The Sacrament of Confession has been expressed in various ways over the centuries. When Catholics say that Confession was instituted by Christ—as all the sacraments were—they ultimately mean that the “ministry of reconciliation” has been entrusted to the Church such that its leaders are empowered by Christ to forgive sin in His name. How this is manifested is secondary, though there are elements that have always been associated with sacramental Confession. On the one hand, there is the ministry of the priest who represents the community and extends reconciliation between the sinner and that community (and ultimately God). On the part of the penitent, there is the required disposition— repentance—as well as confession of sin and acts of penance.
In order to truly appreciate Confession, we must understand why the Church has this great gift, in the first place. We must recognize that Confession is a gift that the Church has received from Christ Himself.
Through the Church, Christ Continues His Work of Reconciliation
To start, we must remember that the Sacrament of Confession is an extension of the very ministry of Christ, who is the true sacrament of God’s mercy. The mission of Christ was (and is!) the reconciliation of every person with God. Christ continues this mission through the Church. Unless one appreciates the Church itself as a visible extension—a sacrament—of God’s salvific activity, then one will not fully appreciate the nature of Confession.
Just as God became flesh and dwelt among us, so He continues to manifest His saving presence through physical reality—including other people. Every baptized Christian is called to continue the mission of the Kingdom. And yet, this work of reconciliation is expressed in different ways, depending on one’s role in the Church. In his letter to the Corinthians, Paul expounds upon the special mission He has received from the Lord, which he calls the “ministry of reconciliation”:
All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ, and has given us the ministry of reconciliation; that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting the message of reconciliation to us. So we are ambassadors for Christ, since God is making his appeal through us; we entreat you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God. 2 Corinthians 5:17-20
Through Christ, God has accomplished the work of salvation. Still, Paul can say that he—along with the other Apostles—has received a specific ministry to advance this reconciliation in the world. They are “ambassadors for Christ.”
Christ Empowers the Apostles to Forgive Sin
Paul could consider himself and others to be ministers of reconciliation because Christ had empowered them to do so. The Gospel of John records the occasion when Christ empowers His Apostles to forgive sin. After His Resurrection, Christ appears to His disciples and declares: “As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” Already, these words are very suggestive. After all, what was Jesus’ primary purpose—the reason He was “sent”—other than to reconcile the world to God? But then Christ becomes even more explicit:
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 retain the sins of any, they are retained.” John 20:20-23
By the power of the Spirit, the Apostles are empowered to forgive and retain sin.
Man himself has ZIP authority to do so. Now, though, the Apostles can be true ambassadors of God—to use Paul’s language again. “If you forgive,” Christ says, “they are forgiven.” The authority to forgive is based on divine authority.
That Christ gave the Apostles authority over spiritual matters is also indicated by the power of “binding” and “loosing,” which Christ first grants to Peter and then to the Apostles as a whole (Matt. 16:19; 18:18).
For Judaism at the time of Christ, “binding” and “loosing” indicated the ability to make authoritative decisions, including the power of admitting and excluding people from the community. We see such authority within the pages of the New Testament when Paul expels a member of the Church in Corinth who has been living an immoral life (1 Cor. 5:3-4).
The power of “binding and loosing” within the context of the Christian community only makes sense if the Church is a visible society with real, recognizable leadership that is sanctioned and guided by God. Only this kind of Church can make binding decisions for the sake of the entire Christian community, just as the Apostles and their associates did at the so-called Council of Jerusalem in Acts 15.
From the Apostles to their Successors
That this ministry of reconciliation was given by Christ to His Apostles is clear, then. But this power was not just a personal prerogative of the Apostles. Rather, Christ’s commissioning of the Apostles signified the mission of the Church itself.
For the first Christians, the notion of being “sent” was key. “Apostle” just means “one who is sent.” Jesus Himself roots His mission in the Father. The Father sends the Son who in turn sends the Apostles, as we saw above. The New Testament continues this “sent” motif through those whom the Apostles appoint. Through the laying on of hands, the Apostles and their associates are depicted as extending their “ministry of reconciliation” to others.
For the early Christians, the Church of Christ is the one that continues to be led by apostolic leaders, namely those men who succeed the Apostles as bishops of the Church. It was only natural that Christians following the apostolic age would regard the successors of the Apostles as continuing the same ministry of reconciliation—the power to forgive sin.
