The Apostle James exhorts us:

The prayer offered in faith will restore the one who is sick…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 5:16).

Yet, nary a Protestant church can be found that actually practices confession and its ancillary, penance (literal acts of repentance).

Note: This article was written before the author’s conversion to Orthodoxy.

What is James actually teaching? In the case that the sickness is the result of sin, “the prayer offered in faith…if he has committed sins” will bring forgiveness for those sins. “Therefore,” James’ words and not mine, “confess your sins to one another and pray for one another that you may be healed.”

It is because confessing sins has power to bring forgiveness that we ought to confess.

Protestants do not find it controversial to ask their Elders and congregation to pray for deliverance from a given ailment. Yet, it is controversial to take one’s sins to the Elders, or the congregation, on a regular basis. It is my contention to show that if we look to the Scripture and how the Church has always understood it, that we have reason to reinstitute the sacrament of confession

Confession Elsewhere in the Scripture. Most Protestants would say we don’t need confession because we can simply examine our own sins and confess to God directly. In 1 Cor 11 we have a situation which appears to exhibit it. In Corinth, the sinfulness of believers precludes them from partaking in the Lord’s Supper in a worthy manner, leading to illnesses. Here, the onus is explicitly on the individual believer. The Scripture says:

But a man must examine himself, and in so doing he is to eat of the bread and drink of the cup. For he who eats and drinks, eats and drinks judgment to himself if he does not judge the body rightly. For this reason many among you are weak and sick, and a number sleep. But if we judged ourselves rightly, we would not be judged. But when we are judged, we are disciplined by the Lord so that we will not be condemned along with the world (1 Cor 11:28-32).

So, there is certainly self-examination, which does not require the insight of anyone else. However, should we interpret the exclusion of confessing sins to anyone else in these verses as permission not to do so when we examine ourselves? Here are several reasons 

  1. As James told us, confessing sins to others brings forgiveness and/or healing. We should not be taking Paul’s words and shoehorning them into a bias against confession so that Paul contradicts James. Being that it is no contradiction to both examine oneself and confess to others, a consistent hermeneutic would require that we do both so that neither passage may be interpreted in such a way as to contradict the other. Therefore, though it is clear to all that the passage explicitly says that each individual must examine himself, it does not explicitly exclude the idea of after having examined oneself, excluding oneself from the Lord’s Supper and seeking the anointing and prayers of Elders due to being self-aware of sin.
  2. The wording of the passage may allow us to infer that Paul is including confession to others. The “we” in “if we judged ourselves rightly” may include some sort of corporate accountability.
  3. In the words of Chris Rock, “Just because you can drive with your feet, that doesn’t mean it should be done!” In translation: even if we can get by simply examining ourselves without confessing to others, that does not make such a course of action the best one. And if it is not the best one, it should not be the normative one either.
  4. Elsewhere, Paul speaks of how the Corinthians should self-examine because he wields spiritual oversight. In Paul’s next letter to the Corinthians he writes:

I say in advance to those who have sinned in the past and to all the rest as well, that if I come again I will not spare anyone…Test yourselves to see if you are in the faith; examine yourselves! Or do you not recognize this about yourselves, that Jesus Christ is in you—unless indeed you fail the test (2 Cor 13:2, 5)?

As we can see, there is a self-examination, but we also cannot ignore the fact that Paul says that he himself will come and examine the matter for himself! In the Corinthian context, it appears appropriate that they both self-examined and submit to Elder oversight.

What reason do we have not to apply the same to our own context? After all, Elders are called Overseers in the Scripture (Acts 20:28). It is reasonable to presume that the title is not meaningless.

No Need For a Priest. Let’s cut to the chase as to why Protestants reject confession: They don’t like the idea that they need a priest to confess to. After all, we only need God. We can surmise this much from Protestant commentaries. Calvin writes we confess to God alone:

As for the confession of sins, scripture teaches us thus: because it is the Lord who forgives, forgets, and wipes out sins, let us confess to Him to obtain grace and pardon (Calvin, Of Penitence, Institutes).

