Comment: The Christian Priesthood and Confession

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The Christian Priesthood and Confession

In my opinion, an important aspect of our salvation is that we are united to Christ. When the eternal Son of God became incarnate, he miraculously derived his human nature from his mother Mary:

But when the fulness of the time was come, God sent forth his Son, made of a woman, made under the law, To redeem them that were under the law, that we might receive the adoption of sons. - Galatians 4:4-5 KJV

In so doing, the Son became a descendant of Adam, and is therefore related to the entire human race. This allows him to serve as a "kinsman redeemer" (see, generally, Ruth) for his Church...

Take heed therefore unto yourselves, and to all the flock, over the which the Holy Ghost hath made you overseers, to feed the church of God, which he hath purchased with his own blood. - Acts 20:28 KJV

... and to gather the fullness of the elect into her:

And I saw another angel fly in the midst of heaven, having the everlasting gospel to preach unto them that dwell on the earth, and to every nation, and kindred, and tongue, and people, Saying with a loud voice, Fear God, and give glory to him; for the hour of his judgment is come: and worship him that made heaven, and earth, and the sea, and the fountains of waters. - Revelation 14:6-7 KJV

The Church is united to Christ in marriage:

So ought men to love their wives as their own bodies. He that loveth his wife loveth himself. For no man ever yet hated his own flesh; but nourisheth and cherisheth it, even as the Lord the church: For we are members of his body, of his flesh, and of his bones. For this cause shall a man leave his father and mother, and shall be joined unto his wife, and they two shall be one flesh. This is a great mystery: but I speak concerning Christ and the church. - Ephesians 5:28-32 KJV

As individuals, we become united to Christ at conversion:

And you also were included in Christ when you heard the message of truth, the gospel of your salvation. When you believed, you were marked in him with a seal, the promised Holy Spirit, who is a deposit guaranteeing our inheritance until the redemption of those who are God’s possession –- to the praise of his glory. - Ephesians 1:13-14 NIV

From one perspective, our unity with Christ is what applies his saving work to us. We have died to sin, and been raised to new life, because of his death and resurrection:

For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we will certainly also be united with him in a resurrection like his. For we know that our old self was crucified with him so that the body ruled by sin might be done away with, that we should no longer be slaves to sin -- because anyone who has died has been set free from sin. Now if we died with Christ, we believe that we will also live with him. - Romans 6:5-8 NIV

Because Christ has ascended into heaven, we, likewise, have ascended:

And what is the exceeding greatness of his power to us-ward who believe, according to the working of his mighty power, Which he wrought in Christ, when he raised him from the dead, and set him at his own right hand in the heavenly places... And hath raised us up together, and made us sit together in heavenly places in Christ Jesus: That in the ages to come he might shew the exceeding riches of his grace in his kindness toward us through Christ Jesus. - Ephesians 1:19-20, 2:6-7 KJV

Because Christ is our Prophet, we thereby have the authority to proclaim the Scripture to each other, and to the world (and to read and understand it for ourselves):

For Moses truly said unto the fathers, A prophet shall the Lord your God raise up unto you of your brethren, like unto me; him shall ye hear in all things whatsoever he shall say unto you. - Acts 3:22 KJV

Then Jesus came to them and said, "All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age." - Matthew 28:18-20 NIV

Now the Berean Jews were of more noble character than those in Thessalonica, for they received the message with great eagerness and examined the Scriptures every day to see if what Paul said was true. - Acts 17:11 NIV

Because Christ is the enthroned King who is inheriting all things, we will reign with him:

To him that overcometh will I grant to sit with me in my throne, even as I also overcame, and am set down with my Father in his throne. - Revelation 3:21 KJV

Coming to the point of this post, because Christ is our Priest...

The former priests, on the one hand, existed in greater numbers because they were prevented by death from continuing, but Jesus, on the other hand, because He continues forever, holds His priesthood permanently. Therefore He is able also to save forever those who draw near to God through Him, since He always lives to make intercession for them. For it was fitting for us to have such a high priest, holy, innocent, undefiled, separated from sinners and exalted above the heavens; who does not need daily, like those high priests, to offer up sacrifices, first for His own sins and then for the sins of the people, because this He did once for all when He offered up Himself. - Hebrews 7:23-27 NASB

... we are all priests:

But you are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s special possession, that you may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light. - 1 Peter 2:9 NIV

Regarding the Hebrews 7 passage referenced above, please note two things: On the one hand, Christ died "once for all"; on the other hand, Christ "always lives to make intercession" for us. Christ is both Priest and Sacrifice, for he "offered up Himself." As our Sacrifice, his role is completed; he has conquered death, and "cannot die again" (Romans 6:9 NIV). As our Priest, his ministry is ongoing, and it is based, I argue, on the perpetual presence of his imperishable blood before the Father:

For you know that it was not with perishable things such as silver or gold that you were redeemed from the empty way of life handed down to you from your ancestors, but with the precious blood of Christ, a lamb without blemish or defect. - 1 Peter 1:18-19 NIV

I believe that the forgiving, purifying, transforming power of Christ's "once for all" sacrifice is applied to us over time, as we live the Christian life:

If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness. - 1 John 1:9 NIV

Please note that two things happen when we confess: we are forgiven, and we are purified. Confession is therefore pastoral, in that God uses it not only to reconcile, but to sanctify, thereby bringing us one step closer to the holy, transformed existence that is our destiny.

