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The Sacrament of Reconciliation
Is it necessary to go through a priest?

Seven sacraments are a major part of the foundation of Catholicism: baptism, holy communion, confirmation, reconciliation, extreme unction, matrimony, and holy orders. The fourth in this list is reconciliation. Catholics believe these sacred rites confer a special grace upon those who participate in them.

Reconciliation is comprised of three primary parts: Confession, Absolution, and Penance. These three steps are designed to lead a Catholic to a very desirable, spiritual outcome—forgiveness of sin and reconciliation with God—being restored to a right and harmonious relationship with the heavenly Father.

Is It Necessary to Confess Your Sins to a Priest?

The answer to this question will either build a bridge or create a chasm between traditional Catholicism and biblical Christianity. Before presenting the biblical response, let me first express my sincere respect for the priests who spend countless hours in a confessional listening to broken-hearted, repentant people confessing their sins. How overwhelming and challenging that task must be, both mentally and emotionally! If you happen to be a priest who has prayerfully and conscientiously shouldered this burden, may God pour out His mercy and grace on your life in return for the mercy and grace you have sought to extend to others.

I also have deep respect for Catholics who are willing to confess their sins to a priest. Being transparent to such an extreme degree with a fellow human being requires deep sincerity and humility, and a prayerful passion to be right with God. Such strong motivations are to be praised whenever and wherever they are found.

The Definition of Sin

To properly examine the various aspects of this tradition, we must first establish the definition of sin. Two primary words translated “sin” in the Bible are the Old Testament, Hebrew word chattah (pronounced khat-taw-aw’) and the New Testament, Greek word hamartia (pronounced ham-ar-tee’-ah). Both these words mean “missing the road” or “missing the mark.”

Missing the road—The “missed road” is the one that successfully leads pilgrims through this wilderness world to their heavenly destiny. It is described many ways in Scripture, such as: “the way of truth,” “the way of peace,” “the way of holiness,” “the way of the Lord,” and “the way everlasting” (Psalms 119:30, Luke 1:79, Isaiah 35:8 KJV, Proverbs 10:29, Psalms 139:24). Sin is what lures devoted individuals off this holy path, convincing them to forge their own way through the menacing jungle of a treacherous world where deception, danger, and spiritual death are constant, menacing stalkers, ready to pounce on their next victims.

Missing the mark—The “missed mark” is like the bull’s eye of a spiritual target. The aim is total perfection in all that we think, say, or do. Anything outside of that “bull’s eye” is sin. Not only are there sins of commission (wrong thoughts, words, or actions); there are also sins of omission (failing to think, say or do the things that we should).

No wonder the Bible says, “All have sinned, and fall short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23). Only God is perfect. Human error is inevitable and inescapable. So, we might as well admit it: we have all “missed the road” and “missed the mark” many times in life. We are all in desperate need of a Savior and His forgiveness. So, let us pray for one another, help one another, and uphold one another on this challenging journey.

The Two Categories of Sin in Catholicism

According to Catholic teaching, sins are divided into two primary categories: mortal sins and venial sins. Mortal sins cause death to the soul and must be confessed so that absolution can be granted by the priest, so repentant persons can be restored to God and escape hell.

Venial sins, on the other hand, “usually involve a less serious action and are committed with less self-awareness of wrongdoing. While a venial sin weakens the sinner’s union with God, it is not a deliberate turning away from Him and so does not wholly block the inflow of sanctifying grace.”[1]

If a Catholic dies with venial sins in his or her life, such a person, according to Catholic doctrine, will simply go through a purging and cleansing in Purgatory after death. However, the Bible does not make such a distinction. It covers all transgressions with the statement, “The soul who sins shall die” (Ezekiel 18:20). (For a more in-depth study of this concept of mortal and venial sins, see the article on this website titled: “Two Categories of Sin in Catholicism.”)

Is There Forgiveness for Sin Outside of Catholicism?

The availability of reconciliation with God does not extend outside of the Catholic faith, for “no unbaptized person, however deep and sincere his sorrow, can be validly absolved . . . one must first be a member of the Church before he can submit himself and his sins to the judicial process of sacramental Penance.”[2]

There is some leeway provided for those who have never been exposed to the Catholic Church, as well as its doctrines and practices. The Catholic Catechism states, “Those who, through no fault of their own, do not know the Gospel of Christ or his Church, but who nevertheless seek God with a sincere heart, and, moved by grace, try in their actions to do his will as they know it through the dictates of their conscience – those too may achieve eternal salvation.” (CCC 847) However, for those who knowingly reject the path of Catholicism, there appears to be no other way to be right with God. Therefore, the issue addressed in this article is a serious one indeed!

The History and Practice of Confession
The Sacrament of Reconciliation is also simply known as “Confession.”

