It is a beautiful thing to be reconciled to someone you love when you were in the wrong. It may feel disempowering to admit ones guilt in the moment but if the other person is of good will then they will forgive you. Reconciliation in its etymology has a context of thought with the Latin work cilia and can denote a connection like two people that are eyelash to eyelash.
Within the Christian domain it is likewise hoped for that one can have an ongoing Christian experience of conversion by minding their side of the street and connecting with confession. A common theme that could be looked at on sacraments is how they are a heavenly language and practice that connects the spiritual and material in harmony. Such harmony is the fruit of the gospel with a pivotal point on how “the Word became flesh and dwelt among us” (John 1:14) and as we will see also connects to the “laying on of hands” (Hebrews 6:2).
Walking on the earth Jesus came to set people who were oppressed from sin and this was connected in the gospels several times where he forgave sins and healed in the same encounter.
For which is easier, to say, ‘Your sins are forgiven,’ or to say, ‘Rise and walk’? But that you may know that the Son of man has authority on earth to forgive sins”—he then said to the paralytic—“Rise, take up your bed and go home.” And he rose and went home. When the crowds saw it, they were afraid, and they glorified God, who had given such authority to men (Matthew 9:5-8).
This last statement was not a slip in language by the narrative of Matthew. People were being healed and baptized under the hands of the apostles in Jesus’ ministry. Thus Jesus was able to speak sacramentally on such authority later. Jesus said to Peter “I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven” (Matthew 16:19).
In the event that someone is engaged in serious sin and will not repent after the progressive disciple protocol Jesus founded, then excommunication is more than implied.
“If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church; and if he refuses to listen even to the church, let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector. Truly, I say to you, whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven” (Matthew 18:17-18).
So what we have here is the beginning structure of authority in a church that is tangible and would have say on ones standing spiritually in heaven and earth. But this is not to be a matter of holding something over someone’s head. A few sentences later Jesus speaks about forgiveness seventy times seven. As we see below, the context of reconciliation extends from Jesus through the apostolic succession already referred to. After the Resurrection Jesus puts the sacrament of reconciliation in the context of peace, family, delegated authority and a profound sense of intimacy with God’s mercy.
[Jesus] said to them again, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” And when he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit. Whose sins you forgive are forgiven them, and whose sins you retain are retained.” (John 20:21-23).
We can see how the pattern of Jesus as Apostle and High Priest of the Christian faith hands both the sacraments of healing and reconciliation together beyond just the 12.
Is any 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. Eli′jah was a man of like nature with ourselves and he prayed fervently that it might not rain, and for three years and six months it did not rain on the earth. Then he prayed again and the heaven gave rain, and the earth brought forth its fruit (James 5:14-18).
What we see here starts with the anointing of the sick as addressed before but presupposes that there will be forgiveness in that encounter as a predictable, factual thing.
What is worth addressing from that passage is the idea that they were to “confess your sins to one another” means there is no priesthood needed. One can draw from both Old and New Testament passages to see the linking theme of sacramental intervention for especially serious sins to compliment this passage.
This command must be interpreted within the context of the anointing rite, where the elders (i.e. priests) presumably hear the confession of the sick person before his sins are remitted through the sacrament. Such confession has its roots in the liturgical practice of Israel (Lev. 5:5-6, Num 5:5-10) and is implicitly mandated by the teaching of Jesus (John 20:23).
In ongoing church history such an interpretation was reinforced by notable church fathers.
“The priests of Judaism had power to cleanse the body from leprosy—or rather, not to cleanse it at all, but to declare a person as having been cleansed. . . . Our priests have received the power not of treating with the leprosy of the body, but with spiritual uncleanness; not of declaring cleansed, but of actually cleansing. . . . Priests accomplish this not only by teaching and admonishing, but also by the help of prayer. Not only at the time of our regeneration [in baptism], but even afterward, they have the authority to forgive sins: ‘Is there anyone among you sick? Let him call in the priests of the church, and let them pray over him, anointing him with oil in the name of the Lord. And the prayer of faith shall save the sick man, and the Lord shall raise him up, and if he has committed sins, he shall be forgiven’” (John Chrysostom, On The Priesthood 3:6:190ff [A.D. 387]).
Still there are allusions to this a few centuries later.
Let him bring in the presbyters, and let them pray over him, anointing him with oil; and the prayer of faith will save the sick man, and the Lord will raise him up; and if he be in sins, they will be forgiven him. . . . (Caesar of Arles, early 500’s. Sermons 13:3).
I would like to address the emotional arguments now. As someone who had a Christian life that seemed to be overall formatted well, to go to confession went against ingrained beliefs that translated to muscle memory. My lifelong principles were that Jesus is the sole mediator between God and man with his intrinsic holiness and no man should ever make it without him. I can say with confidence that those principles have not changed nor would there be contradiction on this point by a priest in my church. My pastor has said that if someone goes to him for the sacraments based on the idea that he is intrinsically holy then they will be in trouble with false hope. A priest is a human element of Christ’s pure priesthood extended on earth as Jesus intended in his post-resurrection message when he breathed on the disciples as shown above. This is referred to as en persona Cristi (in the person of Christ). Any subsequent counsel I get will be listened to and is not even protected by a mystical infallibility. Their counsel is not the point, but the mercy of Jesus is.
So going forward, there is a beauty to confession. The gospel is indeed good, true and beautiful. What do you have to lose in doing it except your sin?