The Catholic Church’s new iPhone app is generating a lot of buzz. Today, The Christian Post featured a story that included the positive endorsement of Biola philosophy professor John Mark Reynolds:
A checklist like that is totally compatible with evangelical traditions. Someone like John Calvin or Martin Luther would want you to go through the Ten Commandments and reflect thoughtfully on how you may have broken them,” said Reynolds.
As digital confessors tap their way through the app, they are asked questions like: “Do I not give God time every day in prayer?” “Have I been angry with God?” and “Have I encouraged anyone to have an abortion?”
Daily and thorough introspection is a good thing, according to Reynolds.
“If we’re not careful, we fall into cheap grace,” he cautioned. “We don’t pay any specific attention to a lot of the bad things we do. A lot of people get two or three things that they struggle and those are the only sins that they only considered that they have committed.”
Reynolds said some mainline Protestant denominations such as Lutherans or Episcopalians still observe the tradition of confession before a priest or pastor. According to Roman Catholic beliefs, however, the presence of a priest is required for absolution.
Evangelicals aren’t required to adhere to the same standard of confessing their sins to a pastor but they should still follow the biblical mandate to confess their sins to one another, he said.
“The Bible says you should confess your sins to Jesus but it also says you should confess your sins to one another,” said the Biola professor. “It’s true that ultimately only the power of the Holy Spirit can save me and only Jesus can truly help me, but sometimes they need advice and counsel from someone.”
Reynolds said that a lot of Christians, including himself, falls into the “cheap grace” camp. That observation has led him to be more concerned about Christians under-confessing to the Holy Spirit rather than becoming obsessed over their sins.
“Sin separates us from God … It’s good to review what we are doing wrong,” he said. “If we say that we love Jesus but we want to do things that separate us from him then once again we’re lying and the truth isn’t in us.”
Sin needs to be examined seriously but it’s not something to dwell over 10 years down the road, according to Reynolds.
“Once we’ve received forgiveness from Jesus, it’s time to move on.”
Prof. Reynolds’ best point is that evangelicals don’t have a mechanism for confessing sin and receiving forgiveness. Sadly, this iPhone app won’t help fix that problem. It may give a pious evangelical help in identifying his or her sins, but its purpose is to drive the sinner to the Confessional where a priest can then direct the sinner’s penance. One priest, Father Edward Beck even said, “I think this app may be a boon for the sacrament.”
But what is an evangelical to do after coming up with a list of sins? Surely they can confess them to a brother or sister in Christ, though the best that they can offer–Reynolds reminds us–is “advice” and “counsel.” Do they make an appointment with their senior pastor (or one of his many associates) to confess their sins? I wonder how many professional ministry staff have a tag for that in Outlook?
Sadly, there isn’t much recourse for the tender-hearted evangelical, which may be one reason why the “cheap grace” Reynolds laments is so prevalent in the church. One can only be tender-hearted about their sins for so long if they are never given relief. That’s where the Reformed and Lutheran practice of corporate confession and absolution comes into play.
In all of the early Reformation liturgies, a place was given for the congregation to read the Ten Commandments or some other passage that detailed God’s requirements. Upon reflecting on the Law, the congregation was led in a corporate prayer of confession after which they would look up to their minister who in the name of Jesus would absolve them of their sin.
Depending on the tradition, this was done in different ways. Sometimes with a hearty, “I absolve you.” Sometimes with a declaration of pardon. Sometimes with a reading of various gospel texts that pointed the penitent to the work of Christ for them. But regardless of how it was done, a sinner was assured of his or her standing with Christ and could worship God without fear. They received the objective word of Christ that reminded them of their being a New Creation, that the sin which so easily entangled them that week was removed from them as far as the east is from the west, and that God looked on them in his beloved Son and pronounced them, “not guilty.”
The iPhone app, as we’ve been reminded, isn’t meant to do that. It’s just meant to prepare the penitent for the Confessional. Sadly, the evangelical who adopts it for their own private confession will only dwell on the Law and never hear the voice of God through his ministers speaking words of grace and peace.
For a personal account of the power of the practice of confession in a Lutheran context, you’ll want to read this account from our friends at New Reformation Press.