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09.30.12 Practical Prayer, James 5.13-20 Sermon Scraps

by on October 2, 2012

In the discussions I have with Protestants around James 5:16, invariably someone will say, “How do the Roman Catholics get this so wrong by requiring confession to a priest. Right here is says we don’t need a priest to hear our confessions.” This critique is right, of course, but my Protestant friends always ignore the second edge of this sword, which is that James tells us to confess our sins to one another. I know very few Protestants who ever confess their sins to another, priest or otherwise.

Since confession is so important to James, I have to wonder who’s the worse off, my Roman Catholic or Protestant friends—those who confess to a priest or those who confess to none other than God?

Before answering that question, some theology and history.

The way Roman Catholicism got to priestly confession is this. Roman Catholicism developed a robust theology of the priest as the epitome of the church. As the church’s institutional representative, what the priest does, the church does. The church is charged with, among other things, proclaiming God’s forgiveness for sins in Christ. It’s only natural that the priesthood was vested with this authority, both by the church’s leadership but also by the church’s laity.

If you’re a Protestant and you think this is unusual, just imagine how you would feel if your minister published a book that was controversial (like Rob Bell’s Love Wins or Greg Boyd’s Myth of a Christian Nation). Depending on which side you landed on, you could end up working to dismiss the minister or leave yourself. Or what if your minister was caught in some kind of scandal (think Ted Haggard)? Wouldn’t you be tempted to leave the church? Or I can’t tell you how many times I’ve received complaints that “the church didn’t visit me in the hospital,” even though people in their Sunday school class did, or a deacon did, or an associate minister did—but not THE minister, and so they’re upset because of it.

The fact is, while Protestants don’t have the robust Roman Catholic theology of the priesthood, many still hold to the same philosophy. The minister is the official, professional representative of the church, and if you want something done right (even down to announcements “from the pulpit,”) the minister has to do it.

Well, confession of sins became one of those “priest only” ministries in Roman Catholicism, and the Protestant Reformers criticized it. At the time, the Reformers emphasized the “priesthood of all believers” from 1 Peter 2:9, which meant we can confess our sins to one another, just as James 5:16 says. Luther, the more traditional reformer, maintained the requirement for confession to a minister, though God’s forgiveness wasn’t contingent upon it. Calvin emphasized confession to the elders, which included the minister, but made it secondary to confession directly to God. The Anabaptist reformers practiced the most public kind of confession, through the use of shunning or banning from communion (the Calvinists would also ban you from communion) until confession and restoration occurred.

In all these cases from the original Reformation, the value, and often the necessity, of confession of one’s sins to another was recognized. What they critiqued was the absolute or exclusive necessity of confessing to a priest.

Today, among both Protestants and Roman Catholics, and especially in the United States, there is overwhelming resentment about “going to confession” or the need to “confess sins to another.” All you have to do to verify this is ask your Protestant and Roman Catholic friends (or yourself) how often they do it. The Roman Catholics I know, and the Lutherans I know, rarely confess to their priests and ministers, and like I’ve already said, few people I know confess their sins to anyone other than God.

And yet, right here in James, it says we’re to do it. And if you read the rest of the New Testament, you’ll find the assumption that confession of one’s sins is something that is not reserved to one’s private conversation with God. It is inter-relational, often public, and part-and-parcel of being a Christian.

What’s at stake? According to James, one’s individual health and the health of the community are jeopardized unless sins are mutually confessed and forgiveness proclaimed. James says earlier that God opposes the proud and gives grace to the humble. In this passage he says that confession, forgiveness, and restoration cover over a multitude of sins. Is it possible that our churches suffer from superficial, consumerist, stingy, and ego-centric Christianity because we don’t humble ourselves before one another and confess our sins to one another?

When people come to my office for comfort, direction, or counseling, I often ask them if they would like to confess sin and receive the proclamation of God’s forgiveness. I ask this because most of my parishioners, being Reformed Protestants, don’t know they can do this, and have never heard or believed that their sins are forgiven, because they’ve always confessed them into the silence of their prayers before God.

The reason Luther required confession to a minister was so that the person confessing could hear, physically (sound waves pounding against the ear drum) and in the present, that God forgives them—even them, even for this. It is as sacramentally real as the presence of Christ in the water of baptism and the bread and wine of communion. That’s a really good point, and one I’ve found verified powerfully as people “unburden their conscience” in confessing their sins and hearing the proclamation of forgiveness.

I don’t imagine there will be a flood of people from my congregation or among my circle of influence into my office to confess their sins. But I want to make it available to anyone who believes it will benefit them. I also want to affirm your confession of sins to anyone who is mature enough not to judge you, and faithful enough to confidently proclaim God’s forgiveness to you. I do believe such a practice would transform your life, my congregation, and the whole world, which is why I believe James commands it.

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