When is the last time you confessed your sin? I'm not talking about a general confession in church, or a half-hearted "I've got some things I need to work on," or even a private confession to God in your bed at the end of the day. When did you last go to your pastor, friend, or trusted family member and confess specific sins? My guess is it's been a while. Unfortunately, it is not a common practice in evangelical (or even Protestant) churches to confess sins privately to a pastor or trusted spiritual advisor. But today I want to suggest that private confession is an important historic Christian practice that should be revived in the Church. If we want to experience full life in Christ, we have to begin living more open lives, confessing our sins to one another and sharing the forgiving love of Christ with each other. This (admittedly longer than usual) post aims to give a few reasons why confession is important, as well as some practical advice on both giving and hearing a confession.
As children of the Reformation, we Protestants are grateful for the doctrine of salvation through faith, by grace, and by Christ alone. Scripture makes it clear that everything necessary for justification has been done by Christ—but, as Richard Foster says in Celebration of Discipline, “The Bible views salvation as both an event and a process. To converted people Paul says, ‘Work out your own salvation with fear and trembling’ (Phil. 2:12)...The Discipline of confession helps the believer grow into the ‘mature manhood, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ’ (Eph. 4:13).” Of course, he does not mean that the process of salvation is begun by God and completed by us, but that the effects of salvation become more particularly identified and more deeply felt as we progress and mature in our faith. In other words, we are not saved only from “sin” in the abstract sense, but from our own particular sins that cause pain and destruction in our lives and in the lives of people around us.
Private, auricular (having to do with hearing) confession provides us with an opportunity to see liberation from these particular sins. Though “there is one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus” (1 Tim. 2:5), we are also called to “confess [our] sins to one another, and pray for one another, so that [we] may be healed” (Jas. 5:16)—and these Scriptures do not contradict or exclude each other. Jesus is the only mediator between God and human beings, but he has given his Church the authority to forgive sins in his name: “He breathed on [the apostles] and said to them, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained’” (Jn. 20:22-23). Of course, this authority comes from Jesus himself and is dependent upon the forgiveness he won on the cross. But, as the church is the body of Christ on earth—the people through whom Jesus is present and working in the world today—we do the work of Christ. And one of the most important elements of Jesus’ work is freeing human beings from the destructive power of sin.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer talks about this in his classic book on Christian community, Life Together. As a Lutheran, he shares the Lutheran conviction that Christians are freed from sin so that they can serve their neighbors and act toward their neighbors as God acts: “Our brother...has been given to us to help us. He hears the confession of our sins in Christ’s stead and he forgives our sins in Christ’s name. He keeps the secret of our confession as God keeps it. When I go to my brother to confess, I am going to God.” So this is one of the ways in which the church acts as the body of Christ on earth.
Though private confession became unpopular after the Reformation, the Reformers themselves—and particularly Martin Luther—saw it as a productive practice for Christians: “[Private confession] is a cure without equal for distressed consciences. For when we have laid bare our conscience to our brother and privately made known to him the evil that lurked within, we receive from our brother’s lips the word of comfort spoken by God himself. And if we accept this in faith, we find peace in the mercy of God speaking to us through our brother.” Public confession is, of course, an important part of corporate worship, but it too easily allows us to hide our sins from each other and pretend that we are perfect. Private, exhaustive confession lets us know that we are not alone in our sin. We aren't allowed to pretend to be perfect anymore, and we no longer live under the illusion that everybody else has reached a state of perfection while we still struggle with the same old sins. As Foster says, “The people of God are first a fellowship of sinners...In acts of mutual confession we release the power that heals. Our humanity is no longer denied, but transformed.”
More particularly, private confession forces us to accept responsibility for our own sins, gives us assurance that we are forgiven in the words of absolution, and provides us with concrete and practical ways to follow Jesus more faithfully in the counseling/penance section. Another benefit of confession is provided by Robert Benson in Living Prayer: “We cannot be filled with God until we are not so full of ourselves...confess who you are in relation to God—the good and the bad, what binds you closer to God and what separates you from God, what you can do and what you cannot do, what you love and what you fear. When you are empty enough, you may indeed begin to hear God’s Word for you. Then you can go forth to become that Word in the world.”
HOW DO WE CONFESS?
There are three important steps to confession, given by St. Alphonsus Liguori: examination of conscience, sorrow, and determination to avoid sin.
As Foster says, “A generalized confession may save us from humiliation and shame, but it will not ignite inner healing.” We must examine our lives for specific sins, because healing cannot begin until the problem is identified. Foster gives a couple of methods for doing this, the first being his own method of confession: he sat down three days in a row and wrote out all the sins he could think of from his childhood, his adolescence, and adult years. He read the list to a friend, who pronounced a simple absolution and tore the lists to pieces in front of him.
