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

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

[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.

Originally published December 1977