The concept of confession is grounded in biblical stories of repentance and contrition before God. For the Catholic Church, confession is part of the sacrament of penance. During this sacrament, Catholics confess their sins to a priest who then, on behalf of Jesus Christ, offers absolution. Protestants don't practice confession in the same way Catholics do. Instead, confession for Protestants includes direct repentance before God without the interposition of a priest.
Protestant Objections to Penance
The Protestant Reformation came about as a reaction to what the reformers perceived as abuses by the Roman Catholic Church. At the time of the Reformation, the Catholic Church offered indulgences. Indulgences allowed a person to confess sin and receive absolution based on a donation to the Church. The Reformers saw indulgences directly tied to the sacrament of penance, and in rejecting indulgences, rejected that sacrament. Protestants instead taught the doctrine of the "priesthood of all believers," which means that an individual can confess directly to God without a priest.
Confession and Salvation
For Protestants, confession is requisite to salvation. Protestants believe a human being can be saved through faith in Jesus Christ, confession of sins and repentance. Protestant confession in this context is general rather than specific. The Protestant convert confesses his sinful nature and sinful past, instead of confessing individual sins. It isn't nearly as important that Protestants list the sins they've committed as it is they confess they have sinned.
Confessing to God
Confession for Protestants is often an intensely personal act. After the point of conversion, it's not uncommon for Protestants to confess their sins individually to God. When a Protestant commits a sin, she will often confess that specific sin to God. Protestants disagree as to what happens in this process. Some Protestant groups believe all of a person's sins are forgiven at the moment of conversion and this additional confession only demonstrates the individual's understanding of sin. Other Protestant groups believe that it's possible to forsake the faith, and that it's necessary to confess new sins in order for God to forgive those sins.
There are moments when Protestants choose to confess sins publicly. This is most common when the sin has harmed someone else. An adulterous Protestant televangelist might make a public confession on live television, while a recovering alcoholic Protestant might confess taking a drink to an Alcoholics Anonymous sponsor. Public confession can take many forms, and generally reflects a desire for forgiveness from the offended party. However, Protestants don't believe this kind of public confession is necessary for God's forgiveness.
Some Protestant denominations believe not only in the individual nature of confession but the corporate nature as well. As a group, a particular church or denomination might make public confession together for their sins. Sometimes, this is as simple as reciting the Lord's Prayer, which contains the phrase, "forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us." In other cases, it might involve a specific service set aside for group confession and repentance.
- Gospel Way: Repentance: A Condition Necessary to Salvation from Sin
- Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals: Why Don't We Practice the Sacrament of Confession?
- Free Grace Resources: "Confession of Sin” for Eternal Salvation
- United Methodist Church: We Confess Our Sin
- EWTN: A Guide to the Sacrament of Penance
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