Sunday, September 10, 2006

Auricular confession

“When Jesus says to the apostles, "whose sins you forgive will be forgiven," is he giving men the power to forgive sin? It seems like this verse supports verbal confession of sins to a person: how else would the apostles know which sins to forgive and which ones to retain?”

If your using this verse (Jn 20:23) as a prooftext for auricular confession, then it won’t get you where you want to go. As one commentator explains:

“In this Gospel’s discourse sin is primarily failing to acknowledge the revelation of God in Jesus (cf. 8:24; 9:39-41; 15:22,24). Jesus’ words and works have been depicted as bringing about a judgment which the recipients make on themselves, as they either respond in belief or expose their sinful state of unbelief. The same holds for the future work of the Spirit, about whom Jesus has said that ‘when he comes, he will convict the world of sin…because they do not believe in me’ (16:8-9). Similarly, as the disciples, accompanied by the Spirit, witness to God’s verdict accomplished in Jesus, the lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world (cf. 1:29), and press home its implications, they will be pronouncing forgiveness for those who receive their witness but will be retaining the sins of those who reject it,” A. Lincoln, The Gospel According to St. John (Hendrickson 2005), 499.

“The response of the recipients of the message is decisive for whether their sins are forgiven ore retained, but the formulation of the two subordinate clauses makes this an active effect of the disciples’ witness…Just as Jesus’ mission constituted a realized judgment of either salvation or condemnation, so the disciples’ witness to that mission will entail a realized judgment of either forgiveness or retention of sins,” ibid. 500.

“The saying about forgiving or retaining sins in 20:23 has some similarities with the authorization of the disciples to bind or loose in Mt 18:18 (cf. Also 16:19), but the Fourth Gospel broadens the notion from teaching authority in the church to mission in general, and the commissioning of the disciples thereby has its closest conceptual links with Lk 24:46-9. There, before his ascension, Jesus speaks of repentance and forgiveness of sins being preached in his name to all nations, of the disciples being witnesses, which, as has been noted, is implicit in Jn 20:21, and of the promise of the Father being sent on them, which will entail being clothed with power,” ibid. 500.


  1. Off-topic, but: could you recommend a good commentary or two on Ephesians? Our pastor just started preaching through the book last week. Thanks!

  2. P.T. O'Brien & Harold W. Hohner.

  3. "In spite of the ingenious arguments of certain scholars, there are still no signs of a sacrament of private penance (i.e. confession to a priest, followed by absolution and the imposition of a penance) such as Catholic Christendom knows to-day. The system which seems to have existed in the Church at this time, and for centuries afterwards, was wholly public, involving confession, a period of penance and exclusion from communion, and formal absolution and restoration - the whole process being called exomologesis. The last of these was normally bestowed by the bishop, as Hippolytus's prayer of episcopal consecration implies, but in his absence might be delegated to a priest. There is plenty of evidence that sinners were encouraged to open their hearts privately to a priest, but nothing to show that this led up to anything more than ghostly counsel. Indeed, for the lesser sins which even good Christians daily commit and can scarcely avoid, no ecclesiastical censure seems to have been thought necessary; individuals were expected to deal with them themselves by prayer, almsgiving and mutual forgiveness. Public penance was for graver sins; it was, as far as we know, universal, and was an extremely solemn affair, capable of being undergone only once in a lifetime." (J.N.D. Kelly, Early Christian Doctrines [San Francisco, California: HarperCollins Publishers, 1978], pp. 216-217)

    "At the close of the twelfth century a complete change was made in the doctrine of penance. The theory of the early Church, elaborated by Tertullian and other Church fathers, was that penance is efficient to remove sins committed after baptism, and that it consisted in certain penitential exercises such as prayers and alms. The first elements added by the medieval system were that confession to the priest and absolution by the priest are necessary conditions for pardon. Peter the Lombard did not make mediation of the priest a requirement, but declared that confession to God was sufficient. In his time [twelfth century], he says, there was no agreement on three aspects of penance: first, whether contrition for sin was not all that was necessary for its remission; second, whether confession to the priest was essential; and third, whether confession to a layman was insufficient. The opinions handed down from the Fathers, he asserts, were diverse, if not antagonistic." (Philip Schaff, The Master Christian Library [Albany, Oregon: AGES Software, 1998], History Of The Christian Church, Vol. 5, pp. 573-574)

    "The Lord of all things, brethren, is in need of naught; neither requireth he anything of any one, except to confess unto him. For the elect David saith, I will confess unto the Lord, and that shall please him more than a young calf that putteth forth horns and hoofs. Let the poor behold and rejoice thereat. And again he saith, Offer unto the Lord the sacrifice of praise: pay thy vows unto the Most High. And call upon me in the day of thy affliction, and I will deliver thee, and thou shalt glorify me. For the sacrifice unto God is a broken spirit." (Clement of Rome, First Clement, 52)

  4. jason, the jnd kelly quote actually suports auricular confession, because it shows people confessed sins to a bishop. it doesn't matter that it was public but now it's private, such changes in discipline are to be expected.

    nevertheless, i was after biblical evidence for this one.

  5. An anonymous poster wrote:

    "jason, the jnd kelly quote actually suports auricular confession, because it shows people confessed sins to a bishop. it doesn't matter that it was public but now it's private, such changes in discipline are to be expected."

    Kelly refers to what happened "at this time" (p. 216). He's discussing the third century. And he refers to public confession of some sins. He also refers to other elements of penance at that time that are rejected by modern groups like Roman Catholicism. If the changes from what Kelly describes to what's practiced today can be dismissed under the premise that "such changes in discipline are to be expected", then the same reasoning can be applied in reverse. If we want to develop a system in which there's no required confession to a church leader for any type of sin, then on what basis will you object? How do you know that development of the concept has to go in the direction of more confession, privacy, etc.?

    You write:

    "nevertheless, i was after biblical evidence for this one."

    I don't know what details you have in mind, but you've mentioned concepts such as confessing to a church leader and doing so in private, which you consider a development that's "to be expected". If what you have in mind is something like the modern Roman Catholic system of confession, then there is no justification for it in scripture.