While Christ our Sacrifice atoned for every sin we would ever commit, I do not believe that we are therefore forgiven of all of our sins "past, present, and future" at the time of our conversion. Rather, when we are regenerated, Christ our Priest obtains forgiveness for all of the sins we have already committed, and continues to obtain forgiveness for new sins as we confess them during the ongoing Christian life. It is a question of when the "once for all" forgiveness is applied to us.

Because we, as Christians, share in Christ's priesthood, we can, and should, pray for each other:

And pray in the Spirit on all occasions with all kinds of prayers and requests. With this in mind, be alert and always keep on praying for all the Lord’s people. Pray also for me, that whenever I speak, words may be given me so that I will fearlessly make known the mystery of the gospel, for which I am an ambassador in chains. Pray that I may declare it fearlessly, as I should. - Ephesians 6:18-20 NIV

Furthermore, we can, in Christ's name, forgive each other:

And when He had said this, He breathed on them, and said to them, "Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained." - John 20:22-23 NKVJ

Since we can pray for, and pronounce, forgiveness, it is therefore appropriate that we confess our sins to each other:

Is anyone among you sick? Then he must call for the elders of the church and they are to pray over him, anointing him with oil in the name of the Lord; and the prayer offered in faith will restore the one who is sick, and the Lord will raise him up, and if he has committed sins, they will be forgiven him. Therefore, confess your sins to one another, and pray for one another so that you may be healed. The effective prayer of a righteous man can accomplish much. - James 5:14-16 NASB

Please note that, while our jointly held priesthood means that we can confess our sins "to one another," we are to nevertheless "call for the elders." Why would this be? Returning for a moment to the subject of our union with Christ in his prophetic ministry, we see that we have no need for anyone to teach us...

For this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, says the Lord: I will put My laws in their mind and write them on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be My people. None of them shall teach his neighbor, and none his brother, saying, "Know the Lord," for all shall know Me, from the least of them to the greatest of them. - Hebrews 8:10-11 NKVJ

... and yet, Christ has appointed teachers for us:

So Christ himself gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the pastors and teachers, to equip his people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up until we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God and become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ. - Ephesians 4:11-13 NIV

Thus, for pastoral reasons, we voluntarily allow those who have shown themselves to be "above reproach," "respectable," and "able to teach" (1 Timothy 3:2 NIV) to represent our corporate prophetic ministry. Similarly, because the "prayer of a righteous man can accomplish much," we choose elders to "pray over" us and to hear our confessions (James 5:14-16 NASB); their "priesthood" is derived from ours.

I firmly believe that "government by consent of the governed" is not only an American principle for civil government, but also a Biblical principle for every human institution, including the Church. (God himself has entered into a voluntary covenantal relationship with us; the reality that he works in our hearts so that we choose him does not negate the fact that we do choose him.) Thus, while it may seem that my argument has simply circled back around to the idea of a "priesthood," there is, in my own mind, a big difference between a hierarch who claims an exclusive connection to Christ, and who keeps us in a state of subjection, and a representative who is chosen by us, and who derives his priestly authority and functionality from a relationship with Christ that we all equally share.

I realize that what I have written here raises legitimate questions...

May a Christian confess his sins directly to God through Christ?

Of course, and he should do so if he cannot, with a clear conscience, confess through another Christian. I do think, however, that there are benefits that often result from an "indirect" confession. Recalling my experience as a practicing Orthodox, Confession to the pastor included my relating of the sin, his advice on how to overcome it, and his pronouncement of forgiveness (Penance was never assigned to me, and I was told that it is not a normal part of Orthodox Confession). I sometimes found that "coming clean" to another Christian was, in itself, helpful, as it cultivated humility and "brought the sin out into the open." Furthermore, if the pastor is experienced and wise, his counsel can be very beneficial (please note that Orthodox priests, unlike Catholic priests, are usually married, and that they therefore will often have much more "real world" life experience). Finally, I found it encouraging to hear a Christian that I respected tell me that my sin was forgiven, and that I could set my guilt aside and move forward.

What happens if, among a Christian's multitude of sins and shortcomings, he neglects to confess one?

