Growing up in evangelicalism, I have found that there is a healthy suspicion of unbiblical ceremonies. At least in theory. In practice, we often substituted our own “sacraments.” Where Rome offered forgiveness if the penitent met the conditions and claimed the inherent powers of the priesthood, we evangelicals were nevertheless often led to ourselves, to wander in the caverns of our own subjectivity. As I began to read the Reformers and their criticism of a church that led people into terrible insecurities—wondering if they had been sufficiently sorry for their sins, if they had confessed every one—I saw striking parallels with my own experience.
Reformation theology provides profound biblical insights into the meaning of guilt and its cure. It also offers us a concrete model of churches that actually dealt with the practical consequences of guilt. Even many Reformed people today would be surprised to discover some of these rich resources. For instance, preaching was viewed as a miraculous event where Christ met the sinner and brought him or her into saving union with himself. It was not chiefly information or exhortation, but a saving encounter with the Living God by the power of the Holy Spirit working through the preached word. Added to the proclamation of the gospel was the regular administration of the Lord’s Supper. Why did Calvin believe it should be celebrated every time the word is preached, or at least weekly? Knowing he could not prescribe something that was not explicitly required by Scripture, Calvin nevertheless emphasized the importance of frequent Communion solely because he was an evangelical (that is, “gospel-centered”) in the best sense. As he argues the case, we are weak and feeble. If God does not constantly convince us of our misery and of his forgiveness and reconciliation, then we will invariably return to self-confidence or despair. The same sort of pastoral intuition led the Genevan Reformer to argue for the recovery of an evangelical practice of public and private confession and absolution.
Like the other Reformers, Calvin was eager to see all of ecclesiastical action as ministerial rather than magisterial. In other words, officers are given the “ministry of reconciliation” (2 Cor. 5:21), not the power of lords and masters. Rome exercised tyranny by attributing powers to priests that belong to God alone. However, this did not mean that ministers had not been authorized to bring forgiveness to the lost. In Calvin’s section on confession and absolution in the Institutes (3.4.1–14), the evangelical concerns are primary. While Rome prescribed private confession as part of its sacrament of penance—contrition (feeling sorry for the sin), confession, and satisfaction (making amends to God and the offended party)—Calvin insisted that this was a terrible parody of the biblical doctrine of repentance. In recovering the apostolic and ancient church’s understanding of “the keys” (John 20:23; Matt. 18:18; 2 Cor. 5:20), Calvin urged a wise and guarded, evangelically shaped practice of private and public confession and absolution. For Calvin, private confession and absolution were simply a one-on-one version of the public proclamation of the gospel, much as private administration of Communion to shut-ins is an extension of the public administration earlier that day or week. It is not a different gift, nor is it a different degree of forgiveness, than one receives by taking advantage of confession and absolution. Rather, it is a greater sight of that forgiveness that all Christians receive from God’s gracious hand. Calvin offers rich insights as a pastor who understood guilt and its remedies.
First, he contrasts the New Testament doctrine of repentance and the medieval doctrine of penance. Although he is sarcastic in pointing out the speculative labyrinth erected out of the medieval imagination, he insists that this is serious business:
But I would have my readers note that this is no contention over the shadow of an ass, but that the most serious matter of all is under discussion: namely, forgiveness of sins….Unless this knowledge remains clear and sure, the conscience will have no rest at all, no peace with God, no assurance or security; but it continuously trembles, wavers, tosses, is tormented and vexed, shakes, hates, and flees the sight of God. (Inst. 3.4.2)
To be sure, we must exercise godly sorrow for our sins, confess them to God, and make necessary changes. “But if forgiveness of sins depends upon these conditions which they attach to it, nothing is more miserable or deplorable for us.” At its root, Rome’s mistaken view of repentance is that it somehow pacifies God when we sin. Calvin replies,
Repentance is not the cause of forgiveness of sins. Moreover, we have done away with those torments of souls which they would have us perform as a duty. We have taught that the sinner does not dwell upon his own compunction or tears, but fixes both eyes upon the Lord’s mercy alone. We have merely reminded him that Christ called those who “labor and are heavy-laden” [Matt. 11:28], when he was sent to publish good news to the poor, to heal the broken-hearted, to proclaim release to the captives, to free the prisoners, to comfort the mourners [Isa. 61:1; Luke 4:18]. (Inst. 3.4.3)
In the ancient church, confession to the minister was not a condition of forgiveness, but an aid for those who needed to be convinced that they were forgiven. It was Pope Innocent III in the thirteenth century, Calvin says, who introduced this tyranny of the priesthood.
