Confession is one of the sacraments that might seem to have a limited biblical foundation.
Just a few New Testament verses are most often cited to support it. Most often is John 20:23, where Jesus is speaking to the apostles: “Whose sins you forgive are forgiven them, and whose sins you retain are retained” (All quotes NAB, Rev. Ed. unless otherwise noted.) There’s also James 5:16, “Therefore, confess your sins to one another.”
There are few sacraments in which faithful Catholics partake frequently. The Eucharist is one. Confession is the other. Is it really the case that the latter has its basis in just two Bible verses?
Let’s begin by noting that the sheer number of verses doesn’t correlate with importance, although some people some act as if that were the case. But it clearly isn’t. The three persons of the Trinity are mentioned together just 20 times in the New Testament, according to one estimate—and that’s the bedrock of our faith. Speaking of faith, more than 500 texts of the New Testament refer to it, while over a whopping 2,000 discuss money, according to one count.
Now to the answer: there are many more verses than just the above two that mention confession. Certainly, there are a number of Old Testament verses about confession and the forgiveness of sins being mediator through a priest or a priest-like figure. But Protestants will argue that the whole point of the New Testament is to end the priest-system of mediation, so those verses alone will only get us so far.
But there are plenty of other New Testament verses that discuss confession—a total of at least 14, according this exhaustive listing. (This estimate excludes the OT verses on that list.)
But counting verses, as we noted before, isn’t such a meaningful exercise. So let’s look at the quality of the evidence.
The example of Christ
The foundation for the Catholic view is the example of Christ Himself.
Now, the critic may step in and object that when Christ forgave sins in the gospels it is in virtue of His Humanity. There’s just one problem with this view: in several instances, it’s Jesus’ humanity that is emphasized.
Take Matthew 6, where Jesus forgives the sins of the paralytic. The Pharisees regard Him as a blasphemer because they thought this was only something God could do. Jesus responds by then healing the paralytic. Notice what he says beforehand:
“But that you may know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins”—he then said to the paralytic, “Rise, pick up your stretcher, and go home.”
Now perhaps such evidence may not be persuasive to skeptics. Jesus was fully human and fully divine, so conceivably one could argue that the power to forgive sins was limited to Him because He was God Incarnate. But this just does not make sense of the above verse. (True, Jesus’ preferred term of self-reference is ‘Son of Man,’ but the question still remains why the term ‘Son of God,’ which is uttered by others in the gospels, does not appear here.) Such an argument also woefully understates the radicalism of the Incarnation.
There really is a clash of two worldviews here. The Catholic one holds that the Incarnation extended outwards in space and time—through Mary, the sacraments, the formal priesthood, and the very existence of the visible Church itself. For Protestants on the other hand, particularly evangelicals and others in the Reformed tradition, the Incarnation is an event confined to history.
The power to forgive sins is extended to the apostles
So now the question becomes, in the context of confession, is there reason to believe that, through Christ, other man were granted authority to forgive sins?
This is exactly what John 20:23 says. It’s evident in the second clause, in which the apostles are given leeway to not only ‘forgive’ but ‘retain’ sins. (Significantly, the language is similar to the ‘binding and loosing’ authority granted to Peter in Matthew 18:18.)
Elsewhere in the New Testament, it’s clear the apostles exercise this special authority to forgive.
In 2 Corinthians 2:10 St. Paul states, “For indeed what I have forgiven, if I have forgiven anything, has been for you in the presence of Christ.” One translation also reads in the ‘sight’ of Christ. In fact, the Greek word translated as presence is prosōpon (pronounced: pro’-sō-pon), which is the term for person, which is how many versions translate it. And it’s not just the Catholic Douay-Rheims version that does that, but also many Protestant versions. (Such as the King James Bible.)
So Paul is really saying that he is acting in the person of Christ in forgiving sins—which is quite an extraordinary biblical affirmation of the terminology the Catholic Church continues to use today to describe the role of priests in the sacraments of confession and the Eucharist.
Later, in 2 Corinthians 5:18 Paul states that God “has reconciled us to himself through Christ and given us the ministry of reconciliation.” ‘Reconciliation,’ of course, is the familiar post-Vatican II term for confession. Here again, Paul presents his role as more of a hierarchical one. The picture is developed a bit further in the following verses:
God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ, not counting their trespasses against them and entrusting to us the message of reconciliation. So we are ambassadors for Christ, as if God were appealing through us. We implore you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God. For our sake He made him to be sin who did not know sin, so that we might become the righteousness of God in Him (verses 19:21).
