Good Monday morning. In a conversation I had recently with a loved-one regarding sound doctrine and the various Christian denominations, I was reminded of one of the strongest objections within Christian denominations, the practice of private confession and absolution. It is generally considered “a Catholic thing” but Lutherans also maintain this practice as one of the roles of the office of Pastor. I’m not here to review/critique their practice. I am interested, however, in the subject of confession, repentance, & absolution from a Biblical perspective. I could not find a way to discuss confession and repentance apart from Church Discipline.
Gospel of Grace
While the topic for today is one of practices within the Church, the Body of Christ, I do not want to skip over this by way of assumption. Regardless of your church practice, this discussion is not about absolving the unbeliever of sin. To enter the Body of Christ, one must be Converted or Born-Again by Grace, through Faith.
Acts 16:25-34 (ESV) | The Philippian Jailer Converted
25 About midnight Paul and Silas were praying and singing hymns to God, and the prisoners were listening to them, 26 and suddenly there was a great earthquake, so that the foundations of the prison were shaken. And immediately all the doors were opened, and everyone’s bonds were unfastened. 27 When the jailer woke and saw that the prison doors were open, he drew his sword and was about to kill himself, supposing that the prisoners had escaped. 28 But Paul cried with a loud voice, “Do not harm yourself, for we are all here.” 29 And the jailer called for lights and rushed in, and trembling with fear he fell down before Paul and Silas. 30 Then he brought them out and said, “Sirs, what must I do to be saved?” 31 And they said, “Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved, you and your household.” 32 And they spoke the word of the Lord to him and to all who were in his house. 33 And he took them the same hour of the night and washed their wounds; and he was baptized at once, he and all his family. 34 Then he brought them up into his house and set food before them. And he rejoiced along with his entire household that he had believed in God.
Praise the Lord. Now, those who are saved in Jesus Christ still live in sinful flesh, and are in need of forgiveness and restoration every day until the hope of the upward call of Jesus (the Day of His Return and of our Resurrection in Christ). So, for those who do not believe in the Lord Jesus, what follows is of lesser concern.
Jesus Taught Us to Forgive Each Other
Undoubtedly the primary point of the Gospel is the forgiveness of sin through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Jesus also commanded His disciples to forgiven one another and tied it to how we are to pray. Let’s look in Matthew what follows right after the Lord’s Prayer:
Matthew 6:14-15 (ESV) 14 For if you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you,15 but if you do not forgive others their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.
Still, this is not yet pointing to our topic of the day. There is something interesting that Jesus says to His disciples later in the text after Peter’s confession of Jesus as the Christ, Son of the Living God.
Matthew 16:13-20 (ESV) | Peter Confesses Jesus as the Christ
13 Now when Jesus came into the district of Caesarea Philippi, he asked his disciples, “Who do people say that the Son of Man is?” 14 And they said, “Some say John the Baptist, others say Elijah, and others Jeremiah or one of the prophets.” 15 He said to them, “But who do you say that I am?” 16 Simon Peter replied, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” 17 And Jesus answered him, “Blessed are you, Simon Bar-Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father who is in heaven. 18 And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it. 19 I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.” 20 Then he strictly charged the disciples to tell no one that he was the Christ.
Interesting. Growing up in a Pentecostal / Charismatic tradition, I’ve always heard this passage (highlighted portion) taught in the “spiritual warfare” sense. But here, it follows Jesus saying He will build His Church upon the confession of Jesus as the Christ, and that nothing will prevail against His Church. Rather than expound upon this further, let’s look at how this phrasing comes back up later in the text.
Matthew 18:7-22 (ESV)
Temptations to Sin
7 “Woe to the world for temptations to sin! For it is necessary that temptations come, but woe to the one by whom the temptation comes! 8 And if your hand or your foot causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away. It is better for you to enter life crippled or lame than with two hands or two feet to be thrown into the eternal fire. 9 And if your eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away. It is better for you to enter life with one eye than with two eyes to be thrown into the hell of fire.
The Parable of the Lost Sheep
10 “See that you do not despise one of these little ones. For I tell you that in heaven their angels always see the face of my Father who is in heaven. 12 What do you think? If a man has a hundred sheep, and one of them has gone astray, does he not leave the ninety-nine on the mountains and go in search of the one that went astray? 13 And if he finds it, truly, I say to you, he rejoices over it more than over the ninety-nine that never went astray. 14 So it is not the will of my Father who is in heaven that one of these little ones should perish.
