Lord and Savior Jesus Christ commissioned His Church to preach “the repentance and forgiveness of sins to all nations” (Lk. 24:47) in His name. Since He does not “wish that anyone should be lost, but that all be brought to repentance” (2 Pet. 3:9), our Lord endowed the Church with the power to forgive sins by instituting the Holy Mystery of Penance, simply known as – Confession. The Holy Mystery of Penance is the mystery instituted by Jesus Christ to forgive, in His name, the repentant sinner all his or her sins committed after baptism.
1. Sin is disobedience of God’s will, therefore it is a direct offense against God. Hence, only God can forgive sin. But Almighty God, “generous in His mercy” (Eph. 2:4), sent His Only begotten Son, Jesus Christ “to save His people from their sins.” (Mt. 1 :21) And Jesus Christ came into this world “not to condemn but to save the world,” (In. 3:17) therefore He called all the people “to repentance” (Mt. 4 :17) and to those who came to Him He “forgave their sins.” (Lk. 7:49)
In answer to the Pharisees, who questioned His power to forgive sins, our Lord even healed a paralytic man, saying : “That you may know that the Son of Man has the power to forgive sins on earth, – He said to the paralytic: – I say to you, pick up your mat and go home!” And the Evangelist assures us that the paralized man arose at once, picked up his mat and went home, while the people remained astonished, since they “have never seen anything like that.” (2:10-12)
Therefore, anyone who does not believe that Jesus Christ, as the Savior of the world, had the power to forgive sins, cannot be a true Christian, since he does not believe in the mission of the Son of God “to save the people from their sins.”
2. The authority “to forgive sins on earth” (Mk. 2:10) Jesus Christ passed on to His apostles and their duly ordained successors, charging them to continue His salvific work until the “end of the world.” (Mt. 28:20) First our Lord only promised to invest the Apostles with the power to forgive sins, saying : ” Whatever you shall bind on earth it shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you shall loose on earth it shall be loosed in heaven.” (Mt. 18:18).
In the evening of His glorious resurrection our Lord entrusted the Apostles with His own mission, saying : “As the Father has sent me, so also I sent you!” And then, after breathing on them, He said :
” Receive the Holy Spirit. Whose sins you shall forgive, they are forgiven, and whose sins you shall retain, they are retained.” (In. 20:21-23) With these words our Lord instituted the Holy Mystery of Penance (Sacrament of Confession) and commissioned the apostles, and their duly appointed successors, the bishops and the priests, to forgive or to retain sins “in His name” (Acts 10 :43), as testified by St. Paul : ” God, who has reconciled us to Himself through Christ, has given us the ministry of reconciliation” (2 Cor. 5:18).
St. Ambrose of Milan (+ 397) voices the unanimous teaching of the Church Fathers, when he says : “We are commanded by our Lord to confer the grace of the heavenly sacrament to those guilty even of the greatest sins, if they with a sincere confession bear the penance due to their sins.” (et. On Repentance, II, 3)
It is true that ” only God can forgive sins” (Mk. 2:7), but in virtue of Christ’s commission, what God does through His duly ordained min ister (confessor), He does it by his own authority. St. John Chrysostom explains: “What priests do on earth, God ratifies in heaven. The Master confirms the decision of His servants (priests). Indeed, He has given them nothing less than the full authority of heaven.” (et. On the Priesthood, III , 5).
3. The practice of penance and forgiveness of sins was a constant belief in the Church, according to the words of St. John the Evangelist: we confess (in Greek: homologein – to acknowledge, to declare openly) our sins, God is faithful and will forgive them, and will cleanse us from every iniquity.” (1 In. 1 :9)
Already at the end of the first century the Didache (about 96 A.D.) admonishes the sinners : ” Confess your sins in church and do not go to (Eucharistic) prayer with an evil conscience. This is the way of life” (ch. 14). A similar order is given in the so called Epistle of Barnabas, written before 132 A.D.: ” Make confession for your sins; and you shall not go to prayer (in church) with a bad conscience” (ch . 19, 12). And St. Polycarp of Smyrna (+ 156), admonishing the confessors, says : “Be compassionate and merciful toward those that strayed … , knowing that we all are under the debt of sin and need forgiveness.” (ct. Epistle to Philippi, 6)
The administration of confession in the Church is clearly testified to by St. Cyprian (+ 258)’ insisting:
“Let everyone confess his sins while he is still in this world, while his confession can still be heard, while the forgiveness of his sins granted to him by a priest is still acceptable to God.” (cf. On the Lapsed, 29).