The second method Foster gives is Martin Luther’s preference of measuring his words, thoughts, and deeds against the Ten Commandments (Bonhoeffer also endorses this method in Life Together). Another method I have seen, mostly in Roman Catholic circles, is examining one’s conscience in light of the "seven deadly sins": lust, gluttony, greed, sloth, wrath, envy, and pride.
Confessions should be private, in a secluded and quiet place. They should also be made on a regular basis. This is important for accountability reasons, but also because it gives people freedom to live in openness and honesty. Sin thrives in secrecy.
WHO MAY HEAR A CONFESSION?
Denominations differ over who may hear a confession. It is not surprising that, as a Quaker, Foster emphasizes the priesthood of all believers to answer this question: “The Scripture teaches us that all believers are priests before God...One of the functions of the Old Testament priest was to bring the forgiveness of sins through the holy sacrifice. The book of Hebrews, of course, makes clear that Jesus Christ is the final and sufficient sacrifice. And Jesus has given to us his priesthood: the ministry of making that sacrifice real in the hearts and lives of other human beings. It is through the voice of our brothers and sisters that the word of forgiveness is heard and takes root in our lives.”
Roman Catholic, Orthodox, and Anglican communities reserve the right of absolution for ordained ministers. The argument for this is that the authority to absolve was given to the apostles alone; therefore, only those who have received the laying on of hands through apostolic succession are authorized to absolve sins. Still, however, laypersons are authorized to lead services where general confessions are said and to hear private confessions from others. Instead of declaring absolution, they ask God for forgiveness and receive assurance of pardon. This does not give penitents any less assurance of forgiveness—at least in the minds of Anglicans.
The important thing here is to find someone who 1) you trust, and 2) is spiritually mature enough to keep your confidence and offer you wise counsel on how to deal with your sins. Foster’s qualifications for a good confessor are spiritual maturity, wisdom, compassion, good common sense, the ability to keep a confidence, and a wholesome sense of humor.
HOW DO WE HEAR A CONFESSION?
Foster says we must “live under the cross” in order to rightly hear a confession, a phrase he borrows from Bonhoeffer: “Anybody who lives beneath the Cross and who has discerned in the Cross of Jesus the utter wickedness of all men and of his own heart will find there is no sin that can ever be alien to him. Anybody who has once been horrified by the dreadfulness of his own sin that nailed Jesus to the Cross will no longer be horrified by even the rankest sins of a brother.” When we “live under the cross,” we have no need or desire to feel superior to our brothers and sisters, nor do we want to control them. We will show compassion and understanding.
Secondly, we should pray for an “increase of the light of Christ within us”—the basic idea being that our presence communicates Christ’s love and grace. As was mentioned above, we are the body of Christ on earth, that is, we are to be Christ to others.
Thirdly, we should pray for an increase in the gift of discernment. This is especially important for counseling after the confession itself. The goal is to be aware of the deeper needs of the penitent, and to give effective direction on how to receive healing.
Fourthly, be quiet as the penitent confesses. Don't attempt to diffuse the tension or pry for more details than necessary. If the penitent stops talking, and you think there is more to be said, simply wait. More often than not they'll keep going, if there's more to be said.
Fifthly, give the penitent assurance of pardon (or absolution, if you're ordained in a tradition that practices that). It's incredibly important that we are assured of our forgiveness. God doesn't want us merely to wallow in regret and self-pity. He wants us to know that he has forgiven us! To do this it is important to “set the cross between you and the penitent.” Sins are forgiven by Christ himself, and we are given the privilege of announcing that forgiveness to people who desperately need it. Remember that confession is not merely a human exercise—something sacred is happening.
Lastly, pray for the penitent while they are confessing, and with them afterwards. This is another way to keep in mind that God himself is acting in the confession and to rely on him to provide the necessary healing. The whole experience must be soaked in prayer.
Confession is such an important practice for the Church today, and it's a real shame that it has fallen out of fashion. Whether we object to it because we're afraid it sounds too "Catholic," lack experience, or subconsciously avoid it because of our pride and fear, we can't deny that sin and destruction have so much more power when they are allowed to work undisturbed. Covering up a wound without treating it will only lead to infection, a much more difficult and painful situation for everyone. Confession breaks down the walls we build up between each other. It brings our faults out into the light so we can hear from our neighbor (who speaks in Christ's stead), "It is finished. You are forgiven." As Foster says, “Confession brings an end to pretense. God is calling into being a Church that can openly confess its frail humanity and know the forgiving and empowering graces of change. May God give grace to the Church once again to recover the Discipline of confession."
For further reading, see:
Celebration of Discipline by Richard Foster
Life Together by Dietrich Bonhoeffer