The General Confession
But Calvin certainly did not completely abandon confession and absolution. They still have their place in the context of the church. First, they occur in the public worship:
For this reason, the Lord ordained of old among the people of Israel that, after the priest recited the words, the people should confess their iniquities publicly in the temple [cf. Lev. 16:21]. For he foresaw that this help was necessary for them in order that each one might better be led to a just estimation of himself. And it is fitting that, by the confession of our own wretchedness, we show forth the goodness and mercy of our God, among ourselves and before the whole world. (Inst. 3.4.10)
Hardly an add-on for those weeks in which we feel particularly liturgical, “this sort of confession ought to be ordinary in the church.” Calvin writes:
Besides the fact that ordinary confession has been commended by the Lord’s mouth, no one of sound mind, who weighs its usefulness, can dare disapprove it. For since in every sacred assembly we stand before the sight of God and the angels, what other beginning of our action will there be than the recognition of our own unworthiness? But that, you say, is done through every prayer; for whenever we pray for pardon, we confess our sin. Granted. But if you consider how great is our complacency, our drowsiness, or our sluggishness, you will agree with me that it would be a salutary regulation if the Christian people were to practice humbling themselves through some public rite of confession. (Inst. 3.4.11)
This is why the practice of public confession and absolution was retained in Reformed and Presbyterian churches. Calvin adds:
And indeed, we see this custom observed with good result in well-regulated churches; that every Lord’s Day the minister frames the formula of confession in his own and the people’s name, and by it he accuses all of wickedness and implores pardon from the Lord. In short, with this key a gate to prayer is opened both to individuals in private and to all in public.
Next, Calvin turns to private confession, pointing out that Scripture “approves two forms of private confession: one made for our own sake, to which the statement of James refers” (James 5:16) and the other “for our neighbor’s sake, to appease him and to reconcile him to us” (Inst. 3.4.12). It is the first that concerns us here. To be sure, James 5:16 has every believer in mind. The “priesthood of all believers” means that any Christian is authorized to hear confessions and pronounce God’s pardon.
Yet we must also preferably choose pastors inasmuch as they should be judged especially qualified above the rest. Now I say that they are better fitted than the others because the Lord has appointed them by the very calling of the ministry to instruct us by word of mouth to overcome and correct our sins, and also to give us consolation through assurance of pardon [Matt. 16:19; 18:18; John 20:23]. For, while the duty of mutual admonition and rebuke is entrusted to all Christians, it is especially enjoined upon ministers. Thus, although all of us ought to console one another and confirm one another in assurance of divine mercy, we see that the ministers themselves have been ordained witnesses and sponsors of it to assure our consciences of forgiveness of sins, to the extent that they are said to forgive sins and to loose souls. When you hear that this is attributed to them, recognize that it is for your benefit.
Therefore, let every believer remember that, if he be privately troubled and afflicted with a sense of his sins, so that without outside help he is unable to free himself from them, it is a part of his duty not to neglect what the Lord has offered to him by way of remedy. Namely, that, for his relief, he should use private confession to his own pastor; and for his solace, he should beg the private help of him whose duty it is, both publicly and privately, to comfort the people of God by the gospel teaching. (Inst. 3.4.12; italics added)
Summarizing the argument, then, private confession and absolution ought to be retained in an evangelical form, with the following conditions:
- It is for the good of someone who needs it, not a requirement for all.
- It is made to a pastor (or elder) because the pastor is the minister of the word and this is a part of that ministry, “to the extent that they are said to forgive sins and to loose souls.”
- It is for comfort in the gospel teaching, not a condition for forgiveness to be superstitiously invoked. Later (3.4.18), Calvin shows the impossibility of the medieval conditions. For instance, how could we possibly recall all of our sins?
