Category Archives: Confession

Are There Ministerial Priests in the New Covenant?

I can’t recount how many times I have been told by various brands of non-Catholics, “The Bible clearly teaches that we only have one priest and that is Jesus Christ, so how can Catholics claim a New Testament priesthood?”

The biblical texts usually begin with Heb. 7:22-25:

This makes Jesus the surety of a better covenant. The former priests were many in number, because they were prevented by death from continuing in office; but he holds his priesthood permanently, because he continues forever. Consequently he is able for all time to save those who draw near to God through him, since he always lives to make intercession for them (emphasis added).

The argument goes like this:

1. Jesus is our one intercessor. A synonym for intercessor is mediator.

2. The definition of a priest is a mediator between God and men.

3. Most importantly, I Timothy 2:5 says, “For there is one God, and there is one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus.”

Therefore, there can be no New Testament “priesthood” as we see in the Catholic Church. The New Testament, it is said, rejects this notion.

These texts are often followed by I Peter 2:5-9, which tells us:

… like living stones be yourselves built into a spiritual house, to be a holy priesthood, to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ… But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people…

“We are all priests in the New Testament,” is quite often the refrain.

Stating the Obvious

It is almost painful to point out the obvious contradiction here that often comes from the same person and in the same conversation. How can someone claim there can only be “one priest” in the New Covenant based on Heb. 7:22-25 and I Tim. 2:5, Jesus Christ, but then turn right around and claim “all Christians are priests?”

Houston, we have a problem.

The answer is simple. Often, these folks have never been challenged to think about what it is they are actually saying. The fact is, it is not a contradiction to say Christ is our one, unique priest/mediator/intercessor, and yet see Christians playing the role of priest/mediator/intercessor in the New Testament because: 1. That is what the Bible says. 2. Each Christian acts as members of Christ’s body; thus, each is Jesus Christ extended into this world by the power and direction of Christ.

Understanding the Obvious

The key to understanding what is obviously and clearly stated in Scripture is to understand the nature of the body of Christ. Christians do not usurp or diminish the priesthood of Christ when they are referred to as priests; they participate in that unique priesthood. So intimate is the union of the baptized with Christ that St. Paul describes this mystical union as a body (cf. I Cor. 12:12-27, Rom. 12:5) with Christ as its head (cf. Eph. 1:22-23). What can be attributed to a hand in the body does not somehow take away from the head or the body as a whole.

It is obvious Heb. 7:22-25 and I Tim. 2:5 are not saying Christians cannot act as mediators or intercessors in any sense. In I Tim. 2:1-4, St. Paul says, “First of all, then, I urge that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings be made for all men, for kings and all who are in high positions… This is good and acceptable in the sight of God our savior, who desires all men to be saved…”

Then, in I Tim. 5:7, St. Paul goes on to say, “For this I was appointed a preacher and an apostle.” What is an apostle but “one sent” with the authority of the one who sent him. That is a mediator, folks!

The text urges Christians to act as mediators or intercessors for the salvation of souls because Christ is the one mediator of salvation to the world. And for this reason, St. Paul was sent to act as a mediator of Christ’s love to the world (in particular, to the gentiles).

The bottom line here: We must understand that Christians—and St. Paul—can only accomplish this because they are in the one true mediator and act as members of his body.

But What About Ministerial Priests?

After admitting the truth of the above, the next question is normally worded something like this:

Even if we were to accept the notion of Christians being priests as you say, and accept your interpretation of I Tim. 2:5 and Heb. 7:22-25, this in no way shows that there is a distinct ordained priesthood. I Pet. 2 teaches all Christians are priests. And, in fact, the ordained ministers of the New Covenant are called apostles (cf. Eph. 4:11), presbyters (cf. Js. 5:14), and bishops (cf. Acts 1:20, I Tim. 3:1). They are not called priests, which is hiereus in Greek.

Well, one thing is clear. We’ve made progress. We now know it is possible to have priests within the one priesthood of Jesus Christ. And this is not a contradiction when the priests are understood as participating in the one priesthood of Jesus Christ. Now we must prove the existence of a specially called out and ordained priesthood—a ministerial priesthood—within the universal priesthood.

We Will Do So in Three Points

1. I Peter 2:5-9, which speak of a universal priesthood, refers back to Ex. 19:6: “… and you shall be to me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.” The Scripture here indicates a universal priesthood in the Old Covenant. And yet, in that same Ex. 19, and verse 22, we read, “And also let the priests who come near to the Lord consecrate themselves….” There was already a universal priesthood in existence in the Old Covenant, but this did not mean there could not be a distinct ministerial priesthood as well. So it is in the New Covenant.

