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CONFESSION—Q&A

1. John 20:23 and pre-Pentecost Confessions

2. The Biblical Basis for Confession

3. How Old is the Sacrament of Confession?

4. What Is the Sin that Leads to Death?

5. James 5:14-16 and "Presbuteros"

6. Why do we need confession?

7. Jesus forgiving sins as a man and not God?

Back Home Next
 


1. John 20:23 and pre-Pentecost Confessions

Don: Greetings!!!  I LOVE your website!!!

You kindly answered a question of mine some weeks ago (THANK YOU!!!); and I wondered if I might impose on you again with another question. John 20:22-23 is a definitely defined Scripture passage conferring a power exclusively on the Apostles authorizing them and their successors in the priestly office to forgive sins in God's name. However, various commentary on this passage has left me confused.

(1)   Some claim that the Holy Spirit was actually given in some sense in Jesus' institution of the Sacrament of Penance in John 20:22-23. 

(2)   Others seem to hold that Jesus gave the "authority" of the Sacrament in John 20; but the "power" (or ability to carry it out) was actually given 50 days later at Pentecost.  In other words, John 20:22-23 is a foreshadowing of Pentecost in an absolute sense—that the Holy Spirit was NOT given in any way at John 20.

Paragraphs in the CCC seem support # 1; yet others seem to also affirm that the Holy Spirit was NOT given until Pentecost (compare CCC 729 & 730). If #1 is true, doesn't this conflict with Jesus' statement in John 16:4b-11; where he claims that he MUST go to the Father BEFORE the Holy Spirit can be sent?  At John 20:22-23, he has yet to ascend to the Father.

If #1 is true, doesn't this also conflict with Jesus' statement in Acts 1:8, directing the Apostles to Jerusalem FOR THE EXPRESSED PURPOSE of receiving power (Gk. dunamis) when the Holy Spirit comes upon them to be witnesses --- of which the Sacraments are an important aspect of being a witness?

I have a copy of the Council of Trent document which infallibly defines this passage, but, I am not sure that position #1 can actually be concluded from that document.

THEREFORE is it permissible to:

(1)   Hold to the infallibly interpreted position concerning John 20:22-23, that Jesus' DID confer the Sacrament of Penance upon the Apostles and those in the priestly office; yet...

(2)   Hold the position that the ACTUAL giving of the Holy Spirit did NOT take place until Pentecost --- that John 20 is a "living prophecy" of Pentecost?  In other words, Jesus gave the authority for the sacrament in John 20 and the ability (or power) to actually carry it out in Acts 2?

(3)   Again, in other words, does the infallibility of the interpretation of John 20:22-23 extend to the giving of the Holy Spirit in some way at John 20, or am I free to see that as an option, with another option that the Holy Spirit was not given in any way until Pentecost?

THANK YOU FOR YOUR HELP!!

In His Grace,

Don

J. Salza: Don, the passage in John 20:23 says that Jesus breathed on His apostles and they received the Holy Spirit. If we read the passage in its literal and obvious sense (as the Church directs us to do), then we can conclude that the apostles had the Holy Spirit and the gift of forgiving sins at that point.

I compare this to the apostles baptizing people in John 3. This was the Old Testament side of the cross, and yet the Catechism of Trent says that Jesus instituted the efficacy of Christian baptism the moment He went into the Jordan river. While the Catechism of Trent is not binding dogma, it does show the mind of the Church on the matter.

God can apply the graces of the sacraments that Christ won on the cross back in time to before Christ died, just like God applied the merits of Christ to Mary in her Immaculate Conception. That was also based on Jesus' anticipated death and resurrection, and yet God applied the merits in advance to Mary. We might also conclude that the apostles celebrated the Eucharist before Pentecost since Christ told them to "do this" even before He sent the Spirit on Pentecost. He did not say "do this" after I send the Spirit. 

When Christ spoke about sending Spirit, He was generally speaking about how the Spirit would guide the Church into all truth (Jn 14, 16). But there is nothing in Scripture or Tradition that explicitly prevents Jesus from empowering His apostles to confect the sacraments only after Pentecost. I have looked into it with respect to baptism, and the Catechism of Trent supports a pre-Pentecost (even a pre-cross) institution of baptism. Since the Church has not dogmatized whether Jesus in fact instituted the sacraments (as a means of sanctifying grace) before the cross, either view is permissible.

Grace be with you.