But he should always observe this rule: that where God prescribes nothing definite, consciences be not bound with a definite yoke. Hence, it follows that confession of this sort ought to be free so as not to be required of all, but to be commended only to those who know that they have need of it. Then, that those who use it according to their need neither be forced by any rule nor be induced by any trick to recount all their sins. But let them do this so far as they consider it expedient, that they may receive the perfect fruit of consolation. Faithful pastors ought not only to leave this freedom to the churches, but also to protect it and stoutly defend it if they want to avoid tyranny in their ministry and superstition in the people. (Inst. 3.4.12)
However, our public or private confession cannot speak comfort to our guilty conscience alone. Therefore, absolution also belongs to the ministry as part of “the power of the keys” (John 20:23; Matt. 18:18). After all,
it is no common or light solace to have present there [at the front of the church] the ambassador of Christ, armed with the mandate of reconciliation, by whom [the church] hears proclaimed its absolution [cf. 2 Cor. 5:20]. Here the usefulness of the keys is deservedly commended, when this embassy is carried out justly, in due order, and in reverence. Similarly, when one who in some degree has estranged himself from the church receives pardon and is restored into brotherly unity, how great a benefit it is that he recognizes himself forgiven by those to whom Christ said, “To whomsoever you shall remit sins on earth, they shall be remitted in heaven.” And private absolution is of no less efficacy or benefit, when it is sought by those who need to remove their weakness by a singular remedy. (Inst. 3.4.14)
Here Calvin strikes that familiar note of his: the weakness of our faith and the need to be strengthened. We also see God’s fatherly condescension to meet us in our weakness. Instead of scolding us for not being sufficiently strengthened by the publicly preached word, God stoops to convince us by the privately preached word that is individualized:
For it often happens that one who hears general promises that are intended for the whole congregation of believers remains nonetheless in some doubt, and as if he had not yet attained forgiveness, still has a troubled mind. Likewise, if he lays open his heart’s secret to his pastor, and from his pastor hears that message of the gospel specially directed to himself, “Your sins are forgiven, take heart” [Matt. 9:2], he will be reassured in mind and be set free from the anxiety that formerly tormented him. (Inst. 3.4.14)
But whatever we choose to do in this matter, we must not make out of this practice a means of grace separate from (or even distinct from) the preached gospel. Here is where the Reformed diverge from our Lutheran brothers and sisters in their claim that confession and absolution constitute a third sacrament in addition to baptism and the Eucharist. We Reformed folks have no stock in the number “two,” but we can find no scriptural evidence for our Savior’s institution of this practice as a sacrament. In both baptism and the Supper, we see clear institutions established, but not so with respect to confession and absolution. If the Lutheran cites texts such as “Whoever’s sins you forgive are forgiven,” then we share their exegesis. Ministers forgive sins: that is what the biblical text says, and our confessions do not shrink from that conclusion. However, how is this a distinct sacrament rather than the exercise of the office of the keys—more specifically, the ministry of the word privately applied?
But the Reformed join Lutherans in affirming this practice, in contrast to both evangelical individualism and Roman Catholic sacerdotalism (i.e., “priestcraft”). Rome never tired of discussing “the power of the keys,” but for her this meant that she could dispose of the eternal destinies of her subjects. Control, power, and subservience were uppermost in such discussions. Calvin was prepared, for biblical and evangelical reasons, to retain the practice of public and private confession/absolution. Yet it must be viewed as a ministry of the gospel in weakness leading to life and not a ministry of judgment in power leading to death. “For when it is a question of the keys, we must always beware lest we dream up some power separate from the preaching of the gospel.” Writing about excommunication, Calvin insists on letting the gospel have the last word. In fact, he sees this most extreme form of discipline as a law—work that will lead the person to see his or her need for Christ. Knowing how prone we all are to tyranny and “lording it over people as the gentiles do,” Calvin is anxious to keep this from becoming an independent power that the minister has over his congregation.
Calvin’s view is by no means eccentric but characterizes the confessional and dogmatic heritage of the Reformed and Presbyterian communions. While denying any “priestcraft,” theologian Francis Turretin (1623-87) nevertheless argued that Christ had given the “power of the keys” to his ministers.
But they loose and remit sins ministerially, both to the penitent and believers in common….The absolution committed to the ministers of the gospel is not judicial, such as belongs to a judge or lord; but ministerial, such as is partly by the preaching of the gospel (which consists in remission of this kind) or by his heralding or ministry of it, and in the exercise of ecclesiastical discipline, as it is subordinated to that preaching of the gospel.1
The sixteenth-century Second Helvetic Confession warns against the tyranny of auricular confession as practiced by Rome.
