Confession in the Early Church: Fact or Fiction?
The Church has always taught the need for the baptized to confess their sins. The form of the practice differs over time, but the truth remains the same. The sinner must confess his sins for forgiveness. Staying in unconfessed sin puts salvation in danger. In the Our Father Jesus declares: “and forgive us our debts, as we also forgive our debtors” (Matthew 6:12).
Martin Luther on Confession
The Protestant reformer Martin Luther considered the confession of sin as an “exercise of men” and contrary to “the truth of God.” For Luther, unbelief was the only sin worthy of eternal condemnation. He asserted that contrition, confession and satisfaction leave one more miserable than before. This “truth of God” is faith alone. In reality, this “truth” is opposed to Sacred Scripture and to the historical Christian narrative.
“Even if he would, he couldn’t lose his salvation, whatever his sin, unless he refuses to believe. For no sin can condemn him except disbelief alone. All other sins, as long as faith in the promise of God made in baptism returns or remains, are immediately blotted out by that same faith, or rather by the truth of God, for he cannot deny himself if you confess him and you cling faithfully to him in his promise. But as for contrition, confession of sins, and Satisfaction, as well as all those carefully designed men exercises: if you rely on them and neglect this truth from God, they will suddenly abandon you and leave you more miserable than before. For whatever is done without faith in the truth of God is vanity of vanities and vexation of the spirit. [LW 36: 60 emphasis mine].
Confession of sins in Sacred Scripture
In John 20: 21-23, Jesus sent his disciples into the world with the Holy Spirit. This gift comes with the ability to forgive sins. The early church believed that this gift was not just for the original disciples (now the apostles). It was a gift to the Church.
21 Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you. As the Father sent me, so I send you. 22 And after having said this, he breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit.” 23 If you forgive someone’s sins, they are forgiven him; if you withhold forgiveness from someone, they are refused.
In James 5: 14-16, forgiveness of sins is possible through confession to the elders (presbyters) of the church. It is clear from the context of the passage that James is addressing baptized Christians, not the unbaptized. The “elders” have the power to anoint the sick and forgive sins (see John 20: 21-23).
14 Is any of you sick? Let him call the elders of the church and let them pray over him, anointing him with oil in the name of the Lord. 15 And the prayer of faith will save the sick, and the Lord will raise them up. And if he has committed sins, he will be forgiven. 16 Therefore, confess your sins to one another and pray for one another, may you be healed. The prayer of a righteous person has great power because it works.
The confession of sin in the 1st century
The Didache also urges the baptized to confess their sins before receiving the Eucharist in order to ensure the purity of their sacrifice. To take part in the Eucharist with an unconfessed sin is to profane one’s sacrifice. Confession is the means by which the baptized is purified and therefore able to offer a pure sacrifice.
“But every day of the Lord, gather yourselves together, break bread, and give thanks after having confessed your transgressions, may your sacrifice be pure. But let no one who disagrees with his fellow man come with you, until he is reconciled, may your sacrifice not be profaned. For this is what the Lord has said: In all places and all times offer me a pure sacrifice; for I am a great king, saith the LORD, and my name is marvelous among the nations. (Didache: Chapter 14. Christian Assembly on the Lord’s Day [AD 50-70])
Barnabas letter echoes the by Didache an exhortation to go to confession and therefore to keep a clear conscience in prayer. Confession is not a mere suggestion; it is an order. Admit or suffer the spiritual consequences.
“You will confess your sins. You are not going to pray with a bad conscience. It is the way of light ”(Letter from Barnabas 19 [A.D. 74]).
The Shepherd of Hermas takes a more strict approach to confession and allows only one opportunity to confess after baptism. If anyone were to continue to sin after this one opportunity, a second repentance is not possible.
“And so, I tell you, that if anyone is tempted by the devil and sins after this great and holy call in which the Lord called his people to eternal life, they only have the opportunity to repent once. But if he frequently sinned after that and then repented, to such a man his repentance would be of no avail; because he will live with difficulty. And I said, Sir, I feel that life has come back to me listening attentively to these commandments; for I know that I will be saved, if in the future I do not sin any more. And he says, you will be saved, you and all who keep these commandments.“(The shepherd 4: 3 [A.D. 80]).
The 2nd century
Ignatius of Antioch links confession to unity with the bishop. Specifically, Ignatius is here referring to the baptized who have separated from the church and the bishop. Confession and “the exercise of penance” restore to Christ and to his Church.
“For all who are of God and of Jesus Christ are also with the bishop. And as much as it takes, in the exercise of penance, enter into the unity of the Church, these too will belong to God, so that they may live according to Jesus Christ ”(Letter to the Philadelphians 3 [A.D. 110]).
Tertullian warns the baptized who refuse to confess out of modesty not to compromise their salvation. For Tertullian, unconfessed sin can lead to spiritual death just as undiagnosed illness can lead to physical death.
“[Regarding confession, some] run away from this work as an exhibition of themselves, or they bring it to light. I guess they are more concerned with modesty than with Salvation, like those who contract disease in the most shameful parts of the body and avoid making themselves known to doctors; and so they perish with their own shyness ”(Repentance 10: 1 [A.D. 203]).
The 3rd century
Hippolytus, writing on one of the earliest accounts of the ordination of bishops, includes their authority to forgive sins. The “commandment” referred to in the quotation below given by Jesus in John 20: 21-23 and Matthew 16: 13-20. No contemporary of Hippolytus nor any writer who succeeded him in the early Church questions him on this point. If he had made it up from scratch, there would have been hindsight.
“[The bishop conducting the ordination of the new bishop shall pray:] God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. . .. Pour out now this power which comes from you, from your royal Spirit, which you gave to your beloved Son, Jesus Christ, and which he conferred on his holy apostles. . . and grant this to your servant whom you have chosen for the episcopate, [the power] shepherd your holy flock and serve without blame as your high priest, working night and day to always appease before your face and to offer you the gifts of your holy Church, and by the Spirit of the high priesthood to have the authority to forgive sins, in accordance with your command “(Apostolic Tradition 3 [A.D. 215]).
Origen provides a concise description of the confession. Notice the striking confessional seminars in the modern Catholic Church. Contrary to Luther’s view of confession as “men’s exercises,” Origen considers confession to be medicinal.
“[A final method of forgiveness], although hard and laborious [is] the remission of sins through penance, when the sinner. . . don’t back down declaring his sin to a priest of the Lord and to seek medicine, in the manner of one who says: “I said:” To the Lord I will accuse myself of my iniquity “” (Homilies on Leviticus 2: 4 [A.D. 248]).
Cyprian warns those who sacrificed to idols during the Decian persecution of the dangers of receiving the Eucharist without first confessing their sins. He sees the reception of the Eucharist with an unconfessed sin as a sin worse than the initial sin of public denial of Christ.
“The apostle [Paul] also bears witness and says: ‘. . . Whoever eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord unworthily will be guilty of the body and blood of the Lord ” [1 Cor. 11:27]. Corn [the impenitent] despise and despise all these warnings; before their sins are atoned for, before having confessed their crime, before their conscience has been purged in the ceremony and by the hand of the priest . . . they do violence to [the Lord’s] body and blood, and with their hands and with their mouths they sin against the Lord more than when they denied him “(The 15: 1-3 (AD 251]).
The last word on confession
Martin Luther broke with the early Christian church in his innovation of faith alone and its implications for the relevance of confession and penance. The early Christians universally agreed on the need for confession. Confession is the medicine that heals the damaged soul once regenerated in baptism.