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The Biblical roots of Confession

When it comes to the mercy of God, is there any greater encounter we have with that today than in the confessional?

In fact, St. Thomas Aquinas even writes that God’s mercy, expressed so profoundly in the forgiveness of sins, is the greatest sign of his omnipotence: “God’s omnipotence is particularly shown in sparing and having mercy, because in this is it made manifest that God has supreme power, that He freely forgives sins.” Aquinas also references St.  Augustine, writing that “for a just man to be made from a sinner, is greater than to create heaven and earth.” Creation is certainly a unique Divine power — to make all things from nothing. Yet to create all things from nothing still pales in comparison to God’s work of transforming the sinner into the state of grace. What a beautiful gift from our Lord to be able to receive absolution for our sins and the help to amend our lives!

While the Sacrament of Confession was instituted by Jesus, that doesn’t mean that the concept is foreign to the Old Testament. To begin with, the refrain to repent is ever present on the pages of the Old Testament. The need to turn away from sin and towards God, contrite for our past failings and resolving to avoid them in the future, is inescapable in the Old Testament, no more so than in the prophets. As we read in Ezekiel 18:30-32, summing up the prophetic call, “Repent and turn from all your transgressions, lest iniquity be your ruin. Cast away from you all the transgressions which you have committed against me, and get yourselves a new heart and a new spirit! Why will you die, O house of Israel? For I have no pleasure in the death of any one, says the Lord God; so turn, and live.”

While the Israelites do not always heed the call of the likes of Ezekiel, there are incredible instances of contrition for sin expressed in the Old Testament. King David, for example, in the aftermath of his adulterous affair with Bathsheba, writes in Psalm 51, “Have mercy on me, O God, according to thy steadfast love; according to thy abundant mercy blot out my transgressions. Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity and cleanse me from my sin! For I know my transgressions, and my sin is ever before me. Against thee, thee only, have I sinned, and done that which is evil in thy sight, so that thou art justified in thy sentence and blameless in thy judgment.” Even public, auricular confession of sins occurs in the Old Testament as well: “Now on the twenty-fourth day of this month the people of Israel were assembled with fasting and in sackcloth, and with earth upon their heads. And the Israelites separated themselves from all foreigners, and stood and confessed their sins and the iniquities of their fathers. And they stood up in their place and read from the book of the law of the Lord their God for a fourth of the day; for another fourth of it they made confession and worshiped the Lord their God” (Ezra 10:1-3).

While the Sacrament of Confession was instituted by Jesus, that doesn’t mean that the concept is foreign to the Old Testament.

Having said all of the above, still the greatest foreshadowing of Confession in the Old Testament was the Levitical sacrifices. Be they non-expiatory (spontaneous, voluntary offerings simply to please God) or expiatory (offered as a result of crime, sin, ritual impurity, etc., in atonement for sin), the Levitical sacrifices were all about expressing (non-expiatory) or restoring (expiatory) communion with God. Holocaust/burnt offerings (expiatory) were completely consumed by fire as a pure, total gift to God. Cereal/grain offerings (non-expiatory) entailed half of the offering consumed by fire and half eaten by the priests as a tribute to God. Peace/well-being offerings (non-expiatory) were animals split into parts and divided amongst the priests and offeror to share in a celebratory and thanksgiving offering for deliverance from some harm/evil. Sin/purification offerings (expiatory) were offered for the restoration of ritual purity or inadvertent transgression, and could be offered on behalf of a priest, the congregation, or an individual layperson. Lastly were guilt/reparation offerings (expiatory), made in reparation for guilt, the trespass of holy things, and included the offeror confessing sin(s) to a priest and paying a 20% reparation fee to the sanctuary. However, regardless of the kind of sacrifice, a common imperfection remained: no matter the offering, the Old Testament sacrifices were not efficacious for the forgiveness of sins. That is, the Levitical sacrifices only went so far — they expressed repentance in the offeror and included an external act manifesting that. But no matter the contrition, no matter the sacrifice, no matter the purity of intention, the Old Testament did not contain the means of obtaining eternal life, for crops and the blood of animals cannot cleanse the conscience of a man and open the gates of heaven. To this, we must turn to the New Testament.

St. John the Baptist Bearing Witness, Annabale Carracci, ca. 1600.

John the Baptist, the forerunner to the Messiah, revolves his public ministry around the familiar refrain from the Old Testament: repent! But unlike those calling for repentance in the Old Testament, John is succeeded by one who can efficaciously cause the forgiveness of sins that repentance longs for. Case in point, the forgiving and healing of the paralytic. The friends of a paralyzed man bring him to Christ to be healed, but rather than healing him physically, Christ first pronounces the man’s sins forgiven. And it’s only when confronted by his opponents as to where he gets his authority to forgive sins that Christ heals the man’s paralysis as the proof of his spiritual authority. The scribes and Pharisees balk at this, however — who are you to say that this man’s sins are forgiven, for only God can forgive sins, so they think to themselves. A correct statement, but one which misses the point.

While they are correct in asserting that only God can forgive sins, they are incorrect in thinking that Jesus is a mere man and has therefore blasphemed for taking upon himself something that only God can do. For Jesus Christ is not a mere man, but God Incarnate. In other words, Jesus works the physical healing in order to prove the spiritual power — yes, he has the divine authority to forgive sins, and just made the man walk to prove it. This is why he can also proclaim salvation to the Good Thief on the cross alongside of him. And this is also why Jesus can imbue the Sacrament of Confession with the grace of the forgiveness of sins. For unlike the blood of animals, his is the blood of a Divine Person become man and is therefore infinitely meritorious. As St. Paul preaches in Acts 13:38-39, “Let it be known to you therefore, brethren, that through this man forgiveness of sins is proclaimed to you, and by him every one that believes is freed from everything from which you could not be freed by the law of Moses.” What the Old Testament could not effect — salvation — is produced by Jesus Christ.

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In John 20:19-23, we read the following encounter of the apostles with the risen Lord: “On the evening of that day, the first day of the week, the doors being shut where the disciples were, for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them and said to them, ‘Peace be with you.’ When he had said this, he showed them his hands and his side. Then the disciples were glad when they saw the Lord. Jesus said to them again, ‘Peace be with you. 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.’” As God had breathed into man at creation in the Book of Genesis, so God once again breathes into man here in the upper room. But where that first breath of God brought physical life to man, this new breath of God brings spiritual life to man. As Cornelius Lapide writes in his Scripture commentary, speaking of this breathing upon the apostles, “As if he would say, I first gave Adam his natural life by breathing on him, so by breathing on you, do I give you that Holy Spirit which bestows on you supernatural and divine life. I who first created men, am now their re-creator and restorer.” And now the apostles, being given the authority to forgive sins, can take this most beautiful gift in the form of Confession to the whole world for us to encounter the mercy of God in our own lives today!

Daniel Campbell
Daniel Campbell
Daniel Campbell is the Director of the Lay Division at St. John Vianney Theological Seminary.

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