Confession in Scripture
Christ’s institution of the sacrament of Confession is clearly seen in John 20:22-23. It takes place when Christ appears to the apostles in the upper room, after the resurrection. In these verses Christ gave the apostles the authority to forgive men’s sins or else hold them bound.
He said therefore to them again: Peace be to you. As the Father hath sent me, I also send you. When he had said this, he breathed on them; and he said to them: Receive ye the Holy Ghost. Whose sins you shall forgive, they are forgiven them; and whose sins you shall retain, they are retained.” – John 20:21-23
“As the Father hath sent me, I also send you.”
The Father sent Christ into the world for the forgiveness of sins. Christ sent his Apostles out in the same manner, and for the same reason.
“Whose sins you shall forgive, they are forgiven them; and whose sins you shall retain, they are retained.” Notice that Christ does not give any qualifying remarks here, so as to say, “If you choose to forgive or retain the sins of those who sin against you…” Rather, Christ gave them unqualified authority to forgive or retain any and all sins.
Notice also how Christ breathed on them.
“…he breathed on them; and he said to them: Receive ye the Holy Ghost.”
The only other verse in the scriptures where God breathes on man is Genesis 2:7.
“And the Lord God formed man of the slime of the earth: and breathed into his face the breath of life, and man became a living soul.” – Genesis 2:7
Romans 6:23 tells us that:
“For the wages of sin is death. But the grace of God, life everlasting, in Christ Jesus our Lord.” – Romans 6:23
In breathing on the apostles Christ conferred on them spiritual life, the life of grace, of which they had the power to impart to others who were dead in their sins.
Some may argue that this power ceased with the apostles, but scripture is clear that this ministry was passed on to others:
“Is anyone among you sick? Let them call the elders of the church to pray over them and anoint them with oil in the name of the Lord. And the prayer offered in faith will make the sick person well; the Lord will raise them up. If they have sinned, they will be forgiven. Therefore confess your sins to each other and pray for each other so that you may be healed. The prayer of a righteous person is powerful and effective.” – James 5:14-16
From this verse we see that certain men, elders (or presbyters in Greek, the root word of the English word priest) anointed the sick with oils and prayed for healing, and this rite of the early Church was linked with the confession and forgiveness of sins, just as the Church still practices today in the Sacrament of Holy Anointing. In His own ministry Christ linked the miraculous healing of the body with the forgiveness of sins. “Which is easier, to say to the sick of the palsy: Thy sins are forgiven thee; or to say: Arise, take up thy bed, and walk?” Mark 2:9
“But all things are of God, who hath reconciled us to himself by Christ; and hath given to us the ministry of reconciliation. For God indeed was in Christ, reconciling the world to himself, not imputing to them their sins; and he hath placed in us the word of reconciliation. For Christ therefore we are ambassadors, God as it were exhorting by us. For Christ, we beseech you, be reconciled to God.” – 2 Corinthians 5:18-20
The Church teaches that when a priest administers the sacraments, he stands “in persona Christi,” that is in a mystical sense he acts “in the person of Christ.” Those who act on another’s behalf act as ambassadors. When a priest administers the sacrament of confession (also called the sacrament of Holy Reconciliation) he acts as an ambassador of Christ, exhorting the faithful to be reconciled to God through penance and the confession of their sins.
“[Christ] hath given to us the ministry of reconciliation… For Christ therefore we are ambassadors, God as it were exhorting by us. For Christ, we beseech you, be reconciled to God.” – 2 Corinthians 5:20
Early Christian History
The belief that the Apostles and those they appointed had the power to forgive or retain sins in the name of Christ was believed by all early Christians.
“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.”
-The Didache, 70 AD
“For where there is division and wrath, God does not dwell. To all them that repent, the Lord grants forgiveness, if they turn in penitence to the unity of God, and to communion with the bishop.”
– St. Ignatius of Antioch, Letter to the Philadelphians, 110 A.D.
“Some of them, indeed, indeed make a public confession of their sins; but others are ashamed to do this, and in a tacit kind of way, despairing of [attaining to] the life of God, have, some of them, apostatized altogether; while others hesitate between the two courses.”
-St. Irenaeus of Lyons, Heresies, 189 A.D.
“[Regarding confession, some] flee from this work as being an exposure of themselves, or they put it off from day to day. I presume they are more mindful of modesty than of salvation, like those who contract a disease in the more shameful parts of the body and shun making themselves known to the physicians; and thus they perish along with their own bashfulness.”
-Tertullian, Repentance, 203A.D.
“[The bishop conducting the ordination of the new bishop shall pray:] God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. . . . Pour forth now that power which comes from you, from your royal Spirit, which you gave to your beloved Son, Jesus Christ, and which he bestowed upon his holy apostles . . . and grant this your servant, whom you have chosen for the episcopate, [the power] to feed your holy flock and to serve without blame as your high priest, ministering night and day to propitiate unceasingly before your face and to offer to you the gifts of your holy Church, and by the Spirit of the high priesthood to have the authority to forgive sins, in accord with your command.”
-St. Hippolytus, Apostolic Tradition, 215 A.D.
“It is necessary to confess our sins to those to whom the dispensation of God’s mysteries is entrusted. Those doing penance of old are found to have done it before the saints. It is written in the Gospel that they confessed their sins to John the Baptist [Matt. 3:6], but in Acts [19:18] they confessed to the apostles.”
–St. Basil, Rules Briefly Treated, 374 A.D.
“Priests have received a power which God has given neither to angels nor to archangels. It was said to them: ‘Whatsoever you shall bind on earth shall be bound in heaven; and whatsoever you shall loose, shall be loosed.’ Temporal rulers have indeed the power of binding; but they can only bind the body. Priests, in contrast, can bind with a bond which pertains to the soul itself and transcends the very heavens. Did [God] not give them all the powers of heaven? ‘Whose sins you shall forgive,’ he says, ‘they are forgiven them; whose sins you shall retain, they are retained.’ What greater power is there than this? The Father has given all judgment to the Son. And now I see the Son placing all this power in the hands of men [Matt. 10:40; John 20:21–23]. They are raised to this dignity as if they were already gathered up to heaven.”
–St. John Chrysostom, The Priesthood, 387 A.D.
“Let us not listen to those who deny that the Church of GOD is able to forgive all sins. They are wretched indeed, because they do not recognize in Peter the rock and they refuse to believe that the keys of the kingdom of heaven, lost from their own hands, have been given to the Church.”
-St. Augustine, Christian Combat, 396 A.D.
“Just as in the Old Testament the priest makes the leper clean or unclean, so in the New Testament the bishop and presbyter binds or looses not those who are innocent or guilty, but by reason of their office, when they have heard the various kinds of sins, they know who is to be bound and who loosed.”
-Saint Jerome, Commentaries on the Gospel of Matthew, 398 A.D