The Sacrament of Reconciliation is also known simply as Confession. During the first centuries of Christianity, confession was something performed publicly. Because of the humiliation and shame involved, it usually happened only once, and normally, toward the end of a person’s life. It was not until the seventh century that it transitioned into private confession to a priest.[3] This timeline is the official view upheld by the Catholic Catechism (CCC 1447). The present rules regarding this important facet of the Catholic faith were established at the Vatican II Council (1962-65). Now, in the twenty-first century, Catholics are expected to go to Confession at least once a year, especially prior to Easter and the obligation of receiving Communion during that season (CCC 1457). If a Catholic has committed mortal sins that have not been confessed properly to a priest, he or she is prohibited from receiving communion.

Participation in this sacrament is required to receive Absolution (forgiveness of sins: release from both guiltiness and punishment). There is allowance made for those who desire and intend to confess their sins to a priest, yet for some reason, are prevented from doing so (including an unexpected death).

All grave sins must be confessed to a priest and if a participant intentionally and knowledgably withholds mentioning a mortal sin, that act of confession and subsequent absolution are both invalidated. Also, another mortal sin of sacrilege is committed that must be confessed.[4] Catholics who willingly choose to hide their grave sins this way are like a car stuck in a muddy ditch with the wheels spinning and going nowhere.

The idea that confession to a priest is necessary to be reconciled to God is based on two fundamental beliefs:

  1. That in the New Testament era, there is still an exclusive, mediatorial priesthood,
  2. That priests have been authorized by God to be the source of forgiveness being granted to His people.

However, the Bible clearly states, “There is one God, and one Mediator between God and men, the Man Christ Jesus” (1 Timothy 2:5). How do you fit those three puzzle parts together?

The Five-Step Process of Confession

For those unfamiliar with the traditions of Catholicism, I felt it would be helpful to explain the process. If you are Catholic, you can skip over this section since you are most likely very familiar with these steps (imagine a smiley emoji here).

When a Catholic goes to Confession, five steps are taken:

  1. Greeting the priest—Upon entering the confessional, penitent persons make the sign of the cross and greet the attending priest by saying:

     “Bless me, Father, for I have sinned. It’s been [number of days/months/years] since my last confession.”

  • Listing sins—Confessors then list their sins (mortal and/or venial). The priest (also called the “confessor”) may converse with penitent persons to help jog their memory, help them confess satisfactorily, or instruct them how to overcome certain areas of weakness. A final statement made by one confessing covers all transgressions still unconfessed, “I am sorry for these and all my sins.”
  • Praying the Act of Contrition—After confessing all their sins, penitent persons end by praying “The Act of Contrition,” worded as follows:

“My God, I am sorry for my sins with all my heart. In choosing to do wrong and failing to do good, I have sinned against You whom I should love above all things. I firmly intend, with Your help, to do penance, to sin no more, and to avoid whatever leads me to sin. Our Savior Jesus Christ suffered and died for us. In his name, my God, have mercy.”[5]

  • Absolution—The priest then pronounces absolution over those who confess their sins. This is the statement he makes:

     “God, the Father of mercies, through the death and the resurrection of His Son has reconciled the world to Himself and sent the Holy Spirit among us for the forgiveness of sins; through the ministry of the Church may God give you pardon and peace, and I absolve you from your sins in the name of the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.”[6]

As absolution is given, the priest makes the sign of the cross over the penitent person who responds by saying, “Amen.” The priest then gives the exhortation, “Give thanks to the Lord, for He is good.” Then confessor responds, “His mercy endures forever.” The priest may pray a prayer before dismissal, then he may make the declaration, “Your sins are forgiven. Go in peace.” The penitent person responds, “Thanks be to God, and thank you, Father,” then leaves the confessional and performs the prescribed penance. (Closing statements may vary.)

  • Penance—At the close of the confessional time, the priest assigns a certain penance to those who have confessed their sins that is normally performed before leaving the sanctuary. It is often comprised of memorized, approved prayers repeated a certain number of times. It can also involve such things as “fasting, or the giving of alms, or acts of mortification, or a way of the Cross, or a rosary. All of these are to ‘make up’ for the sin, and to prove that the sorrow was sincere.”[7] When reparation is needed, penance may involve returning stolen goods, restoring the reputation of someone slandered, or payment of compensation for injuries.
Functioning in the “Presence” and the “Person” of Jesus

It needs to be understood by non-Catholics especially, that Catholic priests are not attempting to usurp God’s position as the source of forgiveness. Their mindset is instead to fill the role of administrators of His forgiveness—not masters of forgiveness, but servants of forgiveness. God does the forgiving; the priest is used as “God’s instrument of forgiveness.”[8] In other words, he merely facilitates the process.

