What is the Sacrament of "Penance"?
Penance! The very thought strikes fear in the hearts of men and images of medieval torture racks in the minds of non-Catholic folks. Maybe hair shirts too, or hemmorhagic floggings as per the Da Vinci Commode. What is the Sacrament of Penance (AKA reconciliation or confession)? The Sacrament of Penance/Confession (as all Sacraments) was instituted by Christ himself.
But the word "Sacrament" isn't even in the Bible is it? No, I don't think so, but come to think of it,... neither is the word "Bible."
Remember from previous posts that a Sacrament is the way the God of the universe conveys His divine grace to us men on this earth through physical means. Again, to understand Catholicism, one needs to look to the Jewish faith from which Catholicism came. Sacramentalism is a very Jewish and ancient concept. For example, circumcision makes a Jewish child a part of the covenant family. It was a physical sign effecting a spiritual and covenental relationship.
In Baptism, physical water washes away sin.(1 Peter 3:21)
In Marriage, the two people become one physically and spiritually before God forever.
In the Eucharist, the bread and wine become the body and blood of Christ.
In the Sacrament of Penance, Jesus gives His church the power to forgive the sins of men in His name. This forgiveness was obtained through his once and for all sacrifice on the Cross.
“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’" (John)
The Church believes that this authority was not meant to end after the first generation of disciples but was to continue to be passed on through the succession given through the "laying on of hands."
Why do we need the sacrament of Penance/Reconciliation? Because after we have received the grace of God and the cleansing from original sin in our baptism, we tend to fall back into the pig-pen again, and more often than not we purposefully head for the pen! When we sin, we injure our relationship with God as the prodigal son did to his dad and we also do damage to our relationship to the body of Christ, our neighbors. Only the pure of heart will see God and we need to restore the relationship we have injured by our sin. The Sacrament of Penance or Reconciliation reconciles us to God and puts us right with His church.
But, why do I have to confess my sins to a man? Because the Bible says to do it!
"Confess your sins one to another and pray for one another so you may be healed."(James)
Yeah, but why a priest? Why not? Would you rather go up to someone in your congregation every week and confess your sins to them? I mean the Bible says to do it as a way of being healed so if we believe the Bible.....
If the Bible says we should confess our sins to someone human, wouldn’t you rather do it to someone who has been given the authority to forgive sins from Christ himself through this long train of apostolic succession?
Yeah, but a priest is a sinful man just like me!
Yes, but when we confess our sins, the priest is acting in the place of Christ and we are literally speaking into the ear of God. So regardless of the priest’s personal sanctity (which is not up to us to surmise anyway), the grace of God and forgiveness are conveyed through him. Personally speaking, I would rather, any day of the week, confess my sins to a man who is canonically committed to keeping them secret, rather than a friend or “brother in the Lord”. A priest can be excommunicated for sharing what he has heard in the confessional.
One of the worst experiences of my life was being forced to turn to a stranger at a Promise Keeper’s conference at a stadium in
In the confessional, when I am truly sorry for sinning and offending my Savior, he freely and unconditionally wipes the slate clean and “his blood cleanses me from all sin.”
The priest doesn’t personally forgive me, he can’t. He acts in place of Christ and God applies the blood of Jesus through the absolution of the priest. “If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven.”
On My Next Blog, I will discuss why we need to “do penance” after confession. This is a major sticking point for Protestants since they feel that “Jesus paid the price so I don’t need to do anything to "add" to His forgiveness.” The “penance” we perform doesn’t earn us forgiveness, but seeks to restore the temporal order that has been damaged by our sin.
Much the same way after our young toddler steals some candy from a store, we make sure he goes back in returning the item to make restitution. It is just as Jesus said “you will stay locked in the slammer until every bit of the money is paid back” so to speak.
To see the historical evidence of this practice going back to the days of the early church, please refer to this link. http://www.catholic.com/library/Forgiveness_of_Sins.asp
Again, the sacrament of penance was not a "man made tradition" added sometime in the "middle ages."