I chose this particular text to introduce a discussion of the Roman Catholic sacrament of penance and the practice of penance in Catholic spiritual life because of the reference to it in this anecdote told by, John Haas, a Roman Catholic theology professor.
The man sitting next to me on the plane was pleasant enough. He was well dressed, had a kind face, and showed a surprisingly friendly concern for me as a total stranger. So when he finally revealed that he was a Protestant minister, I was not surprised. He spoke openly and easily of his faith and of the joy he had found in his relationship with the Lord.
He continued to be courteous to me even when he learned that I was Catholic. He said that he was pleased to learn that I, too, knew and loved the Lord Jesus. But as the conversation progressed, he eventually could not avoid giving expression to a frustration he had with the Catholic Church.
“You know,” he said, “I just cannot understand why you Catholics engage in these practices which have no basis in Scripture!”
“Oh?” I responded, a bit surprised. “What particular practices did you have in mind?”
“Well, for example, this practice of men presuming to forgive other men’s sins! This practice of confession,” he replied.
“But that is based on Scripture,” I insisted. “After Our Lord’s resurrection, He appeared to His disciples in an upper room, He breathed on them and said, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit! Whose soever sins you forgive are forgiven, whose soever sins you retain are retained!'”
“Well, that may be in your Bible,” he responded. “It’s not in our Protestant Bible.”
“Do you have a copy of your Bible with you?” I asked.
“Of course I do,” he responded reproachfully, as though I thought he might travel without it.
I took the worn, black leatherbound King James bible he handed me, turned to the twentieth chapter of John, and read the passage aloud in its eloquent Elizabethan prose.
A look of astonishment and confusion came over the man’s face. “I never noticed that before,” he said. After a moment’s silence, he went on, “I’m going to have to think about this.” Of course that kindly minister had undoubtedly read the passage many times before. But he had never done so in the light of Catholic practice. [First Things (Aug/Sept 1995) 12]
Well, the Protestant minister should have known better. And he needs very carefully to consider why the Bible speaks about the authority of the church in a way that Protestant practice rarely confirms. But, it needs also to be said that the Catholic theologian would have done well to admit that it is a great leap one must take to get from John 20 to the Catholic practice of auricular confession, that is the confession of sins ad auriculam, into the ear, of a priest, a confession Catholics regard as a sacrament and as a system of penitence by which justification is preserved and renewed. The Baltimore Catechism defined Confession this way: “Confession is the telling of our sins to an authorized priest for the purpose of obtaining forgiveness.”
The practice rests on the Roman Catholic doctrine of the priesthood. The argument runs like this: when Jesus was on earth he forgave sins; this power he bestowed on his apostles and on their legitimate successors, namely Roman Catholic priests (here is where John 20:23 becomes so important); this power to forgive sins is not merely the power of preaching the gospel, of speaking the Word of God, as the Reformers understood it, but the actual power to remit sins, so that the priestly act of absolution is a real judicial act; that being so, the judicial act requires a knowledge of the facts of the case, and, therefore, the priest must be informed of those facts, hence private confession into the ear of the priest. [J. Stott, Confess your Sins, pp. 55-56]
You are somewhat familiar with the Roman Catholic system of penance. You have seen it in many movies or television shows. Some of you who were once Catholics have vivid memories of confession. “Father bless me for I have sinned; it has been two months since my last confession.” And then you enumerated the sins that you were most conscience stricken about or, perhaps, the sins you felt it would be best to confess seeing you had to be at confession. The priest would then absolve you, forgive you your sins, and assign certain acts of penance for you to perform — a certain number of recitations of the rosary — that is, a set of prayers including the Lord’s Prayer, the Hail Mary, and the Gloria Patri –, or the like. The priest can remit the guilt of sin but he cannot remit the temporal penalty and these acts of penance are the believer’s own “satisfactions,” or undergoing of the penalty for their sins. That is, while the eternal guilt of sins committed after baptism could be met only by the redemption of Christ it came to be believed that there was a temporal guilt or penalty attached to those same sins and that it could be met, in part, by actual penances, acts of contrition, repentance, and obedience that served as payment, and which thus lessened or mitigated the expiation demanded after death in purgatory. But, let it be clear: in historical Roman Catholic theology and practice, this private confession is essential to salvation. As the celebrated defender of Catholic theology in the era of the Reformation, Robert Bellarmine wrote, Christ has “ordained his priests judges in such a way that no man who sins after baptism can be reconciled unto God except by their sentence.” [Cited in Hooker, VI, vi, 2]
Now the well-versed Roman Catholic would admit that there is nothing like this anywhere in the Bible. Even in the OT sacrifices, where we do find a act of confession, it is not made to the priest. Nowhere is there a sacrament of penance such as we find in Roman Catholicism. Nowhere are believers commanded to confess their sins to a priest and nowhere do we find them doing so. The tax-collector in our Lord’s parable, standing head bowed in the temple, had no priest and used no confessional. He confessed his sins to God directly and, the Lord says, that he went to his house justified (Luke 18:9-14). Neither do we find any such practice as the imposing of religious acts as penalties for sins committed.
