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Question and Answer

Why doesn't the OPC practice "Confession"?

Question:

Why doesn't the OPC have "Confession?" (I'm not asking if it is a sacrament.) It seems to be quite biblical. The Anglican Church, Lutheran, Eastern Orthodox and Roman Catholic Churches do it. Since there seems to be a rich history of the practice of confessing sins to the presbyter or elder, why doesn't the OPC practice such?

Answer:

We need to begin by thinking about some of the different terms.

There is "confessing our faith." The Greek word homologeo is used in the New Testament most frequently of professing or confessing faith in Jesus Christ as God's Son and the only Savior (Matt. 10:32, Luke 12:8, Rom. 10:9-10, I John 4:2-3,15). In this sense, it is a declaration of what a person believes about God, Christ, the Holy Spirit, salvation and so on. The OPC definitely has confession in this sense! We agree that the Apostles Creed and the Nicene Creed are both suitable confessions of faith. But in addition, the OPC (along with other Bible-believing Presbyterian churches) uses the Westminster Confession of Faith as a clear and well-developed confession of what the Bible teaches. All officers in the OPC (pastors, elders, deacons) take the WCF as their own confession of what Scripture teaches. Finally, whenever anyone joins the OPC they must make a confession or profession of their faith in Christ since the church is composed of those who confess Jesus as Lord and Savior. So the OPC thinks that confessions are vital to the church.

You are asking, however, about something different. Now homologeo means basically to "speak or say the same thing." In using the Apostles Creed, for instance, a congregation on Sunday morning is confessing to believe the same thing that all Christians everywhere at all times have believed. That is the dominant or chief meaning of the word in the New Testament. Only one time, in I John 1:9, is homologeo used in the sense you are asking about. But notice that there confession of sin (not the confession of one's faith) is being made directly to God. A slightly different word, exomologeomai, also is used for confessing one's faith (Rom. 14:11, 15:9, Phil. 2:11), but with this word, four times it is used of confessing one's sins (Matt. 3:6, Mark 1:5, Acts 19:18, Jas. 5:16), twice of the crowds coming to John the Baptist, once of the occultists in Ephesus, and once in James: "confess your sins to one another and pray for one another." So the New Testament has general confession of sins, confessing sins to God directly, and one mention of confessing privately sins to another believer.

The evidence of the Old Testament is similar though here the words used are much broader than in the New Testament. Sometimes the priest or a representative, like Nehemiah or Daniel, confesses sin on behalf of the whole nation (Lev. 16:21, Neh. 1:6, Dan. 9:20). Sometimes there is a call or act by the whole people of confessing their sin (Lev. 26:40, I Kings 8:35, Ezra 10:1,11, Neh. 9:2,3). In the case of Achan, because his sin brought judgment on the whole nation, Joshua called on him to confess his sin to God in a public way (Josh. 7:19). In several cases it is not clear whether the confession of sin is made to anyone but God (Lev. 5:5, Num. 5:7, Prov. 28:13). And in Psalm 32:5 confession is made clearly to the Lord Himself.

So, to summarize the biblical evidence, private confession to an individual, specifically a priest, is simply not supported. There is confession of sin to God alone, there is a place for public and corporate confession of sin, and from James 5:16 a place for confessing sin to another believer (is this tied into Matt. 5:23-24?) But the Roman Catholic idea of auricular confession (confession into the ear of a priest) does not have biblical support or warrant and seems to have originated during the Middle Ages.

The Reformed church has, historically, allowed for or used public confession of sin. Here is the corporate confession used by Martin Bucer in the worship services in Strassburg:

Almighty, eternal God and Father, we confess and acknowledge unto thee that we were conceived in unrighteousness and are full of sin and transgression in all our life. We do not fully believe thy Word nor follow thy holy commandments. Remember thy goodness, we beseech thee, and for thy Name's sake be gracious unto us, and forgive us our iniquity which, alas, is great.

John Calvin added his own prepared confession of sin to the order of worship in Geneva and John Knox based the confession of sin used in his "Form of Prayers" on Daniel 9. The Westminster Directory of 1644 includes an extensive confession of sin as an example of how confession of sin was to be a part of the worship of God's people. What the Reformed churches did was to take the public confession of sin that had been in the Roman Catholic mass and removed all references to the intercession of the saints and focused the attention of people on sin's offensiveness to God. Here is the way one scholar described it:

"There followed at once [in the Reformed order of worship] the prayer of confession as a congregational act. This replaced the private confession of the priest before the Mass, for here was a congregational priesthood." [James Hastings Nichols, Corporate Worship in the Reformed Tradition, p.41]

This is getting at the heart of your question, I hope. The worship we are talking about is corporate or covenantal worship. It is the worship of the people of covenant as the people of God. We are together a sinful and guilty people; how can we come, as a covenant people, before a holy God if we do not confess our sins? While it is certainly true and biblical to confess our sins directly to God, the act of corporately confessing our sins has a covenantal character to it that is missing in the Roman Catholic practice of private or auricular confession, for behind that practice is the mistaken idea that the priest needs to stand between us and God. The Bible teaches that there is one mediator between God and man, Jesus Christ the righteous (I Tim. 2:5). A priest has not power to absolve us of sin, only the blood of Jesus Christ can cleanse and for that we can go directly to God (I John 1:9; 2:1).

I think that the practices in the Anglican or Lutheran churches would mirror this Reformed understanding rather than what the Roman Catholic or Eastern Orthodox churches practice, for all Protestants have rejected the notion of auricular confession to a priest. If you see the way that the corporate confession of sin has been a part of Reformed worship really from the time of the Reformation, I hope you see that the Reformed tradition of which the OPC is a part does believe in confessing one's sins even though not every Reformed congregation may do it every week.


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