If Your Brother Sins Against You
15 “If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault, between you and him alone. If he listens to you, you have gained your brother. 16 But if he does not listen, take one or two others along with you, that every charge may be established by the evidence of two or three witnesses. 17 If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church. And if he refuses to listen even to the church, let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector. 18 Truly, I say to you, whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven. 19 Again I say to you, if two of you agree on earth about anything they ask, it will be done for them by my Father in heaven. 20 For where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I among them.”
The Parable of the Unforgiving Servant
21 Then Peter came up and said to him, “Lord, how often will my brother sin against me, and I forgive him? As many as seven times?” 22 Jesus said to him, “I do not say to you seven times, but seventy-seven times.
I decided to leave the ESV section headings in this portion to better illustrate what the immediate context of this passage conveys. The context is within the Church. The Kingdom of Heaven, the sheep fold, is where the sheep have heard the Voice of Jesus, their Shepherd. Temptations will come, some will be led astray, and the Shepherd goes in search for the one who is lost and rejoices over its restoration. In verse 15, Jesus isn’t talking about “the world”; rather, He is talking about “your brother”. It is in this context that we see, again, whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven… Interesting. Now, before we get too far beyond the fulcrum (thus tipping the lever too far in the other direction) notice that Peter’s question seeks a “limit” of sorts. This power of binding is understood as a responsibility rather than a privilege, and Peter is seeking an upper limit. Jesus doesn’t provide one; rather, He says that as long as your brother repents, you are to forgive. Remember what Jesus taught when the Disciples asked how to pray; If they do not forgive the sins of others, their sins will not be forgiven them. Still, this responsibility of binding and loosing remains. So, avoiding the sin of taking one passage over another, let us hold both to be true.
On the Day of Christ Jesus’s resurrection, He says something very interesting when He breathes on them. Let’s turn to John chapter 20.
John 20:17-23 (ESV) | Jesus Appears to the Disciples
17 Jesus said to her, “Do not cling to me, for I have not yet ascended to the Father; but go to my brothers and say to them, ‘I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.’” 18 Mary Magdalene went and announced to the disciples, “I have seen the Lord”—and that he had said these things to her. 19 On the evening of that day, the first day of the week, the doors being locked where the disciples were for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them and said to them,“Peace be with you.” 20 When he had said this, he showed them his hands and his side. Then the disciples were glad when they saw the Lord. 21 Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, even so I am sending you.” 22 And when he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit. 23 If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you withhold forgiveness from any, it is withheld.”
Binding and Loosing on earth as it is in heaven. This is nothing to play around with, particularly given the counterpoint of the weight of failing to forgive others. This responsibility and charge is given in conjunction with receiving the Holy Spirit. This is the passage of scripture invoked by the Lutheran explanation of the practice of Confession and Absolution. As I read this passage again, I cannot help but read this in light of their missionary journey when Jesus sent out the 12:
Matthew 10:5-15 (ESV) | Jesus Sends Out the Twelve Apostles
5 These twelve Jesus sent out, instructing them, “Go nowhere among the Gentiles and enter no town of the Samaritans, 6 but go rather to the lost sheep of the house of Israel. 7 And proclaim as you go, saying, ‘The kingdom of heaven is at hand.’ 8 Heal the sick, raise the dead, cleanse lepers, cast out demons. You received without paying; give without pay. 9 Acquire no gold or silver or copper for your belts, 10 no bag for your journey, or two tunics or sandals or a staff, for the laborer deserves his food. 11 And whatever town or village you enter, find out who is worthy in it and stay there until you depart. 12 As you enter the house, greet it. 13 And if the house is worthy, let your peace come upon it, but if it is not worthy, let your peace return to you. 14 And if anyone will not receive you or listen to your words, shake off the dust from your feet when you leave that house or town. 15 Truly, I say to you, it will be more bearable on the day of judgment for the land of Sodom and Gomorrah than for that town.
Withholding forgiveness for the lost sheep must be a matter of judgement/discipline here, not just of a mere unbelief as would be expected of the Gentiles. For we see here in Matthew 10 that Jesus is first sending them to those who should know better, the lost sheep of Israel. We also see in Chapter 18 that there are many attempts to point out the sin of a brother before treating them as a Gentile or tax collector. There is a blatant lack of repentance in that passage that leads up to the binding and loosing charge.