Calvin is not alone. Chrysostom wrote emphatically on the topic of confessing alone to God:

Not this alone is wondrous that He remits us our sins but that He does not reveal nor make them manifest or open nor compels us to come forward and speak out our transgressions but bids us plead before Him Alone and confess to Him. (…)

But thou art ashamed and blushest to utter thy sins nay but even were it necessary to utter these things before men and display them not even thus shouldest thou be ashamed for sin not to confess sin is shame but now it is not even necessary to confess before witnesses. By the examination of transgressions in the thoughts of conscience; by the judgment seat unwitnessed Let God Alone see thee confessing God Who upbraideth not sins but remitteth sins on confession. (…)

Thou hast sinned, enter the Church say unto God I have sinned, I ask of thee nothing else but only this for Holy Scripture says tell thou first thine iniquities that thou mayest be justified tell thy sin that thou mayest be free from thy sin

I do not say to you, Make a parade of yourself, nor accuse yourself before others: but be persuaded by the prophet when he says, Reveal your way unto the Lord. Psalm 37:5 Confess these things before God. Confess before the Judge your sins with prayer; if not with tongue, yet in memory, and be worthy of mercy.

(All quotes are from Tertullian, 1842, P. 399-400–quotations are from On Penitence 2 and 3, 20th Homily of Genesis, and 31st Homily on Hebrews).

If we were to take the “only need God” paradigm to its logical extreme, we need not bother ask for intercessory prayers, go to church, be taught about the Bible, or pretty much anything. We technically don’t need to do anything.

Let’s remind ourselves this: James is not saying one needs to confess. Rather, he says one should confess and so benefit from the forgiveness, and sometimes healing, repentance brings. Calvin did not understand this, as he did away with confession entirely. Chrysostom did not follow Calvin’s unequivocal stance and still encouraged public confession–he just did not think it was necessary in an absolute sense.

There is not a compelling theological reason that Reformed believers must dump confession because Calvin did. The Reformed Study Bible warns us to not throw the baby out with the bathwater:

Though confession to a priest is not required by Scripture, confession to God and to one another is. Overreaction against the Roman Catholic sacrament of penance may lead to a neglect of authentic godly confession (5:16).

If we reject how the Church has originally understood James 5:16 due to an overreaction against Catholicism, we thrust ourselves outside of the historic interpretive community on this matter. So, we should be like Chrysostom in encouraging confession while also teaching that it is not some sort of necessary element for salvation.

Confession Throughout Church History. Matthew Henry’s Commentary gives to us a Protestant perspective that allows for confession. His colleagues wrote (as he was dead when this was written):

But the confession here required is that of Christians to one another, and not, as the papists would have it, to a priest (Matthew Henry’s Commentary).

How does this Protestant perspective compare to how the early Church understood confession?

Confession was something made to the Elders and publicly repented of. Because people only performed what we may call “penance” for serious sins (sexual immorality, murder, theft, heresy, and the like), there was no hiding the skeleton in the closet. Ambrose wrote to those who refused to confess:

[G]ain for yourself the support of the holy congregation; where there is no cause for shame, except indeed not to confess, since we are all sinners (Ambrose, Concerning Penance, Book II, par 91).

Confession gave to Christians the opportunity to have the whole congregation to pray for them so that they may have victory over the sin.

We can see this view spoken of in the earliest interpretations of James 5:16:

[I]f he has committed some sin he should ask for the church’s prayers (Hilary of Arles, Ancient Christian Commentaru on Scripture, New Testament XI, p. 60).

As far as small, everyday sins are concerned, we ought to admit them to one another and believe that we are saved from them by praying for each other. But if we have sinned in a more serious way, then we ought to follow the principle of showing our leprosy to the priest and do penance for it as long as he thinks it right (Bede, Ibid., p. 61).

What do we make of Bede’s comment that we are to go to the Elder following the principle of showing the pirest one’s leprosy in Leviticus? In Lev 13:6 it states, “The priest shall look at him again on the seventh day, and if the infection has faded and the mark has not spread on the skin, then the priest shall pronounce him clean.”

