What Is Confession?
We've all had to face it at some point in our lives. You stopped to think for a moment, and became aware. You realize that what you did to someone is wrong, cruel, or unjust. You hurt someone who has only been loving toward you. You realize that you hated someone, or perhaps a specific group of someones, just for being who they are. Or you didn't care enough to think first, or you thought only about your own gain. Too often, you may even want to hurt them. It's not just 'missing the mark' or 'making a mistake' -- it is the evil that's a part of you. (There, I said the 'e-word'.) You come to understand that your actions show that you're not the good person you thought you were. OMG... You know it now, but your new awareness stays there kicking around between your ears, not really changing anything. You could tell it to a psychologist; not bad, but it doesn't yet start to get rid of what lies behind what you did. That takes something more.
In the Christian faith, that something more is called 'confession'. It's something more because you're admitting your wrongs to God, the One who can give you the power to disarm it and reverse course. And, you're admitting it to a specific person, someone from the community of believers around you who can then speak truth into your life. Confession of sins usually takes the form of a ritual, a pattern that takes you through a process. This gives you the immediate opportunity to make the first steps toward the journey of a changed way of life.
The pattern starts with contrition, then the actual admission of wrong acts and thoughts as such (repentance), then absolution with acceptance of Christ's forgiveness. (More on those words, below.) As you go through the process, it's likely you'll sense a release from your guilt. You're escaping the chains of your former ways, and starting to heal on the inside because it's now out into the light. You'll be ready to start doing things according to the way of Christ - the 'next step'. It's a repeated pattern that you would do again and again, like putting one foot in front, then the other, and so on, which moves you forward.
The pattern comes from looking at passages of the Bible about repentance and forgiveness. For instance, in Psalm 32: (1) unhealth due to secret sin; (2) acknowledged his sins to God; (3) God forgives! There are several psalms of repentance, for example, Psalm 51. Psalm 51 is a lyric of personal repentance that doesn't use the framework of a confession. Yet it became a song for worship, which is a community act that turns it into a confession before all who gather to worship.
Confession is usually best done as a private matter, one-on-one. Indeed, most nations give clergy legal protections to keep confessions of crimes confidential. Even where there is no protective law, the clergy are bound before God to keep confessions in total confidence. Confession can take place in contexts where there is more than one confessor, such as small fellowship groups, house churches, prayer groups, or Bible studies. In those situations, the group (or its leader) then declares that God forgives not only the specific penitent(s), but the faith community as a whole. This is usually followed by prayers with the one who confesses. Most churches ask that the worshipers make confession before one can receive Holy Communion. Worship liturgies bring in confession by way of a general confession of sin and absolution, and by pleas for God's mercy. This form of confession appears in each standard service, since the sins keep on coming, and God's Word keeps telling us about it. We need to face up to it repeatedly, and hear again and again that Jesus has forgiven us.
History of the Practice of Confession
Several of the Psalms show repentance and (public) confession. Yet there are several other OT verses on confession of sins. Moses, and the Prophets, confessed on behalf of the people; a typical example is in Jeremiah, over his people's idolatry. When he heard what had happened to an earlier expedition to rebuild Jerusalem, Nehemiah confessed the sins of his people. For him, it was an immediate and gut reaction to confess sin before God when calamity takes place. In Numbers 5:6-8, Yahweh had commanded that (apparently financial) wrongdoers confess their sins, and then give full restitution plus 20% to the one(s) who was wronged, or, if not possible, a blood sacrifice with the priest would then be done.
The early church's leaders were learning how to work the most spiritual benefit from the confession of sins. Tertullian (in *On Repentance*, 10:6) stated, in his usual slightly off-center way, "With one and two individuals, there is the Church; and the Church indeed is Christ. Therefore, when you cast yourself at the knees of the brethren, you are dealing with Christ, you are entreating Christ." 'Brethren' infers the confession was to more than just one priest, but in front of other fellow believers. There is no mention of doing it according to some sort of rite or pattern, or of doing it in secret. However, it was personal confession of personal sins, done in the presence of others. Cyprian of Carthage (ca. 250 AD) wrote that those who don't confess their sins before having communion "do violence to His body and blood" (The Lapsed, 15:1-3). For Cyprian, it not only involves purging of the conscience, but it is part of a ceremony, and that it is done in the presence of a priest. Basil the Great (in Rules Briefly Treated 288) notes that people confessed to John the Baptist (Matthew 3:6) and to the Apostles (Acts 19:18), and this was one basis for confessing before a priest. (It is fair to note that neither biblical example says they had to go to a prophet or apostle, only that they did.) Pope Leo I (ca. 460 AD) ordered that "the guilt of consciences be indicated to priests alone in a secret confession".
