“He who covers his sins will not prosper, But whoever confesses and forsakes them will have mercy” (Prov 28:13). The Scriptures explicitly teach that the confession of sin is one of the most important aspects of the Christian life. Nevertheless, in our day, it is often one of the most misunderstood and overly neglected aspects of the process of growth in grace. Whatever else might be said, of this much we may be sure–there is a daily need for us to own our sin and to confess it to the Lord. Confession of sin is an individual matter between the believer and his or her God; however, it is also a corporate exercise–according to Scripture.
In the church that I pastor, we have a brief time of confession of sin, immediately after the reading of God’s law. After we have a time of silent confession of sin, we have a pastoral prayer of confession followed by an assurance of pardon. This is a longstanding practice in many Reformed churches. Something of which many may not be aware is that, in the early days of the Reformation, Martin Luther wanted to keep the practice of the confessional–without any of the Roman Catholic Church insistence on the necessity of priestly absolution attached to it. Herman Bavinck explained:
“Luther took over from the Roman Catholic Church the official administration of the Word to the individual and therefore favored the maintenance of private confession. Although he regarded the preaching of the gospel as the forgiveness of sins (hence, “a Christian preacher can never open his mouth without pronouncing an absolution”), this was not enough for him. The pastor must also apply the absolution individually in the confessional, which, though not strictly necessary, is highly useful. But the institution of private confession encountered insurmountable difficulties (the insufficient number of pastors, the confessional fee, the uncertain meaning of absolution, and so forth) and gradually fell into disuse. Although the Reformed found the mutual confession of sins between church members useful, they had the official administration of the Word and hence also the proclamation of the forgiveness of sins, that is, the proclamation of pardon, take place only in the public gatherings of believers. For confession as an institution of the church, they only retained the regular or occasional confession of sins customary in preparing for the celebration of the Lord’s Supper, and for the rest replaced private confession with the practice of personal home visitation.”1
Whatever one may think about the pastoral confessional, we must recognize that the Scriptures teach that there is a place for confessing sin to the elders and other members of the church. The Scriptures instruct us in the follow way:
“Is anyone among you sick? Let him call for the elders of the church, and let them pray over him, anointing him with oil in the name of the Lord. And the prayer of faith will save the sick, and the Lord will raise him up. And if he has committed sins, he will be forgiven. Confess your trespasses to one another, and pray for one another, that you may be healed. The effective, fervent prayer of a righteous man avails much” (James 5:14-16).
This is not to suggest that believers are called to confess every sin to their pastor. Instead, it is focusing on some specific or more aggravated sin in the life of a believer that has perhaps brought about severe consequences. No matter what objections or nuances may be placed on this suggestion, it is clear that there is a blessing attached to confessing sin to the elders or other members of the local church of which one is a part. By way of deduction, we may say that the prayers of the elders and the people of God function as means of grace when one comes to them in brokenness and confession.
Many of the objections that one might raise to the idea of confession to elders stem from either embarrassment, distrust, abuse or a desire to hide. It is sadly true, there have been far too many times when a believer has confessed a particular sin to a pastor or a fellow congregant only to have their trust broken and their reputation smeared. Others have come forward seeking healing only to be judgmentally castigated by the leadership of a church. This has become one of the tragic setbacks to what is meant to be a divinely ordained restorative process for believers. Such a breach in pastoral or congregational confidentiality has become a barricade for so many who desperately need a spiritually-minded pastor or bother or sister to whom they can confess sin.
Of course, if a congregant feels as though he or she could not come to an elder or pastor of the congregation of which he or she belongs, then it is probably time to find a new congregation in which to worship. The elders of the church should be men who neither gossip nor slander members; neither should they be men who are heavy-handed in seeking to restore and shepherd the flock. Sadly, in churches who rightly focus on the Christ-ordained process of church discipline, heavy-handed oversight has sometimes occurred.
In churches in which pastors and people are committed to pursuing biblically-defined holiness in a humble, loving, gentle and patient manner, church members should see that God has given them this community in order to grow in the grace and knowledge of the Lord Jesus Christ. There is a promise of restoration to those who confess sin to fellow believers who, in turn, pray on their behalf (James 5:16). An essential aspect of that growth process is the confession of sin. May the Lord give us grace to find godly elders and congregants to whom we may go when we are in need of deliverance from those sins that “so easily weigh us down” (Heb. 12:1-2).
1. Bavinck, H., Bolt, J., & Vriend, J. (2008). Reformed Dogmatics: Holy Spirit, Church, and New Creation (Vol. 4, p. 409). Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic.