According to a recent Associated Press story, the Vatican appears to be on a public relations campaign in an effort to boost waning confession numbers. This is an issue of deep importance to Catholic officials because the sacrament of confession--admitting your sins to a priest and accepting penance--is the means of forgiveness. In the article Cardinal James Francis Stafford voices his concern: "Today we talk a lot about God's forgiveness, which is a motive for joy and happiness. But I am a bit worried about the lack of awareness of the connection between this joy and the forgiveness of sins."
So to help raise awareness of the need for priestly absolution, "Vatican officials this week revealed the inner workings of the Apostolic Penitentiary." What exactly is the "Apostolic Penitentiary," you ask? Established in 1179 by Pope Alexander III, this "tribunal of conscience" is the Vatican's highest court dealing with confessions "considered so grave only the Pope himself has the authority to absolve them." Included in this category is the defiling of the Eucharist (i.e., spitting it out or using it in a Satanic ritual), attempting to assassinate the Pope and participating in an abortion.
This is not a blog post dealing exhaustively with the Roman Catholic doctrine of confession. To be sure, more can (and needs) to be said. However, what I hope this post can do is remind Protestants (me included) of one major difference between us and Rome namely, we do not seek absolution through a human agent.
Indeed, the scribes and Pharisees at least got this right when they asked the rhetorical question, "Who can forgive sins but God alone?" (cf. Luke 5:21). Absolution comes not from an earthly priest, but from Jesus Christ the High Priest (cf. Hebrews 7-9). We stand on the great truth that "there is one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus" (1 Timothy 2:5).
Let me risk an elementary illustration: If I wrong my wife it will not do to seek forgiveness from my brother. I need to confess my wrong to her and hear Julia say, "I forgive you, Mike." Likewise, when I sin it is ultimately against God. Why, then, would I not confess my sin to Him and plead with Him for forgiveness?
The biblical model I have in mind here is the one Jesus set out in Luke 18. Here Jesus demonstrates through a Pharisee and a tax collector the right way to approach God. The tax collector, in contrast to the Pharisee, "would not even lift up his eyes to heaven, but beat his breast, saying, ‘God, be merciful to me, a sinner!’" (Luke 18:13). Notice that the tax collector is crying out not to a priest, but to God.
Let us show our Catholic friends a better way--the way that leads to the merciful One that actually has the authority to forgive. Let us point them not to a confessional booth operated by a mere man, but to the throne of grace occupied by the King of kings (cf. Hebrews 4:16). For this is where mercy is found by all those who are in Christ.
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About Mike Pohlman
Mike serves as the senior pastor at Immanuel Bible Church in Bellingham, Washington. Mike is a former church planter in the Pacific Northwest, and served for three years as the executive producer of The Albert Mohler Program, a nationally syndicated radio show dedicated to Christianity and culture. Mike has a PhD in American church history from The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. Mike is husband to Julia and father to four wonderful children: Samuel (12), Anna (10), John (9) and Michael (4). When not pastoring, Mike loves sports, music, and hanging out with his family.
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