Thursday, June 26, 2014

Stump the Priest: Confession

Question: "In 1 John 1:9, the apostle teaches us that if we confess our sins, God is faithful and just, and will forgive us our sins, and cleanse us of all unrighteousness. But Orthodoxy teaches us that we must confess our sins to a priest in order to be saved and forgiven. If God forgives our sins when we ask him to, pursuant to 1 John 1:9, why then the need to go to a priest? And if we are forgiven when we go to a priest, and a priest is necessary, why the need to personally ask God to forgive us?"

This question assumes that when this passage speaks of confessing our sins, that it is referring only to our confession of sins directly to God, but there is nothing in the passage that suggests that this is the case. Here is that verse in its immediate context:

"If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins, and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness. If we say that we have not sinned, we make him a liar, and his word is not in us" (1 John 1:8=10).

In that context it seems more likely that it is referring to what we confess or deny to other people than that this is referring exclusively to what we confess or deny directly to God. And if we look at the other instances in the New Testament which speak of confessing sins, they all refer to confessing sins before other people. The first two instances both refer to those who were baptized by St. John the Baptist:

"Then went out to him Jerusalem, and all Judaea, and all the region round about Jordan, and were baptized of him in Jordan, confessing their sins" (Matthew 3:5-6).

"And there went out unto him all the land of Judaea, and they of Jerusalem, and were all baptized of him in the river of Jordan, confessing their sins" (Mark 1:5).

In Acts, there is a similar reference to public confession, though in this case with reference to gentile converts:

"...and fear fell on them all, and the name of the Lord Jesus was magnified. And many that believed came, and confessed, and shewed their deeds. Many of them also which used curious arts brought their books together, and burned them before all men: and they counted the price of them, and found it fifty thousand pieces of silver" (Acts 19:17-19).

And the fourth explicitly speaks of confessing sins "one to another" in the context of the Church:

"Confess your trespasses one to another, and pray one for another, that ye may be healed. The effectual fervent prayer of a righteous man availeth much" (James 5:16).

Furthermore, Christ in the Gospel's gave the Apostles the power to forgive, or to refrain from forgiving sins:

"And when he had said this, he breathed on them, and saith unto them, Receive ye the Holy Spirit: Whose soever sins ye remit, they are remitted unto them; and whose soever sins ye retain, they are retained" (John 20:22-23).

This passage presupposes some manner in which the Apostles would be made aware of the sins in question. And so from Scripture, it is clear that confession of sin was made before other people, as well as to God, and that the power to forgive sins or to retain them was given to the Apostles. The Church has always taught that this power to forgive or to retain sins was passed on by the Apostles to the bishops and priests of the Church. And in the early Church, public confession of sin was in fact the norm. This is seen, for example, in St. Cyprian of Carthage's epistles. For example, in a letter to his clergy, in 250 a.d., he complained that many who had lapsed during the persecution were wrongly being admitted back into communion without confession, penance, and the absolution of the clergy:

"For although in smaller sins sinners may do penance for a set time, and according to the rules of discipline come to confession, and by imposition of the hand of the bishop and clergy receive the right of communion: now with their time still unfulfilled, while persecution is still raging, while the peace of the Church itself is not yet restored, they are admitted to communion, and their name is presented; and while the penitence is not yet performed, confession is not yet made, the hands of the bishop and clergy are not yet laid upon them, the eucharist is given to them; although it is written, “Whosoever shall eat the bread and drink the cup of the Lord unworthily, shall be guilty of the body and blood of the Lord” (St. Cyprian, Epistle IX. To the Clergy, Concerning Certain Presbyters Who Had Rashly Granted Peace to the Lapsed Before the Persecution Had Been Appeased, and Without the Privity of the Bishops, 9:2).

The practice of public confession of sin changed over time, because, due to the decline in general piety, it was recognized that mandatory public confession could be harmful. For example, if a woman confessed to committing adultery, her husband might kill her in his anger. However, nothing prevents anyone from confessing their sins in public today, it is just not a requirement of the discipline of the Church.

It should also be understood that when we confess to a priest, we are confessing to God, with the priest as a witness, as is clear from the admonition the priest gives immediately prior to the penitent making their confession:

"Behold, my child, Christ standeth here invisibly and receiveth thy confession: wherefore, be not ashamed, neither be afraid, and conceal thou nothing from me: but tell me, doubting not, all things which thou hast done: and so shalt thou have pardon from our Lord Jesus Christ.  Lo, His holy image is before us: and I am but a witness, bearing testimony before him of all things which thou dost say to me.  But if thou shalt conceal anything from me, thou shalt have the greater sin.  Take heed, therefore, lest, having come to the physician, thou depart unhealed."

We should of course confess our sins to God as soon as we become aware of them, but when we are able to do so, we should confess before a priest or bishop, and receive the forgiveness that Christ granted His Church the authority to bestow -- especially when we are aware of a serious sin that weighs heavily on our conscience.