26 May 2004

confession of sin

I've known some Presbyterian pastors who privately hear confessions of sin and speak God's absolution to the penitent. Some use a more formal rite, analogous to those found in Luther's "Small Catechism" or the Book of Common Prayer, along with the laying on of hands in blessing. For others, it is a far more informal matter, woven into wider practices of pastoral counseling and the care of souls.

I sometimes wonder if a more visible and regular availability of such confession, absolution, consolation, and counsel might not be a good thing and, perhaps, provide opportunity for counsel long before a person might otherwise seek out his or her pastor in desperation, having fallen into a serious and ongoing pattern of sin.

Such practices of confession, after all, are not foreign to the Reformed tradition or biblical outlook. In our tradition, the confession of sins (and the receiving of absolution) can be either public or private.

Public confession can involve either [a] the general confession of sins by the congregation within the context of the liturgy or [b] the confession of sins by a particular penitent who is being received by the church after notorious and scandalous wrongdoing.

Private confession can involve either [a] personal confession of sins to God on one's own, [b] confession of sins to a faithful friend or brother in Christ (particularly if he was the one offended), or [c] confession of sins to a Minister of the Gospel. Both [b] and [c], of course, are also confession to God, but in the context of a Christian witness who can speak God's word to us in consolation and counsel.

In the following, I'd like to meditate a bit more on private confession, particularly to a minister, as that has been taught and practiced within the Reformed tradition.

Going back to Calvin, he writes about all these various forms of confession in Institutes 3.4.10-14. After discussing public confession--whether regular, general confession in the liturgy or upon particular occasions of public, communal repentance--Calvin goes on to talk about private confession.

There 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, Calvin exhorts us,

Let every believer, therefore, remember, that if in private he is so agonized and afflicted by a sense of his sins that he cannot obtain relief without the aid of others, it is his duty not to neglect the remedy which God provides for him, namely, to have recourse for relief to a private confession to his own pastor, and for consolation privately implore the assistance of him whose business it is, both in public and private, to solace the people of God with Gospel doctrine.

This 1539 addition to the Institutes was a significant revision of its 1536 original, which spoke only of private confession of the individual to God or to a brother in Christ.

By the final edition of the Institutes, Calvin's view of the ordained ministry had developed even further so that he rooted private confession to a pastor in the administration of the Gospel that is the special privilege of the Christian ministry, exercising the "keys of the kingdom," effectually giving counsel and applying the promises of the Gospel to troubled souls. Thus he goes on to say,

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 continues by suggesting 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 in worship 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." Absolution is, therefore, part of the preaching of the Gospel to be received in faith from the mouth of God's ministers. By this means, "the grace of the Gospel is publicly and privately sealed on the minds of believers by means of those whom the Lord has appointed."

Or, as Calvin writes elsewhere, we should "not less highly value the reconciliation which is offered by the voice of men, than if God himself stretched out his hand from heaven," because "pastors are divinely ordained to be sureties for eternal salvation" so that we "must not go to a distance to seek the forgiveness of sins, which is committed to their trust" (Commentary on John 20:23).

In saying this sort of thing, Calvin is in step with other reformational churches, for example, the teaching of Luther and the Lutherans regarding confession in, e.g., Luther's "Small" and "Large Catechisms," the Augsburg Confession XI and XII (of which, recall, Calvin was also a signatory), and Smalcald Articles III.8.

Similarly, the 1549 Anglican Book of Common Prayer provided an exhortation to private confession to a pastor (which also appears in the 1552 edition, in slightly revised form):

And if there be any of you, whose conscience is troubled and grieved in any thing, lacking comfort or counsel, let him come to me, or to some other discreet and learned priest, taught in the law of God, and confess and open his sin and grief secretly, that he may receive such ghostly counsel, advice, and comfort, that his conscience may be relieved, and that, by the ministry of God's word of us, as ministers of God and the church he may receive comfort and absolution to the satisfaction of his mind, and avoiding all scruple and doubtfulness.

For both Calvin, Luther, and the Anglicans, general confession in the liturgy and private confession alone to God were certainly sufficient for forgiveness of sins. Nevertheless, for reasons of pastoral concern and for bringing troubled consciences to rest in the promises of the Gospel, they all commended and encouraged private confession of sins to another Christian and, above all, a minister of the Gospel from whom one might find absolution, received in faith as a personal appropriation of the Gospel.

