Is It Necessary for People to Confess Their Sins To a Priest for Forgiveness?

Tonight, both sides will present the evidence for and against the practice of confession. John’s guests are Fr. Mitchell Pacwa, an ordained Roman Catholic Priest who is a member of the Society of Jesus—a Jesuit. He has an earned Doctor of Philosophy degree and is currently a professor at Loyola University in Chicago. John’s second guest is Protestant scholar Dr. Walter Martin, Director and Founder of the Christian Research Institute in California. 

Ankerberg: We’re talking about some of the doctrines of the Roman Catholic Church, and specifically, “How can your sins be forgiven?” After a Roman Catholic has been baptized and come into the Roman Catholic Church, if he commits a mortal sin, he must come back and regain his salvation—his justifying grace that was obliterated when he committed mortal sin—by the Sacrament of Penance. And Penance, as defined by Trent, includes three things: One is contrition— you must be sorry for your sins; then you must confess your sins to a priest—your mortal sins, not your venial sins; and then, thirdly, you must do works of satisfaction; and then the absolution—the forgiveness, that the priest pronounces—takes effect when you’ve done your works of satisfaction “ex operato,” which means that automatically, at the end of your doing this, it takes effect when you have done your part. But I’d like to come and center in on this thing: Is it absolutely necessary that to receive forgiveness of sins, can you go straight to God and in prayer, ask Him to forgive your sins, or must you come to the priest? Now, we’re not talking about the authority that the priest has. But we’re talking about, in order for you to receive forgiveness must you—before you can receive forgiveness from God—must you do it this way? Now, let’s get the Council of Trent on the boards here—the official doctrine of the Roman Catholic Church—which says that, “The entire confession of sins was also instituted by the Lord, and that it is necessary by divine right for all who have committed mortal sins after baptism to make confession to the priest in order that they may pronounce the sentence, either of remission or of retention of sins.” Your sins are forgiven or they are not. Now it says, “All mortal sins of which the penitents, after diligent self-examination”— each one of you that’s committed a mortal sin—after you have diligently examined yourself and you’re conscious of these mortal sins that you’ve done, “They are to bring those to the priest—“ought to be enumerated in confession, even if they are most secret. For it is certain that nothing else is required of penitents in the Church.” Then it says, “If anyone either denies that sacramental confession is instituted or necessary to salvation, let him be anathema.” Now, Dr. Martin, I want to start with you on this one. Protestants would agree that it’s all right for a person to come and get the advice from their minister. And they might even pray with the minister to God and get advice from that minister. But to say that there is no reason to believe that God will forgive a person unless he goes to the priest and confesses there, and does full confession and then does works of satisfaction, I think is abhorrent to Protestants. Can you tell us why? 

Martin: Well, because in Protestant theology, God’s grace brings to us the faith necessary to trust the Lord Jesus Christ. We pass out of death into life. The re-emphasis constantly in the New Testament from Christ’s mouth as well as from the apostles is that the Christian possesses—he “has everlasting life.” This is something given to him as a gift from God. We have passed out of that death which we were in in our sins and have come to righteousness in Christ. Imputed righteousness and then imparted by the Holy Spirit. The Christian reacts vigorously to the idea that it’s necessary to go through an individual who carries you through three specific steps and then says, “After that’s done, you must make satisfaction,” when the scriptural text of 1 John 2 says “Jesus Christ is our advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous. He is the satisfaction, the expiation, the propitiation for all our sins, and not for ours only, but for the sins of the whole world.” And in fact, there’s a very powerful passage which is seldom used in this connection, in 2 Corinthians 5: “All this is from God, who reconciled us to Himself through Christ and gave us the ministry of reconciliation; that God was reconciling the world to Himself in Christ, not counting men’s sins against them.” It isn’t that they haven’t sinned. He’s not counting them against them. “He has committed to us the message of reconciliation. We are going forth into the world, imploring people to be reconciled to God, because God made Christ to become the sin offering for us who knew no sin, that we might be made as righteous as God through faith in Him.” So, the Protestant Christian relies solely upon the grace of God and the forgiveness which is in Jesus Christ. “Confessing our sins to Christ, He is faithful and just to forgive us and to cleanse us.” We don’t see any necessity for the acts of contrition, for the confession to a priest, and then for any satisfaction to be imposed. 