2. As far as the term “priest” is concerned: it is not surprising that the Christians of the first century would not use the term “priest” (Gr. hiereus) in describing their ministers. This was the same term being used by the more numerous Jewish (cf. Lk. 1:8-9) and even pagan (cf. Acts 14:13) priests. Christians most likely used language to distinguish their priests from the Jewish and pagan priests of their day.

3. One of the largest obstacles for many to accepting a New Testament priesthood is the idea of needing any mediation whatsoever in the New Covenant. “Isn’t this the whole point of the New Covenant?” they will ask. “We don’t have to go to a mediator on earth anymore. We can go directly to God through Christ.”

In one sense, this is true. We can go directly to God through Jesus Christ in offering our prayers and sacrifices in union with Him. But this is not an either/or proposition. We do not either go to God or go to his representatives on this earth when we have needs. The Catholic Church, and the Bible I might add, says we do both. For example, Phil. 4:6-7 says:

Have no anxiety about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which passes all understanding, will keep your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.

Here we see St. Paul encouraging all Christians to exercise their universal, “royal priesthood” before God. However, analogous to what we saw in the Old Testament, we also have a special group of men called by Christ to a specific priestly ministry within the body of Christ in the New Testament. In fact, each of the three ministers I mentioned above—apostles, presbyters (or “elders”), and bishops—is clearly presented as priestly in nature in the New Testament.

Apostles

In Scripture, we see our Lord definitively choosing and sending apostles to act as mediators between God and men (in Christ, of course). This, again, is the definition of a priest. For example, after the resurrection, our Lord appears to the apostles in the upper room and says to them:

“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” (Jn. 20:21-23).

Here, Jesus communicates the power to forgive and retain sins to the apostles. This is clearly a priestly ministry (see also Lev. 19:21-22). In II Cor. 2:10, St. Paul says to the Corinthians:

…if I have pardoned anything for your sakes have I done it in the person of Christ (Douay Rheims).

St. Paul evidently heard confessions in Corinth carrying out this priestly commission of the apostle.

Jesus not only gives the authority to forgive sins to the apostles, but he gives them divine, infallible authority to proclaim the gospel as well. “He who receives you receives me, and he who receives me receives him who sent me” (Matt. 10:40). In II Cor. 2:17 we see St. Paul carrying out this priestly ministry. “For we are not as many, adulterating the word of God; but with sincerity, as from God, before God, in Christ we speak” (Douay Rheims).

Or, in II Cor. 5:18:

Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has passed away, behold, the new has come. All this is from God, who through Christ reconciled us to himself and gave us the ministry of reconciliation.

If Jesus Christ is a priest–and he is–then so are the apostles.

Bishops (Gr. episkopoi)

According to Scripture and Tradition, bishops are successors of the apostles. In Acts 1:20, for example, when the apostles were choosing a replacement for Judas, the text reads, “… And his bishopric (Gr. episkopee) let another man take.” Thus, the “bishopric,” by nature, carries on the apostolic ministry in their same priestly function.

Presbyters, or “Elders” (Gr. presbyteroi)

These too are most definitely seen as priests. James 5:14 puts it quite plainly:

Is any among you sick? Let him call for the elders (Gr. presbyteroi) of the church, and let them pray over him, anointing him with oil in the name of the Lord; and the prayer of faith will save the sick man, and the Lord will raise him up; and if he has committed sins, he will be forgiven.

Notice, the Scripture does not say we should go to just anyone if we’re sick because we are all priests. It singles out the presbyters and once again they are seen acting as mediators in the forgiveness of sins and healing.

St. Paul tells us the presbyter has been given the ministry of reconciliation just as the apostles and bishops, in II Cor. 5:20:

So we are ambassadors (Gr. presbeuomen) for Christ, God making his appeal through us. We beseech you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God.

A Priestly Bias

I know from my own experience as a former Protestant that the word “priest” brought with it all sorts of anti-Catholic bias in my mind. What I came to discover, however, is New Testament ministers are, in fact, priests, even though the noun is not found referring to them. Whether you call these New Covenant ministers apostles, bishops, or presbyters, their function is clearly priestly. A great example of this can be found in how St. Paul refers to his own apostolic ministry as a “priestly service.”