Such a perspective is echoed by the 1561 Second Helvetic Confession, penned by Bullinger. While it states that a "sincere confession which is made to God alone, either privately between God and the sinner, or publicly in the Church where the general confession of sins is said, is sufficient," it continues by adding that individuals "overwhelmed by the burden of their sins and by perplexing temptations" may rightly "seek counsel, instruction, and comfort privately, either from a minister of the Church or from any believer who is instructed in God's law" (Chapter 14).

Similarly, Amandus Polanus in his 1589 Partitiones Theologicae writes, "Private confession is that which is done privately by everyone...and that is either to God only, or also to a man. If to a man, either to the Minister of the Word or to some faithful friend."

And to this day, the ordination vows of the French Reformed Church require that a minister never reveal any sin confessed to him in private.

Thus, it seems, the possibility and offer of private confession of sins to a pastor was a real one in early Reformed theology, spoken about, made available, and even encouraged.

Some within the Presbyterian tradition, however, might object to such a practice on the grounds of the teaching of the Westminster Confession of Faith's (WCF) regarding confession of sin. WCF 15.6, "Of Repentance unto Life" reads:

As every man is bound to make private confession of his sins to God, praying for the pardon thereof; upon which, and the forsaking of them, he shall find mercy; so he that scandalizeth his brother, or the church of Christ, ought to be willing, by a private or publick confession and sorrow for his sin, to declare his repentance unto those that are offended; who are thereupon to be reconciled to him, and in love to receive him.

Nonetheless, the second mention of "private confession" ("a private...confession and sorrow for his sin, to declare repentance to those that are offended") is certainly private confession to another Christian, clearly from both the context and the prooftexts (James 5:16; Lk 17:3-5; etc.).

Such private confession to another Christian here seems to be countenanced by the WCF in two specific kinds of cases: [a] sins that scandalize a Christian brother and [b] sins that scandalize the church of Christ. Now, it would seem that the WCF implies that sins scandalizing a brother would naturally be dealt with by privately confessing to the person so sinned against, while sins scandalizing the church would be dealt with by public confession to the church. But it need not be the case that this distinction between private and public is quite so hard and fast.

Sin against the church, after all, might be dealt with by private confession to an appropriate representative of the church, especially a pastor. This is implied by a prooftext given to this section, Joshua 7:19:

And Joshua said unto Achan, "My son, give, I pray thee, glory to the Lord God of Israel, and make confession unto him; and tell me now what thou hast done and hide it not from me."

The sin here is primarily against God and against Israel as a whole, but it is confessed to Joshua as the representative and chief presbyter of Israel and of Israel's God (cf. WCF 30.2, "Of Church Censures" and prooftexts).

Now, if "private confession" can here include confession to a pastor and if such confession can also, at the same time be "confession to God" (as indicated by the prooftext from Joshua), then, it seems we cannot exclude the possibility of private confession to a pastor from the first mention of "private confession of his sins to God" in WCF 15.6, even if such private confession to a pastor is not required in that case of non-scandalous sin (as it appears to be in the case of scandalous sin).

And this would make very good sense against the background of Calvin, the Second Helvetic Confession, and Polanus, all of whom see private confession to a minister (or a fellow Christian) as one particular form that private confession to God can take.

This suggestion is further substantiated by the fact that Psalm 51 which is given as a prooftext for the first mention of "private confession" is also given as a prooftext for private or public confession "to those that are offended." Thus the prooftext does not indicate anything one way or another about the presence of a pastor for "private confession" and, indeed, would seem to allow for it given that it is subsequently appended to a discussion that includes such confession.

Indeed, the WCF itself states regarding ministers of the Gospel: "To these officers the keys of the Kingdom of Heaven are committed, by virtue whereof they have power respectively to retain and remit sins" (30.2). And this would involve the private exercise of the keys by speaking the Gospel to penitent sinners, as well as public acts of discipline.

Thus it seems to me that it is entirely proper and confessional for Presbyterian pastors to continue in this specific ministry of reconciliation through the practice and encouragement of private confession of sin and Gospel absolution, especially within the larger context of the Reformed tradition.

Another question, perhaps more interesting, is why private confession of sins to a pastor fell into such disuse within Reformation churches, even quite early in their history. As a person who has myself, on more than one occasion, experienced the ministry of the Gospel in private confession to a pastor, I can attest to its salutary benefits and comforts.

But again, that particular historical question will have to await further time for study or the results of the study of others.