Many non-Catholics say that confession to a priest is not taught in the Bible. They say that to be forgiven of even mortal sin, all one need to do is believe in Jesus, or at the most, to confess those sins directly to God. While Catholic theology does teach that in cases of necessity, when a priest cannot be had, it is possible to obtain remission of sins without confessing directly to a priest, it is clear from Scripture and the Tradition of the Fathers that this is the exception, not the rule. The rule ordained by God, as we will see, is the confession of one's sins to a priest of God in the sacrament of Penance. If one does not at least believe in this sacrament, and desire to obtain it, it is impossible to receive forgiveness and remission of sins.
First, the Old Law required confession of sins to a priest
First, in the Old Testament, if one committed a sin, he couldn't just confess the sin to God and be done with it. No, he had to go to the priest. This is taught throughout the book of Leviticus, the third book of the Old Testament. Here is one good example of this:
Leviticus 5:1-10: "And if a soul sin, and hear the voice of swearing, and is a witness, whether he hath seen or known of it; if he do not utter it, then he shall bear his iniquity. Or if a soul touch any unclean thing, whether it be a carcase of an unclean beast, or a carcase of unclean cattle, or the carcase of unclean creeping things, and if it be hidden from him; he also shall be unclean, and guilty. Or if he touch the uncleanness of man, whatsoever uncleanness it be that a man shall be defiled withal, and it be hid from him; when he knoweth of it, then he shall be guilty. Or if a soul swear, pronouncing with his lips to do evil, or to do good, whatsoever it be that a man shall pronounce with an oath, and it be hid from him; when he knoweth of it, then he shall be guilty in one of these. And it shall be, when he shall be guilty in one of these things, that 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, a female from the flock, a lamb or a kid of the goats, for a sin offering; and the priest shall make an atonement for him concerning his sin. And if he be not able to bring a lamb, then he shall bring for his trespass, which he hath committed, two turtledoves, or two young pigeons, unto the LORD; one for a sin offering, and the other for a burnt offering. And he shall bring them unto the priest, who shall offer that which is for the sin offering first, and wring off his head from his neck, but shall not divide it asunder: And he shall sprinkle of the blood of the sin offering upon the side of the altar; and the rest of the blood shall be wrung out at the bottom of the altar: it is a sin offering. And he shall offer the second for a burnt offering, according to the manner: 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 in the forgiveness of sin. This is taught throughout Leviticus and throughout the other foundational books of the Old Testament. Here is 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."
Not only did a person have to go to the priest to be forgiven of sin, as these and other passages make clear, but also to become clean. Jesus makes reference to this in the following verse from the New Testament:
Luke 5:13-14: "And he 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."
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.
Leviticus 12:6-8: "And when the days of her purifying are fulfilled, for a son, or for a daughter, she shall bring a lamb of the first year for a burnt offering, and a young pigeon, or a turtledove, for a sin offering, unto the door of the tabernacle of the congregation, unto the priest: Who shall offer it before the LORD, and make an atonement for her; and she shall be cleansed from the issue of her blood. This is the law for her that hath born a male or a female. And if she be not able to bring a lamb, then she shall bring two turtles, or two young pigeons; the one for the burnt offering, and the other for a sin offering: 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: "And the priest that maketh him clean shall present the man that is to be made clean, and those things, before the LORD, at the door of the tabernacle of the congregation:"
Leviticus 14:19-20: "And the priest shall offer the sin offering, and make an atonement for him that is to be cleansed from his uncleanness; and afterward he shall kill the burnt offering: 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."
Leviticus 14:31: "Even such as he is able to get, the one for a sin offering, and the other for a burnt offering, with the meat offering: and the priest shall make an atonement for him that is to be cleansed before the LORD."
These points from the Old Testament demonstrate how God works and how He has worked throughout salvation history. God had priests. God set up a priesthood. God forgives and reconciled through priests. People had to go to the priests to be forgiven.
In Numbers, Chapter 3, we see a reference to a special line of priests, who alone are able to handle this ministry.
Numbers 3:10: "And thou shalt appoint Aaron and his sons, and they shall wait on their priest's office: and the stranger that cometh nigh shall be put to death."
Numbers also says that priests hands were consecrated, but that has been removed from the Protestant Bible.
