The Sacrament of Penance

The Sacrament of Penance

In this section you will find introductory articles to the sacraments.

The sacrament of Penance or Reconciliation, or Confession, is the sacrament instituted by our Lord Jesus Christ to erase the sins committed after baptism.

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Talking with my evangelical friends about the Sacrament of Penance

By José Miguel Arráiz

You can read it in SpanishEnglish and Portuguese.

La Iglesia

We reproduce excerpts of conversations between Catholics and Evangelicals from the book "Talking with my evangelical friends", very useful in helping our fellow Christians understand the Catholic faith.

Michael: Joseph, I want you to tell us why you confess your sins to a man when the Bible says nothing at all about that.

Pauline: Indeed, the Bible is very clear when it says that it’s God who forgives us, not a man: “I am, I am he that blots out thy iniquities for my own sake, and I will not remember thy sins.” (Isa 43, 25); “Bless the Lord, O my soul, and never forget all he hath done for thee. Who forgiveth all thy iniquities: who healeth all thy diseases.” (Ps 103,2-3)

Joseph: Wait, before we start, let’s leave something clear. We Catholics believe that it is God who forgives our sins, but the story does not end there. I like that you've started taking a few texts from the Old Testament, because I also want to put some examples taken from there to analyze them together:

“If a man carnally lies with a woman that is a bondservant and marriageable, and yet not redeemed with a price, nor made free: they both shall be scourged: and they shall not be put to death, because she was not a free woman. And for his trespass he shall offer a ram to the Lord, at the door of the tabernacle of the testimony. And the priest shall pray for him: and for his sin before the Lord: and he shall have mercy on him, and the sin shall be forgiven.” (Lev 19, 20-22)

There are many other Old Testament’s texts where something similar happens, for example, Lev 4.27 to 35, in which it is observed that although it is God who forgives sin, a priest is used as a tool to grant forgiveness, so the fact that it is God who forgives sin in Isa 43, 25 or Ps 103 in no way eliminates the possibility of the existence of a ministerial priesthood established by God to communicate that forgiveness.

Pauline: I can understand that God has served himself with priests in the Old Testament to manage the forgiveness of sins, but the New Testament teaches that all believers are priests: “But you are a chosen generation, a kingly priesthood, a holy nation, a purchased people: that you may declare his virtues, who hath called you out of darkness into his marvelous light.” (1 Pet 2,9). Also says: “And hath made us a kingdom, and priests to God and his Father. To him be glory and empire for ever and ever. Amen.” (Rev 1,6), and “hast made us to our God a kingdom and priests, and we shall reign on the earth.” (Rev 5,10).

In the Old Covenant, the devoted had to approach God through the priests. The priests were mediators between God and the people. The priests offered sacrifices to God on behalf of the people. That is no longer necessary, because thanks to the sacrifice of Jesus Christ, we can approach the throne of God boldly: “Let us go therefore with confidence to the throne of grace: that we may obtain mercy and find grace in seasonable aid.” (Heb 4,16). With Jesus’ death, the veil of the temple was torn in two, destroying the symbol of the dividing wall between God and humanity. We can approach God directly by ourselves, without the use of a human mediator, because Jesus Christ is our High Priest (Heb 4,14-15; 10,21), and the only mediator between God and us (1 Tim 2,15). The New Testament teaches that there should be elders (1 Tim 3), deacons (1 Tim 3), bishops (Titus 1,6-9), and pastors (Eph 4,11), but not priests[1].

Joseph: In the Catholic Church, we also believe that we all are priests, but we distinguish between the common priesthood of the faithful and the ministerial priesthood [2]. Remember that Christ, “mediator of a new covenant” (Heb 9,15), accordingly sets the “ministers of a new covenant” (2 Cor 3,6); who represent him over the space and the time, that is, in all places and in all ages. His capacity is not human but divine origin (2 Cor 3,5).

But we can talk later about this distinction. What I really want you to notice is that in the New Covenant as in the Old, the fact that Christ is the only mediator between God and men does not exclude that He serves instrumentally his ministers to communicate forgiveness. Remember that St. Paul, referring to the ministry that they play as apostles, says “Let a man so account of us as of the ministers of Christ and the dispensers of the mysteries of God.” (1 Cor 4,1) and also states that they need to have been granted the ministry of reconciliation:  “All things are of God, who hath reconciled us to himself by Christ and hath given to us the ministry of reconciliation.” (2 Cor 5,18).

He sends them with the power received from the Father and grants them the authority to forgive sins: “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)

Pauline: But in the New Testament, you don’t see anyone confessing the sins to any man. Instead in 1 John 1,8-9, you can see that the sin is confessed directly to God: “If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just, to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all iniquity.

Joseph: Let’s analyze this by parts. First, the text does not say to who must be confessed the sin; it only says that it should be confessed.

Secondly, it is not true that anyone confessing their sins to a minister of God does not appear in the New Testament. In the time of John the Baptist, “And there went out to him all the country of Judea and all they of Jerusalem and were baptized by him in the river of Jordan, confessing their sins.” (Mark 1,5)

Although in John 20,23 it is not explicitly mentioned that we should confess the sin, this is strongly explicit in the fact that for a minister to acquit or retain the sin, he must first know it through the confession of the sinner. Precisely, the Acts of the Apostles tells how believers flocked to the apostles to confess their sins: “And many of them that believed came, confessing and declaring their deeds.” (Acts 19,18). You wanted to see a biblical text where Christians confessed their sins to the apostles, and there you have it.

