Why must I confess my sins to a priest? Why can’t I go directly to God?
The answer to those questions is not an “eitheror”, but a “both.” The Scriptures show that the whole goal of salvation history has been to reconcile humanity with God. The alienation of human beings from God because of Original sin and our inclination to sin and the fact that we do commit sin, means that we need the Savior’s intervention repeatedly. God’s actions have had one goal: to reconcile us to Himself. The salvation took place slowly, over time and culminated in the sacrifice of Jesus Christ.
In the Old Testament, we see that people did not go to God directly to have their sins forgiven. The high priest of the temple performed this ritual, once a year on the “Day of Atonement.” On this special day, he alone was permitted to enter into the “Holy of Holies” of the Temple and perform the ritual for the forgiveness of their sins. Only the High Priest went directly to God. The typical person of the day did not have that status or privilege before God.
But we are people of the New Testament where Jesus Christ offered that one perfect sacrifice for our sins. However, at the same time, He also brought the “Human Element” to forgiveness of sins. The miracles of Jesus demonstrated God’s compassion and love for the human condition.
In the episode where the paralytic is lowered from the ceiling as Jesus is teaching the crowd, He does not say initially, “pick up your mat and go home.” Instead, He says, “Your sins are forgiven” (Mark 2+). At this point, He is at odds with the Pharisees who claim that only God can forgive sins.
The radical change Jesus brought about was that the forgiveness of sins came about by a personal meeting and a human voice providing the absolution, “Your sins are forgiven.” It is pronounced by a human voice and heard by human ears. In our confessions, our sins are identified by a human voice, heard by human ears and the absolution is spoken by a human voice and received by human ears. Moreover, the spoken absolution give a guarantee that the sins have been forgiven.
In John 20:22-23, after the Resurrection, Jesus appeared to the Apostles and said, “Receive the Holy Spirit, whose sins you forgive are forgiven them, whose sins you retain are retained.” The High Priest went directly to God. Jesus Christ is our High Priest and God. He brought that human element to the forgiveness of sin and gave that authority to the Church.
With regard to a person going directly to God for the forgiveness of sins, we do that when we make an examination of conscience. That is an important part of the Sacrament of Confession and must be directed by God. Within the Sacrament, the priests acts, in persona Christi, that is, in the person of Christ. That means, it is Christ who absolves and forgiveness us in the Sacrament of Confession. For that reason, when we celebrate the Sacrament of Reconciliation, we do go directly to Christ.
In Matthew’s Gospel, after the Jesus forgives the sins of the paralytic, and heals him, the evangelist record the response of the crowd, “”When the crowds saw this they were struck with awe and glorified God who had given such authority to men” (9:8).