Confession of Sins—Man’s Way or God’s?
AMONG Catholics, confession has changed dramatically over the centuries. In the early years of the Catholic Church, confession and penance were required only for serious sins. Concerning this, the book Religion in the Medieval West says: “Until the late sixth century the penitential system was very harsh: the sacrament could be administered only once in a lifetime, confession was public, the penance was long and severe.”
How severe was such penance? In 1052 one penitent was required to walk barefoot all the way from Bruges in Belgium to Jerusalem! “Catholics could still be found in 1700 at holy wells and springs, kneeling up to their necks in icy water to say their penitential prayers,” says the book Christianity in the West 1400-1700. Since at that time absolution was withheld until after the completion of the penance, many delayed their confession until they were dying.
When did the modern practice of confession begin? Religion in the Medieval West states: “A new form of penance was introduced in France in the late sixth century by Celtic monks. . . . This was auricular confession, in which the penitent confessed his sins privately to a priest, and it was an adaption of the monastic practice of spiritual counselling.” According to the older monastic practice, the monks confessed their sins to one another to get spiritual help in order to overcome their weaknesses. In newer auricular confession, however, the church claimed for the priest the much greater “power or authority to forgive sins.”—New Catholic Encyclopedia.
Did Jesus really give some of his followers such power? What did he say that has led some to this conclusion?
“The Keys of the Kingdom”
On one occasion, Jesus Christ told the apostle Peter: “I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven: whatever you bind on earth shall be considered bound in heaven; whatever you loose on earth shall be considered loosed in heaven.” (Matthew 16:19, The Jerusalem Bible) What did Jesus mean by “the keys of the kingdom”? We can understand this better if we look at another occasion when Jesus used the word “key.”
Jesus once told the Jewish religious leaders versed in the Mosaic Law: “Alas for you lawyers who have taken away the key of knowledge! You have not gone in yourselves, and have prevented others going in who wanted to.” (Luke 11:52, JB) ‘Prevented others from going in’ where? Jesus tells us at Matthew 23:13: “Alas for you, scribes and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You who shut up the kingdom of heaven in men’s faces, neither going in yourselves nor allowing others to go in who want to.” (JB) The Jewish clergy closed the door on many, as it were, by robbing them of the opportunity to be with Jesus Christ in heaven. The “key” those religious leaders had “taken away” had nothing to do with the forgiveness of sins. It was the key to divinely provided knowledge.
Similarly, “the keys of the kingdom” given to Peter do not represent power to inform heaven as to whose sins should be forgiven or retained. Rather, they represent Peter’s great privilege of opening up the way to heaven by disseminating divinely provided knowledge through his ministry. He did this first for Jews and Jewish proselytes, then for Samaritans, and finally for the Gentiles.—Acts 2:1-41; 8:14-17; 10:1-48.
“Whatever You Bind on Earth”
Later, what Jesus had told Peter was repeated to other disciples. “I tell you solemnly,” said Jesus, “whatever you bind on earth shall be considered bound in heaven; whatever you loose on earth shall be considered loosed in heaven.” (Matthew 18:18, JB) What authority did Christ here delegate to the disciples? The context shows that he was talking about settling problems between individual believers and keeping the congregation clean of unrepentant evildoers.—Matthew 18:15-17.
In matters involving serious violations of God’s law, responsible men in the congregation would have to judge matters and decide whether a wrongdoer should be “bound” (viewed as guilty) or “loosed” (acquitted). Did this mean that heaven would follow the decisions of humans? No. As Bible scholar Robert Young indicates, any decision made by the disciples would follow heaven’s decision, not precede it. He says that Mt 18 verse 18 should literally read: What you bind on earth “shall be that which has been bound (already)” in heaven.
Really, it is unreasonable to think that any imperfect human could make decisions that would be binding upon those in the heavenly courts. It is much more reasonable to say that Christ’s appointed representatives would follow his directions so as to keep his congregation clean. They would do this by making a decision based on principles already laid down in heaven. Jesus himself would guide them in doing this.—Matthew 18:20.