While the act of confessing one's sins existed even before Jesus' day, the formal rite of confession as we now know it didn't come until much later. The early church did not confess in small private rooms, but in the home where the main leader was living or staying. Once the church started meeting in buildings set aside for church use, people came to confess there, possibly in the worship area. From this came the Orthodox practice of doing it at an icon station in the main room. There is little evidence of any one specific ritual, rite, or format in place everywhere. They just did it, probably in an informal manner with much prayer. Early-church confession was rooted in God's forgiveness and turning away from sin. It had the purposes of reconciliation and spiritual growth. The Celtic monks (ca. 600-700 CE) made confessions of sin an important part of their way of spiritual direction. They developed a format much like the one that is currently in use, with specific prayers and the concept of penance. The Celtic Christians were in many ways the spiritual ground-breakers of their day. Something like what they did soon became common throughout Europe. John the Faster of Constantinople (10th century) made the first known Orthodox order of confession. The Fourth Lateran Council (1215 CE) for the first time required yearly confession for Catholics. Private rooms for confessions (called 'confessionals') became important to the Roman Catholic tradition.
contrition [ < Latin contritus < conterere (to crush, grind against) < terere (to grind). Akin to 'thresh' and 'thrash'.] Definition: True repentance for wrongdoing. Other words in this word-field are penitence, repentance, regret, remorse, and compunction.
Contrition is when you realize that you've done something bad, harmful or cruel, and you're crushed or ground-up inside. This causes you to turn away from this act and others like it -- that is, the next step is repentance. It's more than just sorrow over sin: it's not the goal but the start, the recognition that it's time to let go of something about what you were. While one specific sin may be front and center, in contrition you carry the awareness that you are the kind of being that does such things. In Roman Catholic thought, "perfect contrition" is when you turn away from sin because you love God. Such contrition is held to justify even without sacramental confession. In progressive Protestant thought, contrition leads to self-improvement, which is the process by which God makes us better. In Evangelical thinking, there is no conversion to faith unless we are crushed by sin; conviction over sin is what leads to repentance which leads to salvation. Charismatics stress that it is the Holy Spirit who leads us to become so keenly aware of our wrongs, and who crushes our stubborn heart. Thus our willful repentance and change is the Spirit's doing.
It does no good to count up your sins; that would just replace the 'I-did-it' (forensic) guilt with a huge dose of self-defeating 'woe-is-me' guilt in your mind. The Spirit stirs up within us inner disturbance over a sin; that is what brings us to confess.
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repentance [ < Latin re- (again) + paenitêre (to repent)] Definition: A change of mind, a reorientation of one's thought and action away from what it was before. The gospels use the Greek term metanoia.
For a Christian, repentance is the actual decision to turn away from the wrongs we've done, and trusting God that he completely forgives you for those wrongs. Because we keep doing wrong throughout our life, the task of repentance is lifelong. If you stand there too proud to admit to wrongs (or worse, being proud of doing them), then there is no way to relate to God. You have not turned against your wrongdoings, and you do not really believe in Christ. Repentance is more than just a positive change of attitude and behavior. In repentance, you realize that your wrongdoing was wrong; you not only turn away from it, you turn against it, and you change your behavior in a way that reflects this turning away. (This is why it is important that you call it something sharply negative, such as "sin".)
Jesus got rid of the eternal separation from God that our state of sin caused. We're guilty, and do not merit this, but God's grace-filled compassion makes it happen. However, even a forgiven sin can still have stiff consequences. For instance, cheating on my wife (if I had one) most likely would end the marriage. My thievery would make someone's finances more difficult, and mine more dependent on bursts of stolen wealth. The two-faced life I live because of my position of power would likely be uncovered to great hoopla and public shame. Murdering someone would likely put me in jail the rest of my life. Those would not be God punishing me. Those would be the earthly consequences of the sinful acts themselves. Sometimes, repentance brings about a change in your way of living that will undo the damage. But repentance means that you accept the consequences, whatever they might be, whether they are lessened or come in full. None of us can repent from your sins for you; you have to repent for yourself.