I believe this privilege and responsibility of helping others obtain forgiveness is much broader than what Catholic doctrine allows. All born-again believers are priests (God’s representatives in this world, see 1 Peter 2:5, 9). Therefore, they all have the power to share God’s forgiveness with those who need it. We tell others about the availability of forgiveness through Jesus (a message called the “word of reconciliation”). Then, we pray with them and for them that the Father will restore them to fellowship with Himself (a compassionate and prayerful action called the “ministry of reconciliation”). (2 Corinthians 5:18-19).

The Corinthian Church was a prime example of how this works. A man was guilty of a terrible incestuous sin in that congregation. In his first letter to the Corinthians, Paul was very stern in dealing with such blatant disregard for God’s laws, warning that “a little leaven leavens the whole lump” (1 Corinthians 5:6). Thankfully, the man repented, and in his second apostolic letter to the Corinthians, Paul said the following:

     Now whom you forgive anything, I also forgive. For if indeed I have forgiven anything, I have forgiven that one for your sakes in the presence of Christ. (2 Corinthians 2:10)

The Greek word prosopon is translated “presence” in the New King James Version but rendered “person” in the King James Version. Either translation can be correct and different Catholic versions of the Bible use both. In essence, Paul was declaring that even as the Corinthian believers forgave the man in his stead (as if the apostle were present in person there himself), so he forgave the man in Jesus’ stead (as if the Lord were present in person there Himself)—reconciling him back to a status of righteousness and fellowship.

This passage is often used by Catholics to support their point of view regarding the sacrament of Reconciliation. The apostle Paul was functioning in a priestly role and forgiveness came through him to the repentant person. Therefore, that helped to establish a precedent, that forgiveness must flow to ordinary believers through authorized, ordained spiritual leaders.

I believe that passage proves exactly the opposite, that the Corinthians believers ministered love and forgiveness to the remorseful man as the Lord’s representatives themselves. Paul did not have to be in the equation. The members of the Corinthian church could have reconciled the man without the apostle Paul’s involvement. They, too, could minister in Christ’s stead (in the “presence” of Christ and the “person” of Christ, becoming His hands extended and His heart expressed). Besides, it is normally required in Catholicism that the priest be physically present to administer confession.[9] Evidently, Paul was quite a distance away and his letter was most likely received long after the time of actual reconciliation took place.

So, how could Paul even be involved when the guilty man was in the process of repenting with his fellow Corinthian believers? There was no phone to Facetime with, no ZOOM call taking place, so Paul could be seen on video taking part in the proceedings. Rather, his involvement was completely out of sync with the timing of the event. So, how did it work? Did the man have to wait months to be properly absolved of his sin until the word got to Paul and the apostle responded with his second letter to the Corinthian church? Of course not, but certainly, Paul’s agreement with their choice to forgive was comforting to them, but not necessary.

Confess Your Faults to Each Other

Another important passage of Scripture, which ironically has been used to support both points of view, is James 5:14-16:

     Is anyone 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.      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. Confess your trespasses to one another, and pray for one another, that you may be healed. The effective, fervent prayer of a righteous man avails much. 

Some Catholic theologians insist these three verses are inseparably interwoven. First, James instructs believers who are sick to call the elders of the church (Greek—presbuteros: presbyters), which Catholics interpret as being priests (verse 14). On the contrary, it was a term referring to any recognized and respected ministerial leaders in the Church at that time. The “priesthood” did not exist until many years later.

Then James declares that when these “elders” pray the prayer of faith, sick persons will be both healed and forgiven (verse 15). This is especially true, if and when the sickness is a direct result of sin in a believer’s life. Then, the very next verse urges believers to confess their trespasses to one another. It is commonly assumed among Catholics that this is a continuation of the previous two verses, that it is a reference to the “elders” mentioned in verse 14, and therefore, a justification of the practice of lay people confessing their sins to a priest. I differ with that view. Take all of verse 16 as a single thought, complete within itself:

     Confess your trespasses to one another, and pray for one another, that you may be healed. The effective, fervent prayer of a righteous man avails much. 

This verse is not urging believers to confess only to “elders”; it is advising that any righteous believers can effectively pray forgiveness and healing into the hearts and lives of other believers. Confessing “to one another,” and praying “for one another,” according to this verse, is a two-way street. Righteous believers are encouraged to confess to other righteous believers the areas in which they need prayer to be healed spiritually, mentally, emotionally, and even physically.

The Catholic view is a one-way street. If that was James’ intended meaning, he would have written, “Confess your trespasses to the elders only (the presbuteros—interpreted to mean “the priests”) and get them to pray for you to be healed and forgiven.” Instead, James said, “Confess . . . to one another.” Can you imagine a Catholic, after Confession, saying to the officiating priest, “Now, Father, confess your sins to me and I will give you absolution”? I don’t think that would ever be received well, yet that “two-way street” is what this passage conveys.

