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Is Catholic Confession Biblical?


"Why do I need to confess my sins to a priest? He can't forgive my sins. He's not God!"

confession2324Some might argue that we shouldn't put our trust in any human being to forgive our sins, whether that person be a holy, virtuous lay person, priest, or bishop or even the pope. The Bible, after all, says only God can forgive sins (cf.  Mark 2:7).

But we should put all our trust in Jesus Christ. And in Scripture, we can see that Jesus wants us to go to the priest to experience the forgiveness that only God can offer us.

Where in the Bible is Confession?

Only God can forgive sins.  And since Jesus is the divine Son of God, he can say that he has "authority on earth to forgive sins."  But what's most amazing is that Jesus not only exercised that authority, telling people, "Your sins are forgiven" (1).  He also shared that mission with his apostles.

Jesus gave the apostles a share in his authority to do what he had been doing in his public ministry, a ministry that included preaching the Gospel, healing every disease and infirmity and even forgiving sins (see Matt 10:1-8).  This is, in part, why the crowds, after watching Jesus forgive a man's sins, marveled over how God "had given authority to men" (Matt 9:8).

Notice how the word here is in the plural: "men."  The crowds didn't praise God for giving such authority to one man, Jesus alone, but to men, probably referring to the authority he gave to the apostles to share in his ministry of reconciliation.

That Jesus gave this kind of authority to the apostles becomes explicit after his death and resurrection.  Consider the following account of Jesus' appearance to the disciples on that first Easter Sunday:

      "Peace be with you.  As the Father has sent me, even so I send you" And when he 

     had said this, he breathed on them, and said to them, 'Receive the Holy Spirit.  If you    

     forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven; if you retain the sins of any, they are 

     retained" (John 20:21-23).

Three points need to be unpacked here.  First, Jesus said, "As the Father has sent me, even so I send you."  Why did the Father send the Son?  To bring forgiveness of sins and reconcile us with God.  So when Jesus says, "As the Father has sent me, even so I send you," he is commissioning the apostles to participate in his ministry of reconciliation.

The Priest Behind the Priest

Jesus next does something utterly amazing.  He breathes on them the Holy Spirit.  Here, Jesus bestows on them the power of the Spirit that has been working in him.  The same Spirit of Christ that healed the sick, raised people from the dead and forgave sins throughout his public ministry, is given to the apostles.  They will now have the power to forgive sins — not on their own authority, but through the Holy Spirit working through them.

Third, Jesus explicitly tells them they have the power to forgive people's sins.  He says, "If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven."  Indeed, St. Paul the apostle speaks about being entrusted with this kind of "ministry of reconciliation."  He doesn't forgive any sin on his own, but he and the apostles represent Christ.  They are "ambassadors for Christ" proclaiming "the message of reconciliation": "Be reconciled to God" (2).

Jesus also gave the apostles the authority to reconcile sinners with the Church.  He tells the apostles, "whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven" (Matt 18:18). 

In rabbinic Judaism, the expression "binding and loosing" described a rabbi's teaching and juridical authority, including the authority to ban sinners from the community and restore them as members of the fellowship.  Moreover, the Bible itself in several places uses the verb "to loose" to mean "to forgive" (3).   Therefore, Jesus giving the apostles the power to "bind and loose" means he is giving them the authority to forgive sinners and reconcile them with the church.  All these shades to "binding and loosing" apply to the way Jesus entrusted his apostles with teaching, administering church discipline and absolving or retaining sins in his name.

(1) Matt 9:2; Mk 2:5,10; Lk 7:48

(2) 2 Cor.  5:18-20

(3) For example, Job 42:9 LXX; Sir 28:2; Rev 1;5



sri1Edward Sri. "Is Catholic Confession Biblical?" Edward Sri blog (September 4, 2019).

Reprinted with permission of Edward Sri.

The Author

srilprsriwijEdward Sri a professor of theology and Vice President of Mission and Outreach at the Augustine Institute in Denver, Colorado. Sri is also a founding leader with Curtis Martin of FOCUS (Fellowship of Catholic University Students). He resides with his wife Elizabeth and their eight children in Littleton, Colorado. Among his books are Into His Likenes Be Transformed as a Disciple of ChristPraying the Rosary Like Never Before: Encounter the Wonder of Heaven and Earth, Who Am I to Judge?: Responding to Relativism with Logic and Love,  Love Unveiled, Rediscovering the Heart of the Disciple: Pope Francis and the Joy of the GospelMen, Women and the Mystery of Love: Practical Insights from John Paul II's 'Love and Responsibility', The Bible Compass: A Catholic's Guide to Navigating the Scriptures, A Biblical Walk Through the Mass: Understanding What We Say and Do in the Liturgy, Mystery of the Kingdom, The New Rosary in Scripture: Biblical Insights for Praying the 20 Mysteries, and Queen Mother. Visit Edward Sri's website here.

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