In Defense of the Sacrament of Confession
When my grandma was a little girl, probably six or seven years old, she went to her first confession in a Roman Catholic Church. Having to find something she did wrong, she told the priest she was guilty of committing the sin of adultery…six times! In her mind, adultery meant “disrespecting an adult.”
When people think of confession in the context of Catholic faith, they think of a small booth with a screen between the confessing parishioner and the priest. Many Protestants assume that the penance given out by most priests is something like saying 50 Hail Marys and 25 Our Fathers.
Confession may be one of the most misunderstood Sacraments. As with many theological issues, the Roman Catholic doctrine of Penance is oft misrepresented. The Protestant theology of it varies from denomination to denomination, though the classically Reformed traditions—Anglicans, Lutherans, and Presbyterians—all maintained some form of confession and absolution in their liturgies. Unfortunately, many modern churches are in the business of privatizing the act of confession to the individual believer and God, divorcing it from both Sacramental and corporate contexts.
Why is confession important? Why is it unfortunate that many modern communities of faith are leaving these prayers behind?
In order to answer these questions, first confession needs to be defined. Confession is the act where a Christian acknowledges their sin before God, asks for his forgiveness, and repents (turns away from those sins). The purpose of any prayer of confession is not just an acknowledgement of one’s sinful actions but the recognition that as Christians, we must be wholly dependent on the grace which God bestows upon us. There are two different kinds of confession. The first type is that which is done corporately and liturgically while the other is done sacramentally between an individual, a priest, and God.
In many traditions, there is a corporate prayer of confession every Sunday. In our Anglican church, the confession and absolution occurs after the reading of the Scripture, the preaching of the homily, and the recitation of the Nicene Creed because we allow for God to speak to us through the proclamation of the Gospel to penetrate our hearts and convict us of any sin that may be in our lives.
In the Order for the Administration of the Lord’s Supper, which will be in the new Book of Common Prayer for the Anglican Church in North America (hopefully to be released in 2019), the priest or deacon calls the congregation to confession by the following words:
All who truly and earnestly repent of your sins, and seek to be reconciled with your neighbors, and intend to lead the new life, following the commandments of God, and walking in his holy ways: draw near with faith and make your humble confession to Almighty God.
The people, preferably kneeling, then pray together:
Most merciful God,
We confess that we have sinned against you
in thought, word, and deed,
by what we have done, and by what we have left undone.
We have not loved you with our whole heart;
we have not loved our neighbors as ourselves.
We are truly sorry and we humbly repent.
For the sake of your Son Jesus Christ,
have mercy on us and forgive us;
that we may delight in your will, and walk in your ways,
to the glory of your Name. Amen.
Note the use of the pronoun “we.” That’s not an accident. When we confess our sins together, not only do individuals bring their own sin with them, but the community brings its failings before the Lord. As a church, we are recognizing that we didn’t live out our communal calling as we should have, we failed to help the poor as much as we could, we didn’t preach the Gospel as vigorously as we could, etc.
The priest then always stands and proclaims the forgiveness of the people through Christ’s sacrifice on the cross:
Almighty God, our heavenly Father, who in his great mercy has promised the forgiveness of sins to all those who sincerely repent and with true faith turn to him, have mercy upon you, pardon and deliver you from all your sins, confirm and strengthen you in all goodness, and bring you to everlasting life; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
After which, he may read what we call “Comfortable Words” which are portions of Scripture reminding us of “the Word of God to all who truly turn to him”:
“Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest.” Matthew 11:28
“God so loved the world that he gave his only-begotten Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.” John 3:16
“The saying is trustworthy and deserving of full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners.” 1 Timothy 1:15
“If anyone sins, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous. He is the propitiation for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the sins of the whole world.” 1 John 2:1-2
After the Comfortable Words, the priest then offers peace to the congregation (“The Peace of the Lord be always with you.”) and they reply in kind, “And with your spirit.”
The Sacrament of Confession
Then, there is the Sacrament of Confession. This is a time where a believer may go privately to a priest, confess individual sins, and receive absolution. The priest may also prescribe acts of penance for the confessing believer to do. Ideally, these acts of penance avoid the stereotype of 50 Hail Marys and 25 Our Fathers. Acts of Penance should be doled out with the presupposition that sin doesn’t just hurt the individual committing the sin. Often, there is a social component to our depravity and it hurts others. If a man cheats on his wife, he didn’t just hurt himself but also his wife. If a drunk driver hits another car, he hurts another person. Acts of penance are typically assigned based on the situation as a means of reconciliation among people, a way of restoring peace and harmony within community.
It should be noted too, that contrary to popular opinion, the penitent is not confessing their sins directly to the priest. Rather, they are confessing their sins directly to God. They say:
Holy God, heavenly Father, you formed me from the dust in your image and likeness, and redeemed me from sin and death by the cross of your Son Jesus Christ. Through the water of baptism you clothed me with the shining garment of his righteousness, and established me among your children in your kingdom. But I have squandered the inheritance of your saints, and have wandered far in a land that is waste. Especially, I confess to you and to the Church…Here the Penitent confesses particular sins.
