Editor’s Note: In this and coming issues of byFaith, we’ll be asking readers to tell us what, theologically or in the practice of their faith, has become clearer to them. We’re interested to see how people have how they’ve reformed their own thinking, where they’ve changed they minds, where they see something differently—and in a better light—than they have before. Here, pastor Ben Hames shares some thoughts about confession.
According to journalist Alexandra Alter, confession is “undergoing a revival” worthy of every churchgoer’s attention. “This February at the Vatican, Pope Benedict XVI instructed priests to make confession a top priority. U.S. bishops have begun promoting it in diocesan newspapers, mass mailings, and even billboard ads.” Perhaps even more noteworthy and dramatic is that some Protestant churches are likewise instituting and encouraging confession. This summer, the second-largest branch of the Lutheran Church passed a resolution in support of confession, a rite neglected for more than 100 years.
Of course, most Protestants today believe confession is a practice that ended with Luther. However, the writings of Luther do not advocate abolishing confession, but simply criticize the abuses of the rite (penance, the selling of indulgences, and regarding confession as a sacrament mediated by a priest, etc.).
Even Ulrich Zwingli, the most radical of the magisterial reformers, cannot be rightly understood as calling for the abolition of confession. In his 67 Theses he speaks only against abuses of confession, such as the refusal of forgiveness to those “truly penitent.” Calvin began worship services in Geneva with corporate confession and absolution, as did Knox in Scotland. Clearly, modern Protestants – in reflecting upon the church’s rejection of private sacramental confession to a priest – may be surprised to learn that corporate confession is part of historic Reformed worship, and that individual confession to a pastor, elder, or fellow believer is a healthy part of our Christian walk.
Stripping away our sacerdotal concerns and reaction to excess, following the Reformed directive of “Sola Scriptura,” we see the Scriptures calling us to practice confession.
James writes, “Therefore, confess your sins to one another, and pray for one another” (5:16a; Acts 19:17-20).
But do not read this and then feel compelled to “unload” on the next church member you see. The call to confess to one another begs deeper questions about who we should be as a people. It calls us not simply to begin confessing to one another but to build a context of love in Christian community such that mutual confession will take place organically.
If your response to James’s call to “confess your sins to one another” is, “I couldn’t tell any of these people about that,” then maybe you should deeply consider your own emotional investment in the context in which God has placed you. Are you real? Transparent? What can you do to make this context one where you will desire to confess to others as James instructs? James’s call implies much about God’s design of the church as intimate community.
Many in the church have begun to see the value of having a Christian brother or sister to hold them accountable in life. This service to one another is a great example of the Church of Christ living as vivified community. Confession moves us beyond the cognitive and internal toward the tangible and at least mildly communal. Through this, believers find they are more honest with themselves, more cognizant of God’s standards, and above all more aware of their everyday need of God’s grace. Of course, in all this there is a risk—that someone will find out we’re sinners in need of God’s grace.
Upon this fresh consideration, I am convinced that we neglect great grace in our neglect of confession. We should pray that God would grant us transparent relationships among the believers around us.
Ben Hames is a teaching elder in the Presbyterian Church in America. His theological interests include the early church and the Reformation. He and his wife, Erin, reside in Atlanta.