A Practical Example in Corinthians
Thankfully, we are not left completely without an example of what this form this Church discipline is to take. The Apostle Paul, in his writings to the Church at Corinth, issues a judgement in his first letter, then offers praise and comfort in his second regarding what seems to be the same individual and situation. Let us turn to 1 Corinthians chapter 5.
1 Corinthians 5 (ESV) | Sexual Immorality Defiles the Church
1 It is actually reported that there is sexual immorality among you, and of a kind that is not tolerated even among pagans, for a man has his father’s wife. 2 And you are arrogant! Ought you not rather to mourn? Let him who has done this be removed from among you.
3 For though absent in body, I am present in spirit; and as if present, I have already pronounced judgment on the one who did such a thing. 4 When you are assembled in the name of the Lord Jesus and my spirit is present, with the power of our Lord Jesus, 5 you are to deliver this man to Satan for the destruction of the flesh, so that his spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord.
6 Your boasting is not good. Do you not know that a little leaven leavens the whole lump? 7 Cleanse out the old leaven that you may be a new lump, as you really are unleavened. For Christ, our Passover lamb, has been sacrificed. 8 Let us therefore celebrate the festival, not with the old leaven, the leaven of malice and evil, but with the unleavened bread of sincerity and truth.
9 I wrote to you in my letter not to associate with sexually immoral people— 10 not at all meaning the sexually immoral of this world, or the greedy and swindlers, or idolaters, since then you would need to go out of the world. 11 But now I am writing to you not to associate with anyone who bears the name of brother if he is guilty of sexual immorality or greed, or is an idolater, reviler, drunkard, or swindler—not even to eat with such a one. 12 For what have I to do with judging outsiders? Is it not those inside the church whom you are to judge? 13 God judges those outside. “Purge the evil person from among you.”
Wow… so much for the whole “thou shall not judge” that Christians wrongfully throw about, eh? God judges the world with Himself as the standard (the Law). We are to hold each other, within the Body of Christ, accountable to the Word of God, both for their benefit and for the building up of the Saints. Notice the strong language in verse 5. This isn’t the only time Paul phrases it this way, but Paul is issuing the order for the Church in Corinth to carry out. This is the Word of the Lord. The sinner, who bears the name of brother, is to be rebuked and delivered to Satan for the destruction of the flesh (the part of us that remains sinful) so that his spirit may be saved in teh day of the Lord. The purpose is for repentance, but if repentance does not come he is to be purged from among the brethren.
2 Corinthians 7 (ESV) | Paul’s Joy
1 Since we have these promises, beloved, let us cleanse ourselves from every defilement of body and spirit, bringing holiness to completion in the fear of God. 2 Make room in your hearts for us. We have wronged no one, we have corrupted no one, we have taken advantage of no one. 3 I do not say this to condemn you, for I said before that you are in our hearts, to die together and to live together. 4 I am acting with great boldness toward you; I have great pride in you; I am filled with comfort. In all our affliction, I am overflowing with joy.
5 For even when we came into Macedonia, our bodies had no rest, but we were afflicted at every turn—fighting without and fear within. 6 But God, who comforts the downcast, comforted us by the coming of Titus, 7 and not only by his coming but also by the comfort with which he was comforted by you, as he told us of your longing, your mourning, your zeal for me, so that I rejoiced still more. 8 For even if I made you grieve with my letter, I do not regret it—though I did regret it, for I see that that letter grieved you, though only for a while. 9 As it is, I rejoice, not because you were grieved, but because you were grieved into repenting. For you felt a godly grief, so that you suffered no loss through us. 10 For godly grief produces a repentance that leads to salvation without regret, whereas worldly grief produces death. 11 For see what earnestness this godly grief has produced in you, but also what eagerness to clear yourselves, what indignation, what fear, what longing, what zeal, what punishment! At every point you have proved yourselves innocent in the matter. 12 So although I wrote to you, it was not for the sake of the one who did the wrong, nor for the sake of the one who suffered the wrong, but in order that your earnestness for us might be revealed to you in the sight of God. 13 Therefore we are comforted. And besides our own comfort, we rejoiced still more at the joy of Titus, because his spirit has been refreshed by you all. 14 For whatever boasts I made to him about you, I was not put to shame. But just as everything we said to you was true, so also our boasting before Titus has proved true. 15 And his affection for you is even greater, as he remembers the obedience of you all, how you received him with fear and trembling. 16 I rejoice, because I have complete confidence in you.