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2. The Biblical Basis of Confession

Justin: I must start off by saying, your site is very intricate, and really does explain the basic tenets of the Catholic faith, however, the fact that you continually say that many Protestant beliefs can not be founded in Scripture is ironic to me.  Considering that no where in the bible can you find a specific scripture regarding confession (yes I know Proverbs 27:17 speaks of one man sharpening another, but that doesn't seem to match the typical idea of Catholic confession).  I'm not trying to sound rude or stand-off-ish, truly I desire a greater understanding of your faith.  I personally am Baptist, and I believe that we are all the children of God, just as you have said in your site.  However, many times in talking with other Catholic students they have referenced your website either grossly out of context or with reckless abandon to the real truth that underlies within the scripture. I would love to hear back from you on these subjects, and thank you for your time.

In Him,

Justin

J. Salza: Justin, thanks for writing.  First, the more you learn about the Catholic faith, the more you will learn that Catholicism is Bible Christianity par excellence.

Confession is very clearly set forth in Scripture.  See Matt. 9:8 where the authority to forgive sins "was given to men."  See also John 20:21-23 where the Lord, after the Resurrection, breathes on the apostles and says "whose sins you forgive are forgiven; whose sins you retain are retained."  Jesus gave the apostles the authority to forgive sins. 

See also James 5:14-16. This is a verse Protestants also ignore because it doesn't fit anywhere in their theology.  First, in the first two verses (14-15), James is talking about the sacrament of the sick.  The priests are called and they anoint the sick person with oil and pray over him and forgive his sin (another example of man having the gift of forgiving sins).  Then, in verse 16, James says "Therefore, confess your sins to one another..."  By using "therefore," James is connecting verses 14-15 to 16.  This means that, just as the priests are called upon to forgive sins in the sacrament of the sick, the priests are also called to forgive sins in the sacrament of confession.  No Scriptural support?  It is amazing how so many Protestants ignore these passages.  That is because they all support the 2,000 year-old Catholic teaching.

Yes, by virtue of our baptism in Christ, we are all children of God. However, Jesus Christ established one Church which He built upon Peter (Matt. 16:18), to whom He gave the keys to the kingdom of heaven (Matt.16:18-19).  Whatever the Church binds or looses on earth is bound or loosed in heaven.  When you seriously study history, and the teachings of the early Church Fathers, I believe that you will see the truth of the Catholic Church as the true Church founded by Christ.  You will also see where the Baptist faith came about (1,600 years after the Ascension).  We don't say you are all wrong.  What we believe is that the Catholic Church gives us the FULLNESS of the truth.  Because of this, we have the fullness of the means of salvation (i.e., we have the seven sacraments Jesus gave us, not just one or two).

If there is anything else I can help you with, please do not hesitate to contact me.

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3. Infant Baptism and Justification

Patron: In what year and what Pope authorized priest's to hear confessions?  It is my understanding that this occurred in the 8th or 9th century?  What was the reason (historical) for beginning the practice?  I am a practicing Catholic, but the sermon at Mass today caused me to reflect on the practice...Thank you.

J. Salza: Confession is one of the seven sacraments instituted by Jesus Christ, so it is 2,000 years old (it did not commence in the 8th or 9th century). It has been part of the Church's tradition from the very beginning (it is not a disciplinary practice or custom that could ever change).  Hence, no pope "authorized" its user in later centuries.  I don't know what the priest or deacon said at your homily today, so I cannot comment on it.  But it is necessary for Catholics to receive this sacrament in order to be forgiven of mortal sins.  Christ granted this authority to his apostles and their successors.

The priest may have referred to the fact that auricular confession (that is, where a penitent privately confesses his sins to a priest) began around the millennium (1000 A.D.). Before this time, the sacrament was celebrated by public confessions in the Church assembly. People would orally confess their sins in front of the entire congregation, and would have to satisfy strict penances to make atonement for their sins. The Church changed the way in which the sacrament was administered, but of course the theology of the sacrament cannot change.

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4. What Is the Sin that Leads to Death?

Pius: Dear Respected Director

Please help me. I am a catholic but I am not very sure what is this sin that leads to death which we find in 1 John 5:16-17. I would be very glad if you could help me. Thanking you in anticipation.

Thanks

Pius

J. Salza: Pius, the sin Saint John is referring to is any kind of mortal sin.  This passage shows that there are two types of sin: venial and mortal.  If you are Catholic, mortal sin must be confessed and absolved in the sacrament of reconciliation. Venial sins are forgiven when you attend Mass and receive our Lord in the state of grace (which means you are not in mortal sin).

