What Is the Bible’s View?
Should We Confess?—If So, to Whom?
CAN you truthfully say that you have never done wrong? No, we all err. How do you feel afterward?
The first reaction may be to hide or cover over an error. Is that not true? But then your conscience may bother you. (1 John 3:4; Rom. 2:14, 15) Have you not found that a desire to have a clear conscience and to be right with God urges you to confess the matter, obtain forgiveness and put it all behind? But should we confess, and, if so, to whom?
It is clear from the Bible that acknowledging or confessing one’s sins is important. When John the Baptist came preaching repentance for sins against the Law, many Jews “were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins.” (Mark 1:4, 5, Common Bible) Also, Jesus urged his followers to pray, “Forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors.”—Matt. 6:12, CB.
Regarding sins against God, obviously we should admit our errors to him and seek his forgiveness. (Compare Psalm 32:3-5.) But what about when we wrong our fellowman? The Bible tells us to get the matter settled with the person whom we have wronged. Notice what Jesus told the Jews in the Sermon on the Mount: “if you are offering your gift at the altar, and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother, and then come and offer your gift [to God].” (Matt. 5:23, 24, CB) Following this advice would mean admitting to the other person the wrong and taking steps to be reconciled to him. This would include one’s family members.
What if a person committed adultery? Adultery is a sin in the sight of God. But it is also a sin against one’s marriage mate, for your mate has exclusive right to sexual relations with you. (Matt. 19:5, 6; 1 Cor. 6:16) So if a person committed adultery, how could he expect God’s forgiveness unless the sin was confessed to his mate?
Akin to this is the question of whether an engaged person should confess to a prospective mate immorality committed in the past. Many couples are willing to let the past remain a closed book. They see that even if years ago, perhaps before becoming a Christian, one of the two had committed immorality, that past act was not then a sin against the person who will now become a mate. Hence, Jesus’ counsel at Matthew 5:23, 24 does not require confession to the prospective mate. But, of course, some persons in this situation may want to “clear the slate,” so to speak, and avoid any possibility of its coming to light later with possibly damaging consequences. And, whether now or later, if a Christian were asked about the past and were obliged to answer he could not lie to keep it secret.—Col. 3:9.
As to another aspect of confession, perhaps you have read recent headlines, such as, “Vatican Reforms Confessional—Less About Sex, More on Taxes.” As is widely known, Roman Catholics are expected to confess serious sin to a priest authorized to “absolve” sins. The Council of Trent in 1551 decreed “that sacramental confession is of divine origin and necessary for salvation by divine law. . . . The Council emphasized the justification and necessity of auricular [told in the ear, private] confession as practiced in the Church ‘from the beginning.’”—New Catholic Encyclopedia, Vol. 4, p. 132.
In arguing for auricular confession to a priest who grants absolution, theologians point to Jesus, for he undeniably declared forgiveness of sins. When in faith a cripple was brought to him, Jesus said, “Your sins are forgiven you.” Some hearers objected, so Christ added: “That you may know that the Son of man has authority on earth to forgive sins— . . . I say to you, rise.” And the man was healed! (Luke 5:18-26, CB) Note that Jesus could declare sins forgiven, but just as easily could heal the man. Is that true of those who “absolve” sins today? And observe that the account here says nothing about the man’s making any “auricular confession.”
But some may refer to John 20:22, 23, where the resurrected Jesus told his apostles: “If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.” (CB) Again, is there any mention of a need for auricular confession to the apostles or others? No.
Were Jesus instituting auricular confession, should we not find evidence in the Bible that the apostles heard such confessions? One might expect this to be so especially inasmuch as the Council of Trent held that auricular confession, with resulting absolution of sins, was “practiced in the Church ‘from the beginning.’” However, even though recommending the practice, Jesuit professor J. L. McKenzie says: “The origins of auricular confession are obscure; it is old, at least as old as the late patristic period [ending about 749 C.E.], but it was not the original discipline of penance.” (The Roman Catholic Church) Additionally, in its article on penance the New Catholic Encyclopedia acknowledges: “There is no scriptural evidence that the Apostles, other than St. Paul, exercised the power of forgiving sins.”
But was this instance involving Paul a case of an apostle or priest hearing a confession and granting absolution? No. Rather, the case was about a congregation’s expelling and later reinstating a man who had sinned. Writing from Ephesus, Paul advised the congregation of Corinth in Europe to expel or disfellowship a man practicing immorality. This case is an illustration of the application of Jesus’ words at John 20:23. How so? Well, it was clear that the sins of that Corinthian man had to be viewed as “retained.” The congregation could not look upon his sins as “forgiven,” for the Bible made it plain that God would not forgive an unrepentant sinner. (1 Cor. 5:1, 9-13; Isa. 1:16-18; 55:7) However, later, evidently after the man repented, Paul wrote again and urged the congregation to “turn to forgive and comfort him.” (2 Cor. 2:7, CB) We see in this case, too, there is no mention of any auricular confession to a priest or an apostle.
The Bible, though, does urge: “Confess your sins to one another.” (Jas. 5:16, CB) What does that mean? Note the context.
James wrote that if one were spiritually sick, as committing serious sins would indicate, “let him call the elders of the church, and let them pray over him.” (The Corinthian man should have done that instead of unrepentantly continuing to practice the sin.) God does not authorize the elders themselves to forgive sins; that is something He does. (1 John 1:9) But when one has confessed to God, not “covering over” his sins, the spiritually qualified elders can pray with him as well as counsel and help him.—Prov. 28:13; Gal. 6:1.
What can result from such confession? James adds: “The Lord will raise him up; and if he has committed sins, he will be forgiven.”—Jas. 5:14, 15, CB.