the covenant of an everlasting priesthood; because he was zealous for his God...”
In Deuteronomy 17:9 and 24:8, we read about the necessity to follow the instructions of the priests. In Deuteronomy 26:1-5, we read about offering the first-fruits to the priest.
NUMBERS 5 ON THE NECESSITY TO CONFESS SINS
In Numbers 5:6-7, we see that people are to confess sins.
Numbers 5:6-7- “When a man or woman shall commit any sin that men commit, to do a trespass against the Lord, and that person be guilty; then they shall confess their sin which they have done…”
The rest of the chapter contains instructions which involve the priests at every turn. For example:
Numbers 5:14-16- “…if the spirit of jealousy come upon him, and he be jealous of his wife, and she be not defiled… Then shall the man bring his wife unto the priest, and he shall bring her offering for her… And the priest shall bring her near, and set her before the Lord.”
Thus, in Numbers chapter 5, we see a clear example of confession, as well as the intercession of priests. In Numbers 6:11, the very next chapter, we see that if a man becomes defiled by a certain action “the priest shall offer the one for a sin offering, and the other for a burnt offering, and make an atonement for him...”
SINS ARE FORGIVEN THROUGH THE PRIEST
In Numbers 15, we again see that sins are forgiven through the priest.
Numbers 15:22-25- “And if ye have erred, and not observed all these commandments, which the Lord hath spoken unto Moses… all the congregation shall offer one young bullock for a burnt offering… And the priest shall make an atonement for all the congregation of the children of Israel, and it shall be forgiven them…”
This is repeated in Numbers 15:28.
EXODUS AND LEVITICUS TEACH THAT PRIESTS ARE TO WEAR SPECIAL GARMENTS: VESTMENTS
In Exodus 28:1-3, we read about the office of priests, and that the priests wear special garments.
Exodus 28:1-3- “And take thou unto thee Aaron thy brother, and his sons with him… that he may minister unto me in the priest's office… And thou shalt make holy garments for Aaron… that they may make Aaron's garments to consecrate him, that he may minister unto me in the priest's office.”
We read the same in Leviticus 16:32.
Leviticus 16:32- “And the priest, whom he shall anoint… shall make the atonement, and shall put on the linen clothes, even the holy garments...”
LEVITICUS TEACHES THAT THERE ARE CERTAIN SPECIAL FEASTS: HOLY DAYS OF OBLIGATION
In Leviticus 23:4, we read about special feast days, or holy days of obligation, which were to be observed.
Leviticus 23:4- “These are the feasts of the Lord, even holy convocations, which ye shall proclaim in their seasons.”
There is no doubt that God set up a priesthood. God established it so that men were reconciled, forgiven, and made clean through the ministry of priests. That was how God worked in the Old Law. What about in the New?
JESUS CAME NOT TO DESTROY THE LAW, BUT TO FULFILL –
HE INSTITUTED A PRIESTHOOD
Matthew 5:17-18- “[Jesus said] Think not that I am come to destroy the law, or the prophets: I am not come to destroy, but to fulfill. For verily I say unto you, till heaven and earth pass, one jot or one tittle shall in no wise pass from the law, till all be fulfilled.”
Jesus came not to destroy the law and the prophets, but to fulfill. There is no doubt that the New Law surpasses the Old. It surpasses it so much that it makes it obsolete. Jesus accomplished all the figures and prophecies in the Old Law. He made a New and more perfect covenant, rendering the Old thereby void (Hebrews 8:13).
But the New Law has similarities to the Old Law, being its fulfillment. For example, in the Old Testament there were 12 tribes with 12 tribal leaders, and Moses had 70 elders; likewise, in the New Testament, Jesus has 12 apostles and 70 other disciples, as we see in Luke 10. Another example would be how Jesus inherits the throne of David, as we read in Luke 1:32 and Acts 2:30.
Luke 1:32- “He shall be great, and shall be called the Son of the Highest: and the Lord God shall give unto him the throne of his father David.”
Jesus and His spiritual Kingdom (His Church) fulfill what was prefigured in the earthly Kingdom of the Davidic Monarchy.
Another example of how the New Law corresponds to the Old Law would be how, in the Old Testament, a father passed his blessing on to his son through the laying on of hands. In Deuteronomy 34:9, we see that spiritual authority is passed down from Moses to Joshua through the laying on of hands. Likewise, in the New Testament priests are ordained through the laying on of hands, as we read in 2 Timothy 1:6.