Repentance follows the Jesus pattern, going from death (the state of sin) to life (restored relationship with God). In repentance, you realize you can't trust in what you do, because that's what just undid you. You can instead trust in what Jesus said about coming to your rescue.
For a Christian, repentance is a return to their baptism, a return to what was started at that time. It is best done by telling someone about it, so you hear yourself say it, so a Christian brother or sister hears it, so it is no longer secret. You can then be held responsible for your change. The sacrament of Confession is the formal way of doing so, but most actual repentance happens outside of it.
The Act of Confession
The next thing to do is to confess the sin to someone (usually called a 'confessor'). It simply means that you admit to a truth you don't want to admit to about yourself. You've stopped evading, denying, detaching, blaming, or explaining away, and now you're ready to face up to the way things actually are, at least on this matter you're confessing. Confession is no good if you are being ordered to do it (which is 'Law'), or you are doing it because you 'should' do it (which is 'Guilt'). Confession of sin is not a 'propitiation' or payoff to God. Awareness of what's wrong about the sin has to drive you there. Our faith, if rightly understood, will cause us to want to do it.
Confession is also a statement about human nature. People actually can change their ways. You can change. But you need to accept, even embrace, the paradox: "My strength is made complete in weakness" (2 Corinthians 12:9). We can't make a perfect, pure confession, since we're not perfect or pure beings. We have too many things running through our minds, some of which are unsavory and would need to be confessed, but aren't. The good news is that your confession doesn't have to be perfect or pure. God forgives anyway. God heals your conscience and frees your mind. The guilt is unloaded right then and there. If it doesn't feel like it, perhaps you think it's too evil an act for even God to forgive. The truth is, there's no such thing.
Confession to one another, in prayer, is the way for people to restore and heal each other. There are formal prayers written for such use, because sometimes that can help the penitent go through with their confession - but the Spirit may break all rules and the penitent will simply pour it out from their soul. When James was writing about confessing, the context is that of illness. It's not that your illness is sin, but that sin is itself a spiritual illness and needs healing medicine from God just like physical illness needs medicine. A good prayer of repentance not only names the specific act, it states specifically and directly what was wrong about the act and why that was wrong. A verbal confession made entirely of generalities is an act of confessing to nothing.
"If we confess our sins, God, who is faithful and just, will forgive our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness."
-- 1 John 1:9
absolution [ < Latin absolutio (acquittal) < absolvere (to absolve) < ab- (away) + solvere (to loosen)] Definition: A formal or official pardon; a remission or a setting loose.
Under most circumstances, "absolution" is used to describe the formal action of a priest or ordained minister to forgive sins under the auspices of the organized Church by the authority of Christ. The term is mainly used that way by the Roman Catholics, who see this as a reflection of the "power of the Keys" that Christ granted to his apostles in John 20:23, and through them to Christ's future followers. This granting, though, was done when Jesus breathed the Holy Spirit onto them. It is precisely this Spirit that is living in each follower of Christ. The church later turned this power into an institutional thing: it is 'owned by a hierarchy', or can only be done by those the institution allows to do it (namely, priests), or it only follows an 'apostolic succession' the presence of which is real but the chain of which is rather murky. Most Protestants would note that in the John passage when Jesus grants the power to forgive and bind sins, he is not creating an institution, he is sending them out on a mission -- a mission that belongs to the whole body of believers and not just the apostles or an organization's leaders or the ordained ministry. Each Christian believer is, in this sense, sent by God for the mission of the Kingdom. The church over the years discovered it needed a discipline so that forgiveness of sins is declared by those who understand the gravity of what is happening -- but many ordained ministers are clueless and many non-ministers know full well. In Catholic traditions (and in some Lutheran circles, cf. Apology of the Augsburg Confession 193.41, 219.4), Confession is seen as a Sacrament, and as such is generally the realm of the ordained clergy.
