31 August 2001

confession of sin

In Institutes 3.4.12-14 Calvin writes that we should privately confess our sins to one another for the purposes of "mutual advice and consolation" and "to reconcile another to us, if we have done him any injury." Moreover, even though we may so confess (for advice and consolation) to any other Christian,
since Pastors must be considered more proper for this than others, we ought chiefly to make choice of them...ministers are constituted by God as witnesses and as it were sureties, to certify our consciences of the remission of sins; insomuch as they themselves are said to remit sin and loose souls.
Calvin goes on to say that while such confession should be freely made and not due to some kind of externally imposed obligation, it is still such a good thing that he wishes that it would be "universally observed" that before partaking of the eucharist "the sheep should present themselves to their pastor" for confession, admonishment, and consolation. According to Calvin, when confession is made, whether generally as a congregation within the liturgy or privately to a pastor, the absolution which the pastor declares is "pronounced in the name of his Master and by his authority" and that "private absolution is no less efficacious or beneficial."

With regard to general confession and absolution in the liturgy, at Strasbourg Calvin used the following words of absolution in his French liturgy, which he composed working from Bucer's German model:
Let each of you confess that you are truly a sinner who must humble himself before God and believe that the heavenly Father will be gracious to you in Jesus Christ. To all who have repentance and who seek Jesus Christ for their salvation, I pronounce forgiveness in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, Amen.
In Strasbourg the opening rites (opening sentence, confession, absolution, commandments, kyrie, prayer) were led by the minister from behind the communion table rather than the pulpit. When Calvin returned to Geneva he was forced to alter the liturgy in ways not entirely to his liking.

For more on the practice of private confession within the Reformed tradition, see Max Thurian's book Confession (SCM 1958). For more of the liturgical place of confession in Reformed liturgy, see K. Deddens' "A Missing Link in Reformed Liturgy."