Ankerberg: Fr. Pacwa, we’re really glad that you’re here tonight. And we really want to ask you, is it absolutely necessary for people’s salvation that they must do these things? 

Pacwa: Yes. Absolutely. First of all, let’s take a look at Ephesians 5, beginning with verse 5: “Make no mistake about this: no fornicator, no unclean or lustful person”—in effect, an idolater—“has any inheritance in the kingdom of Christ and of God. Let no one deceive you with worthless arguments: these are sins that bring God’s wrath down on the disobedient. Therefore have nothing to do with them.” He’s not preaching there to pagans, is he? Nor to Jews. He’s preaching to Christians. And we know, by experience, that Christians commit these sins. There are Christians who have been baptized, who have been redeemed, saved, they’ve been through all kinds of experiences—baptized in the Holy Spirit—and they still commit adultery. And there are ministers and there are priests who do that kind of thing. No one is exempt—no class of people is exempt. And yet, we see that nobody who does these things can enter the kingdom of God. And that God’s wrath comes down upon them— whether they’re Christians or not. So, because these sins are so serious, something must be done about them. And the way that God has given us is something that we’ve seen before. The text we’ve used, of course, is John 20, where Jesus says to the apostles, “As the Father sent me, I send you.” And breathes on them the Holy Spirit and says, “Whosesoever sins you forgive, they are forgiven. Whosesoever sins you retain, they are retained.” Now, what gets to the difference of the Catholic and the Protestant understanding of that text comes from the very nature of the way we see the Christian. Catholics see the Protestants, for all their talk of faith, don’t have enough faith in what Christ is doing. Because the Christian is so radically part of Christ, as a member of the Body of Christ, that Christ’s authority is given to the Christians. But because the Body of Christ is not made up of everybody having the same function but that there are different gifts within the Body of Christ and different ministries given by the Holy Spirit, this is one of those ministries given by the Holy Spirit for the upbuilding of the Body of Christ. And it is not the priest by his own power, but it is by the power of the Holy Spirit in the priest who is a part of Christ by his very existence in the Body of Christ, and especially by his ordination, set apart as an elder within the Body of Christ to be able to exercise the ministry of Christ. So that it is Jesus Christ acting through the priest. Now, why do we need this minister? (A.) Jesus said so in John 20, that we have to have these people who are going out to go ahead and forgive sins. Secondly, (B) in all the ministries in the Body of Christ we need intermediaries. To hear the Word of Christ. St. Paul himself says in Romans 10, “How shall they hear unless someone is sent?” That somebody has to go out and preach the Gospel and be the intermediary to announce the Good News rather than just merely read it in the Bible. And therefore, if we need ministers and intermediaries to proclaim the Gospel, then we also need them for this other ministry of forgiving of sins. And the actual effect of the sacrament in Catholicism, as one who goes to confession and hears confessions, is most salutary. I myself have experienced not only the sense of comfort and grace and peace through the forgiveness of sins and confession, but also I’ve seen the power of the sacrament to actually change me. Sometimes not right away. But the power of the sacrament of Christ working in this confession has, over time, with sins changed so that I stopped doing them. And I see that in the people whose confessions I hear. That there is grace operative there to make people new and different in Christ. 

Ankerberg: Before you start, Walter, what you need to address here, I believe, is the fact of first you’ve got John 20:23, when Jesus said to remit and retain sins. We agree there’s a power there. What kind of a power? Is it a declaratory power? Or is it a priestly confessional power? Second is, I don’t think we disagree with edification of the saints and counsel. The question is, Is it absolutely necessary for you do it that way to find forgiveness with God? Maybe you’d like to address that. 