… because of the grace given me by God to be a minister of Christ Jesus to the Gentiles in the priestly service of the gospel of God… (Romans 15:15b-16a)

I think people can easily fall into the same trap of those who would reject the Trinity because the word “Trinity” is not found in Scripture. The reality of the Trinity is there. The Church uses this word to define the mystery of three divine persons existing in one essence, or nature. So it is with the priesthood. The noun, hiereus, is not there. But the fact that apostles, bishops, and elders function as priests is very clear.

Denying the Obvious

Attempts to deny the priestly character of the above-mentioned texts are always, shall we say, interesting. One example of this is found in the attempt to interpret away Jesus’ clear words imparting the power to forgive sins to the apostles in John 20:21-23. Many will claim, “The perfect tense, passive voice, of the verb ‘to forgive’ makes clear that when Jesus said, ‘If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven,’ it actually means whoever sins you forgive have already been forgiven. Not through any instrumentality of the apostle, but by God.”

While it is true perfect passive forms of the verbs both “to forgive” and “to retain” are employed in the text, this same text plainly tells us when the sins were “already forgiven.” When “you” (the apostles) forgive them!

The Catholic Church is not saying the apostles are doing this by some magical powers or by their own power. Jesus “breathed on them” and gave them the power of the Holy Spirit to forgive sins. But the fact is the apostles are the revealed instruments of God’s forgiveness. If this is not a priest, then what is a priest?

There are many more texts of Scripture we could use to demonstrate a New Covenant ministerial priesthood. But I suppose I could sum it up with the old saying, “If it walks like a duck, quacks like a duck… it’s a duck.”

When we examine the New Testament and particularly the function of its ministers… if they talk like priests, forgive sins like priests, mediate grace like priests…

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Is Confession Biblical?

The Lord declares in Isaiah 43:25:

I, I am He who blots out your transgressions for my own sake, and I will not remember your sins.

Psalm 103:2-3 adds:

Bless the Lord, O my soul, and forget not all his benefits, who forgives all your iniquity, who heals all your diseases…

Many will use these verses against the idea of confession to a priest. God forgiving sins, they will claim, precludes the possibility of there being a priest who forgives sins. Further, Hebrews 3:1 and 7:22-27 tell us Jesus is, “the… high priest of our confession” and that there are not “many priests,” but one in the New Testament—Jesus Christ. Moreover, if Jesus is the “one mediator between God and men” (I Tim. 2:5), how can Catholics reasonably claim priests act in the role of mediator in the Sacrament of Confession?

BEGINNING WITH THE OLD

The Catholic Church acknowledges what Scripture unequivocally declares: it is God who forgives our sins. But that is not the end of the story. Leviticus 19:20-22 is equally unequivocal:

If a man lies carnally with a woman… they shall not be put to death… But he shall bring a guilt offering for himself to the Lord… And the priest shall make atonement for him with the ram of the guilt offering before the Lord for his sin which he has committed; and the sin which he has committed shall be forgiven him.

Apparently, a priest being used as God’s instrument of forgiveness did not somehow take away from the fact that it was God who did the forgiving. God was the first cause of the forgiveness; the priest was the secondary, or instrumental cause. Thus, God being the forgiver of sins in Isaiah 43:25 and Psalm 103:3 in no way eliminates the possibility of there being a ministerial priesthood established by God to communicate his forgiveness.

OUT WITH THE OLD

Many Protestants will concede the point of priests acting as mediators of forgiveness in the Old Testament. “However,” they will claim, “The people of God had priests in the Old Testament. Jesus is our only priest in the New Testament.” The question is: could it be that “our great God and Savior Jesus Christ” (Titus 2:13) did something similar to that which he did, as God, in the Old Testament? Could he have established a priesthood to mediate his forgiveness in the New Testament?

IN WITH THE NEW

Just as God empowered his priests to be instruments of forgiveness in the Old Testament, the God/man Jesus Christ delegated authority to his New Testament ministers to act as mediators of reconciliation as well. Jesus made this remarkably clear in John 20:21-23:

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.”

Having been raised from the dead, our Lord was here commissioning his apostles to carry on with his work just before he was to ascend to heaven. “As the Father has sent me, even so I send you.” What did the Father send Jesus to do? All Christians agree he sent Christ to be the one true mediator between God and men. As such, Christ was to infallibly proclaim the Gospel (cf. Luke 4:16-21), reign supreme as King of kings and Lord of lords (cf. Rev. 19:16); and especially, he was to redeem the world through the forgiveness of sins (cf. I Peter 2:21-25, Mark 2:5-10).

