At last night's Good Cheer, the topic was the Sacrament of Reconciliation (i.e. "Confession"). We had some great discussion and even better questions. I promised to post an answer to a couple of the questions today, and I think they're pretty general, so a lot of you may find them helpful.
Q: Is Confession biblical?
A: Certainly. Here is how Catholics view what the Bible says on the subject:
We are all sinners in need of God's forgiveness.
- “For all have sinned and have fallen short of the glory of God.” (Romans 3:23)
- “If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us.” (1 John 1:8)
The Church plays a roll in reconciling sinners to God through Christ.
- "But all things are of God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ, and gave unto us the ministry of reconciliation." (2 Corinthians 5:18)
Christ deputized the Apostles to forgive and retain sins in his name.
- "[Jesus said to his Apostles:] 'As the Father has sent me, even so I send 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; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained’" (John 20:21–23)
The Apostles exercised the ministry of reconciliation faithfully.
- "Many also of those who were now believers came confessing and divulging their practices." (Acts 19:18)
Christians are specifically instructed to confess our sins.
- "Is anyone among you sick? He should summon the presbyters [i.e. priests] of the church, and they should pray over him and anoint him with oil in the name of the Lord ... If he has committed any sins, he will be forgiven. Therefore, confess your sins to one another, and pray for one another, that you may be healed." (James 5:14-16)
Now, do the above texts give us a step-by-step instruction on how the confession of sins and the reconciliation of sinners is carried out. No. But in the Bible (in the verses above and others) we can easily arrive at a basic understanding of these concepts: 1) sin is bad and we are all sinners, 2) God forgives sins, 3) Christ chose to gift the leaders of his Church with the power to forgive or retain sins in his name, 4) early Christians confessed their sins to the Apostles, and 5) Christians are instructed by Scripture to summon the priest(s) and to confess their sins so that they may be healed.
These basic ideas are in complete harmony with both Sacred Scripture and with the Sacred Tradition that informs the Catholic Church's nearly 2,000-year-old practice of the Sacrament of Reconciliation.
Q: Why does the Church talk about mortal and venial sins? Aren't all sins the same in the eyes of God?
While all sins are certainly bad for the soul, all sins are not equal. Common sense and justice tell us that some sins are more serious and are worse than others and are more deadly for our souls. The Bible tells us the same thing, and it's pretty clear on the subject.
- If anyone sees his brother sinning, if the sin is not deadly, he should pray to God and he will give him life. This is only for those whose sin is not deadly. There is such thing as deadly [i.e. mortal] sin, about which I do not say that you should pray. All wrongdoing is sin, but there is sin that is not deadly. (1 John 5:16-17)
I hope these answers help your understanding of this awesome sacrament of God's mercy. As the parable of the Prodigal Son reminds us (Luke 15:11-32), God is overjoyed when we return to him and to his Church in the fullest possible way. He is waiting patiently to offer his loving forgiveness and reconciliation. During this season Lent, let us pray that we will not squander his offers of mercy.