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Calvin and Chrysostom on Confessing Our Sins

Does a believer have to confess his or her sins to another believer in order to obtain forgiveness? Most evangelicals would say no, but sometimes I wonder if our practices say otherwise. With the recent resurgence of interest in ancient practices of spirituality, confession to a priest is becoming more common, even among non-Catholics. Or consider accountability partnerships: while these can be healthy and helpful, there is also a subtle danger that a believer will feel bound in conscience to confess to his or her accountability partner.

Those who promote this kind of confession would quote James 5:16, “Therefore, confess your sins to one another and pray for one another, that you may be healed,” and argue that it is psychologically important for us to disclose our sins to a human being – that something will be lacking in our experience (if not the fact) of forgiveness if we do not. They would further argue that our brothers and sisters in Christ can powerfully represent Christ to us – so that in confessing our sins and in hearing an assurance of pardon from them, the grace of Christ is audibly and visibly represented to us. For example, Dietrich Bonhoeffer (whose writings, incidentally, I love!) says,

“Christ became our Brother in the flesh in order that we might believe in Him. . . . Now our brother stands in Christ’s stead. Before him I need no longer dissemble. Before him alone in the whole world I dare to be the sinner I am. . . . Christ became our Brother to help us. Through him our brother has become Christ for us in the power and authority of the commission Christ has given to him. . . . When I go to my brother to confess, I am going to God.”[1]

While I understand the arguments, I’m concerned that this way of thinking quietly undermines the gospel. When I ran across these arguments in some recent reading, I started wondering how the Reformers handled the issue of auricular confession. So, I pulled Calvin’s Institutes off my shelf. And I’m glad I did.

Calvin argued strongly against the Catholic insistence that believers were duty-bound to confess their sins to a priest in order to receive the grace of forgiveness. He noted that “all priestly offices have been transferred to Christ and are fulfilled and completed in him,”[2] and passionately contended that confessing our sins to God alone is sufficient for obtaining forgiveness:

Since it is the Lord who forgives, forgets, and wipes out sins, let us confess our sins to him in order to obtain pardon. He is the physician; therefore, let us lay bare our wounds to him. It is he who is hurt and offended; from him let us seek peace. He is the discerner of hearts, the one cognizant of all thoughts [cf. Heb. 4:12]; let us hasten to pour out our hearts before him. He it is, finally, who calls sinners: let us not delay to come to God himself.[3]

Most moving to me were Calvin’s quotations attributed to Chrysostom[4]:

“Tell your sins,” he says, “that you may wipe them away. If you are embarrassed to tell anyone what sins you have committed, recite them daily to your own soul. I do not tell you to confess them to your fellow servant, who may upbraid you. Recite them to God who heals them. Confess your sins upon your bed that there your conscience may daily acknowledge its misdeeds.”

Again: “Now, morever, it is not necessary to confess in the presence of witnesses. Examine your sins in your own thought. Let this judgment be without witness: let God alone see you confessing.”

Again: “I do not lead you onto the stage before your fellow servants. I do not compel you to uncover your sins to men. Betake your conscience to God’s presence and lay it open before him. Show your wounds to the Lord, the most excellent physician, and seek remedy from him. Show them to him, who does not reproach but most gently heals.”

Again: “Surely, you should tell no man, lest he upbraid you; for you should confess nothing to a fellow servant, who may make it public. But show your wounds to the Lord, who takes care of you and is your kind physician.” Afterward he has God say, “I do not compel you to come on mid-stage before many witnesses. Tell your sin privately to me only that I may heal your sore.”[5]

Calvin did agree that James 4:16 enjoins us to “lay our infirmities on one another’s breasts, to receive among ourselves mutual counsel, mutual compassion, and mutual consolation.”[6] In fact, he acknowledges several reasons why confession to human beings might be necessary or helpful. First, we do need to publicly acknowledge, in a general way, that we are sinners. Second, sometimes we need to confess our sins for the removal of an offense and the reconciliation of a relationship (as in Matthew 5:23-24 and 2 Corinthians 2:6-7). And third, there are times when we should privately confess sins to a pastor in cases where we are “troubled and afflicted with a sense of sins, so that without outside help [we are] unable to free [ourselves] from them.”

But with this last form of confession, Calvin urged that we should always observe this rule:

that where God prescribes nothing definite, consciences be not bound with a definite yoke. Hence, it follows that confession of this sort ought to be free so as not to be required of all, but to be commended only to those who know they have need of it. Then, that those who use it according to their need neither be forced by any rule nor be induced by any trick to recount all their sins. But let them do this so far as they consider it expedient, that they may receive the perfect fruit of consolation.[7]

Calvin’s teaching strikes me as both balanced and biblical. Of course there are occasions when confession is necessary for repairing a broken relationship or acknowledging a public offense. And sometimes it may be uniquely helpful for us to confess our sins to a fellow-believer. But we should beware of falling into the trap of thinking it is necessary as a means of obtaining God’s assurance of pardon. Christ is our great high priest, who invites us to come to the throne of grace with confidence that we will be heard (Heb 4:14-16). He has appeared once and for all to take away our sins (Heb. 9:26, 28). His blood alone can purify a sinner’s conscience (Heb. 9:14). This doesn’t mean we should be soft on sin. But it does remind us where our true hope for forgiveness and assurance lies. Not in the words of a confessor or a well-intended accountability partner – but in Christ alone.

Notes

[1] Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Life Together, trans. John W. Doberstein (San Francisco: Harper San Francisco, 1993) 111-112.

[2] John Calvin, John T. McNeil, ed., Ford L. Battles, trans., Institutes of the Christian Religion (Philadelphia, PA: The Westminster Press, 1960) 627.

[3] Ibid., 634.

[4] The editor, however, indicates that only the last two quotations actually come from Chrysostom.

[5] Ibid., 632-33.

[6] Ibid., 630.

[7] Ibid., 637.

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