Why Do We Confess Our Sins to a Priest?

“Confession is good for the soul.” This popular saying is not Biblical but is thought to be a Scottish proverb. However, the sentiment had already been around for centuries. Confession of sins tends to make the confessor feel better.

Catholic and Orthodox confess sins to a priest in order to receive absolution for misdeeds. Priests are authorized to hear these confessions because of their apostolicity. The priest keeps the confession secret and uses the information gained to determine what information his parish needs to hear.

Confession to a priest has not always been a part of Christianity. Here’s a look at the history behind why Catholic and Orthodox Christians confess sins to a priest.

Confession In Judaism

Christianity’s parent religion is Judaism. Jesus himself was Jewish. Confession of sins was not always done to a rabbi. Sins are divided into two categories – sins against God and sins against other people. Sins against God are confessed directly to God. Sins against other people are confessed publicly to the congregation.

There are no specific verses in the Old Testament describing how confession to God or people should be done. Numbers 5:7 states, “Then they shall confess the sins they have done.” The Yom Kippur tradition of placing all of the sins of the community onto a goat is described in Leviticus 16:21. The High Priest spoke all the sins of the people aloud, which is thought to be a kind of confession.


What Did Jesus Say About Confession?

Jesus did not describe how the church should be organized or what the functions of a church leader like a priest should be. He did talk about how we can be forgiven for our sins. Like in keeping with Jewish tradition, confession meant confession to God and to other people. Confession to God is included in what is now called the Lord’s Prayer, where Jesus gives the example of how to pray. He includes, “And forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors.” (Matthew 6:12, KJV).

Jesus also gave His disciples the power to forgive sins in John 20: 22-23: “And when he had said this, he breathed on them, and sayeth unto them, ‘Receive ye the Holy Ghost. Whose soever sins ye remit, they are remitted unto them; and whose soever sins ye retain, they are retained.’” (KJV.) These verses are the basis of how the modern sacrament of confession came to be.

Confession in the Early Church

There is not much known about the early church. In the decades after Jesus’ death and resurrection, church hierarchy had not been established. There were some leaders, but it is not known if they were confessed to as Catholics and some other Christian denominations confess to a priest today. In James 5:16, Christians are urged to “confess your faults one to another, and pray one for another, that ye may be healed…”

It is thought that confession of sins was done to all of the members of a church during church gatherings. The Didache, written about 70 AD, is one of the first documents about early church practices. It mentions that confessing sins could be done to God but also should be done in public. “Confess your sins in church, and do not go up to your prayer with an evil conscience. This is the way of life. . . . On the Lord’s Day gather together, break bread, and give thanks, after confessing your transgressions so that your sacrifice may be pure.” (4:14 and 4:41).

Hard Times for Penitent

Around the year 250 AD, the Church announced that all sins were forgivable. However, sinners were treated harshly. All sins had to be confessed to a Bishop at Easter, who would then assign a penance. The sinner also had to sit at the very back of the church, wearing sackcloth and ashes. They had to leave right after the Gospel reading and were not permitted to have communion. They were also meant to fast and pray for the rest of their lives.

These harsh rules came about due to Old Testament verses about sinners wearing sackcloth and sitting in dust and aches, such as Job 16:15, “I have sewed sackcloth over my skin and thrust my horn in the dust.” Because these rules were so harsh, many people just stopped confessing their sins until just before their deaths.

Changes Over Time

By 400 AD, penance (as confession was then known) only needed to be given once in a person’s lifetime, usually right before death. It was also necessary if anyone committed murder, adultery or gave up the faith and wanted to come back to the Church. After confessing, sinners were tasks or penance to perform. These were often written down and some of these penance books survive today.

In 1200 AD, Pope Gregory declared that the name “penance” was changed to “confession.” By 1215, all Christians were to confess at least once a year or whenever a really big sin was committed. The Act of Absolution was also started. More importantly, confession was now seen as a private matter and the tradition of the confessional box began.

Confession Gave the Church Great Power

Wondering where one would wind up after death for all eternity was a big deal. Forgiveness of sins was seen only to come from representatives of the Church, such as priests. Confessing to the Church was seen as perhaps the only means to getting to heaven. Eventually, people had to be on the right side of the Church in order to be allowed forgiveness.

This led to many in the Church abusing their powers. Many were rich while thousands starved. In the Middle Ages, indulgences were sold to help rich sinners gain forgiveness. There were other ways of gaining indulgences, such as going on a pilgrimage or doing an especially good deed, but the main way was to give large donations to the Church. The Fourth Lateran Council of 1215 sought to curtail the worst of the abuses, but by then the damage had been done.

The Protestant Reformation

In 1517, an Augustinian monk named Martin Luther nailed a long piece of written work now known as the Ninety-five Theses to the door of All Saint’s Church in Wittenberg, Germany. Mainly, Luther complained about indulgences and argued that people did not need priests in order to confess. Only God could grant the grace of forgiveness. This is seen as the start of the Protestant Reformation and many centuries of conflict between Catholics and Protestants.

Some Protestants see baptism as when people are forgiven their sins. However, they are still meant to confess to God, to stop sinning, and to make any reparations their sins may have caused, such as giving back what was stolen. Both Catholics and Protestants are expected to confess to someone or Someone and to perform a kind of penance in order to gain forgiveness from God and from one’s own conscious.

Why The Act of Confession is Still Around

Apostolic Christians believe that priests are Jesus’ representatives on Earth. Jesus forgave sins in the New Testament. He then gave that power to his disciples. Priests and bishops are seen as modern disciples of Christ. St. Paul wrote in II Corinthians 5: 20 that church leaders were Christ’s ambassadors, being able to act in the place of Christ.

Apostolic Christians confess to a priest or bishop as a powerful means to gain personal peace. Some people find that talking about their problems to another helps them become better and happier people. Human beings need other human beings in order to help them with their problems, no matter what religion they follow.

Gene Botkin

Gene is the director of the Theosis Christian Project. He studied physics and military science before founding the Project. Gene is currently pursuing his doctorate in systems engineering at an engineering college in the Ozarks. The Theosis Christian Project is his attempt to expand Holy Orthodoxy in America.

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