One of the most wonderful verses urging all of us to go to God directly is found in John’s first epistle:

     If we confess our sins, He is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness. (1 John 1:9)

Once again, if that verse had been written supportive of the Catholic point of view, it would have been worded a much different way, such as:

     “If we confess our sins to ordained and authorized priests, God is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.”

During the Old Testament era, a mediatorial priesthood was necessary. Israelites had to enlist the help of the priests to properly offer their sacrifices on the altar at the tabernacle of Moses, and later, at the Temple of Solomon. In this New Testament era, things have changed dramatically. Making it compulsory to have the assistance of a priest in this present age is one more unfortunate example of reverting to the Old Testament way of doing things—which, as mentioned before, were “a shadow of good things to come” (Hebrews 10:1).

The Surprising Pandemic Solution

The closing thought to this article is truly an important one. During the recent COVID-19 pandemic (2020-2022), the pope released a statement that Catholics could go to God directly for forgiveness and Confession would not be required, because the churches were closed.[10] Here is the exact quote:

“If you cannot find a priest to confess to, speak directly with God, your Father, and tell him the truth. Say, ‘Lord, I did this, this, this. Forgive me,’ and ask for pardon with all your heart. Make an act of contrition, the pope said, and promise God, ‘I will go to confession afterward, but forgive me now.’ And immediately you will return to a state of grace with God.”[11]

The Bible teaches that ALL true believers have “access by one Spirit to the Father.” (Ephesians 2:18)

Pause and think deeply about that for a moment. The conclusion is radical and obvious. If Catholics could go to God directly for forgiveness during that two-year-long period, and be forgiven BY GOD, why would it be necessary for a mere mortal, a human being, a priest, to give official ratification of what the Creator of the universe has already done.

It should be noted that the pope was referring to the following stipulation in the Catechism: “When it arises from a love by which God is loved above all else, contrition is called ‘perfect’ (contrition of charity). Such contrition remits venial sins; it also obtains forgiveness of mortal sins if it includes the firm resolution to have recourse to sacramental confession as soon as possible.” (CCC 1452)

Doesn’t that sound completely unnecessary to you—to insist that forgiveness flowing from God hinges on ratification of the reconciliation process by man? Can you imagine the God of heaven speaking to a repentant person, saying:

“I will go ahead and forgive you for your mortal sins, but unfortunately, it’s only temporary and not fully recognized in heaven. I am restrained by Catholic tradition. I know I am immortal and omnipotent; I am the Almighty God and have all power, but you can’t be fully, completely forgiven until a priest, who is a mere mortal, makes that pronouncement of absolution over you. Even though I have never given such a requirement in My Word, only then will I be released to finally, fully remove your sin.”

I believe seeing this tradition from a heavenly vantage point like this makes it appear even more pointless. So, what is my final assessment?

I unequivocally declare that it is absolutely unnecessary for anyone to go to a priest after he or she has sincerely repented in order to “make it official” and “seal the deal.” If God forgives, He needs no help. It is settled forever, and that sin has been removed from the heart of the repentant one for time and eternity. The Father has given His blessed promise:

“I have blotted out, like a thick cloud, your transgressions, and like a cloud, your sins. Return to Me, for I have redeemed you.” (Isaiah 44:22)

Praise God!

[1] https://www.britannica.com/tpic/cardinal-sin, accessed 6/30/2022

[2] https://www.newadvent.org/cathen/11618c.htm, accessed 9/27/2022.

[3] https://www.catholic.com/magazine/print-edition/god-chooses-to-uses-human-intermediaries, accessed 8/31/2022.

[4] https://bulldogcatholic.org/wp-content/uploads/2018/12/a-detailed-catholic-examination-of-conscience-2nd-ed..pdf, accessed 9/1/2022.

[5] https://www.loyolapress.com/catholic-resources/prayer/traditional-catholic-prayers/prayers-every-catholic-should-know/act-of-contrition/, accessed 8/31/2022.

[6] https://hallow.com/2022/04/01/how-to-go-to-confession-the-sacrament-of-penance-reconciliation/#:~:text=Often%2C%20you’ll%20be%20able,should%20love%20above%20all%20things., accessed 8/31/2022.

[7] https://www.thecatholicthing.org/2017/10/04/penance-after-confession/, accessed 9/1/2022.

[8] https://www.catholic.com/magazine/online-edition/is-confession-in-scripture, accessed 2/23/2022.

[9] https://canonlawmadeeasy.com/2020/04/30/confession-over-phone/, accessed 2/26/2022.

[10] https://www.ncronline.org/news/vatican/francis-chronicles/if-you-cant-go-confession-take-your-sorrow-directly-god-pope-says, accessed 2/26/2022.

[11] Ibid, 2/2/2024.

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Written by Mike Shreve