From these and many other testimonies we can clearly see that the Church not only preached “repentance for the forgiveness of sins” (Lk. 24:47), but also practiced what she preached by the administration of the Holy Mystery of Penance, according to the words of St. Ambrose: ” If you want to be justified, confess your sins!” (ct. On Repentance, II, 6).
4. Instituting the Mystery of Penance, our Lord left the responsibility of whether to forgive or to retain the sins with the confessor.
Such a decision requires the acknowledgement (confession) of the sins by the penitent, since the confessor is not able to read the secrets of the human heart. A humble confession of sins is also required on the part of the penitent in order to manifest his sorrow for his sins (a contrition of heart) and a firm resolution to “sin no more” (In. 8:11). The confession of sins is so important that the Mystery of Penance is simply calledConfession.
The ritual of the Mystery of Penance, just as that of the other sacraments, has undergone a long process of development. In the first centuries there were two kinds of penance: public and private (cf. St. Irenaeus, Against Heresies, I, 13). Public confession was made openly before the entire congregation, and was required in the case of public sins, especially those of homicide, adultery and apostacy.
With time the number of public sins kept increasing. Private or so called “hidden” sins were confessed privately to the bishop or priest alone. Public confession began to decline during the fourth century. Already St. Basil the Great (+ 379) stated : “The confession of sins should be made before those that are able to heal them,” meaning before the priests (et. The Short Rules, 229). But it was Archbishop Nectarius of Constantinople (+ 397) who cancelled public confession, although in some places the practice continued, but only on a voluntary basis. In the West, public confession was abolished by Pope St. Leo the Great ( + 461), who decreed that it was sufficient to manifest one’s sins, even public ones, by a “secret confession to the priest alone” (et. Epistle 168, 2).
5. The Mystery of Penance or Confession is the ordinary way to obtain the remission of sins committed after baptism. On the part of the penitent it requires : a) a sincere and complete confession of sins, b) a heartfelt sorrow for sins committed, sealed by a firm resolution not to sin anymore, and c) readiness to make satisfaction for committed sins according to the disposition of Zacchaeus, the tax collector: “Lord, half of my possessions I shall give to the poor, and if I have cheated anyone I will pay him back four times the amount” (Lk. 19:8).
To be able to confess all our sins sincerely, first we must “come to our senses,” as the Prodigal in the gospel did (Lk. 15:17), and sincerely admit that we have indeed offended our loving and merciful God. Only then we will be able to conceive in our heart a sincere sorrow for all our sins, leading us to a true repentance and amendment of our life. This can be achieved only through a good examination of conscience before going to confession.
The essential part of repentance is the sorrow for our sins, since without a sincere regret for having offended our loving God and a decisive rejection of the sins committed, no forgiveness or absolution will be given. Hence the Prophet tells us : “Cast away all the sins you have committed and make a new heart for yourself” (Ez. 18:31). And according to the teaching of St. Paul only sincere contrition of our heart, called by him “a godly sorrow,” will assure for us a true “repentance that leads to salvation” (2 Cor. 7:10). Even David was convinced that a “contrite and humble heart God will not spurn.” (Ps. 51 :19)
6. On his return the Prodigal Son humbly confessed : “Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you, I no longer deserve to be called your son!” And the father? He not only received his son back with joy, but also ordered his servants “to bring and to put on him the finest robe, to put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet” (Lk. 15:20-22). In other words, he restored to him all the privileges of a son.
In the same manner our Heavenly Father receives with joy every repentant sinner when he comes back to Him and sincerely admits his wrongdoings. God also restores to the repentant sinner all the privileges of a son. Through the sacramental absolution of the confessor, God again clothes the penitent’s soul with the “finest robe” of sanctifying grace, restoring to him, or to her, divine life lost by “deadly sin” (1 In. 5:16); makes the penitent soul “free from the slavery of sin” (In. 8:36), symbolized in the parable by sandals, since in those days the slaves went barefooted. And by ” putting a ring on his finger” our Lord indicated the restoration of the Prodigal to all of his inheritance rights – in our case life everlasting with our Father in heaven.
And let me conclude with the authoritative words of the fourth century work, the Apostolic Constitutions, reassuring us : ” God not only receives back the penitent sinners, but restores them back to their former dignity of God’s children” (Book II, ch . 41).