Is any man able to “represent Christ as the fatherly judge” to the extent of deciding the eternal future of a fellow worshiper? (New Catholic Encyclopedia) Priests who hear confessions almost invariably grant absolution, even though “there seems to be an unspoken belief [among Catholic theologians] that it is a rare person who is really sorry for his sins.” (The New Encyclopædia Britannica) Indeed, when was the last time that you heard of a priest refusing to grant absolution or to acquit a wrongdoer? Likely, this is because the individual priest does not think he has the ability to judge whether a sinner is repentant or not. But if this is the case, why does he claim the power to grant absolution?
Imagine a court of law in which a compassionate judge routinely acquitted criminals, even persistent lawbreakers, because they went through a ritual of admitting their crimes and saying that they were sorry. While this might satisfy wrongdoers, such a misguided view of mercy would seriously undermine respect for justice. Could it be that confession as practiced in the Catholic Church actually hardens people in a course of sin?—Ecclesiastes 8:11.
“Confession does not produce any inclination to try to avoid the sin in the future,” says Ramona, drawing on her experience of confessing as a Catholic since she was seven years old. She adds: “Confession develops the idea that God is all-forgiving and that whatever your imperfect flesh leads you to do he will forgive. It does not develop a deep desire to do what is right.”*
But what about Jesus’ words recorded at John 20:22, 23? There he told his disciples: “Receive the Holy Spirit. For those whose sins you forgive, they are forgiven; for those whose sins you retain, they are retained.” (JB) Does Jesus not here specifically give his disciples authority to forgive sins?
Taken alone, this Bible passage might seem to say that. However, when these words are considered along with the account at Matthew 18:15-18 and everything else that the Bible teaches about confession and forgiveness, what must we conclude? That at John 20:22, 23, Jesus gave his disciples authority to expel from the congregation unrepentant perpetrators of grave sins. At the same time, Christ gave his followers authority to extend mercy and forgive repentant sinners. Jesus certainly was not saying that his disciples should confess every sin to a priest.
Responsible ones in the congregation were thus authorized to decide how to deal with those committing grave sins. Such decisions would be made under the guidance of God’s holy spirit and in harmony with God’s directions given through Jesus Christ and the Holy Scriptures. (Compare Acts 5:1-5; 1 Corinthians 5:1-5, 11-13.) Those responsible men would thereby respond to direction from heaven, not imposing their decisions on heaven.
“Confess Your Sins to One Another”
So, then, when is it appropriate for Christians to confess sins to one another? In the case of serious sin (not every little failing), an individual should confess to responsible overseers of the congregation. Even if a sin is not grievous but the sinner’s conscience troubles him excessively, there is great value in confessing and seeking spiritual help.
In this regard the Bible writer James says: “If one of you is [spiritually] ill, he should send for the elders of the church, and they must anoint him with oil in the name of the Lord and pray over him. The prayer of faith will save the sick man and the Lord will raise him up again; and if he has committed any sins, he will be forgiven. So confess your sins to one another, and pray for one another.”—James 5:14-16, JB.
In these words, there is no suggestion of a formal, ritualistic, auricular confession. Rather, when a Christian is so burdened with sin that he feels he cannot pray, he should call the appointed elders, or overseers, of the congregation, and they will pray with him. To help him recover spiritually, they will also apply the oil of God’s Word.—Psalm 141:5; compare Luke 5:31, 32; Revelation 3:18.
Noteworthy is John the Baptizer’s admonition to “produce fruit that befits repentance.” (Matthew 3:8; compare Acts 26:20.) A truly repentant wrongdoer abandons his sinful course. Like King David of ancient Israel, the repentant sinner who confesses his error to God will receive forgiveness. David wrote: “My sin I finally confessed to you, and my error I did not cover. I said: ‘I shall make confession over my transgressions to Jehovah.’ And you yourself pardoned the error of my sins.”—Psalm 32:5.
Penitential acts cannot earn such forgiveness. Only God can grant it. He takes the requirements of perfect justice into account, but his forgiveness expresses his love for mankind. His forgiveness is also a manifestation of undeserved kindness founded on the ransom sacrifice of Jesus Christ and is extended solely to repentant sinners who have turned away from what is bad in God’s sight. (Psalm 51:7; Isaiah 1:18; John 3:16; Romans 3:23-26) Only those forgiven by Jehovah God will gain eternal life. And to receive such forgiveness, we must make confession in God’s way, not man’s.
[Picture on page 7]
David confessed to Jehovah, who granted forgiveness