Numbers 3:3: "These the names of the sons of Aaron the priests that were anointed, and whose hands were filled and consecrated, to do the functions of priesthood"- Douay Rheims Challoner Edition
We also see a specific reference to the necessity of confession of sin.
In Numbers 5:6-7: "Speak unto the children of Israel, 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: and he shall recompense his trespass with the principal thereof, and add unto it the fifth part thereof, and give it unto him against whom he hath trespassed."
The rest of the chapter contains instructions, which involve priests at every turn. For example:
Numbers 5:14-16: "And the spirit of jealousy come upon him, and he be jealous of his wife, and she be defiled: or 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, the tenth part of an ephah of barley meal; he shall pour no oil upon it, nor put frankincense thereon; for it is an offering of jealousy, an offering of memorial, bringing iniquity to remembrance. And the priest shall bring her near, and set her before the LORD:"
In this verse we see a clear example of confession as well as the intercession of priests. In Numbers 6:11, in the very next chapter we see that if a man becomes defiled by a certain action, “11: And the priest shall offer the one for a sin offering, and the other for a burnt offering, and make an atonement for him,”
In Numbers 15, we again see that sins are forgiven through the priests.
Number 15:22-25: "And if ye have erred, and not observed all these commandments, which the LORD hath spoken unto Moses, Even all that the LORD hath commanded you by the hand of Moses, from the day that the LORD commanded Moses, and henceforward among your generations; Then it shall be, if ought be committed by ignorance without the knowledge of the congregation, that all the congregation shall offer one young bullock for a burnt offering, for a sweet savour unto the LORD, with his meat offering, and his drink offering, according to the manner, and one kid of the goats for a sin 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 also repeated in Number 15:28.
We read also in Exodus about the office of priests and that priests wear special garments.
Exodus 28:1-3: "And take thou unto thee Aaron thy brother, and his sons with him, from among the children of Israel, that he may minister unto me in the priest's office, even Aaron, Nadab and Abihu, Eleazar and Ithamar, Aaron's sons. And thou shalt make holy garments for Aaron thy brother for glory and for beauty. And thou shalt speak unto all that are wise hearted, whom I have filled with the spirit of wisdom, that they may make Aaron's garments to consecrate him, that he may minister unto me in the priest's office."
We read about this in Leviticus as well.
Leviticus 16:32: "And the priest, whom he shall anoint, and whom he shall consecrate to minister in the priest's office in his father's stead, shall make the atonement, and shall put on the linen clothes, even the holy garments:"
We also 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."
In Deuteronomy 17:9 and 24:8, we also read about the necessity to follow the instructions of the priests. In Deuteronomy 26:1-5, we read about offering the first fruits through the priests. There is no doubt that God established it so that men were forgiven, reconciled and made clean through the ministry of the priests.
That was how God worked in the Old Law, now what about in the New Law?
In Matthew 5:17-18: "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 prophesies in the Old Law, and made it perfect, rendering the old thereby void. But the New Law has similarities to the Old Law, being its fulfillment.
For example, in the Old Testament there were twelve tribes with twelve tribal leaders. Likewise, in the New Testament, Jesus has twelve Apostles.
Another example would be how Jesus inherits the throne of David, as we read in Luke 1:32 and Acts 2:30. Jesus and His spiritual kingdom, which is the Church, fulfill what was prefigured in the earthly kingdom of the Davidic monarchy. Another example 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 on to Joshua through the laying on of hands. Likewise, in the New Testament priests were ordained through the laying on of hands, as we read in 2 Timonthy 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 Law in many ways. So 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, and just as the priests were involved in the process of the covering or forgiveness of sin in the Old Testament, Jesus gave priests the power to forgive sins in the New Testament.
John 20:21-23: "Then said Jesus to them again, Peace be unto you: as my Father hath sent me, even so send I you. And when he had said this, he breathed on them, and saith unto them, Receive ye the Holy Ghost: Whose soever sins ye remit, they are remitted unto them; and whose soever sins ye retain, they are retained."
Jesus says that whose soever sins the Apostles forgive, they are forgiven, and whose soever sins they retain (do not forgive), they are retained (not forgiven). Nothing could be more clear. The only way the Apostles could be expected to know which sins to forgive and which sins to retain is obviously if they heard a confession of those sins. This passage proves that Jesus instituted confession to priests.