Mortal sin is any sin that is very serious, you are aware of its gravity, and deliberately consent to committing it (murder, adultery, fornication, contraception, etc.).

Remember, no sin is too bad for God to forgive. The Father sent His Son into the world to forgive us our sins.  Through the action of the priest, Christ will forgive all of your sins in His sacrament of confession.

Thanks for writing and God bless you!

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5. James 5:14-16 and "Presbuteros"

Patron: John, you use James 5:16 to prove Catholic confession, but the verse says nothing about “priests.” It just says that we are to confess our sins to one another. God gives all of us the power for physical and spiritual healing. God's healing is wholistic, involving the total person.  Confession and intercession are the tasks of all of us.

J. Salza: Hello. Having studied this verse in light of the interpretation of the early Church Fathers as well as the original language, I would like to offer the following comments:

James 5:16 must be read in the context of its two preceding verses (14 and 15), because James begins verse 16 with "therefore," which the KJV eliminated from its translation (but it is in the original Greek language; it can also be found in the earlier Douay-Rheims version).  In James 5:14-15, in addressing sick people, James says "let him call for the priests (in Greek, presbuterous) of the church, and let them pray over him, anointing him with oil in the name of the Lord. And the prayer of faith will save the sick, and the Lord will raise him up. And if he has committed sins, he will be forgiven."  Then James says "therefore confess your sins to one another…"

Verses 14-15 clearly demonstrate that it is the priests (not lay people) of the Church who anoint the sick and forgive the sick person's sins.  So this verse is not about general lay prayers for physical and spiritual healing, but about the sacrament of the anointing of the sick and the priestly forgiveness of sins (one of the seven sacraments that Christ gave the Catholic Church, through His ministerial priesthood).

James connects verse 16 to verses 14-15 by saying "therefore," meaning that just as we call upon the priests of the Church for the sacrament of the sick, we therefore call upon the priests of the Church for the sacrament of confession. 

Non-Catholic Christians have problems with James 5:14-15 because no where in their theology do they have a place for the priestly forgiveness of sins.  But it is plainly set forth in Sacred Scripture, and has been celebrated by the Catholic Church for 2,000 years.  John 20:23 is also clear that Jesus gave His apostles the authority to forgive and retain sins after His Resurrection. Thus, Matthew 9:8 says that God gave the authority to forgive sins "to men." Confession and intercession are tasks of all of us, but Christ has given His authority to forgive sins only to His "priests of the Church" (James 5:14).

Patron: John, thank you for your words below, which reflect much passion, thought and study.  I know my faith will be strengthened by what you have shared. 

While the word "therefore" in not reflected at the beginning of verse 16 in the KJV, it is reflected at the beginning of verse 16 in both the NIV and NASB versions, dynamic and literal translations, respectively. Even in the absence of a "therefore", I agree with your statement that a single verse, such as James 5:16 must be read in context with preceding and succeeding verses, and, I would add, in context with the Bible taken as a whole.

In my reflection on the passage in 5:14, I noted that the word "elders" is used in every translation I checked (KJV, NIV, NASB, NLT, ESV, NKJV, and ASV) rather than "priests" as you have shown below.  I want to tread carefully here, since I don't have the foundation you have from the study of the original Greek and the early Church Fathers, but when I consider the use of the word "elder", it denotes for me a mature, upright Christian church leader, who could be a lay person, not necessarily a cleric or "priest."  Perhaps you would be willing to share further insights and thoughts on that concept, including which Bible translation uses the word "priests." I look forward to a continuing dialogue.

J. Salza: The Latin Vulgate translation of the Bible, which is the most reliable translation of Sacred Scripture, uses the word "presbuteros" in James 5:14.  The Latin Vulgate uses "presbuteros" in many other places in Scripture as well, especially the book of Acts, when discussing the ecclesial hierarchy of the New Testament church. Paul also uses "presbuterous," for example, in Titus 1:5, where Paul tells Titus that he left him in Crete to "ordain priests in every city."  You see in Scripture, particularly in Acts (e.g. 6:5-6; 13:2-3;14:23 and Paul's letters to Timothy (e.g. 1 Tim. 5:22), that the infant Church ordained men through the "laying on of hands," and that the New Testament church had "bishops" (episkopoi), "priests" (presbuteroi), and "deacons" (diakonoi).  Even the NIV describes Paul's role as a minister of Christ Jesus to the Gentiles with the "priestly" duty of proclaiming the gospel of God (Romans 15:15-16). So we see a definite hierarchy in the Church of the Bible that is distinct from the laity.  When a translation uses the word "elder," it means "priest," not lay person. 

