Sins at the Bottom of the Sea: The Boon of Confession
How many times will the regular churchgoer, when he falls into sin, take the sacrament of confession for granted? Unfortunately, even something as sacred as this divinely instituted means of sanctification, of transformation in Christ, can sink gradually into a pious routine of rattling off a few failings mechanically because it has been a while, and one feels that it’s time again for this tedious exercise, which one would rather omit. We all sin. This is a fact, of which we are more or less aware. But how thankful and appreciative we should be for this gift to our souls, this healing remedy, which the Catholic Church has received from Our Lord, known to us as the sacrament of penance, by which we receive with certitude the forgiveness of our sins, no matter how great or how many, as long as we are truly sorry for them and seek to fight against our bad habits in order to come closer to God every day of our lives.
Confession in the Old Testament
Though confession was instituted by Our Lord as a sacrament of the New Testament, let it never be said that confession was unknown or foreign to the Old Testament. God doesn’t change; human nature doesn’t change. And more specifically, man’s sinfulness and need of God’s forgiveness is a common thread throughout the entire Bible, and so is God’s everlasting, persevering, long-suffering, all-loving mercy for us poor sinners.
From the fall of our first parents and God’s promise of a Redeemer in the Book of Genesis onwards, we are reminded of God’s power to forgive our sins, to blot them out. The voice of the prophets rings out: “He will turn again, and have mercy on us: he will put away our iniquities: and he will cast all our sins into the bottom of the sea” (Mich. 7:19)—Biblical imagery declaring that the sins are obliterated, and will never appear against us in God’s mind! God insists on His power of forgiveness in another key passage: “…for I will forgive their iniquity, and I will remember their sin no more” (Jer. 31:34). God, who knows all things, promises to forget our sins. “Forgiven and forgotten”—in reality—what an unspeakable gift! And in the time of Advent, as we read from the prophet Isaias, who had the deepest visions of Our Lord’s Coming: “If your sins be as scarlet, they shall be made as white as snow: and if they be red as crimson, they shall be white as wool” (Is. 1:18). Isaias begins with God scolding His beloved people for their sins. God takes sin seriously. Sin is the greatest evil, as disobedience to God’s authority, as ingratitude to His repeated benefits. And yet God is ready to forgive sin, to wash the soul clean, if only the sinner will repent, turn back to Him, and seek His mercy. The Curé of Ars often reminded his parishioners that our sins are like a grain of sand against the mountain of God’s Mercy. We may even say that God’s mercy towards sinners is a greater miracle and manifestation of His almighty power than the creation of the entire universe from nothing. (See St. Thomas, I-II, Q. 113, A. 9, and the Collect for the tenth Sunday after Pentecost: “O God Who dost manifest Thine almighty power most chiefly in sparing and showing mercy.…”) The sacrament of confession affords us ample opportunities to score yet another victory for the merciful love of God. St. Paul expressed it so well: “But where sin hath abounded, grace did abound yet more” (Rom. 5:20).
Tools Christ Passed Down to us
We memorized catechism definitions for our First Communion: A sacrament is an outward sign instituted by Christ to give grace. Penance is a sacrament instituted by Christ, by which sins committed after Baptism are forgiven. These definitions are priceless, though at first glance they seem rigid and uninspiring. But in order to have a conversation, we fall back on the definitions which we learned by rote, otherwise we won’t know what we’re talking about.
“Sacrament” shouldn’t be that hard to understand. Let’s compare it with two objects from everyday life: tools and signs. We all have tools around the house or at the workplace. We need tools to do a job. We could try pushing a nail into the wall with our fingers, but it doesn’t work. We need a hammer to drive the nail into the wall, and we have to do it right (i.e. hitting the nail on the head, not our thumb). Sacraments are so many tools or instruments which Christ passed down to us to get a job done—much more than a job: the greatest work possible, uniting a soul with God, giving His own life! As for signs, we see them everywhere: road signs, building signs. These signs convey a message intended by the lawgiver or the builder. The road signs “Stop” or “Do not enter” mean exactly what they say, the signs “Exit” or “Caution: Wet floor” in a building likewise. These signs are intended to accomplish something: to prevent injury, or to give directions. Sacraments are outward (external or visible) signs which not only mean something, but which bring about the effects which they signify, the giving of grace, which once again is the life of God in our souls: We are given the power to think His own thoughts (Faith), to love Him as He deserves to be loved, to love our neighbor as God loves him (Charity).