There are, to be sure, the three texts (Matthew 16:19; 18:18; and our text, John 20:23) where the Lord bestows upon the apostles (or in the case of Matthew 18) the church in general the power to bind or loose, or forgive or not to forgive sins. But in the context of the Gospels and of the entire NT, we cannot take these statements in the way in which they are taken in Roman Catholic theology. One of them, Matthew 18:18, certainly refers to acts of church discipline, by which men and women are given entrance into the membership of the church or cast away from it. The others, especially in the case of John 20:23 and its parallel in Luke 24:46-49 are best taken as the teaching of a ministerial authority not a magisterial or judicial authority, that is, that ministers and elders, just as the apostles before them, have the authority to speak what Christ has spoken, to declare what he has declared, that is, their authority to bind and loose is the authority they have as ministers of the Word of God and the gospel of Christ.
And the proof of that is that this is the way we see them binding and loosing in the NT. They never did what Roman Catholic priests do, but they did undertake the ministry of reconciliation, as Paul says in 2 Corinthians 5:18-21, by proclaiming reconciliation in Christ’s name. They declared with authority the terms on which God granted forgiveness of sins and then admitted penitent believers into the membership of the church. [Stott, 61-62] Their authority was to preach the promises and warnings of the gospel and to apply them in cases of public scandal. That is all we ever see them do. There is not a verse anywhere in the NT that even alludes to such a practice as private confession leading to absolution. In the NT it is God who forgives always and only; never the minister. The minister and elder with him merely proclaims Christ’s gospel and applies its laws in the public life of the church.
Perhaps the knowledgeable Catholic would be a bit more troubled by the fact that this practice is not found in early Christianity either. You cannot find in the writings of Origen, or Tertullian, or Athanasius, or Chrysostom, or Augustine any word about either the practice of believer’s confessing his or her sins to a priest or priests imposing punishments to satisfy the temporal penalty of our sins. There are indeed public confessions of sin in the case of those disciplined by the church, but nothing remotely resembling the Roman Catholic practice of private confession, nothing for centuries. [J.T. McNeill, A History of the Cure of Souls, 97-99] Indeed, the doctrine of an obligation of confession (at least annually) and the doing of penance for one’s sins did not become the teaching and practice of the church until the Fourth Lateran Council in A.D. 1215.
As the great 16th century Anglican theologian, Richard Hooker, wrote of the practice of private confession to a priest, “No, no, these opinions have youth in their countenance; antiquity knew them not: it never thought nor dreamed of them.” [Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity, VI, iv, 3, 6, 13]
So where does the problem lie with this practice? Could we not well imagine a spiritually minded person finding the practice of private confession an aid to penitence and humility of heart before God and, as well, might we not expect him or her to gain from that practice a lively sense of peace with God? Would it not be possible for a person, who knew full-well that his forgiveness came from God alone and that a priest had authority only to tell him over again what God had already said, to profit from the exercise of telling one’s sins and receiving the promise of God’s forgiveness? I have read Roman Catholics who — I will admit seem somewhat to ready to ignore certain parts of the Catholic doctrine of penance — but who seem to want confession to mean little more than that. Might it not be that a good idea has simply been abused.