So the point is that while Jesus’ Kingdom and New Law surpass and make void the Old, the New Law nevertheless fulfills, perfects and corresponds to the Old in many ways. (It should be pointed out that the forgiveness of sins or justification in the Old Testament was an inferior covering of sin which turned away God’s anger, but did not fully put away sins. The full remission of sins couldn’t happen until the coming of Jesus Christ and the New Law. See Hebrews 10:4.)
Therefore, just as there was definitely a priesthood in the Old Testament, there is a priesthood in the New Testament. The Apostles were made priests and bishops by Jesus Christ.
JESUS GIVES THE APOSTLES THE POWER TO FORGIVE SINS
Jesus gives priests the power to forgive sins. We read this clearly in John chapter 20.
John 20:21-23- “Then said Jesus to them again, Peace be unto you: as my Father hath sent me, even so I send you. And when he had said this, he breathed on them, and saith unto them, Receive ye the Holy Ghost: Whose sins you shall forgive, they are forgiven them; and whose sins you shall retain, they are retained.”
Jesus says that whoever’s sins you forgive, they are forgiven; and whoever’s sins you retain (do not forgive), they are not forgiven. Nothing could be more clear. The Apostles could only determine which sins to forgive and which sins to retain if they heard a confession of sins. This passage proves that Jesus instituted confession to priests.
AS SON OF MAN, JESUS HAD POWER ON EARTH TO FORGIVE SINS
AND HE CAN AND DID TRANSFER THAT POWER TO OTHERS
Even though the meaning of John 20:23 is obvious, there’s another point that must be noted in this regard. In Matthew 9:6-8, we read:
“But [Jesus saith] that ye may know that the Son of man hath power on earth to forgive sins, (then saith he to the sick of the palsy,) Arise, take up thy bed, and go unto thine house… But when the multitudes saw it, they marvelled, and glorified God, who had given such power unto men.”
Jesus was both God and man, but notice that this passage emphasizes that He had authority as the Son of man to forgive sins. Since Jesus had authority to forgive sins as the Son of man – as is also made clear in Mt. 28:18, when He says that He has been given all power in Heaven and Earth – then He can transfer that authority to others. Look at John 20:21 again:
John 20:21- “Then said Jesus to them again, Peace be unto you: as my Father hath sent me, even so I send you.”
Just as Jesus was sent as the Son of man with power on Earth to forgive sins, He sends His Apostles to dispense His forgiveness to others.
ST. PAUL SAYS THAT PRIESTS RECONCILE MEN TO GOD IN CHRIST’S PLACE
That’s why St. Paul, who was made a priest and bishop in the Church, says this:
2 Corinthians 5:18-20- “God, who hath reconciled us to himself by Jesus Christ, and hath given to us the ministry of reconciliation… Now then we are ambassadors for Christ, as though God did beseech you by us: we pray you in Christ's stead, be ye reconciled to God.”
This passage makes it clear that Jesus sends His Apostles to be the ministers of His reconciliation and forgiveness. That’s why the Church has taught that priests, in hearing confessions, stand in the place of Christ. They are not a barrier to Christ, but an avenue, a conduit of His reconciliation; just as St. Paul says: “we pray you in Christ’s stead, be ye reconciled to God.”
This is the reason that Jesus gives the Apostles the power to forgive and retain sins in John 20:23, right after sending them in John 20:21 (as His Father has sent Him).
Moreover, in the Acts of the Apostles, we read that people came and confessed their deeds.
Acts 19:17-18- “And this was known to all the Jews and Greeks also dwelling at Ephesus; and fear fell on them all, and the name of the Lord Jesus was magnified. And many that believed came, and confessed, and shewed their deeds.”
All of this demonstrates without any doubt that Jesus instituted confession to priests.
JESUS GIVES THE APOSTLES THE POWER TO BIND AND TO LOOSE SINS
Further confirming that the Bible teaches confession to a priest, we see that the Apostles were given the power to bind and to loose in Matthew 18:18.
Matthew 18:18- “Verily I say unto you, whatsoever ye shall bind on earth shall be bound in heaven: and whatsoever ye shall loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.”