The New Testament makes very clear that Christ sent the apostles and their successors to carry on this same mission. To proclaim the gospel with the authority of Christ (cf. Matthew 28:18-20), to govern the Church in His stead (cf. Luke 22:29-30), and to sanctify her through the sacraments, especially the Eucharist (cf. John 6:54, I Cor. 11:24-29) and for our purpose here, Confession.

John 20:22-23 is nothing more than Jesus emphasizing one essential aspect of the priestly ministry of the apostles: To Forgive men’s sins in the person of Christ— “Whose sins you forgive, they are forgiven, whose sins you retain are retained.” Moreover, auricular confession is strongly implied here. The only way the apostles could either forgive or retain sins is by first hearing those sins confessed, and then making a judgment whether or not the penitent should be absolved.

TO FORGIVE OR TO PROCLAIM?

Many Fundamentalists claim John 20:23 must be viewed as Christ simply repeating “the great commission” of Matthew 28:19 and Luke 24:47 using different words that mean the same thing:

Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.

… and that repentance and forgiveness of sins should be preached in his name to all nations…

Commenting on John 20:23 in his book, Romanism—The Relentless Roman Catholic Assault on the Gospel of Jesus Christ! (White Horse Publications, Huntsville Alabama, 1995), p. 100, Protestant Apologist Robert Zins writes:

It is apparent that the commission to evangelize is tightly woven into the commission to proclaim forgiveness of sin through faith in Jesus Christ.

Mr. Zin’s claim is that John 20:23 is not saying the apostles would forgive sins; rather, that they would merely proclaim the forgiveness of sins. The only problem with this theory is it runs head-on into the text of John 20. “If you forgive the sins of any… if you retain the sins of any.” The text cannot say it any clearer: this is more than a mere proclamation of the forgiveness of sins—this “commission” of the Lord communicates the power to actually forgive the sins themselves.

FREQUENT CONFESSION

The next question for many upon seeing the plain words of St. John is, “Why don’t we hear any more about Confession to a priest in the rest of the New Testament?” The fact is: we don’t need to. How many times does God have to tell us something before we’ll believe it? He only gave us the proper form for baptism once (Matt. 28:19), and yet all Christians accept this teaching.

But be that as it may, there are multiple texts that deal with Confession and the forgiveness of sins through the New Covenant minister. I will cite just a few of them:

II Cor. 2:10:

 And to whom you have pardoned anything, I also.  For, what I have pardoned, if I have pardoned anything, for your sakes have I done it in the person of Christ (DRV).

Many may respond to this text by quoting modern Bible translations, e.g., the RSVCE:

What I have forgiven, if I have forgiven anything, has been for your sake in the presence of Christ (emphasis added).

St. Paul, it is argued, is simply forgiving someone in the way any layperson can forgive someone for wrongs committed against him. The Greek word—prosopon—can be translated either way. And I should note here that good Catholics will argue this point as well. This is an understandable and valid objection. However, I do not concur with it for four reasons:

1. Not only the Douay-Rheims, but the King James Version of the Bible—which no one would accuse of being a Catholic translation—translates prosopon as “person.”

2. The early Christians, who spoke and wrote in Koine Greek, at the Councils of Ephesus (AD 431) and Chalcedon (AD 451), used prosopon to refer to the “person” of Jesus Christ.

3. Even if one translates the text as St. Paul pardoning “in the presence of Christ,” the context still seems to indicate that he forgave the sins of others. And notice: St. Paul specifically said he was not forgiving anyone for offenses committed against him (see II Cor. 2:5). Any Christian can and must do this. He said he did the forgiving “for [the Corinthian’s] sakes” and “in the person (or presence) of Christ.” The context seems to indicate he is forgiving sins that do not involve him personally.

4. Just three chapters later, St. Paul gives us the reason why he could forgive the sins of others: “All this is from God, who through Christ reconciled us to himself and gave us the ministry of reconciliation” (II Cor. 5:18). Some will argue that “the ministry of reconciliation” of verse 18 is identical to “the message of reconciliation” in verse 19. In other words, St. Paul is simply referring to a declarative power here. I don’t agree. I argue St. Paul uses distinct terms precisely because he is referring to more than just “the message of reconciliation,” but the same ministry of reconciliation that was Christ’s. Christ did more than just preach a message; he also forgave sins.