After all, devout Catholics are just as willing to admit that the confessional has been subject to terrific abuse through the ages, has been far too often the occasion of sin — for both priest and penitent — rather than the means to its removal, and that it has as well far too often sunk into a bare formality that has confirmed many users of the confessional in chronic hypocrisy. The Catholic doctrine is that only the one who comes with a true sorrow for sin, a sorrow for the offense he has committed against the love and majesty of God himself, and who confesses his sins with a genuine intention not to commit them again, profits from the exercise and receives a true absolution. However many would admit that the practice itself has often led multitudes of people to precisely the opposite state of mind, viz. the idea that sins can be committed with impunity because they can be removed in the confessional. Further, the Catholic doctrine is that all sins must be confessed. But, of course, that is impossible and this has led, many would admit, to either a very superficial view of sin as only those particularly outward violations of the ten commandments that are easily remembered and reported or to a particularly superficial view of confession, a bare acknowledgement of sin rather than a searching, honest, heart-felt laying bare of the heart and life before God.
I say, might it not be that this is simply a good idea that has been abused. After all, even the Reformers maintained the need occasionally for private confession to a minister in the case of a person whose conscience could not be quieted either by his own private confession of his sins to God or that public confession of sin made in the church and followed by the absolution or assurance of God’s pardon. I have in my own ministry on a number of occasions heard the sins of the members of this congregation and promised them, in Christ’s name, the forgiveness of those sins. They could not find peace by themselves; that is what ministers are for, the more authoritative deliverance of the Word and gospel of Christ.
And do we not live in a day, in our American, individualistic, democratic, egalitarian society, in which the authority of the church and of its ministry needs very much to be renewed and restored. Does not the Scripture indicate that the Word of God as pronounced by the ministers of the church has a special authority in the hearts of God’s people and a special power of working? It does, surely it does.
Both ministers and people know this.
Here is Charles Simeon, the great Anglican preacher of the later 18th and early 19th centuries speaking of the authority of the benediction he pronounced at the end of the worship service at Holy Trinity Church in Cambridge, England through those fifty years of his ministry. “I feel that in pronouncing it, I do not do it as a mere finale, but that I am actually dispensing peace from God, and at God’s command. I know not the individuals to whom my benediction is a blessing; but I know that I am the appointed instrument by whom God is conveying the blessing to those who are able to receive it.” [Moule, Charles Simeon, 85-86] I will go further. My late sister, whose husband as many of you know, is a PCA chaplain serving in the U.S. Army, had met a Roman Catholic army chaplain whose faith she found very much like her own. Indeed, he had told her that he felt a greater kinship with them and their beliefs than with those in his own church. On the very day that she got the word that she had cancer — the disease that would take her life two years later — this priest knocked on her door on Staff Row at Fort McPherson, Georgia in the middle of the day. He was obviously in a hurry and had no time to talk. She came to the door and, without another word, he pronounced the Aaronic benediction over her — “The Lord bless you and keep you…” — and then left without so much as a “hello” or “goodbye.” He had no idea of the news she had just received; no one knew but God! But it was a tremendous blessing to her; she felt God had given his peace to her. Was she wrong? Was that minister not dispensing God’s peace in that way? Well, in a similar way, could we not then put a more positive construction on the Roman Catholic practice of confession? Could we not make an evangelical use of it?
Well, I suppose you could. After all, we know from the gospels that some Pharisees used the traditions as an expression of their true and living faith in God. But, the problem is, the Lord rejects the traditions anyway. Even if someone might use them wisely and well, someone might make an evangelical use of them, they are not to be followed for the interference they make in the true embrace and practice of the gospel. Jesus did not say that they should use their traditions with the right spirit and with a proper theological understanding, he said that they were human traditions and were contrary to the Word and the Gospel of God, because they inevitably interfered with a pure practice of the faith.
The fact is, we are here at the very center of human existence, at the great issue of human life: peace and acceptance and forgiveness with God. This is the point that Calvin made in his Institutes when he considered the practice of private confession and its effect upon faith and religion.
