OceanSide church of Christ
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PUBLIC CONFESSION OF SINS
THE SACRAMENT OF PENANCE
Victor M. Eskew
“Confess your faults 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). The inspired writer, James, teaches us the necessity of confessing our sins “one to another.” This verse is the authority behind what is often called “a public confession.” When the invitation is extended at the close of a sermon, often a member of the church will come forward and confess his/her sins. Once the confession is made, the church as a whole prays for God’s forgiveness on the sinner’s behalf.
There are some who have likened this practice to “The Sacrament of Penance” as practiced by the Catholic Church. However, there are some major differences that exist between the two practices. In the remainder of this article, we will examine these distinctions. First, the Catholic Church lists “Penance” among the sacraments. A sacrament is a religious symbol or rite “which conveys divine grace, blessing, or sanctity upon the believer who participates in it” (wikipedia.com, “Sacrament”). The Bible, however, nowhere refers to sacraments. The confession of sins is considered part of the divine process whereby sins are forgiven by God (I John 1:9).
Second, the “Sacrament of Penance” demands that confession be made before an official, duly ordained priest of the Catholic Church. One who is considered a layman in the Catholic Church cannot hear the confession of the penitent believer. Within the church, anyone is free to hear the confession of the penitent. In most cases, the first to hear is the preacher. He, then, tells the entire church about the sins being confessed. This writer has seen elders and other members of the church listen to the confession first. The Bible does not teach that confession must be taken by a duly ordained priest of the Catholic Church. James 5:16 teaches that confession is to be made “one to another.”
Third, “Penance” or “Reconciliation” as practiced by the Catholics is done in private. The confession involves the sinner and the priest only. This is not the case when a public confession is made by a member of the church. The sin may be revealed to the preacher first, but it is ultimately made known to the entire congregation. Since the sin involved the entire church, the entire congregation offers a prayer on the individual’s behalf. When one offers the prayer, all the church is being led in the prayer.
Fourth, “Penance” as taught by the Romans Catholics involves all the sins one has committed since one’s last confession. These sins are both public and private transgressions. They can involve behavioral sins and sins one commits within the heart. This is not the case when a member of the church comes forward confessing his sins. He comes only when his sins are of a public nature. These sins have adversely impacted the members of the body of which he is a part. Private sins and sins between brethren can be dealt with in a private setting (Matt. 18:15; Luke 17:3-4).
Fifth, the Catholic doctrine of Auricular Confession gives the priest the ability to absolve or remit the sins of the penitent. The priest will often make this statement during the confession:
“God the Father of mercies, through the death and resurrection of his Son, has reconciled the world to himself and sent the Holy Spirit among us for the forgiveness of sins; through the ministry of the Church may God give you pardon and peace, and I absolve you from your sins in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, “The sacrament of forgiveness,” 1449, p. 404)
Note the words: “I absolve you from your sins.” The word “I” refers to the priest. The Catholics believe that a priest has the power to forgive sins. Within the church, when prayer is offered for the penitent, God is addressed. The one praying asks the Father in heaven to forgive the one who has come confessing his/her sins.
Sixth, the Catholic Confession also involves what is referred to as “satisfaction.” In the Catechism, we read the following: “Absolution takes away sin, it does not remedy all the disorders sin has caused. Raised up from sin, the sinner must still recover his full spiritual health by doing something more to make amends for sin: he must ‘make satisfaction or’ or ‘expiate’ his sins. This satisfaction is also called ‘penance’ (p. 407). Mere confession, therefore, is not enough according to Catholics. There must be a payment. “It can consist of prayer, an offering, works of mercy, service of neighbor, voluntary self-denial, sacrifices, and above all patient acceptance of the cross we bear” (Catechism, p. 407). The public confession within the church never involves satisfaction or penance. The penitent is never told that he must do something more after repentance and confession in order to be right with God.
The six things we have discussed in this article show that a great gulf exists between our public confession and the Auricular Confession of the Catholic Church. To make the claim that they are similar is a false claim. The confession of sins as practiced within the church harmonizes with James 5:16. The Sacrament of Penance contains much that is man-made. May each of us be pleased to “confess your faults one to another, and pray one for another.” We do this because of God’s promise that the effectual fervent prayer of a righteous man avails much.