Already in the New Testament, we see ministers other than the Apostles continuing this work of reconciliation. The epistle of James insists that if anyone is sick, we should “call the elders of the church” to “anoint them with oil” (James 5:14):
The prayer of faith will save the sick, and the Lord will raise them up, and anyone who has committed sins will be forgiven. Therefore confess your sins to one another, and pray for one another, so that you may be healed. James 5:14-16
The Greek word for “elder” here, presbyteros, is where we get the English term “priest.” The elders or priests were leaders of the early Christian communities—under the headship of the Apostles and, later, the bishops. So not only the Apostles but their associates, the priests, are identified as being vehicles of God’s healing. Already, the New Testament puts elders—priests—right within the context of the confession and forgiveness of sins.
Reconciliation with God via Reconciliation with the Church Community
Outside the New Testament, other first-century documents already emphasize the need for confession. The Didache and the Letter of Barnabas instruct the faithful to confess their sins before worship: “Confess your sins in church, and do not go up to your prayer with an evil conscience” (Didache 4:14). In the same century, Clement of Rome tells the Corinthian troublemakers to “submit yourselves to the presbyters” and “receive correction so as to repent” (Letter to the Corinthians 57). Clement sees the presbyters—the priests—as having the task of overseeing reconciliation within the community.
At the beginning of the second century, Ignatius of Antioch once more confirms this. His entire corpus of letters is grounded in the notion that union with God depends on union with the bishop. Sinners—especially schismatics—must “turn in penitence to the unity of God” and “to communion with the bishop” (Letter to Philadelphians 8).
“And as many as shall, in the exercise of repentance, return into the unity of the Church, these, too, shall belong to God, that they may live according to Jesus Christ.” Ignatius, Letter to Philadelphians 3
What may not at first glance seem very illustrative regarding the Sacrament of Confession becomes much more significant when we remember the context of Ignatius’ letters. For Ignatius, the Church was the locus of God’s salvation. The Church is a visible society, locally united around its chief leader, the bishop. Communion with the bishop ensured communion with the Church, and communion with the latter indicated communion with God. This is only intelligible if early Christians regarded their earthly shepherds as truly representing Christ: “We should look upon the bishop even as we would upon the Lord Himself” (Ignatius, Letter to Ephesians 6).
We can say that, at least at first, sacramental Confession was manifested through the communal nature of the church, which included the need to be in communion with the bishop, who in turn represented communion with Christ.
The Church Responds to Rigorism with the Penitential Process
In the second century, the need for a more explicit rite arose alongside the predicament of how to deal with those needing a more profound reconciliation after Baptism. At first, entry into the Church was initially much more rigorous. With a radical calling embedded into the minds of early Christians, the question of post-baptismal sin became a challenge to a certain understanding of the Christian life. Some, like Hermas, posited that forgiveness of serious sin could only be granted once after Baptism—and after a period of public penance.
But others were even more rigorous. Tertullian, while first accepting the Church’s power to forgive sin, later joined the heretical Montanists and ultimately denied the ability to absolve grave sins like apostasy and adultery.
The Church of the second and third centuries, then, had to engage the challenge of rigorism. Often enough, it was not the Church’s power to forgive sin—but the extent of such a power—that was contested. The issue came to a head in the year AD 250 when Emperor Decius inflicted a severe persecution. When it ended the next year, churches found that several of the faithful had succumbed to the idolatrous acts required by the emperor. Such apostasy was deemed unforgivable by some—to the extent that a Roman priest, Novatian, made himself rival to the pope and leader of what would become known as the Novatian sect. Professing to be faithful to strict discipline, the Novatians refused reconciliation with those who had fallen away.