“…if there is anything in the whole world of religion that we should most certainly know, we ought most closely to grasp by what reason, with what law, under what condition, with what ease or difficulty, forgiveness of sins may be obtained!” [III, iv, 2]
How much more, then, at this point, at this place, we must listen most closely to and stand most firmly on the teaching of the Bible. Here is a place, of all places, traditions cannot be permitted to intrude and so obscure or, much worse, corrupt the truth. For at this point we are talking about what is the most important thing of all — the forgiveness of our sins that we might be at peace with God.
And here is the great problem with the Roman Catholic practice of confession: it inevitably, it cannot help but distract the soul from that upon which it must be putting its confidence, viz. the mercy of God in Christ; it places emphasis on what you do in a way the Bible never does and so displaces emphasis on what the Bible says is crucial to any forgiveness with God. The entire history of Jewish traditions, as they are judged and rejected in the Bible, teaches us that holding fast to the pure gospel is no easy matter: the entire drift of the tendency of our sinful hearts, of the influence of the world, and of the temptations of the devil is against us. The reintroduction of our works, the reassertion of our selves in the matter of our salvation is so natural, so inevitable, that even the slightest encouragement will guarantee the corruption of the gospel. Biblical history and church history has demonstrated this times without number. So, we are taught in Holy Scripture to resist the traditions of men in matters of the gospel and to resist them with might and main.
The Roman system of confession and penance is a system that cannot help but corrupt the gospel by encouraging and promoting a place for our pious works that the Bible never assigns to them: a pure contrition of the heart as a requirement for forgiveness (that is impossible in obtaining forgiveness with God. They are, must be, futile for this purpose!); a complete confession of sins (that is impossible! — Catholic theologians know that, of course, and introduce all manner of subtleties — for example, the distinction between mortal and venial sins — to get round that problem, the kind of subtleties you have so many of in Jewish theology of Jesus’ day and none of in the Bible); and acts of penance that are actually said in Catholic theology “to redeem” sins [Conc.Trid., Sess. 14, “On Penance” Can. xiv; Schaff, II, p. 168]. A way of speaking so foreign to the Bible and so categorically foreign to the Bible’s proclamation of the gospel as to confirm every Protestant’s suspicion that something very sinister is at work here.
In the Bible we are told to confess our sins to God, each of us. And we are given countless illustrations of believers doing just that and receiving, in turn, the forgiveness of their sins. Think of David in Psalm 32:
“I acknowledged my sin to you and did not cover up my iniquity. I said, ‘I will confess my transgressions to the Lord’ and you forgave the guilt of my sin. Therefore, let everyone who is godly pray to you while you may be found…“
Or, in the NT: 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.”
We are taught to confess the sins we have committed against other to those others themselves. We are taught to confess the sins we have committed against the church to the church. The church is taught to confess her sins in the worship she offers to God on the Lord’s Day. But always our sins against God are to be confessed to God. For this is the very nature of the gospel — that God himself stands ready to forgive those who come to him in faith.
“For this is what the high and lofty One says — who lives forever, whose name is holy: ‘I live in a high and holy place, but also with him who is contrite and lowly in spirit, to revive the spirit of the lowly and to revive the heart of the contrite.” (Isaiah 57:15)
Christ paid the price for our forgiveness, no further price need be or can be paid for any guilt or penalty attached to our sin. Because of him, there is forgiveness with God that he may be feared and that forgiveness is offered to all who come to God begging for it. What did Jesus say, “Come to me, all who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest.”
To place anything or anyone in between that Savior and the sorrowing and believing man or woman mistakes the freeness of that forgiveness — given to those for no other reason than their need — and the ground of it, Christ’s work entirely and alone. And to mistake those things is mistake indeed! To add to that message or to take from it poses as great a danger as human traditions ever can or do. It was exactly the error the Jews made, to place pious works between themselves and God’s forgiveness, and it led them to crucify the Savior when he appeared among them.
In Holy Scripture we receive forgiveness by asking God for it with faith in Christ, and our penitence and our conviction of sin is preserved and cultivated by the Holy Spirit through the Word of God and through the Lord’s Supper. And that man or woman who with faith and love applies his or her heart to the Word of God and seeks forgiveness from God’s hand, bringing nothing but his need, is assured that the Lord says to you from heaven, “My Son, My daughter, be of good cheer; your sins are forgiven you!” That is as close to the essential core of the Christian faith as you can come!