I’m convinced, utterly, that confession is the single greatest gift God gave this weary world.
A gift that’s found solely in the Catholic Church.
A gift that, as a Protestant converting to the Catholic faith, has completely blown me away.
I began my journey into the Catholic Church nearly a decade ago but I began the final leg, in earnest, this Fall, when I enrolled in RCIA (Rite of Christian Initiation for Adults) at my local parish. I’ve had mixed experiences, to be sure. I’ve realized that not all parishes are created equal. I’ve realized that it’s not all about me. But I’ve also experienced God’s grace in incredible ways and through my own frustrations, arrogance, and pride I’ve found God in whole new ways. I’ve been deeply enriched.
But for all the book knowledge I’ve acquired and all the helpful folks I’ve spoke to nothing prepared me for my first experience of the Sacrament of Reconciliation, and it’s completely changed my life.
Reconciliation with God
To understand the Sacrament of Reconciliation requires a little bit of legwork up front.
First, although it’s commonly called confession I think it’s best understood, especially by non-Catholics (like myself), by it’s proper name. It’s the Sacrament of Reconciliation, and that’s important because it’s the sacrament which God has chosen to use to reconcile us to him. That’s the first thing that’s important to understand.
As a Protestant Christian I had a skewed understand of the Catholic view of forgiveness.
God, as I thought that Catholics understood Him to be, was angry and vengeful and Catholics had to confess their sins in fear and trembling lest the Lord smite them. He was a vindictive God who made Catholics drag their shame out into the light for a priest, of all people, to forgive. On the flip side, as a Protestant, I knew I was saved by grace and didn’t need to worry about what I did wrong. I had to confess it in my private prayers, of course, and make at least a token effort at repentance, but I didn’t need to worry. I didn’t need to drag about that so-called Catholic guilt. I was forgiven and needed no one to tell me so.
I understand things a bit different now.
Confession, actually, has always been a big question mark for me.
We’re Commanded to Confess
I remember reading Donald Miller’s seminal Blue Like Jazz—a book which influenced so many of us young evangelicals in the early 2000’s—and seeing, echoed in his decision to set up a confessional on his Protestant college campus, so much of my own confusion. Miller, in a way, came around to the startling conclusion that I came to when I read my Bible: that we’re told to confess our sins—to each other!
Confession is, clear as day, something we’re commanded to do in the New Testament.
And as evangelical Protestants, we don’t.
And that has always bugged me.
To the Catholic Church—and the Christian Church for the first 1,500 years—is was simple. Jesus gave His apostles the power to forgive. Although it was Jesus’s ultimate sacrifice on the cross that provided us with forgiveness, and reconciled us with God, it was His decision to dispense that forgiveness through men. Men he chose.
This is where I, as a Protestant, went wrong. This is where, I think, lots of us Protestants go wrong: It’s not the priest forgiving, not of his own power at least.
Confession’s Roots in the Early Church
No one, Protestant or Catholic, would argue that the apostles forgave sins in their own names. The apostles forgave sins in Jesus’s name, by the power of Jesus—power that He gave them, clearly, in Scripture.
The early Christians, in fact the earliest Christians we have record of, clearly understood the system that Jesus established. Jesus gave His apostles, whom He directly chose and appointed, the power to forgive sins. He gave this power in His name. When an apostle died a new apostle was appointed. When church communities began the apostles appointed leaders over those communities. The power to forgive sins—a power given by Jesus Himself—was passed on.
Incredible to me, as a Protestant, was that even the most cursory reading of the Early Church Fathers, the disciples who were taught by the apostles themselves, the second generation of Christians, clearly understood this succession. St. Clement of Rome, for example, was directly appointed by an apostle to succeed them in their ministry. St. Clement, then, naturally understood the power and authority that was given to him. Part of that power was the power to forgive, in Jesus’s name.
Remarkable to me, as a Protestant, was to learn that the Catholic Church merely carries on the practice of this power. A power given, clear as day, by Jesus Himself to his apostles. A power the apostles clearly practiced and, in turn, passed on. The line, incredibly, is unbroken throughout the history of the Christian Church until the Protestant Reformation—when the early reformers broke off from the body of the Catholic Church. This succession of power was not in dispute in the Early Christian Church and the earliest Christians, right up until the 16th century reformation, continued to practice confession of sins to appointed priests.
The Extraordinary Gift of Confession
If there’s one thing I’ve learned about the Sacrament of Reconciliation, after experiencing it first-hand, is that it’s the most extraordinary gift from God.
And that it makes sense.
I’ve shared before that God giving us grace through man makes a lot of sense to me. It’s not that God needs priest to dispense His grace. Ultimately, all of our grace comes from Jesus’s incredible act on the cross—make no mistake about that. But, in Catholic theology—and the theology of the Christian Church for the first 1,500 years—God has chosen to work through man.
And this is an incredible gift.
As a Protestant, I often struggled to feel forgiven. I knew I’d sinned, I’d done something wrong, and I needed to make right. I needed to confess, so I’d pray, privately, and ask God for forgiveness.
Now don’t get me wrong, there’s nothing wrong with this. We should be, privately, asking God for forgiveness all the time. We do stupid stuff. Paul was the chief sinner, he said and Peter, regardless of what you think about him, was certainly the chief apostle and he denied Christ. These were people hand-picked by Jesus, and they screwed up. Nevermind the Patriachs and Prophets of the Old Testament.
But the struggle for me, as a Protestant, was to feel forgiven and if there’s any area of the Christian life where head knowledge and heart knowledge collide it’s in the notion of forgiveness. It’s one thing to know I’m forgiven by Jesus’s ultimate sacrifice but it’s another thing entirely to stop holding onto the hurt, and to let it go.
And then I confessed to a man.
My Incredible First Confession
Confession—the Sacrament of Reconciliation—is amazing, and God designed it this way. I’m convinced.
Because how much more powerful is it to hear the words, “You’re forgiven,” from the lips of an actual human being than it is to imagine them in your head and your heart. Think that over, again, because it bears repeating.
I can know intellectually that I’m forgiven. I can have read and studied and turned it around in my brain every which way but to actually feel forgiven and have that forgiveness move into your heart is a whole other thing.
That’s why Jesus intended us to receive forgiveness from His appointed priests. Priests who have their authority in succession from the apostles. Leaders who can trace the power they have to “forgive sins” right back to the very first command Jesus gave after his resurrection. Think about that, too: the very first command that Jesus gave His apostles.
To confess all the frustrating things I’ve done in my life and hear someone say, “You’re forgiven,” and to know that I am really forgiven is the most incredible gift I’ve experienced. To actually hear those words instead of trying my best to muster up the feeling (to go along with the knowledge).
Re-branding the Catholic Church
If I were in charge of marketing the Catholic Church—and I might take a run at the job if it opens up—I would put the Sacrament of Reconciliation on the top of the list of things to “sell.” I’d put up billboards across the country touting the amazing power of forgiveness that exists in the Catholic Church’s practice of confession. A remarkable power—and power remarkably different from anything I’ve ever experienced as a Protestant.
I’d advertise confession as a gift.
Because I’m convinced that the sacrament is the most under-valued gift. One of the greatest hidden treasures of the Catholic Church. And something that’s completely blown my mind and convinced me, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that this is how God intended Christ’s sacrifice to have worked.
To actually be able to hear that I’m forgiven, to know that I’m truly reconciled with God—that our relationship is repaired—is absolutely mind-blowing.