Per usual, the orthodox position struck the right balance: Pope Cornelius along with Cyprian, bishop of Carthage, led the merciful position of reconciling the lapsed with the Church—albeit not without penance. And again, as we saw in the first and second centuries, the process of repentance is ultimately governed by the bishop and his associates, the priests:
“I beseech you, brethren, let everyone who has sinned confess his sin while he is still in this world, while his confession is still admissible, while the satisfaction and remission made through the priests are still pleasing before the Lord.” –Cyprian of Carthage, The Lapsed 28
Forgiveness Of Sins Through The Priest
By the 3rd century onward, the Church everywhere acknowledges the forgiveness of sins through the ministry of the priest
From the third century on, testimony regarding the forgiveness of sin within the context of sacramental Confession is found in abundance. From the early third century, Apostolic Tradition preserved an ancient Roman prayer of ordination, in which the bishop says:
“Grant this your servant, whom you have chosen for the episcopate [….] by the Spirit of the high priesthood to have the authority to forgive sins, in accord with your command” –Apostolic Tradition 3
As this prayer reflects, to be ordained into the priesthood of Christ is to receive the Holy Spirit so as to carry out the ministry of reconciliation. Pope Leo, summing up the Roman Catholic position by the middle of the fifth century, states:
“For the Mediator between God and men, the Man Christ Jesus, has transmitted this power to those that are set over the Church that they should both grant a course of penitence to those who confess and, when they are cleansed by wholesome correction admit them through the door of reconciliation to communion in the sacraments.” – Pope Leo, Letter 108 (to Theodore)
For Leo, there is no conflict between Christ, the true High Priest, and his ministers. Other voices from the Western Church include Ambrose, bishop of Milan, who declares that “Christ granted even this”—the authority to forgive sins—“to His apostles, and by His apostles it has been transmitted to the offices of priest” (Penance 2:2:12). Augustine of Hippo, a friend of Ambrose, also speaks to the importance of confession as well as the plenary nature of the Church’s forgiving authority: “Holy Mother Church is not rendered powerless by any kind of sin” (Sermons 352:9).
In the Syrian tradition, there is also the recognition of a process of penance led by the priest. Theodore of Mopsuestia, bishop of that city, points out that God “established some men, those who are priests, as physicians of sins” (Catechetical Homilies 16). John Chrysostom, born in Antioch and priest there until his appointment as bishop of Constantinople, recognizes the remarkableness of the priestly power to forgiveness of sins—“a power which God has given neither to angels nor to archangels” (The Priesthood 3:5).
North of Syria in Asia Minor, Christians also emphasized the importance of Confession. In the early 200s, Firmilian, bishop of Caesarea, maintains that “the power of remitting sins was given to the apostles” and “to the bishops who succeeded to them by vicarious ordination” (Epistle 74 of Cyprian). Similarly, the fourth-century Basil the Great declares that “it is necessary to confess our sins to those to whom the dispensation of God’s mysteries is entrusted” (Rules 288).
The Church in Alexandria, too, demonstrates the same understanding. Clement of Alexandria indicates a process of penance in the early 200s. This he called the “second repentance,” a single post-Baptismal reconciliation, and therefore suggesting the rigorist discipline mentioned above. After listing several ways Christians receive the forgiveness of sins, the great biblical scholar Origen ends with the “hard and laborious” way of penance, which occurs when one “is not ashamed to make known his sin to the priest of the Lord” (Homilies on Leviticus 2:5).
In the fourth century, the great Athanasius, hero of orthodoxy, proclaims that “he who confesses his sins with a repentant heart obtains their remission from the priest” (On the Gospel of Luke 19). Referencing the Gospel of John, Cyril of Alexandria interprets the Apostles’ power to forgive sin as including the Church’s practice of both Baptism and post-baptismal penance (Commentary on John 12).
This brief overview is sufficient to show that sacramental Confession—in some form or fashion—was part of the liturgical practice of the early Church. Even more, the testimony indicates that it was universal: From Rome, North Africa, and the West to Asia Minor, Syria, and the East, the recourse for the forgiveness of post-Baptismal sin included the system of penance presided by the bishops and priests.
This widespread practice—all within the first few centuries of Christianity—is indicative of its origins in the Apostles and, ultimately, Christ Himself. This is certainly how early Christians interpreted it. As varied as the ways the sacrament may have been initially practiced, early Christians were convinced that the Church received authority from Christ to forgive sin. As we have seen, this power was believed to be exercised through the ministry of the bishop and the priests united with him.
The evidence of the early Church—from both New Testament and post-apostolic sources—overwhelmingly supports the Catholic practice of Confession, then. While the sacrament developed has developed over time, the Bible indicates that Christ himself entrusted the forgiveness of sins to the Church. As we have seen, this was certainly the understanding of the first Christians, who considered their leaders—the bishops and priests—to bear the ministry of forgiveness.