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While our topic is “Confession and the Priesthood” we don’t have time to address the topic of priesthood in a comprehensive way. Instead we will discuss it primarily as it relates to the Sacrament of Confession.
Protestant views on the Sacrament of Confession have been varied from the very beginning. Martin Luther embraced traditional Confession with a Priest as needful for all Christians (although he did not believe it to be a Sacrament), whereas John Calvin vehemently rejected it, believing that confession to God alone is sufficient. The other major branch of Protestantism, represented by Ulrich Zwingly, also did away with confession to a Priest. Confession in the Anglican Church is done primarily in the context of the Eucharist where congregants are asked to confess silently to God. In regard to a private Confession with a Priest, the saying goes: “All may, none must, some should.”
In practice, traditional Confession has become less and less a focus and feature of church life even in those denominations that have not rejected it. There is typically no formal confession among Evangelical Protestants. However, Pentecostals do often emphasize a need for public confession of sins.
Much of the controversy over Confession originated with the Roman Church’s theology of the Sacrament as it relates to the Priesthood. Christ had given the Apostles the power to “bind” and “loose” sins, yet in the early Church this was understood as the Priest’s cooperation with God’s action of either forgiving or withholding forgiveness for good reason. The Priest was merely an agent through which God’s forgiveness was affirmed. The penitent was forgiven by God through the Priest, not by the Priest. However, by the time of the Reformation, the power to bind and loose was understood as an authority given to the Priest almost independent from God. The Priest was not the agent of Christ, but replaced Christ. So to this day, the Roman Catholic prayer of absolution said by the Priest states, “I forgive you,” whereas in the Orthodox Church it is worded, “God forgives you through me a sinner.” If the Priest pronounced the words of absolution the penitent received forgiveness. But if he chose not to, apparently for whatever reason, the penitent remained subject to hell fire. Thus many abuses of power occurred. And so the issue regarding Confession during the Reformation became the argument as to whether a Priest can forgive sins or whether only God can forgive sins. In other words it was about who was doing the forgiving, with emphasis on who had the “power” to do so. And so John Calvin said, “Since it is the Lord who forgives, forgets, and wipes out sins, let us confess our sins to him in order to obtain pardon.” This unnecessary dichotomy came about due to the development of the Roman understanding of Confession and the Priesthood. At the time of the Reformation there also existed coercion and abuses tied to Confession. It was used as leverage or to manipulate or as an exercise of personal power or vendetta. The link between Confession and indulgences became a great source of abuse. It was understood (as it still is) that the Clergy dispense the “treasury of the satisfactions of Christ and the Saints” to those who fulfill penances received in Confession. These penances are prayers and/or good works, but also could be financial contributions to certain projects designated by the Pope. It is in this way that St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome was built.
All of this has contributed to the Protestant view that one need not confess sins to a Priest.
Confession in the Scriptures:
In The Old Testament
Numbers 5:7: “he shall confess his sin that he has committed. And he shall make full restitution for his wrong, adding a fifth to it and giving it to him to whom he did the wrong.”
Nehemiah 9:2-3: “Those of Israelite descent separated themselves from all foreigners, and they stood and confessed their sins and the guilt of their fathers. While they stood in their places, they read from the book of the law of the LORD their God for a fourth of the day and spent another fourth of the day in confession and worship of the LORD their God.”
Baruch 1:14-18: “And read out publicly this scroll which we send you, in the house of the LORD, on the feast day and during the days of assembly: ‘Justice is with the LORD, our God; and we today are flushed with shame, we men of Judah and citizens of Jerusalem, that we, with our kings and rulers and priests and prophets, and with our fathers, have sinned in the LORD’S sight and disobeyed him. We have neither heeded the voice of the LORD, our God, nor followed the precepts which the LORD set before us.’”
Required by St. John the Baptist
Matthew 3:6: “Confessing their sins, they were baptized by him in the Jordan River.”
Mark 1:5: “And there went out unto him all the land of Judaea, and they of Jerusalem, and were all baptized of him in the river of Jordan, confessing their sins.”
In The New Testament Church
James 5:16: “Therefore confess your sins to each other and pray for each other so that you may be healed. The prayer of a righteous person is powerful and effective.”