Even though the meaning of the passage is obvious, there is another point that must be noted in this regard.
Matthew 9:6-8: "But 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. And he arose, and departed to his house. But when the multitudes saw it, they marvelled, and glorified God, which had given such power unto men.
This passage notes that the Son of Man hath power on earth to forgive sin and the multitudes marvelled how God had given such authority and power to men. Jesus is both God and man, but notice that this passage emphasizes that he had the 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 Matthew 28, when Jesus says that He has been given all power in heaven and in earth, then He can transfer that authority to forgive sins to others. Look at this verse again:
John 20:21: "Then said Jesus to them again, Peace be unto you: as my Father hath sent me, even so send I 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. That’s why St. Paul, who was made apriest and bishop in the Church, says this:
2 Corinthians 5:18-20: And all things are of God, who hath reconciled us to himself by Jesus Christ, and hath given to us the ministry of reconciliation; To wit, that God was in Christ, reconciling the world unto himself, not imputing their trespasses unto them; and hath committed unto us the word 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."
Jesus sends His Apostles to be the ministers of His reconciliation and His forgiveness as this passage makes clear. That is 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”
So that’s why right after sending His Apostles in John 20:21, as His Father has sent Him, Jesus gives them the power to forgive and retain sins. All of this proves without any doubt that Jesus instituted confession to priests for the forgiveness of sins.
As a further demonstration of this fact, we see that the Apostles were given the power to bind and to loose.
Matthew 16:18: "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 this authority to valid bishops and priests in His one true Church. But this authority must be used under the unique authority of the keys which were given alone to St. Peter in Matthew 16:18-20.
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 does not say He will forgive us whether or not we forgive our sins, or so long as we believe. In James 5, we also see a refernce to confessing sins, priests and the forgiveness of sins.
James 5: 14-16: "Is any sick among you? 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 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, a priestly anointing and rite, which, if properly received in danger of death strengthens man in the final combat of life and forgives him his sin.
In this passage if 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 or priests of the Church, showing once again the necessity of confession and priests and the link between the two.
All of this shows that the New Testament teaches that confession to a priest is necessary for serious (mortal) sins committed after baptism. That is why the Catholic Church, the one true Church of Jesus Christ, has taught this for 2000 years.
The Early Christian Fathers taught confession to a priest
In addition to all this Biblical proof, confession is proven to be necessary and to be the teaching of Jesus Christ and the Bible by the fact that the Father of the Christian Church clearly believed it and taught it. The Fathers of the Church are the Christian writers from the earliest centuries. They are those who received the tradition of the Apostles.
In the earliest days of the Church, confessions were sometimes made publicly to the priest of the bishop in front of others in the congregation and sometimes they were made privately.
Here are some of the best proofs of confession from the Fathers of the Church, who all believed and taught the same thing.
Ignatius, of Antioch Letter to the Philadelphians 3, AD 110: "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."
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).
Irenaeus, Against Heresies 1:22, AD 189: "[The Gnostic disciples of Marcus] have deluded many women. . . Their consciences have been branded as with a hot iron. 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 life of God, they either apostatize entirely or hesitate between two courses."
Tertullian, Repentance 10:1, AD 203: "[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."
The Church has the power of forgiving sins. This I acknowledge and adjudge (ibid. 21).
Hippolytus, Apostolic Tradition 3, AD 215: "[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."
Origen, Commentary on Luke 2, AD 245: “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 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.”
Origen, Homilies in Leviticus 2:4, AD 248: [A filial 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".
Cyprian, The Lapsed 15:1-3, AD 251: "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 "[I 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 his body and blood, and with their hands and mouth they sin against the Lord more than when they denied him.
"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).
Cyprian, Letters 9:2, AD 253: "Sinners 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"" [I Cor. 11:27]
John Chrysostom, The Priesthood 3:5, AD 387: "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." 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]. They are raised to this dignity as if they were already gathered up to heaven."
The Catholic Church has always taught the correct doctrine on what one must do to be forgiven of sins, as She is the one true Church with a true priesthood. It is necessary to belong to this Church before the end of your life for salvation.