While we were in Europe recently, Marsha and I had an opportunity to attend a service at Notre Dame in Paris, when I noticed the confessional booths with signs posted for visitors from all over the world to know their confessions could be heard by priests in all languages. Confession isn’t something Methodists spend a lot of time talking about, but there is much we can learn by understanding the history surrounding this spiritual practice of confession. Today, I want to share just three things with you about how the Protestant Reformation changed the way we view confession.
#1 Confession with a priest- In Martin Luther’s time, the Pope was considered the closest person to God. It was believed that the ranks of men were very clear with the Pope having the closest relationship to God followed by bishops, priests and last, the common people. Your social status and class ranking determined how close you were to God and even how much God loved you. This was one of the issues that Martin Luther raised with the Church in his 95 Theses. Luther felt strongly that the Bible was clear in saying that anyone could go directly to God to confess sins and that their prayers would be heard just the same as the prayers of a priest. Since the Bible supports the idea that you can confess your own sins, without going through a priest, the confessional was discontinued in the Protestant Church as a result of the Protestant Reformation.
#2 Unintended consequences- Theologically, I wholeheartedly agree with Martin Luther that God hears your prayers as much as he hears mine. We do not need to go through a priest to pray to God on our behalf, we can instead go directly to God. However, I do acknowledge that this turn in history had unintended consequences on how we confess our sins to God and receive His grace and forgiveness. Without the outward act of confessing our sins, we often get lazy and don’t take the time to confess our sins to God and ask for forgiveness. Or another thing that happens is we live in such regret from our sins because we never fully let go and allow ourselves to experience the fullness of God’s grace and forgiveness.
#3 Value in confessing your sins- When confessing your sins to a priest, he will typically give some type of penance or an “assignment” to help “right your wrong,” so to speak. While I believe strongly that we do not have to earn God’s grace, I also believe there is great value in the spiritual practice of confessing your sins to God followed by taking some kind of positive action. It makes sense to me that, confessing your sins, followed by performing some kind of positive act could put you in a positive frame of mind and make you feel better about yourself when you have sinned. Confession followed by positive action puts you in touch with your true self. Confessing our sins to God in prayer is also a good way to let go of our mistakes, to turn them over to God and receive His grace and forgiveness. It helps us to start fresh and to fully receive the grace that God has in store for all of us, even when we have sinned.