Acts 19:18: “Also many of those who were now believers came, confessing and divulging their practices.”
1 Tim. 6:12: “Fight the good fight of the faith. Take hold of the eternal life to which you were called when you made your good confession in the presence of many witnesses.”
1 John 1:9: “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness.”
Priesthood (Bishops, Priests, Deacons) in the New Testament
In our English New Testaments the word “elder” is typically used for the Greek word “presbyter” (presbyteros) from which the word “priest” is derived. In the earliest Church the title presbyter and bishop (Greek: episcopos) were often synonomous. In our English Bibles the word bishop is usually translated as “overseer.” The Bishop, then and now, is simply the head or “eldest” Priest.
Acts 14:23: So when they had appointed elders in every church, and prayed with fasting, they commended them to the Lord in whom they had believed.
Acts 15:2, 4, 6: …they determined that Paul and Barnabas and certain others of them should go up to Jerusalem, to the apostles and elders, about this question….And when they had come to Jerusalem, they were received by the church and the apostles and the elders; and they reported all things that God had done with them…. Now the apostles and elders came together to consider this matter.
Acts 15:22-23: Then it pleased the apostles and elders, with the whole church, to send chosen men of their own company to Antioch with Paul and Barnabas….They wrote this letter by them: The apostles, the elders, and the brethren, To the brethren who are of the Gentiles in Antioch, Syria, and Cilicia: Greetings.
Acts 16:4: And as they went through the cities, they delivered to them the decrees to keep, which were determined by the apostles and elders at Jerusalem.
Acts 20:17: From Miletus he [Paul] sent to Ephesus and called for the elders of the church.
Acts 20:28: Therefore take heed to yourselves and to all the flock, among which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to shepherd the church of God which He purchased with His own blood.
Phil. 1:1: Paul and Timothy, bondservants of Jesus Christ, To all the saints in Christ Jesus who are in Philippi, with the bishops and deacons:
1 Tim. 3:1: This is a faithful saying: If a man desires the position of a bishop, he desires a good work.
1 Tim. 4:14: Do not neglect the gift that is in you, which was given to you by prophecy with the laying on of the hands of the eldership.
1 Tim. 5:17: Let the elders who rule well be counted worthy of double honor, especially those who labor in the word and doctrine.
Tit. 1:5: For this reason I left you in Crete, that you should set in order the things that are lacking, and appoint elders in every city as I commanded you—
James 5:14: Is anyone among you sick? Let him call for the elders of the church, and let them pray over him, anointing him with oil in the name of the Lord.
1 Pet. 5:1: The elders who are among you I exhort, I who am a fellow elder and a witness of the sufferings of Christ, and also a partaker of the glory that will be revealed:
1 Pet. 5:2: Shepherd the flock of God which is among you, serving as overseers, not by compulsion but willingly, not for dishonest gain but eagerly;
Rev. 5:8: Now when He had taken the scroll, the four living creatures and the twenty-four elders fell down before the Lamb, each having a harp, and golden bowls full of incense, which are the prayers of the saints.
The Early Church Fathers on Confession and Penance:
“Confess your sins in church, and do not go up to your prayer with an evil conscience. This is the way of life. . . . On the Lord’s Day gather together, break bread, and give thanks, after confessing your transgressions so that your sacrifice may be pure” (Didache 4:14, 14:1 [A.D. 70]).
The Letter of Barnabas
“You shall judge righteously. You shall not make a schism, but you shall pacify those that contend by bringing them together. You shall confess your sins. You shall not go to prayer with an evil conscience. This is the way of light” (Letter of Barnabas 19 [A.D. 74]).
St. Ignatius of Antioch
“For as many as are of God and of Jesus Christ are also with the bishop. And as many as shall, in the exercise of penance, return into the unity of the Church, these, too, shall belong to God, that they may live according to Jesus Christ” (Letter to the Philadelphians 3 [A.D. 110]).
“For where there is division and wrath, God does not dwell. To all them that repent, the Lord grants forgiveness, if they turn in penitence to the unity of God, and to communion with the bishop” (ibid., 8).