The priest is not the one who grants forgiveness to the sinner, God does through his minister, saying:
Our Lord Jesus Christ, who offered himself to be sacrificed for us to the Father, and who conferred power on his Church to forgive sins, absolve you through my ministry by the grace of the Holy Spirit, and restore you in the perfect peace of the Church. Amen.
There are two main things accomplished through the confession. First, it rights our relationship with God. Scripture very clearly tells us, “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just, and will forgive our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness” (1 John 1:9; RSV). In the Lord’s Prayer, which is meant as a prayer (and a model for prayer) for Jesus’ disciples, we are told to pray: “Forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors” (Matthew 6:12).
Secondly, we confess our sins and pass the peace in the context of our community as a way of countering the social effects of sin. In Matthew 5:23-24 Jesus instructs his followers, “So if you are offering your gift at the altar, and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother, and then come and offer your gift.”
Many Protestant Christians may struggle with the idea of receiving absolution from a priest when Scripture is clear that Christ it the only mediator between humanity and God. 1 Timothy 2:5-6a tells us, “There is one God, and there is one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus, who gave himself as a ransom for all.” So why is the priest there? In liturgical and sacramental contexts, the priest is a necessary figure because he stands in for Christ. This doesn’t mean the priest is ontologically the same as Christ but that he relays to us the forgiveness of our sins as Christ would if he were present. This is why Christ told the Apostles, the founders of the Church, “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 18:18; see also 1 Tim 3:15). Elsewhere he says, “If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained” (John 20:23). Christ is still the only mediator who brings forgiveness to his people. Nevertheless, he has chosen to do that in the context of the Church.
Didn’t God Forgive All My Past, Present, and Future Sins When I Became a Christian?
Many people believe Christ forgave all their sins, past, present, and future, when they put their faith in him. After all, 1 John 2:2 states, “he [Christ] is the expiation for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the sins of the whole world.”
Like most errant views, this perspective takes a little bit of truth but emphasizes it in such a way that lead to error.
Holders of this view seem to forget that while Christ did pay for all our sins on the cross when he died, “the transaction of forgiveness takes place at different points in time.”1 Similarly, the day we were brought into the Church, however you might think that happens, the sins that were forgiven were the ones we had already committed.
Dr. Michael Brown, who is an Evangelical Pentecostal, puts it this way:
there is not a single verse anywhere in the Bible that pronounces us already forgiven for our future sins (meaning, sins we have not yet committed). Not one verse. Nowhere. Not even a hint of such a concept. All the promises of forgiveness have to do with sins we have already committed, since God is dealing with us in space and time, and He only forgives us for what we have actually done…the forgiveness of all our sins has been prepaid, but that forgiveness is not applied in advance. It is applied as needed.2
If anything, every example of preaching in Acts is aimed towards the sins people had committed in the past or were committing in the present, none that would be committed in the future. This view confuses justification and sanctification. When we are justified we are pronounced legally righteous which means God has applied Christ’s death and resurrection to us. He has adopted us into the Family of God. We become his children.
Sanctification is different. This is the process where the Holy Spirit conforms us to the image of Christ. Just because we were pronounced righteous and adopted into God’s family doesn’t change the fact that we have not yet arrived at our destination of holiness. As such, confession of sin and receiving forgiveness helps us re-orient ourselves in our pursuit of Christ. This process is like popping a shoulder back into joint. It’s painful but so very necessary.
The beauty of the Gospel is that God is always willing to forgive us when we sin against him. This is what we are reminded of during the Comfortable Words after the Absolution. During another prayer, we profess that “thou art the same Lord whose property is always to have mercy.” We aren’t wringing our hands, worried that we may not receive forgiveness from God. We are assured and confident that we will receive it! We go to the prayer of confession and the confessional booth not with trembling but with hearty remorse, humility (like the publican in Luke 18:9-14), and confidence. We come away with resolve and joy from knowing the blood or our Lord Jesus Christ covers us.
One of the things that separates Anglicans from Roman Catholics is that we do not require one to participate in the sacrament of confession before Communion or at all. As Michael Ramsey, the former Archbishop of Canterbury, says, “we are free to confess our sins to God alone without the hearing of a priest; and if we do this in sincerity God’s forgiveness is sure. But our Church has no less insisted that we are free to confess in the sacramental way if we so desire and ask absolution from the priest….The light of absolution will penetrate the entire self.”3 Confession is a beautiful gift that Christ has given his Church. Take advantage of it and receive the light of absolution.
 Michael L. Brown, Hyper-Grace: Exposing the Dangers of the Modern Grace Message (Lake Mary: Charisma House, 2014), 41.  Ibid., 43.  Michael Ramsey, The Christian Priest Today (Eugene: Wipf and Stock, 1982), 46-47.