If, however, anyone is overwhelmed by the burden of his sins and by perplexing temptations, and will seek counsel, instruction and comfort privately, either from a minister of the Church, or from any other brother who is instructed in God’s Word, we do not disapprove; just as we also fully approve of that general and public confession of sins which is usually said in Church and in meetings for worship….Thus, ministers remit sins….Ministers, therefore, rightly and effectually absolve when they preach the Gospel of Christ and thereby the remission of sins, which is promised to each one who believes, just as each one is baptized, and when they testify that it pertains to each one peculiarly. Neither do we think that this absolution becomes more effectual by being murmured in the ear of someone or by being murmured singly over someone’s head. We are nevertheless of the opinion that the remission of sins in the blood of Christ is to be diligently proclaimed, and that each one is to be admonished that the forgiveness of sins pertains to him. (Ch. 14)
Similarly, the Westminster Confession (1647) declares, “To these officers the keys of the Kingdom of Heaven are committed, by virtue whereof they have power respectively to retain and remit sins” (Ch. 32). This is no arbitrary power: it does not reside within the minister himself, but belongs to all elders and ministers as they are Christ’s ambassadors.
The power of the keys in general and confession and absolution in particular are, in the Reformed tradition, often linked to both the public word and sacrament ministry as well as to private discipline. For instance, a repentant person who is struggling with a particular sin may not only need to hear that he or she is absolved, but might also need practical help and ongoing accountability. In our own church, private confession is just that—private. Nevertheless, in most cases the individual is actually surprised and relieved to interact with the elders. As Matthew 18 teaches, private sins are dealt with privately, while public sins are handled publicly. When someone is unrepentant and completely resistant to correction, the law is needed. They need to have their presumption shaken so that they will flee to Christ and the gospel.
Consequently, according to the Reformed tradition, confession and absolution are entrusted particularly to the officers of the church in three ways: (1) public worship, with the general confession in the liturgy; (2) privately, to assure the conscience that the forgiveness is not merely offered generally but applies specifically to this struggling person; and (3) privately or publicly in the practice of ecclesiastical discipline.
In this regard, new Calvinists tend to overreact to their backgrounds. Former Roman Catholics flatly reject penance and its practice of private confession and absolution. And those of us who were formerly Arminians simply jettison the altar call and regular evangelistic preaching as human-centered manipulation. (Of course, there is something in that, and such illegitimate practices as the altar call should not have any place in rightly ordered churches.) Nevertheless, what happens in the course of the Christian life is this: a person is converted by the preaching (hopefully!) of the death, burial, and resurrection of Christ for sinners, and then finds in years to come that he or she is still struggling. Sin and temptation undermine the person’s confidence: Was I really converted? Maybe I didn’t really mean it? Surely if I were really a Christian I wouldn’t have this much trouble with sinful desires and habits. “Means of grace,” such as Roman Catholic penance and Arminian altar calls, were invented just for the crisis that occurs when grace is considered conditional.
Instead of merely reacting, we need to go back and examine how theology leads to particular practices and then carefully examine the Scriptures to see how we can more faithfully apply our theology. For instance, many sermons repeatedly try to persuade people to “make a decision.” This emphasis is not consistent with the apostolic preaching of the cross. But it is clear from the Scriptures that the church, as well as unbelievers who might be in attendance, needs to be evangelized weekly. Furthermore, if we shun the altar call, why not have regular Communion and an invitation for those who wish to talk to the pastors and elders after the service? Perhaps an extended time of private ministry of the word could follow the public ministry each Lord’s Day. Clearly, such ministry should be available not only for new converts but also for the oldest Christian.
We are given ministers not to trouble our conscience as masters, but to lift the burden in Christ’s own name. Servants rather than lords, they apply the salve that alone can heal our soul’s sores. It is because this is a ministry of life that we can rejoice that Christ has given his servants these keys. “Therefore,” Calvin writes, “when you hear that this is attributed to them, recognize that it is for your benefit.”
Michael S. Horton is the J. Gresham Machen Professor of Systematic Theology and Apologetics at Westminster Seminary California in Escondido. This article appears in the recently released book The Reformation, Then and Now: 25 Years of Modern Reformation Articles Celebrating 500 Years of the Reformation, edited by Eric Landry and Michael S. Horton (Hendrickson Publishers, 2017).
- Francis Turretin, Institutes of Elenctic Theology, ed. James T. Dennison, trans. George Musgrave Giger (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing, 1997), 3:554-5