The sacraments did not come about by human law or contrivance. They are supernatural signs (i.e. sacred, sanctifying) which Christ entrusted to the Church to continue His work on earth until the end of time. We can prove this especially for the sacrament of Confession.
When Our Lord told a man afflicted with palsy, “Thy sins are forgiven,” the Pharisees were scandalized, hearing blasphemy in these words. Our Lord answered their thoughts: “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? But that you may know that the Son of man hath power on earth to forgive sins, (He saith to the sick of the palsy,) I say to thee: Arise, take up thy bed, and go into thy house” (Mt. 9:27). This miracle of healing was meant to show that Our Lord had power to forgive sins and that this power could be exercised on earth, not only in heaven.
Later on, Our Lord commissioned this power solemnly to St. Peter and the other Apostles: “Whatsoever you shall bind upon earth, shall be bound also in heaven; and whatsoever you shall loose upon earth, shall be loosed also in heaven” (Mt. 16:19, 18:18). Clearly the power is judicial, i.e. the Apostles are authorized to bind and to loose; whether they bind or loose, their action is ratified in heaven. In healing the palsied man Christ declared that “the Son of man has power on earth to forgive sins”; here He promises that what these men, the Apostles, bind or loose on earth, God in heaven will likewise bind or loose.
Power to Forgive or Retain
What does Our Lord mean by “binding” and “loosing”? Surely a spiritual or moral power, especially since the power granted here is unlimited—“whatsoever you shall bind…whatsoever you shall loose.” The same idea recurs after the Resurrection: “Whose sins you shall forgive, they are forgiven them. Whose sins you shall retain, they are retained” (Jn. 20:23). The exercise of this power in either form (forgiving or retaining) is not restricted: Christ merely says “whose sins.” The sentence pronounced by the Apostles (remission or retention) is done by the power of God Himself— “they are forgiven...they are retained.” The power is twofold—to forgive or to retain, i.e. they must act judicially, as in a tribunal, forgiving or retaining according as the sinner deserves (i.e. if he shows true contrition and a firm purpose of amendment). For how is the priest to know whether to absolve or to withhold absolution, unless the penitent declares his sins, whereby the priest may judge the sinner’s dispositions?
Thus Christ gave the Apostles the power to forgive sins, but this was not a privilege which they alone held, and which was to vanish after they died. It was granted to them in their official capacity and hence as a permanent institution in the Church—no less permanent than the mission to teach and baptize all nations. We may call Confession a very “realistic” sacrament. Christ foresaw that those who received faith and baptism after the time of the Apostles would fall into sin and therefore would need forgiveness in order to be saved. Our Lord must, then, have intended that the power to forgive should be transmitted from the Apostles to their successors and be used as long as there would be sinners in the Church, and that means to the end of time. Such is the teaching of the Church from the time of the Apostles.
Of course God is sovereign, and can confer grace outside of the channels which He has made, but the point here is that the sacraments are the sacred tools and signs which Christ intended us to use as the ordinary means of transmitting His divine Sonship, by which we become no less than “partakers of the divine nature” to use the words of St. Peter (II Pet. 1:4).
Not an Option
The sacrament of penance or confession is not an option for anyone who calls himself Christian. This teaching is an integral part of Apostolic Tradition and Church practice, and is on the same level as the doctrine of the Holy Trinity, the Incarnation, the Virgin Birth, the bodily Resurrection of Christ, original sin, hell, the existence of the devil, miracles, etc. Take away Confession, and the entire message of Christ is made void.
A priest does not hold the power to forgive sins simply as an individual man, however pious or learned he is. Only God has this power; but He can and does exercise it through the ministration of men. We sometimes hear that the confession of sin is “cruel and unusual punishment,” therefore not in keeping with the spirit of Christianity. How misguided is this view! First of all, it ignores the fact that Christ, though merciful, is also just and exacting. Secondly, however humiliating it may be to kneel down and confess our sins to a mere human like ourselves, it is a minor penalty when compared to what we deserve for pride and disobedience. Finally, for anyone who is serious about his salvation, no price is too high, no hardship too great in order to regain God’s favor. Since God has seen fit to forgive sins by means of this sacrament, let no one say that the Church or the priest bars the way between the soul and God; on the contrary, Penance is the removal of the one obstacle that keeps the soul away from God. When the priest speaks the words “I absolve thee of thy sins…,” he speaks in the name of Christ, by Whose expiatory death on the Cross our sins are truly cast “into the bottom of the sea.”