In isolation, the second verse, where we read about the ‘message of reconciliation’ might seem to support one Protestant critique of the Catholic position: that the apostles merely proclaimed the forgiveness of sins, rather than actually forgave them. But this does not comport as well with the context, which clearly indicates that just as God acted through Christ, so now Christ is acting through the apostles.
There are two additional New Testament verses that concern the practice of confession.
One, 1 Timothy 6:12, states, “Compete well for the faith. Lay hold of eternal life, to which you were called when you made the noble confession in the presence of many witnesses.” This is obviously describing a public act. Now, it is true that in the context, ‘confession’ could refer to confessing faith in Christ. But remember this also would have had to have been accompanied by an initial confession of sins. This interpretation is supported by the preceding verses, which emphasize sins to avoid (as this site notes).
Note here that the Greek word for witness is martys, from which we derive our word martyr. So we can infer that Timothy’s act of confession was done in the presence of authority figures within his local Church community—even not in the sense of ‘martyrs’ who died for their faith.
Another key verse is Acts 19:18, “Many of those who had become believers came forward and openly acknowledged their former practices.” Again, the phrase ‘openly acknowledged’ is easy to overlook. Fortunately many other translations use the key word ‘confession.’ And again, the word appears in at least one Catholic version and several Protestant versions. (Examples include the Douay Rheims version and the King James Bible.)
Now Acts 19:18 does not directly involve an apostle or ‘witnesses’ but what it does describe is the practice of public confession and penance that was more the norm earlier in the history of the Church and that—significantly—is the basis for the contemporary practice of one-on-one confession in the Church.
And don’t forget that confession of sins was also a central element of John the Baptist’s ministry, as Matthew 3:6, for example, indicates.
Clearly, there is more evidence that at first meets the eye for the sacrament of confession. The record of the New Testament strongly indicates that confession was a public act committed in the presence of authority figures. In the case of the apostles we know explicitly that they actually forgave sins.
But could men after the apostles forgive sins too?
But there is one trump card Protestant critiques wield in response to all this: Well, they say, this was an extraordinary time in the history of the Church in which the apostles did many extraordinary things. But such things—like the forgiveness of sins—did not continue after the apostles.
This often-made claim is erroneous for several reasons.
In the first place, it contradicts the often-expressed biblical legalism of many Protestants, especially among evangelicals and fundamentalists. The basic idea of legalism is that only what is explicitly permitted in the Bible should be adopted in the Church today. But if the Bible is our sole source of guidance, then wouldn’t we be compelled to continue the tradition of confession as described in the New Testament?
Plus, it’s clear the ministry of the apostles was meant to continue. That’s why Peter convened the remaining 11 apostles to appoint a 12th in Acts 1. And it’s why Paul counts as an apostle even though he came even later in the timeline and never met Christ during His earthly ministry.
(As Paul puts it so beautifully in 1 Corinthians 15:8, in describing his encounter with the resurrected Christ, “And last of all, he was seen also by me, as by one born out of due time. For I am the least of the apostles, who am not worthy to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God” (Douay-Rheims).)
There are two additional arguments from reason as well.
First, why was this extraordinary period necessary in the first century or so in which Christ lived but not after? The burden of proof is on those making the claim.
It is true that this period does correspond with the writing of the New Testament. So yes, one could argue that there was a special outpouring of the Spirit during this time. But this leads to the second point: Christians did not, as one priest puts it, suddenly stop sinning after the death of the last apostle. Where were those who had obtained forgiveness from the apostles supposed to seek relief afterwards?
We started out with two verses commonly seen as supportive of the sacrament of confession. A closer examination of Scripture has yielded a body of evidence that is compelling both in its quantity and quality.
In the process, we have ascertained two very important, indisputable facts. First, a particular man in history—that is Jesus Christ—had the power to forgive sins. Of course, this man was also fully divine. But He exercised His power of forgiveness in His humanity and he even extended it to other men. The question remained as to whether the men to whom this privilege was delegated, in turn, passed it down to others. Both reason and faith in the authority of Scriptures point toward a positive answer.
Of course, we Catholics also have the weight of tradition along with the enduring teaching authority of the Church. The Scriptural evidence not only underscores the truth of this teaching but ought to deepen our desire for confession by showing how deeply it is rooted it the life of Christ and the early Church.