For example, in Revelation 5:8, it says the "24 elders" fell down before the Lamb holding golden bowls of incense. These "elders" are "priests" just like we see in the Old Testament where the elders/priests worshiped with their own golden incense bowls (Numbers 7:84-86).  This shows that the New Testament Church contains elements of the Old Testament "church."  You also see in the book of Numbers Korah's rebellion against Moses and the priests.  Moses confronts Korah by saying "you seek the priesthood also?" (see Numbers 16:1-11).  Korah was trying to usurp the priestly authority, and he and his followers were punished by God by being swallowed up in the earth. 

When you read Jude 11, where Jude warns us of Korah's rebellion against God's priests, we have to ask the question - why would God inspire Jude to warn us about Korah's rebellion against the Old Testament priests, if there was no hierarchy of priests to obey in the New Testament?  The answer is because there is a hierarchy we must obey in God's New Covenant, and this is the hierarchy of His Church. The Christians of the early church (as well as Christians today) were saying the same things as Korah - hey, we are all members of the faithful and royal priests, so we don't need a ministerial priesthood!  No.  God warns us not to "perish in Korah's rebellion" (Jude 11).

Scripture, therefore, shows us three offices of priesthood in both the Old and New Testaments: In the OT, Aaron was the high priest, Aaron's sons were ministerial priests, and Israel acted as the universal priests.  In the NT, Jesus is our High Priest, ordained bishops and priests are the ministerial priests (through the unbroken lineage of laying on of hands), and we through our baptism our the universal or royal priests (see Exodus 28:1; 19:6; and Heb. 3:1; Rom. 15:16; 1 Tim. 3:1,8; 5:17; Titus 1:7; 1 Peter 2:5,9; Rev. 1:6).  The visible and unifying head of the New Testament Church is the pope, the successor of Peter, who is the rock on which Christ has built His Church (Matt. 16:18-19).

The Protestant Bibles that came out after the Douay-Rheims, including the KJV, reflect the bias of the Reformers by having modified many words that were too "Catholic." James 5:14 is such an example; they translated the word "presbuteros" as "elder" which renders the meaning ambiguous and goes against 1600 years of tradition.  In reality, the KJV and other such Bible translations have no authority to the extent that they deviate from the original languages. 

Just by way of background, the Douay-Rheims was translated from the Latin Vulgate which was prepared by St. Jerome in the fourth century.  Jerome was commissioned by pope Damasus to translate Sacred Scripture into Latin using many of the original Greek and Hebrew manuscripts.  Jerome had access to these original manuscripts and had fluency in Greek, Hebrew, Aramaic and Latin. So the Latin Vulgate is the best translation that we have, and the Douay-Rheims put the Latin Vulgate translation into English (the New Testament was issued in 1582, and the Old Testament in 1609, before the KJV came along).  As an aside, King James was a political leader, not a spiritual leader.  He had no authority to translate the Bible, especially a version that went against 1600 years of Christian teaching.  As much as you like George Bush, I doubt you would buy his Bible translation if he were to make one!(smile).  I also note that King James' wife converted to the Catholic faith.

Thanks for the dialogue. Grace be with you.

John Salza

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6. Why do we need confession?

Harrison: Hey John,

I am truly impressed and inspired by all of the hard work you have put into your website, making it an accessible and carfully layed out format that really cuts to the heart of Church teaching. Thank you! Upon reading many of your debates and biblical references, I have come up with a couple questions that I was hoping you could answer for me. I have been a Catholic my whole life, attending Catholic middle school, high school, and now college. Needless to say, I have had a fair share of Theology taught by priests, religious, and the occasional convert. I have been involved at my church and had the serendipitous opportunity to be a docent at a world class, traveling exhibit entitiled A Blessing to One Another: Pope John Paul II and the Jewish people. I have been truly blessed to have lead a life founded and fostered in the one, true faith.

Over my life of 20 years, however, I have encountered some hurdles. I was hoping to clear the road with a bit of your help and the guidence of our Lord Jesus Christ. I noticed that in your discourse on confession, you mentioned some verses that back the claim for its necessity or in the very least its allowance. My question to you about this subject is this: Why is it necessary? I am not debating whether or not the Scriptural foundation is there, but why is it necessary to go to a priest or bishop when you have the ability to talk to God directly. My priest gave a wonderful answer to this very question, but I wanted to know your opinion on the matter.