Michael: Joseph, there is no mention of a confessional as Catholics have it today, there they publicly confessed the sins they had committed as a sign of repentance.

Joseph: But then we can clearly see that it is not true that in the New Covenant the sin only can be confessed directly to God, and there we have a testimony taken from the Bible that shows that it was not that way.

Now when we talk about the sacrament of penance, we have to distinguish between substance and circumstantial. The substance is that Christ instituted the ministry of reconciliation, giving his apostles and successors the power to forgive sins, and for the priest to absolve the sin, he must know it. Doing so in a confessional or outdoors is something that is not substantial and can change throughout history. For example, in the early Church, the confession of the sin was public[3]: “Confess therefore your sins one to another: and pray one for another, that you may be saved. For the continual prayer of a just man availeth much.” (Jas 5,16) Later, the priest who after listening the sin, must decide if it should be confessed in public or if it was enough with the confession to the priest, and finally the sacrament as we know it today expands, which seeks to preserve the privacy of the individual through the exclusively private confession and the secrecy of confession.

Pauline: Let’s suppose that you're right and Christ gave the apostles the power to forgive sins. It is not seen in any part of the Bible that this power passed to his successors. Jesus' promise was specifically directed to the apostles.

Joseph: The apostolate is a ministry, and ministries in the Church are permanent because they were instituted for the edification of the faithful who are part of the body of Christ (1 Cor 12,27-29). As long as the Church exists in this land, the ministries will exist, including the apostolate, now played by the bishops: “And he gave some apostles, and some prophets, and other some evangelists, and other some pastors and doctors: For the perfecting of the saints, for the word of the ministry, for the edifying of the body of Christ: Until we all meet into the unity of faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, unto a perfect man, unto the measure of the age of the fulness of Christ” (Eph 4,11-13). Nothing would have served if Christ granted them that power only while the apostles lived, when their mission would exceed the duration of their lives. Remember that they were ordered to make disciples of all nations (Matt 28) and promised to assist them and to be with them until the end of the world.

The Word of God is sacred, and we should not let our prejudices prevent us from being honest with what Scripture actually teaches[4]. It is Christ himself who gives his apostles the power to forgive sins, and we see the early Christians turning to them for confession, but this in no way contradicts the fact that it is God who forgives sin. We should not be like those who were offended when Jesus forgave sins with the authority that he received from the Father, when the apostles and their successors do with the authority received from Christ: “He said therefore to them again: Peace be to you. As the Father hath sent me, I also send you” (John 20,21)


[1] I have taken this argument from the article ¿Qué dice la Biblia acerca de la confesión de pecados a un sacerdote?  Published in the Web-evangelical Christian apologetics

[2] The common priesthood of the faithful does not exclude the ministerial or hierarchical priesthood, as the Second Vatican Council teaches: “the ministerial or hierarchical priesthood are nonetheless interrelated: each of them in its own special way is a participation in the one priesthood of Christ. The ministerial priest, by the sacred power he enjoys, teaches and rules the priestly people; acting in the person of Christ, he makes present the Eucharistic sacrifice, and offers it to God in the name of all the people. But the faithful, in virtue of their royal priesthood, join in the offering of the Eucharist. They likewise exercise that priesthood in receiving the sacraments, in prayer and thanksgiving, in the witness of a holy life, and by self-denial and active charity.(Dogmatic Constitution on the Church Lumen Gentium, 10)

[3] Some evangelical brothers interpret Jas 5.16 as it relates to the request for forgiveness from one to another when they offended between them. This interpretation is not fair to the text, because it talks about confessing sins, not about asking for forgiveness for offenses. It is necessary to distinguish, that although an offense to others is a sin, not every sin is an offense to others.

[4] Initially the Protestant churches did not reject the confession of sins to the confessor and Lutherans do not today either. The Augsburg Confession, which is considered the oldest Protestant denomination, is the basis on which the Lutheran Church is founded and the most universally accepted model for these Churches (written by Luther and Melancthon in 1530) held: “Of Confession they teach that Private Absolution ought to be retained in the churches, although in confession 2] an enumeration of all sins is not necessary. For it is impossible according to the Psalm: Who can understand his errors? (Ps 19,12).” In his Small Catechism, Luther reaffirms the need to confess the sins, and in his Large Catechism, he does an exhortation to the devotes to do the confession where he speaks hard and called “pigs who should have no part in the gospel” to those who reject the sacrament of confession:

Unfortunately, men have learned this only too well, acting as if they will never need or desire to go to confession any more. People quickly understands, what is of their own benefit. The comfortable part of the Gospel is easily received. But such beasts (I have said) should not hear the gospel nor have any benefit from it, but should stay under the pope to be tormented so that they had to confess and fast more than ever before.

Those who do not believe the gospel, and do not want to live and act like Christians, should not have any benefit from it. It is ridiculous only wanting to have all the benefits but not be willing to do or give anything in return. Therefore, we do not want to preach for such persons or grant them any part of our liberty, but to leave them to the Pope to govern them like a real tyrant. Because people who do not want to obey the gospel, deserve a tormentor who is Gods devil and hangman. But for the others, who are willing to be guided, we must always preach, exhort, encourage, and persuade them not to lose this precious and comforting treasure which the Gospel offers. Therefor,e we must say something about confession to instruct and admonish the simple folk.