This has application to the forgiveness of sins, and to the fact that Jesus dispensed His authority to valid bishops and priests in His one true Church. The authority that is exercised by priests and bishops must be used under the unique authority of the Keys, which were given alone to St. Peter in Matthew 16:18-19.
IF WE CONFESS OUR SINS, HE IS FAITHFUL AND JUST TO FORGIVE US OUR SINS
1 John 1:9- “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins, and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.”
Notice that the passage says “if” we confess our sins, He is faithful and just to forgive us our sins. It doesn’t say that He will forgive our sins whether or not we confess our sins, or as long as we believe.
JAMES 5 TEACHES THE CATHOLIC SACRAMENT OF EXTREME UNCTION
In James 5, we see a reference to confessing sins, priests, and the forgiveness of sins.
James 5:14-16- “Is any sick among you? let him call for the elders [priests] of the church; and let them pray over him, anointing him with oil in the name of the Lord: And the prayer of faith shall save the sick, and the Lord shall raise him up; and if he have committed sins, they shall be forgiven him. Confess your faults one to another, and pray one for another, that ye may be healed. The effectual fervent prayer of a righteous man availeth much.”
This passage is a classic proof for the Catholic sacrament of Extreme Unction. Extreme Unction is the Catholic sacrament received at the time of death; it’s a priestly anointing and rite which, if properly received, strengthens a man in his final illness of life and forgives his sins. In this passage of James 5, we read that you should “confess your faults to one another.” That instruction comes directly after making reference to calling for the elders/priests of the Church. This shows us, once again, the necessity of confession and priests, as well as the link between the two.
These facts demonstrate that the New Testament teaches that confession to a priest is necessary for the forgiveness of serious (i.e., mortal) sins committed after baptism. That’s why the Catholic Church, the one true Church of Christ, has taught this for almost 2000 years.
THE FATHERS OF THE ANCIENT CHURCH TAUGHT CONFESSION
The fathers of the Church also believed in confession and taught that it was necessary. Their testimony confirms that confession is the true teaching of Jesus Christ and the Bible.
In the earliest days of the Church, confessions were sometimes made publicly to the priest or to the bishop in front of others in the congregation, and sometimes they were made privately.
One of the best proofs for confession from the fathers of the Church comes from famous early Church writer Origen, dated approximately 245 A.D.
Origen, Commentary on Luke 2, 245 A.D- “… if we have sinned, we ought to proclaim: I have acknowledged my sin to thee, and my injustice I have not concealed. I said I will confess against myself my injustice to the Lord. For if we have done this, AND IF WE HAVE MADE KNOWN OUR SINS, NOT ALONE TO THE LORD, BUT TO THOSE ALSO WHO CAN HEAL OUR SINS AND OUR WOUNDS, OUR SINS SHALL BE BLOTTED OUT BY HIM.” (Sunday Sermons of the Great Fathers, Regnery Co: Chicago, IL, 1963, Vol. 1, p. 172.)
Origen clearly teaches that confession to the Lord alone is not enough; there must be confession to the priests.
The Didache 4:14, 14:1, 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."
The Letter of Barnabas 19, 74 A.D.- "You shall confess your sins. You shall not go to prayer with an evil conscience. This is the way of light."
St. Ignatius of Antioch, Letter to Philadelphians 8, 110 A.D.- "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."
St. Irenaeus, Against Heresies 1:22, 185 A.D.- “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."
Tertullian, Repentance 10:1, 203 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."
St. Cyprian of Carthage, The Lapsed 28, 251 A.D.- “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.” (Jurgens, The Faith of the Early Fathers, Vol. 1:553)
St. Basil the Great, Rules Briefly Treated 288, 374 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.”
St. John Chrysostom, The Priesthood 3:5, 387 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.’… Priests… 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.’"
St. Ambrose of Milan, Penance 1:1, 388 A.D.- "For those to whom [the right of binding and loosing] has been given… For this right has been granted to priests only.”
St. Jerome, Commentary on Ecclesiastes 10:11, 388 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."
All of this proves that the Bible teaches the necessity of confession to a priest. The Catholic Church has always remained faithful to this teaching of the Bible because the Catholic Church is the one true Church of Christ.
Sign up for our free e-mail list to see future vaticancatholic.com videos and articles.