Martin: I’ll address it by pointing out very simply that Christ was sent by the Father into the world primarily to preach. He tells the disciples that after the resurrection, and the apostles—that they are to go and preach the Gospel. In John 20, there is no command to enumerate sins; no command for contrition; no command for satisfaction—all of this is eisegesis, or reading into the passage, what the Catholic Church teaches. Now, the second century Christians didn’t accept this. We’ve already shown that by quoting Tertullian and others. They didn’t accept the idea of auricular confession and absolution by any priest. They did public confessions, primarily, until it became scandalous because of the things that were going on, and so then they started talking privately. John 20 is not saying that any one of the apostles or anybody else has the power to forgive sins in a priestly sense of confessional as the Church teaches it today. Instead, it’s teaching that when we go out and preach the Gospel as Jesus commanded us to, we are doing exactly what His Father sent Him to do. If men accept it, then we may say to them, “Your sins are forgiven. You have believed in Jesus Christ.” If they don’t accept it, we say to them, “You’re still in your sins. You need to be reborn spiritually.” Now, that is, I think, a much simpler interpretation of the passage than to have to add to it an enumeration of things which are not in the context. 

Pacwa: The text is, as a matter of fact, we understand, this is a very key issue in the way Catholics understand Scripture. It’s the seed; that the Word of God that’s spread out as a seed. It’s an imperishable seed, as we see in 1 Peter 1. And a seed doesn’t stay in that state. And Protestants tend to say, “Well, unless we see it just in that little nugget form, that seed form, we’re not going to believe any additions you’ve got. And we say “No, Wait a minute!” Christ gives an imperishable seed, planted in our hearts, and in the heart of the Church as a whole, and it grows up and it develops and it flowers. And so also is the development of the Sacrament of Confession. It’s a growing and a development of that seed in John 20:23 and in the sense of the ministry of Christ, which is not primarily, as you said, a ministry of preaching. Christ came to redeem sinners. That’s why He died. He didn’t die so that He could preach. The preaching is to help us to understand the meaning of that. And the preaching of the apostles is to understand the meaning of that. But the primary ministry of Jesus is not preaching—it’s death and resurrection so that we can be redeemed from our sins. And that the apostles—to deal with your text from Luke 4—are told to go as Jesus was sent. So if it says in Luke 4 that Jesus fulfills that day the commission to forgive sins and let loose those who are prisoners and to proclaim that, then the priests who are told in John 20:23—the apostles were the bishops and then the successors after them—are told to go ahead and forgive sins as Jesus forgave, using His authority and by the power of the Holy Spirit within them. So that they are fulfilling that and it’s not a contradiction, but it’s rather a fulfillment. And nor does it in any way—to deal with your text from Acts 10—nor does it in any way exclude our preaching of forgiveness. The priest must do that. That is part of my obligation as a priest—to preach forgiveness from the pulpit and to preach Jesus Christ and Him crucified. But also part of my ministry is to proclaim the word that, “In the name of Jesus Christ, I forgive you and I absolve you of all your sins”—not by my authority, but by the authority of Christ. 

Martin: It’s amazing that Fr. Pacwa can contradict Christ flat-out and not even twitch. “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has appointed me to preach the good news.” Now, Jesus came preaching the good news. He came fulfilling these things. That’s flat-out true. The apostles did exactly the same thing—grounded, of course, in the cross. But I’m not incorrect where Tertullian is concerned. In fact, Tertullian contradicts you, he contradicts Trent, he contradicts penance. Listen carefully to what he has to say. Tertullian says, “60,000 Christians received the Eucharist communion in one day in both kinds with no other than their private confessions to Almighty God. The scandalous evil liver alone was repelled from the Eucharist table.” Now, this is to me very significant. Because here, 60,000 Christians are taking the Lord’s Supper, the Mass, and there’s no priest absolving their sins. There’s no priest standing giving him penance, contrition or anything else. They are simply confessing to Christ and they are given the Lord’s Table. What’s Trent going to do with that? 

Pacwa: That’s very Catholic. As a matter of fact, a Catholic must confess privately, and if he has only venial sins, then the beginning of the Eucharist deals precisely with that. 

Martin: 60,000 people had nothing but venial sins? 

Pacwa: The early Church was pretty holy. 

Martin: I think it is a contradiction. And I further think, from a biblical perspective, that forgiveness of sin is granted to the believer who is penitent and opens his or her heart to the Lord Jesus Christ. First John states that categorically. The entire system of priestly intermediacy between the individual and God usurps the role of the Holy Spirit, and of Jesus Christ as our Advocate, and places you—a sinful human being—in the position of acting in place of Christ, when you don’t have the power to do that. All you have is a passage in John 20 which you say means what the Greek Fathers said it didn’t mean!