James 5:14-17:

Is any one among you sick? Let him call for the elders of the church, and let them pray over him, anointing him with oil in the name of the Lord; and the prayer of faith will save the sick man, and the Lord will raise him up; and if he has committed sins, he will be forgiven.  Therefore confess your sins to one another, and pray for one another, that you may be healed. The prayer of a righteous man has great power in its effects. Elijah was a man of like nature with ourselves and he prayed fervently that it might not rain… and… it did not rain…

When it comes to one “suffering;” St. James says, “Let him pray.” “Is any cheerful? Let him sing praise.” But when it comes to sickness and personal sins, he tells his readers they must go to the “elders”—not just anyone—in order to receive this “anointing” and the forgiveness of sins.

Some will object and point out that verse 16 says to confess our sins “to one another” and pray “for one another.” Is not James just encouraging us to confess our sins to a close friend so we can help one another to overcome our faults?

The context seems to disagree with this interpretation for two main reasons:

1. St. James had just told us to go to the presbyter in verse 14 for healing and the forgiveness of sins. Then, verse 16 begins with the word therefore—a conjunction that would seem to connect verse 16 back to verses 14 and 15. The context seems to point to the “elder” as the one to whom we confess our sins.

2. Ephesians 5:21 employs this same phrase. “Be subject to one another out of reverence for Christ.” But the context limits the meaning of “to one another” specifically to a man and wife—not just anyone. Similarly, the context of James 5 would seem to limit the confession of faults “to one another” to the specific relationship between “anyone” and the “elder” or “priest” (Gr.—presbuteros).

ONE PRIEST OR MANY?

A major obstacle to Confession for many Protestants (me included when I was Protestant) is that it presupposes a priesthood. As I said above, Jesus is referred to in Scripture as “the apostle and high priest of our confession.” The former priests were many in number, as Hebrews 7:23 says, now we have one priest—Jesus Christ. The question is: how does the idea of priests and confession fit in here? Is there one priest or are there many?

I Peter 2:5-9 gives us some insight:

… and like living stones be yourselves built into a spiritual house, to be a holy priesthood, to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ… But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people…

If Jesus is the one and only priest in the New Testament in a strict sense, then we have a contradiction in Sacred Scripture. This, of course, is absurd.  I Peter plainly teaches all believers to be members of a holy priesthood. Priest/believers do not take away from Christ’s unique priesthood, rather, as members of his body they establish it on earth.

FULL AND ACTIVE PARTICIPATIO

If one understands the very Catholic and very biblical notion of participatio, these problematic texts and others become relatively easy to understand. Yes, Jesus Christ is the “one mediator between God and men” just as I Tim. 2:5 says. The Bible is clear. Yet, Christians are also called to be mediators in Christ. When we intercede for one another or share the Gospel with someone, we act as mediators of God’s love and grace in the one true mediator, Christ Jesus, via the gift of participatio in Christ, the sole mediator between God and men (see I Timothy 2:1-7, I Timothy 4:16, Romans 10:9-14). All Christians, in some sense, can say with St.   Paul, “…it is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me…” (Gal. 2:20)

PRIESTS AMONG PRIESTS

If all Christians are priests, then why do Catholics claim a ministerial priesthood essentially distinct from the universal priesthood? The answer is: God willed to call out a special priesthood among the universal priesthood to minister to his people. This concept is literally as old as Moses.

When St. Peter taught us about the universal priesthood of all believers, he specifically referred to Exodus 19:6 where God alluded to ancient Israel as “a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.” St. Peter reminds us that there was a universal priesthood among the Old Testament people of God just as in the New Testament. But this did not preclude the existence of a ministerial priesthood within that universal priesthood (see Exodus 19:22, Exodus 28, and Numbers 3:1-12).

In an analogous way, we have a universal “Royal Priesthood” in the New Testament, but we also have an ordained clergy who have priestly authority given to them by Christ to carry out his ministry of reconciliation as we have seen.

TRULY AWESOME AUTHORITY

A final couple of texts we will consider are Matt. 16:19 and 18:18. Specifically, we’ll examine the words of Christ to Peter and the apostles: “Whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.” As CCC 553 says, Christ here communicated not only authority “to pronounce doctrinal judgments, and to make disciplinary decisions in the Church,” but also “the authority to absolve sins” to the apostles.

These words are unsettling, even disturbing, to many. And understandably so. How could God give such authority to men? And yet he does. Jesus Christ, who alone has the power to open and shut heaven to men, clearly communicated this authority to the apostles and their successors. This is what the forgiveness of sins is all about: to reconcile men and women with their heavenly Father. CCC 1445 puts it succinctly:

The words bind and loose mean: whomever you exclude from your communion, will be excluded from communion with God; whomever you receive anew into your communion, God will welcome back into his. Reconciliation with the Church is inseparable from reconciliation with God.

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