St. Irenaeus of Lyon
“[The Gnostic disciples of Marcus] have deluded many women. . . . Their consciences have been branded as with a hot iron. Some of these women make a public confession, but others are ashamed to do this, and in silence, as if withdrawing from themselves the hope of the life of God, they either apostatize entirely or hesitate between the two courses” (Against Heresies 1:22 [A.D. 189]).
“[Regarding confession, some] flee from this work as being an exposure of themselves, or they put it off from day to day. I presume they are more mindful of modesty than of salvation, like those who contract a disease in the more shameful parts of the body and shun making themselves known to the physicians; and thus they perish along with their own bashfulness” (Repentance 10:1 [A.D. 203]).
St. Hippolytus of Rome
“[The bishop conducting the ordination of the new bishop shall pray:] God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. . . . Pour forth now that power which comes from you, from your royal Spirit, which you gave to your beloved Son, Jesus Christ, and which he bestowed upon his holy apostles . . . and grant this your servant, whom you have chosen for the episcopate, [the power] to feed your holy flock and to serve without blame as your high priest, ministering night and day to propitiate unceasingly before your face and to offer to you the gifts of your holy Church, and by the Spirit of the high priesthood to have the authority to forgive sins, in accord with your command” (Apostolic Tradition 3 [A.D. 215]).
“[A final method of forgiveness], albeit hard and laborious [is] the remission of sins through penance, when the sinner . . . does not shrink from declaring his sin to a priest of the Lord and from seeking medicine, after the manner of him who say, ‘I said, “To the Lord I will accuse myself of my iniquity”’” (Homilies on Leviticus 2:4 [A.D. 248]).
Cyprian of Carthage
“The apostle [Paul] likewise bears witness and says: ‘ . . . Whoever eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord unworthily will be guilty of the body and blood of the Lord’ [1 Cor. 11:27]. But [the impenitent] spurn and despise all these warnings; before their sins are expiated, before they have made a confession of their crime, before their conscience has been purged in the ceremony and at the hand of the priest . . . they do violence to [the Lord’s] body and blood, and with their hands and mouth they sin against the Lord more than when they denied him” (The Lapsed 15:1–3 (A.D. 251]).
“Of how much greater faith and salutary fear are they who . . . confess their sins to the priests of God in a straightforward manner and in sorrow, making an open declaration of conscience. . . . I beseech you, brethren, let everyone who has sinned confess his sin while he is still in this world, while his confession is still admissible, while the satisfaction and remission made through the priests are still pleasing before the Lord” (ibid., 28).
“[S]inners may do penance for a set time, and according to the rules of discipline come to public confession, and by imposition of the hand of the bishop and clergy receive the right of Communion. [But now some] with their time [of penance] still unfulfilled . . . they are admitted to Communion, and their name is presented; and while the penitence is not yet performed, confession is not yet made, the hands of the bishop and clergy are not yet laid upon them, the Eucharist is given to them; although it is written, ‘Whosoever shall eat the bread and drink the cup of the Lord unworthily, shall be guilty of the body and blood of the Lord’ [1 Cor. 11:27]” (Letters 9:2 [A.D. 253]).
“And do not think, dearest brother, that either the courage of the brethren will be lessened, or that martyrdoms will fail for this cause, that penance is relaxed to the lapsed, and that the hope of peace [i.e., absolution] is offered to the penitent. . . . For to adulterers even a time of repentance is granted by us, and peace is given” (ibid., 51:20).
“But I wonder that some are so obstinate as to think that repentance is not to be granted to the lapsed, or to suppose that pardon is to be denied to the penitent, when it is written, ‘Remember whence thou art fallen, and repent, and do the first works’ [Rev. 2:5], which certainly is said to him who evidently has fallen, and whom the Lord exhorts to rise up again by his deeds [of penance], because it is written, ‘Alms deliver from death’ [Tob. 12:9]” (ibid., 51:22).
St. Aphrahat the Persian
“You [priests], then, who are disciples of our illustrious physician [Christ], you ought not deny a curative to those in need of healing. And if anyone uncovers his wound before you, give him the remedy of repentance. And he that is ashamed to make known his weakness, encourage him so that he will not hide it from you. And when he has revealed it to you, do not make it public, lest because of it the innocent might be reckoned as guilty by our enemies and by those who hate us” (Treatises 7:3 [A.D. 340]).