This is where we need to view confession as pastoral, rather than judicial. I believe that Christ our Priest has the absolute, unrestrained ability to obtain forgiveness for us, because the Father has accepted Christ our Sacrifice as perfect and complete. The notion that I can remember to confess every errant thought is ridiculous, and Christ doesn't want me to spend my day doing nothing but confessing (well, not most days; Good Friday might be an exception). I am sure that many sins are simply interceded for, and forgiven, without any involvement on my part. My Episcopal congregation also has a corporate, "catch all" prayer of confession during the service, after which forgiveness for all is pronounced. Since I believe that I actually receive Christ in Holy Communion, I see that as a source of forgiveness as well. If, however, God has laid on my heart that I have sinned, and that I need to confess that sin, then it is for my benefit that I do so. God works out all things for our good!

What if a Christian, while on his way to Confession, gets into a car crash and is killed?

God is in control of all events, and if he has elected us to heaven, then he will work out the circumstances so that forgiveness is granted.

Doesn't the very notion of Confession contradict the idea of salvation by grace through faith?

This is actually an argument advanced against sacraments in general, and I intend to take up this objection in more depth in an upcoming post. In brief, God grants us repentance...

Opponents must be gently instructed, in the hope that God will grant them repentance leading them to a knowledge of the truth, and that they will come to their senses and escape from the trap of the devil, who has taken them captive to do his will. - 2 Timothy 2:25-26 NIV

... and Confession is a response to that repentance. Faith that God will forgive also plays a role, but that, too, is a gift from God:

For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith –- and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God –- not by works, so that no one can boast. - Ephesians 2:8-9 NIV

If God ordains us for salvation (and I believe that he does -- see, for example, John 15:16, Acts 13:47-49, and Ephesians 1:11-14), then he also ordains the means through which he will bring that salvation about. Ultimately, it comes down to the heart: If a person believes that Confession is his own meritorious work whereby he "earns" salvation, then, for him, it has contradicted the Gospel of grace through faith (and raises the disturbing prospect that he might not have been brought into a saving relationship with Christ at all). I do not view Confession this way (praise God), but, rather, as a means that God graciously uses to apply the unmerited forgiveness and transforming power of Christ to my life. I believe that the proper attitude with which we should approach Confession is something like the following:

"I am sorry, Lord Jesus; please intercede for me before the Father. Dear Father, please forgive me, not because I deserve it, but because your Son is interceding for me with his precious body and blood." ... make the Confession... "Thank you for forgiving me, and give me a heart filled with gratitude so that I can go, and sin no more."

I do think that those traditions and congregations that adhere to the "sacramental" practice of Confession have a responsibility to instruct their members on how it should be understood in light of the Gospel. This is especially the case when the Confession includes Penance at the end.

Isn't Confession a "Catholic" doctrine and practice?

I agree with the "Catholic" understanding on some matters (such as Confession, for the most part), but not on others (such as the notion of a priesthood that does not include all Christians). In my view, it is small thinking to oppose an idea just because another, disliked Christian tradition supports it.

Isn't "Penance" unbiblical?

As I mentioned before, Orthodox Confession does not normally include Penance, and I have never felt a need for it. I am unaware, frankly, of the Biblical basis for Penance. In a recent discussion, I learned that my Episcopal pastor will attach a Penance to a Confession on a case-by-case basis, depending on the background of the parishioner. For example, he will give a Penance (such as reading a chapter of Scripture) to someone from a Catholic background, if that person sees Penance as a meaningful conclusion to Confession. This seems to me to be an effective and pastoral way of handling the situation, as long as the pastor clarifies to the parishioner that the Penance comes after forgiveness, and is done out of gratitude, rather than being something that is done to earn forgiveness. Knowing that my pastor has solidly Biblical beliefs, and a caring shepherd's heart, I am confident that he can handle Penance appropriately.

Isn't Confession a tool used by ecclesiastical leaders to keep Christians in fear and bondage?

Tragically, this is sometimes the case (and can be the case with sacraments in general). In my opinion, the danger becomes much greater when the doctrine of an exclusive priesthood is maintained, and when the lay Christian has no say over who the ecclesiastical leaders are. As I understand it, neither of these dangerous tendencies are currently a problem in either the Orthodox Church in America (where I used to attend) or the Episcopal Church (where I attend now). In circumstances where "fear and bondage" are a reality, I say praise God when Christians are delivered from that into what is for them the blessed freedom of a strictly direct-confession Christianity. For me, Confession is, at the present time, mostly either direct or corporate, but I like having the option of individual Confession through my pastor (or others; in accordance with what I wrote above, my belief is that any Christian can forgive sins in Christ's name) when circumstances warrant.

In my opinion, even a Christian with an "all sins, past, present, and future, are forgiven at conversion" outlook should, at least privately and directly, be willing to say "I am sorry" to God. Other forms of Confession can be misunderstood, and are not for everyone. For some, however, corporate and public, and even individualized, Confession is a beneficial part of the Christian life.


Let me close with a hymn by Charles Wesley, composed in 1742. It is noteworthy, as it seems that there are few Protestant hymns that focus on Christ's intercession in heaven:

Liberty patriots, please feel free to post comments and ask questions, and I will attempt to respond. God bless.

A Constitutional, Christian conservative who voted for Ron and stands with Rand