So, if the Elders stand in for the Christian community as the Levitical priests did in Israel, their role is not to effect the forgiveness of sin through penance. Rather, as the practice was in the ancient Church, penitents went to the Elders for a spiritual diagnosis.

It worked in this way: A Christian would examine himself, repent of his sins, and then afterward go to the Elders to see if it was then appropriate to partake in the Lord’s Supper. After all, the Scripture does say “bear fruit worthy of repentance” (Matt 3:8) and “you must not associate with anyone who claims to be a brother but is sexually immoral…expel the wicked person from among you” (1 Cor 5:11, 13). Being that Elders tend to the spiritual affairs of a church, it was understood that it was the Elders’ jobs were to inspect to see if this fruit really existed. They were to assist the congregation in examining themselves. If it was deemed that someone was insufficiently repentant, they would “expel the wicked person.”

This fruit inspection was something the early Church took very seriously. Cyprian relates a story in Treatise 3: On the Lapsed concerning a little girl who ate a sacrifice given to an idol was subsequently given the Lord’s Supper some time later–

[T]he deacon began to offer the cup to those present…the little child, by the instinct of the divine majesty, turned away her face, compressed her mouth with resisting lips, and refused the cup. Still the deacon persisted, and, although against her efforts, forced on her some of the sacrament of the cup. Then there followed a sobbing and vomiting. In a profane body and mouth the Eucharist could not remain (Par. 25).

Now, at first glance, this story seems to be about a temperamental girl who forcibly resisted being fed when she did not want it. However, the point of the anecdote is to illustrate the importance of not allowing those who are knowingly committing sin to bring hurt upon themselves by partaking in the Eucharist.

In order to partake in Christ’s body, one must be part of His metaphysical body (the Church) in which Christ is the head. If the fruit of repentance was not evident, as it was not with the Corinthian man who was sleeping with his stepmother, one is to be cut off from fellowship entirely. The early Church took this to mean being cut you off from the Lord’s Supper. This essentially expelled you from the congregation and you had to sit with the penitents apart from everyone else. In this way, the sinful person could benefit from teaching but in some way be delivered to Satan for the destruction of the flesh (1 Cor 5:5, a vague admonishment to say the least, but probably a reference to the mortification of the flesh). If the fruit was evident in the life of the penitent, then he was allowed to be in full communion again.

Jerome writes about how this was even misunderstood in his own day:

Bishops and priests…take to themselves something of Pharisaic pride, so as to condemn the innocent or think that they loose the guilty, whereas with God not the sentence of the Priest, but the life of the criminals, is the object of inquiry. In Leviticus we read of the leprous that they are commanded to show themselves to the priests, and if they have leprosy then the priests reckon them unclean, not that the priests make them leprous and unclean, but that they have knowledge of what is leprous and what is not, and discern who is clean, who unclean…[W]hen he [the priest] has heard the various natures of the sins, he knows who is to be bound [i.e. told to perform penance in order to be in Communion] and who is to be loosed (Jerome, Comments on Matt 16, quoted in Tertullian 1842, p. 388).

Ambrose also wrote of how the laity misunderstood the practice, presuming they can lay their guilt upon the priest and magically fix their sin problem:

Some seek penance because they wish to be at once restored to communion. These wish not so much to loose themselves as to bind the priest, for they do not put off the guilt from their own conscience, but lay it on that of the priest (Concerning Penance, Book II, par 87).

Conclusion. Great teachers of the Church have always taught their congregations to confess. The Scripture clearly says we should confess. Then, we must ask, why don’t we confess? To argue that we may simply examine ourselves and confess directly to God, though workable on a theoretical level, simply does not display good sense. James admonishes us to confess for the benefits its confers and nothing in the Scripture would compel us not to. Being that all of this is the case, it is important that Protestants re-evaluate their hatred of the practice, return to the Scriptures and re-institute it.