For the Eastern Orthodox, the confessor is firstly a witness to sacramental confession, and then acts as one who leads the penitent back into the community of believers. The priest/confessor does not give out absolution, but declares that it has already happened. Absolution is given only by God, who fulfils the divine promises by forgiving the truly repentant. On very rare occasion, the Orthodox priest/confessor may state that the needed repentance has not in fact taken place, and thus the absolution has not taken place, and then he can act on the basis of the church's power to bind and loose.
In the Roman Catholic tradition, confession is part of the Sacrament of Reconciliation. Absolution is declared by the priest who has personally heard the person repent of their sins. The priest then gives instructions ('penance'), originally intended as a way for the repentant believer ('the penitent') to follow through on their repentance so it doesn't stop the moment they leave the priest. At times, the Roman Catholic church has seen this as earning a form of holy merit.
The main acts of the church have key phrases that tell you what's important to you about what's going on. For Holy Communion, for example, it's "given for you". For confession, it's "You are forgiven!" God's forgiveness means you don't have to hold back anymore for fear of failing. You will fail, but you're free to fail. God gives you a way to move forward from there. The process of repentance, and what follows, is a way to get your life unstuck. It frees you to change, to learn, and to achieve better things, to follow the Lord more nearly.
In many traditions, the minister gives a 'general absolution' after the congregation confesses its sin during a worship service. Others only do it at a baptism. However, those in a congregation are not all at the same state of repentance, and some are not repentant at all. This general confession and absolution has no effect in those who are not repenting and who have no intent to confess their sin.
The previous steps are something we do, with the Spirit's urging. However, absolution is, at its heart, when a believer, after hearing a person confess their sin, simply tells a repentant person what Christ has already done: you, a repentant sinner, are in fact forgiven by Christ -- now go and live in it.
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I've Confessed. Now What?
The absolution from God is not the end of it. The next question is, 'where do I go from here?'
In the Roman Catholic tradition the next step is 'satisfaction'. The priest offers advice, and assigns a penitential act, or 'penance'. This usually means to recite the Lord's Prayer or the Hail Mary, or to pray the rosary. Sometimes, the penitent is told to study a particular part of the Bible that relates to the specific sin. Charitable work, or occasionally a directive to make restitution, may also be given. For the Eastern Orthodox, the main matter at hand is to heal the penitent's spiritual illnesses. Restitution for sins related to property is generally prescribed where feasible, plus an additional amount, but that's just one part of it. The main pattern is to to apply the opposite of the sin. For example, if gluttony is a problem, a fast or other dietary regimen may be arranged. Although the churches have used penance as a means of punishment, that is not what it's meant for. The key purpose is to make the penitent not just holy, but whole.
The Celtic monastic communities took this even further, applying a pattern of self-examination under spiritual direction to the 'next step' acts -- looking at your motives, practices, habits, and a moral inventory of sorts, much of it aimed at figuring out the patterns of living which lay behind the wrongdoing. The key is to develop patterns of behavior, thought and belief which counteract what led to the sin. You'll discover choices that you didn't think of before, that are not evil or wrong. The future is then seen in a new light.
None of these can save you, or earn any points with God. The penitent has, at this point, been told that Jesus has already taken care of that. Penance is not really a way to satisfy some sort of requirement from God, but a way to start turning away from the sin that was just confessed. Christ calls the forgiven to forgive others just as God has forgiven us. It's a journey, one step at a time, one new practice or new attitude, one new way to heed the Spirit, one new way to more fully follow Christ along with all those other repentant followers of Christ.
Notes on Confession
Some traditions see great danger in being fitful, confessing in spurts. But such is the human lot. It sometimes takes time for us to digest what has happened, like when a writer researches, sits and mulls it over for a long time, then suddenly realizes what to say, and furiously writes many chapters or articles in one sitting. It would be better not to be that way, but few of us are given that gift by the Spirit who leads us to confess. It is better to confess that inconsistency, and not bear a burden of guilt over it.
Justification happens -- without it, none of this works -- but justification (like confession itself) has a bigger purpose. Not just for a person to be made right before God, but to live in the restored relationships which come from that. Firstly, the relationship with God, but then the relationship with the believing community, and then, with the rest of humanity, and the rest of the created world. It's not about just you. You're a part of something big.