There was repentance, and it was felt by the body of Christ. Paul doesn’t just single out the individual in this letter; rather, he points to assembly. Paul wasn’t just dealing with the singular matter issued in 1 Corinthians. Paul’s closing comments in Chapter 13 offer some encouragement (both tough and kind).
2 Corinthians 13:5-14 (ESV) 5 Examine yourselves, to see whether you are in the faith. Test yourselves. Or do you not realize this about yourselves, that Jesus Christ is in you?—unless indeed you fail to meet the test! 6 I hope you will find out that we have not failed the test. 7 But we pray to God that you may not do wrong—not that we may appear to have met the test, but that you may do what is right, though we may seem to have failed. 8 For we cannot do anything against the truth, but only for the truth. 9 For we are glad when we are weak and you are strong. Your restoration is what we pray for. 10 For this reason I write these things while I am away from you, that when I come I may not have to be severe in my use of the authority that the Lord has given me for building up and not for tearing down. 11 Finally, brothers, rejoice. Aim for restoration, comfort one another, agree with one another, live in peace; and the God of love and peace will be with you. 12 Greet one another with a holy kiss. 13 All the saints greet you. 14 The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ and the love of God and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with you all.
The Church is to encourage and build up one another, and that includes rebuking sin. We see that for those who repent of their sin, forgiveness is assured. We who are called brothers and sisters in Christ, have been filled with the Holy Spirit and charged with binding and loosing. We’ve also been charged to forgive our brother and sister who repents of their sin against us. Is taking confession and pronouncing absolution a specific role of the Pastor? I don’t see that in Scripture. However, I do see that we need to confess our sins, repent, and forgive others, and I know that in Christ we find our forgiveness. I don’t like the formulaic approach to routine confession-absolution in private, nor of the ceremony of corporate absolution (Lutheran Liturgy) mainly because I know that “going through the motions” is a big problem for me. What I would like to say is that people need to hear “your sins are forgiven” regularly. We need the Gospel of Jesus Christ daily, for we have not yet attained the perfection of Christ (and will not until we join in His resurrection on the final Day). Whether it is in Bible study, personal counselling, or mentorship, each member of the Body of Christ needs to understand the need to confess their sin one to another, knowing that in Christ there is the Forgiveness of sin. We need to hear “you are forgiven” from a reliable source, the Word of God. And sometimes, it really helps to hear these words spoken over us, particularly in the midst of godly grief. The world understands this need, but their answer is to gossip and to tell each other that what they did wasn’t wrong and that they are better people for it. They invent “laws of attraction” and “positive thinking”… actually… it seems much of the visible church has been selling these same lies lately. The tyranny of “positive thinking” is that it prevents Christians from confessing and repenting of their sin. In some cases… it prevents even acknowledging sin to be sin… May God forgive us for calling good evil, and evil good.
In closing, let us turn to James
James 5:13-20 (ESV) | The Prayer of Faith
13 Is anyone among you suffering? Let him pray. Is anyone cheerful? Let him sing praise.14 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. 15 And the prayer of faith will save the one who is sick, and the Lord will raise him up. And if he has committed sins, he will be forgiven. 16 Therefore, confess your sins to one another and pray for one another, that you may be healed. The prayer of a righteous person has great power as it is working. 17 Elijah was a man with a nature like ours, and he prayed fervently that it might not rain, and for three years and six months it did not rain on the earth. 18 Then he prayed again, and heaven gave rain, and the earth bore its fruit. 19 My brothers, if anyone among you wanders from the truth and someone brings him back, 20 let him know that whoever brings back a sinner from his wandering will save his soul from death and will cover a multitude of sins.
Rebuke a brother/sister who has sinned against you in love, confess your sin against your brother/sister to him/her in love, and forgiven each other and pray for one another in love. For those who are constantly looking to define “Advanced Christianity”… this is it, and it is not of ourselves, it is a Gift from God.
May the Love of Christ fill you to overflowing that the Body of Christ is blessed,
In Christ Jesus,