Excerpt from Celebration of Discipline

The followers of Jesus Christ have been given the authority to receive the confession of sin and to forgive it in his name. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained” (John 20:23). What a wonderful privilege! Why do we shy away from such a life-giving ministry? If we, not out of merit but sheer grace, have been given the authority to set others free, how dare we withhold this great gift! Dietrich Bonhoeffer writes, Our brother… has been given to us to help us. He hears the confession of our sins in Christ’s stead and he forgives our sins in Christ’s name. He keeps the secret of our confession as God keeps it. When I go to my brother to confess, I am going to God.”1

Such authority in no way threatens the value or efficacy of private confession. It is a wonderful truth that the individual can break through into new life in the cross without the aid of any human mediator. In the days of the Reformation that reality swept into the Church like a breath of fresh air. It became a trumpet call of liberation from the bondage and manipulation that had crept into the ecclesiastical confessional system. But we also need to remember that Luther himself believed in mutual, brotherly confession. In the Large Catechism he writes, Therefore when I admonish you to confession I am admonishing you to be a Christian.”2 Nor should we forget that when the confessional system was first introduced into the Church it sparked a genuine revival of personal piety and holiness.

The person who has known forgiveness and release from persistent, nagging habits of sin through private confession should rejoice greatly in this evidence of God’s mercy. But there are others for whom this has not happened. Let me describe what it is like. We have prayed, even begged, for forgiveness, and though we hope we have been forgiven, we sense no release. We doubt our forgiveness and despair at our confession. We fear that perhaps we have made confession only to ourselves and not to God. The haunting sorrows and hurts of the past have not been healed. We try to convince ourselves that God forgives only the sin; he does not heal the memory. But deep within our being we know there must be something more. People have told us to take our forgiveness by faith and not to call God a liar. Not wanting to call God a liar, we do our best to take it by faith. But because misery and bitterness remain in our lives, we again despair. Eventually we begin to believe either that forgiveness is only a ticket to heaven and not meant to affect our lives now, or that we are not worthy of the forgiving grace of God.

Those who in some small way identify with these words can rejoice. We have not exhausted our resources nor God’s grace when we have tried private confession. In the Book of Common Prayer, following the call to self-examination and repentance, we read these encouraging words: If there be any of you who by this means cannot quiet his own conscience herein but require further comfort or counsel, let him come to me or to some other minister of God’s word, and open his grief….”3 God has given us our brothers and sisters to stand in Christ’s stead and make God’s presence and forgiveness real to us.

The Scripture teaches us that all believers are priests before God: You are a chosen race, a royal priesthood” (1 Pet. 2:9). At the time of the Reformation this was called the universal priesthood of all believers.” One of the functions of the Old Testament priest was to bring the forgiveness of sins through the holy sacrifice. The book of Hebrews, of course, makes clear that Jesus Christ is the final and sufficient sacrifice. And Jesus has given to us his priesthood: the ministry of making that sacrifice real in the hearts and lives of other human beings. It is through the voice of our brothers and sisters that the word of forgiveness is heard and takes root in our lives. Bonhoeffer writes: A man who confesses his sins in the presence of a brother knows that he is no longer alone with himself; he experiences the presence of God in the reality of the other person. As long as I am by myself in the confession of my sins everything remains in the dark, but in the presence of a brother the sin has to be brought into the light.”4

  1. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Life Together (New York: Harper & Row, 1952), p. 112. ↩︎
  2. Ibid., p. 118 ↩︎
  3. Agnes Sanford, The Healing Gifts of the Spirit (New York: Holman, 1966), p. 110. ↩︎
  4. Bonhoeffer, Life Together, p. 116. ↩︎

Excerpt from Foster, Richard J. Celebration of Discipline: The Path To Spiritual Growth. HarperCollins.

Text First Published December 1977 · Last Featured on Renovare.org March 2024