The Priesthood of Believers and the Ministry of Confession

I think it is time for Protestants to revive the ancient practice of confession.  What I am referring to here is the practice of confessing one’s sins to another person.  But let me be absolutely clear about what I don’t mean.  I don’t mean that we should elevate one person to the status of priest, recognize him as one qualified to dispense grace through the sacrament of penance, and then depend on him to provide us with absolution when we confess our sins to him.  What I am here arguing is miles away from the Roman Catholic sacrament.

Yet historically, Protestants have been a confessing people (in more senses than one!).  Martin Luther retained the practice of confession in his theology and practice, even calling it a third sacrament in some places (though I disagree with him on that point).  Liturgies that have come out of churches of the Reformation have included a corporate confession of sins followed by an assurance of pardon.  But as Western society turned more toward the primacy of the individual and lost a robust understanding of the church, the practice of confession was one of the many unfortunate casualties (not to mention church discipline, biblical church membership, and a host of other things). 

I am tremendously thankful for my Baptist heritage.  I am thankful that I grew up in a tradition that upheld the biblical doctrine of the priesthood of believers.  Yet I fear that this biblical teaching has been distorted and misused far too often (along with the biblical teachings of soul competency and religious liberty).  Some people use the doctrine of the priesthood of believers to defend an unbiblical individualism that essentially cuts off the believer from any kind of accountability to the church.  But this is not what the doctrine means.

That we can approach God’s throne through our sole Mediator, Jesus Christ, and confess our sins with the assurance of forgiveness through his atoning work, I hold as a precious truth.  But that this aspect of our priesthood before God eliminates any need to confess to one another, I dispute.  Confession of sins to others is commanded in Scripture (James 5:16), so we must not think that it compromises the biblical teachings of the sufficiency of Christ’s atonement or the priesthood of all believers.  We don’t confess our sins to a brother in order that he himself may forgive us (that is, unless we sinned against him specifically).  We confess for other reasons.

Confession of our sins to a brother in the church brings our sins out of the darkness and into the light.  In most cases, there is no need to make one’s sins public knowledge.  But that does not mean that one should remain alone with his sins.  In the loving fellowship of the church, everyone should have at least one person with whom he can be open to make known his failures, his weaknesses, his frailties.  In some cases, confession may take place in small groups.  Whatever the mechanism, confession helps to break the power of sin by disabling its ability to remain hidden.  Sin that remains hidden has great potential to grow and fester, eventually poisoning one’s life and community.  Do not be alone with your sin.  Enlist someone you know and love (of the same sex, unless it is your spouse) to be your partner in bringing your secret sins to light.  Once they have been brought before another person (or perhaps two or three others), let them then evaporate.    

But isn’t this embarrassing?  Yes, it is, but only because of our pride.  We are only embarrassed to be open about our sins with others if we value too much the false understanding we think they have of us.  We want them to place us on  pedastal and believe (quite falsely) that we never struggle, that we never fail, that we have attained a level of spiritual maturity that is far beyond us.  But if we truly believed the good news that we are justified, that is, declared righteous before God, by faith in Christ alone and not because of who we are or what we have done, then we would have greater freedom to be sinners with one another.  I don’t mean that in the sense of gathering together for the purpose of sinning.  I mean it in the sense of being open and honest about who we are and how we have failed.  No one should be more aware of his sins than a Christian.  No community should be more aware of its sins than a church.  Why, then, do we express shock when it is discovered that the church is full of sinners?  Instead of pretending to be above it all, let us be open with one another as sinners, so that we may rejoice even more in the grace of God given to us in Christ.  I can be open with my brother about my own failings because I do not seek to justify myself.  I trust in the God who justifies the ungodly (Romans 4:5).  If I leave off trying to justify myself before others and simply rest in the glorious truth that I am justified in Christ alone, exposing my sins will no longer threaten to undo me. 

And let us speak the promise of the gospel to one another.  If I confess my sins to a brother, I want him to assure me that God has forgiven me in Christ.  I want him, as a priest before God, to speak the promises of God to me, especially the promise of 1 John 1:9: “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.”  And I want to be the one who speaks that promise to my brother when he confesses his sins to me.  What exactly is the nature of this spoken word?  Does it effect forgiveness?  Does God forgive only through the mechanism of the spoken human word?  No!  The words of promise that we speak to each other do not force God to act.  They simply declare that he has already acted.  This is what Jesus meant when he gave the power of the keys first to Peter (Matthew 16:19) and then to the church as a whole (Matthew 18:18).  The Holman Christian Standard Bible represents a good rendering of the Greek: “I assure you: Whatever you bind on earth is already bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth is already loosed in heaven.”  God pronounces us forgiven in Christ, and he has empowered his church to proclaim his heavenly verdict on earth when a repentant sinner seeks forgiveness on the basis of Christ’s atoning death.  I want my brother to be the agent of proclamation of that decision to me, and I in turn to him.  To hear the Word of God spoken through the lips of another is to hear God speaking. 

I submit that this is part of what it means for us to be priests before God.  Our priesthood does not render confession unnecessary.  On the contrary, it demands that we act as priests to one another, not in the Roman Catholic sense, but in the robust Protestant sense of declaring the promise of God to one another.  Seek out a brother or a sister whom you love dearly and whom you trust, and never be alone with your sin again. 

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