True Confessions: Part Two
Updated: Mar 23, 2020
In Part I of our series on the discipline of confession, we explored a brief history of this practice in the Church. Today, we are going to explore how this practice is possible and answer the question: where does the authority to forgive sins come from? In other words, isn’t God alone able to forgive sins?
The only way a practice like confession of sins is possible is through the work of the cross. This holy work of the cross was confirmed by God in the bodily resurrection of Christ. Golgotha came as a result of God’s desire to forgive us. This is indeed Good News! God desires abundantly to forgive us and be in a relationship with us so much that He sent His only Son to redeem us! Jesus took the collective sin of the human race: he took in all the violence, fear, hatred; sins of the past, present and future. Without the cross, the discipline of confession would only be psychologically therapeutic, but, because of the cross, it is much more than that! It is a reconciliation with God. It changes, in an objective way, our relationship with God. It also changes us from the inside, as it brings healing from the past.
But, wait a minute, doesn’t God alone have the authority to forgive sins? I mean, why do I have to confess my sins to someone who is as sinful as myself? After all, the Bible says, “there is one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus.” (1 Tim. 2: 5). Yes, that is true. And the Scriptures also say “confess your sins to one another, and pray for one another.” (James 5:16). Both are in the Bible and they should not cancel each other out. Jesus calls His disciples to participate in the healing work of salvation, including in the forgiveness of sins (c.f. John 14:12.) The Gospel of John makes this clearer in chapter 20 when Jesus appears to the disciples after the resurrection. The disciples were locked down “for fear of the Jews.” Jesus bursts in, stands in the middle, and says “Peace be with you”. And then He says:
“‘As the Father has sent me, even so I am sending 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 them; if you withhold forgiveness from any, it is withheld.’” (John 20: 21-23).
Notice that this authority is not given to the disciples “just in case you ever need it.” No! He says just before breathing into them the Holy Spirit, “As the Father has sent me, even so I am sending you.” The authority to forgive sins is therefore intrinsically tied to the mission Jesus gave to the Church, that is, to be sent to the world to preach salvation and the forgiveness of sins. It is an essential part of discipleship, and not just an afterthought!