Some writers speak ill of tent evangelism. But at least the tent evangelist understood that repentance before God and humanity is the essential step for a new or renewed relationship with God. You come just as you are, but then you take the first step away from that and into becoming a new creation. It is then that you can begin to experience your full freedom and dignity in Christ.
No one should be a confessor who is not him/herself making sacramental confession. (In some circles, the confessor will sometimes put his/her stole on the penitent, and proceed to confess and repent of his/her own sins.) Sacramental confession may give Christian leaders a way to do what they may have no other way of doing: confess their many sins without being destroyed by those they serve. (Unless they have a way to repent, they will hide their sin deeper and deeper. It then eats away at their spirit, eventually collapsing them, often in a public spectacle.) It does little real good unless they take seriously the call to 'sin no more'. In such a case, the 'next step' action must be led by a group of people who will hold them accountable by leading them to change not just their frame of mind but the way they live.
A congregation's prayer room should be large enough for two, so confession can be done there.
When preparing for special happenings, spend time confessing your sin (personal and collective), and then into intercession for those you'll be ministering to. Sometimes, this sort of prayer has caused spiritual renewal, other times various kinds of healing, and still other times new followers of Christ.
Testimony is, in part, public confession, since it usually in some way deals with being in the depths of sin, and what God has done since then.
Charismatics often report that as a result of either a sermon, song, or a 'word of knowledge', they themselves suddenly began to confess their sins, most especially the ones they've been clinging to the most, or which were exercising the most influence from in back of their mind.
The season of Lent is a time set aside for us to reassess our lives, confess our sins (through both public and private confession), sending us back to the crucified Lord for forgiveness. Then we can shed the guilt that we bear. Then, the Spirit can lead us in reconfiguring the way we live and think.
God forgives you, but many people can't let go of their sin. Part of the healing is to forgive yourself for what God has forgiven. You are better than your misdeeds; God says so, by loving us, therefore it is so.
The normal way the church handles temptation and sin is confession of sin, not exorcism or deliverance from demons.
Confession helps us be good. But goodness does not exist for goodness' own sake, but for living the Kingdom of God. Confession reveals the power and presence of the Spirit in bringing about that Kingdom.
Sacramental confession can act as part of a congregation's healing ministry, and is often part of the healing process.
Confession and Reconciliation
Confession and forgiveness are a start for reconciliation, by first reconciling you with God. But there's more. If there is someone you're not reconciled with someone, Jesus commands that you go and reconcile before you come before God at the altar. It takes two to reconcile, of course, so it may not be accomplished, and if you keep doing what you can, it's not on you. But we must go beyond the moment of reconciliation, to acts of daily living that bolster the reconciliation. We do not become whole simply by confessing sin committed against others and ourselves. We become whole as we are also healed from the effects of sin committed against us. If the wound still bleeds, we will tend to fall back into the cycle of revenge and counter-revenge which just creates more sin to confess.
When Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote of 'cheap grace', in his description, he included "the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance, ... Communion without confession, absolution without contrition." The things 'cheap grace' does without are the very things that make repentance difficult, the very things we don't want to do. The very things that make confession worth the while.
"If all this were clearly laid out, and along with that if the needs that ought to move and induce us to confession were clearly indicated, there would be no need of coercion or force. Their own consciences would persuade Christians..."
-- Martin Luther, Large Catechism, Exhortation to Confession, 478.23 (Kolb/Wengert edition).
"Repentance is not the punitive practice of penance but the transforming practice of facing the truth and turning away from sin."
-- Brian Zahnd, *UNconditional?*, p.123
You can check the dictionary for definitions for 'repentance', for 'contrition', and for 'absolution'.
A different sort of repentance - the church itself repenting to the non-churched - is featured in Donald Miller's book Blue Like Jazz, p.114-127. Take note of the impromptu, event-oriented nature of their 'booth'. In some ways it was like the event-oriented prayer booths that have been springing up all over the world. If we have things to say, even things we must confess as sin, we are called to go out to those affected by the wrong we've done, and say it to them.
Also, see repentance as part of reconciliation.