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Evangelicals and Confession

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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.

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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.
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  • Guest - Donald Philip Veitch

    1. Some of us are not from the non-Confessional, non-Reformed, non-liturgical, and fuzzy-fundagelical background in which and from which Biola participates.

    2. Get a good Anglican BCP or Lutheran liturgy for maturity in this area...an area of notorious weakness in the Reformed world more widely.

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  • In the Anglican tradition, the Presbyter (or priest, if you really must)does not absolve, he declares God's forgiveness of sins. The error is to think of a Christian minister as a priest, in the sense of 'hieros'. Nowhere in the New Testament do we find any trace of sacerdotal, or priestly, absolution, either by the apostles or by any other Church officer, that's how significant or otherwise it was to the Apostolic Church. The Apostles themselves set what should be the priority for any Christian minister, in Acts 6:2

    A Presbyter of the Free Church of England

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  • Guest - Marty Georges

    @Donald - Interesting comment about Biola, but I don't get your point. Be aware that Dr. Reynolds doesn't exactly fit into the Biola stereotype you paint---when I knew him, he attended a church from the Eastern tradition, i.e. Orthodox. Pretty liturgical.

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  • Guest - W S

    @Marty, you are correct. Reynolds is Eastern Orthodox. Kinda weird that he is allowed to teach at such a conservative, traditional school like Biola, but its true and he's fairly open about it.

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  • [...] blog at White Horse Inn has an excellent piece on the importance of corporate confession of sin and the proclamation of absolution. While Eric [...]

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  • Guest - Jim

    Confession is one of the main reasons I left the world of Evangelicalism and became a Lutheran. I went to college and got a taste of "Spritual Breathing" from Campus Crusade, which helped revitalize my spiritual life through confession, but it's easy to drift away from this practice. I attended some Lutheran, Presbyterian, and Anglican churches that practiced silent corporate confession every week, and I realized that if you get into the habit at church every week of confessing your sins, you're much more likely to do it during the week in your private prayer life. We are creatures of habit, and the weekly service sets the tone for the week. I resolved to never be a member of a church that doesn't do this. Long ago, going to various evangelical churches, I'd usually look at all my sins and sinful attitudes, doubt my salvation, and say the sinner's prayer almost every week "just to be sure". I find confession much less depressing that doubting if you "are really saved" constantly, and it makes it much easier to love God.

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  • Guest - Cheagan

    Prof. Reynolds has forgotten that he was forgiven ALL his sins when he received Christ. Sin does NOT separate me from the love of God in Christ; it once did, but now it does not. He is FAITHFUL and just to cleanse me of all unrighteousness, which He did, and will not undo. Honestly, is it necessary for me to feign regret for something I did because it felt good? Is God fooled by our my show of penitence, and thus moved to grant absolution, the way a Catholic priest might be? How long should I play that game in my head before I simply appropriate His life and live in and enjoy the realization of it? Or should I be worried that I have failed to confess some sins of omission (lots), and therefore am not forgiven them?

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