My second question deals with virginity and abstinence. I whole-heartedly agree that sex should only take place within the loving, sacramental expression of love known as marriage, that is why I going to wait to have sex when I get married. I was wondering if there are any direct biblical quotes (esp. NT) that mandate sex within marriage only or outlaw sex outside of marriage period. Even if there is not, I had a follow up question. Is it our duty, as Christians, to try and persuade or influence others to abstain from sex outside of marriage? Do we have a responsibility to that end? I ask this because the decay and perversion of recreational sex runs rampant in our society and, to me, it feels as though it has infiltrated the deepest fabric of our society, making it not only acceptable, but highly encouraged. What advice could you give a young man who looks at his best friends and members of society, whom he cares about so deeply, and sees not children of God, but sex fiends destroying one of the greatest love capacities God gave us. I carry with me a sense of guilt that I am not able to stop these people from degrating such a wonderful, pure expression.

Thanks so much and God Bless!

Harrison

J. Salza: Harrison, thank you for your kind words and great questions.

Confession is necessary because when we sin, it is an act of the will, which creates an injustice. God wants the injustice remedied by a contrary act of the will. So when we go to confession, we are engaging our will to do something contrary to the sin, that is, confessing the sin, which restores the equity of justice. That is a Thomistic explanation for confession.

Jesus Christ instituted the sacrament so that we would humble ourselves before God by confessing our sins to His ministers, and by knowing for a certainty that we have been forgiven when we hear the words of absolution. Jesus knows what is best for us. Remember that the Council of Trent dogmatically declared that the sacraments are necessary for salvation. They don't just "nourish" us on our "faith journey." They are necessary because they provide sanctifying grace to the soul which is necessary for eternal beatitude.

Regarding sex before marriage, the Scriptures condemn fornication and adultery, which are sexual acts outside of the marriage context. By implication, then, the Scriptures teach that sex must be in the confines of marriage. Jesus goes all the way back to Genesis when He says that the two become one flesh - referring to the marriage covenent between Adam and Eve. It is our duty to warn souls who are living sexually immoral lives and pray for them. Our Lady revealed at Fatima that the sins of the flesh send the most people to hell. But you must do this in a charitable and loving way, not brooding it over people, but making them aware that it is an unnatural act.

God bless.

John Salza

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7. Jesus forgiving sins as a man and not God?

Angela: Dear John,

In the past I have used your website and found it very helpful. However there is a problem with http://www.scripturecatholic.com/confession.html in that it reads:

Matt. 9:6; Mark 2:10 - Christ forgave sins as a man (not God) to convince us that the "Son of man" has authority to forgive sins on earth.
Luke 5:24 - Luke also points out that Jesus' authority to forgive sins is as a man, not God. The Gospel writers record this to convince us that God has given this authority to men. This authority has been transferred from Christ to the apostles and their successors.

I sent this page to a young woman with whom I was discussing why we confess to a priest, and she brought my attention to this error: Jesus cannot be divided up so that sometimes He acts as man and sometimes as God. Besides where does the authority to forgive sin come from? It comes from God.

In the case of this incident repeated in the synoptics, He was making a point to the scribes and Pharisees who were murmuring in their hearts and accusing Him of blasphemy. He was not at that time giving authority to His apostles to forgive sins, but manifesting His own authority. This incident occurred immediately prior to the call of Matthew in all versions. It was not until He had collected together all his apostles that he promised them the authority to forgive, and the promise was not fulfilled until he had died and risen but not yet ascended to His Father.

I ask you to remove the words "not God" and they are giving a false impression opposed to Catholic teaching, that at any time Jesus is NOT GOD. This is not Catholic.

Yours sincerely

Angela

J. Salza: Angela, the exegesis does not attempt to "divide" Christ for that is impossible. Rather, the exegesis points out that Christ, in His human nature, mediates grace to humanity. It was in His human nature that He propitiated the Father's wrath by dying on the cross, and it is in His human nature that He continues to plead our case before the Father in heaven. Because the priests act in persona Christi, they, as human beings, also mediate God's grace and forgiveness. This is why Matthew 9:8 says: "When the crowds saw it, they were afraid, and they glorified God, who had
given such authority to men."

It doesn't say that God gave the authority to God. It says He gave the authority to men, because Christ forgave sins as a man (He is true God and true man). Of course, God is the author of the forgiveness of sins, but He has delegated that authority to men, and to Christ in His human nature. You missed this in your interpretation. In fact, your interpretation is a Protestant one, which is used by Protestants to attack the Sacrament of Penance.

God bless.
John Salza

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