St. Basil the Great
“It is necessary to confess our sins to those to whom the dispensation of God’s mysteries is entrusted. Those doing penance of old are found to have done it before the saints. It is written in the Gospel that they confessed their sins to John the Baptist [Matt. 3:6], but in Acts [19:18] they confessed to the apostles” (Rules Briefly Treated 288 [A.D. 374]).
St. John Chrysostom
“Priests have received a power which God has given neither to angels nor to archangels. It was said to them: ‘Whatsoever you shall bind on earth shall be bound in heaven; and whatsoever you shall loose, shall be loosed.’ Temporal rulers have indeed the power of binding; but they can only bind the body. Priests, in contrast, can bind with a bond which pertains to the soul itself and transcends the very heavens. Did [God] not give them all the powers of heaven? ‘Whose sins you shall forgive,’ he says, ‘they are forgiven them; whose sins you shall retain, they are retained.’ What greater power is there than this? The Father has given all judgment to the Son. And now I see the Son placing all this power in the hands of men [Matt. 10:40; John 20:21–23]. They are raised to this dignity as if they were already gathered up to heaven” (The Priesthood 3:5 [A.D. 387]).
St. Ambrose of Milan
“For those to whom [the right of binding and loosing] has been given, it is plain that either both are allowed, or it is clear that neither is allowed. Both are allowed to the Church, neither is allowed to heresy. For this right has been granted to priests only” (Penance 1:1 [A.D. 388]).
“If the serpent, the devil, bites someone secretly, he infects that person with the venom of sin. And if the one who has been bitten keeps silence and does not do penance, and does not want to confess his wound . . . then his brother and his master, who have the word [of absolution] that will cure him, cannot very well assist him” (Commentary on Ecclesiastes 10:11 [A.D. 388]).
“Confession has two parts: First, a person admits his sin. Second, a person receives absolution or forgiveness from the confessor, as if from God Himself, without doubting it, but believing firmly that his sins are forgiven by God in Heaven through it.” (Small Catechism, Book 5)
“So notice then, that Confession, as I have often said, consists of two parts. The first is my own work and action, when I lament my sins and desire comfort and refreshment for my soul. The other part is a work that God does when He declares me free of my sin through His Word placed in the mouth of a man. It is this splendid, noble, thing that makes Confession so lovely, so comforting.” (The Book of Concord, 15)
“Whoever is a Christian or would like to be one is here faithfully advised to go and get the precious treasure….Nevertheless, we strongly urge you by all means to make confession of your need, not with the intention of doing a worthy work by confessing but in order to hear what God has arranged for you to be told. What I am saying is that you are to concentrate on the Word, on the Absolution, to regard it as a great and precious and magnificently splendid treasure, and to accept it with all praise and thanksgiving to God. (The Book of Concord, 20)
“When I urge you to go to Confession, I am doing nothing else than urging you to be a Christian. If I have brought you to the point of being a Christian, I have thereby also brought you to Confession. For those who really desire to be true Christians, to be rid of their sins, and to have a cheerful conscience already possess the true hunger and thirst.” (The Book of Concord, 32)
Luther’s objections to the Roman Catholic practice of the time:
It used to be that we emphasized it only as our work; all that we were then concerned about was whether our act of confession was pure and perfect in every detail. We paid no attention to the second and most necessary part of Confession, nor did we proclaim it. We acted just as if Confession were nothing but a good work by which payment was to be made to God, so that if the confession was inadequate and not exactly correct in every detail, then the Absolution would not be valid and the sin unforgiven. 17] By this the people were driven to the point where everyone had to despair of making so pure a Confession (an obvious impossibility) and where no one could feel at ease in his conscience or have confidence in his Absolution. So they not only rendered the precious Confession useless to us but also made it a bitter burden (Matthew 23:4) causing noticeable spiritual harm and ruin. (The Book of Concord, 16)
 From the Catechism of the Catholic Church. (Note: The treasury of “satisfactions” or merits are the virtuous acts of Christ and the Saints over and above what was necessary for salvation.).