We desire fairly to examine the argument in favour of the confessional: but if the reader expects sarcasm, or ridicule, we trust he will be disappointed. It is a subject of far too great importance, in our judgment, to be treated in that way. It affects the whole question of peace with God. It is held and practised, more or less, by more than 100,000,000 of the human race, and is sincerely believed by great numbers, as a practice that can be proved from scripture; yea, that it was established by Christ; first to His apostles, and then to their successors.
As we write for plain earnest people who desire to know the truth on this subject, before entering more directly on the argument in favour of the confessional, we will call the attention of the reader to the Person, and words, of the Lord Jesus, in a few scriptures that bear on this question. 1st. Matthew 11, read verses 25 to 30. Are you heavy burdened with sins? What is His instruction to you? Is it that you must go to the priest to confess, and then the priest will give you rest? Very far from this: Jesus says, “Come unto me, all ye that labour and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest.” Is it not strange that millions will believe, and go to the priest, how very few really believe Jesus. Does He not say, “I will give you rest”? Do you believe Him? How few know Jesus, and His readiness, to give them rest. We shall find shortly that it is His joy to give rest.
2nd. In John 4:7-34. Here we have a sinner face to face with Jesus, God manifest in the flesh. Does He say to this woman at Samaria’s well, wait until Peter comes, and confess thy sins to him? Blessed Jesus! He says, “Give me to drink.” Yes, He would have the joy of her salvation. Did He not say to her, “If thou knewest the gift of God, and who it is that saith unto thee, Give me to drink; thou wouldest have asked of him, and he would have given thee living water”? Is it possible for these words of Jesus, to mean anything else than His utmost readiness to meet the sinner? And mark, He says that which He gives shall satisfy for ever. “Whosoever drinketh of the water that I shall give him shall never thirst, but the water that I shall give him shall be in him a well of water springing up into everlasting life.” None but Jesus can give that which satisfies for ever. The priest charges according to the weight of the burden: Jesus gives rest.
3rd. John 7:37-39. Now look at Jesus: and hearken to His gracious words. Yes, gracious words. The Pharisees and priests hated Him. Oh, think of these religious men, sending officers to take Jesus. In the midst of rejection, He stood and cried saying, “If any man thirst, let him come unto me, and drink.” No thought in His mind of sending them to the apostles first to confess. No, “Let him come unto me and drink.” Could the love of Jesus be more free. Still in His word He cries, “If any man thirst let him come unto me, and drink.” But now carefully notice, there is something far more than this. Far more than only receiving, that which gives everlasting satisfaction to his own soul who comes to Jesus and drinks. What he receives, he shall communicate to others. “He that believeth on me, as the scripture hath said, out of his belly shall flow rivers of living water. (But this spake he of the Spirit, which they that believe on him should receive: for the Holy Ghost was not yet [given]; because that Jesus was not yet, glorified).” Mark, these words are not in any sense spoken only to the apostles, or limited to them. They are spoken to whom? “If any man thirst.” This then is clear, that if a weary heavy laden sinner, thirsting for pardon, and rest, comes direct to Jesus: he not only receives perfect peace, and rest, but what is most important to know, that now the Holy Ghost has been given: he receives power to be a communicator of peace, and rest, like a river, to others. Is not this a happy privilege of every thirsty weary soul, that comes to Jesus Himself? Surely no one can deny this.
4th. John 20:19-23. We now come to the scripture, on which the argument is chiefly based for authority for confession to the priests. “Whose soever sins ye remit, they are remitted unto them; and whose soever sins ye retain, they are retained.” It is assumed that these words were addressed to the apostles as such: and power thus given to them, as apostles: as the guardians of the church; and after them, to their successors. If this be so, the confessional is established beyond a doubt. If this is not so, the whole theory of the confessional is clearly a mistake, so far as this scripture goes. The question is this, who are meant, or included in the pronoun “ye.” “Whose soever sins ye remit,” &c. It is easy to assert anything, and common for those ignorant of the scripture to accept the assertion. We shall find the matter quite clear, if we carefully examine the context of the words of the Lord.
The scene is now changed. The great work of redemption is accomplished. Jesus has died for the sins of many. He has uttered those wondrous words, “It is finished.” The spear has pierced His side, “and forthwith came out blood and water.” The atoning work is done. The body of Jesus has been laid in the sepulchre. The disciples of Jesus “knew not as yet the scripture, that he must rise again from the dead.” A report had reached them, that Mary Magdalene had seen the risen Lord: that He was actually risen from among the dead; yea, that they were now in a totally new position. He had said, “Go to my brethren, and say to them, I ascend unto my Father, and your Father; and to my God and your God.” They could not have been in this position and relationship, one with the risen Christ, before He died and rose again.
Well, the report had gathered them together in an upper room. Let us here carefully examine who were gathered in that upper room, before we look at the words spoken to them. We are not told here it was the eleven apostles, but simply “The doors were shut where the disciples were assembled,” &c.
It may be asked, but may not the word “disciples” mean only the eleven? No, that is not so, if we turn to Luke’s account of this same event. “And they rose up the same hour, and returned to Jerusalem, and found the eleven gathered together, and them that were with them.” (Luke 24:33-38.) This gathered company, with the apostles, is spoken of again: “These all continued with one accord in prayer and supplication with the women . . . And in those days Peter stood up in the midst of the disciples, and said (the number of names together were about an hundred and twenty),” &c. Thus it is a gross mistake to limit this to the apostles. It was the gathered disciples, men and women: about one hundred and twenty gathered together by the report of the resurrection of the Lord.
Let us return and hear His words to the gathered disciples. Not yet the church, His body: for the Holy Ghost was not yet come down to baptise them into one body. But did not this assembly of disciples rather represent the whole church of God, than any order of separate priesthood? Apostles and disciples were all together, one company. What Jesus said to one, He said to all. And what He said to them, He says to the whole company of believers, from that day to this. That is having made peace by the blood of the cross: having been delivered for their sins, and raised again for their justification. As once their sin bearer, so now their everlasting righteousness. His first blessed words to them were “Peace [be] unto you.” Oh wondrous words to the soul that believes them! Were they worthy in themselves of these words of peace? Far from that, they had all forsaken Him; yes, the very apostles: one had denied Him most sadly. No, they were words of pure, unmerited, free favour. “Peace be unto you.” He had made peace by His death on the cross. He did not point to one thing they had done. He could not; no, it was wholly what He had done. “And when he had so said he showed unto them his hands and his side.” In Luke He said, “Why are ye troubled? and why do thoughts arise in your hearts? behold my hands and my side.”
Now the company of disciples must be well grounded in this peace. They must know that there is nothing now between them and God, their Father. Sins all forgiven, unclouded peace. Therefore we read, “Then said Jesus to them again, peace be unto you: as my Father hath sent me, even so send I you.” They must be deeply settled in His peace to fit them for what He is about to say. Even as He had foretold before His death for them. When He promised the Holy Ghost the Comforter: He also said, “Peace I leave with you, my peace I give unto you: not as the world giveth, give I unto you. Let not your heart be troubled, neither let it be afraid.” But now having made peace as He shows them His hands and His side, He proclaims peace to them: to the whole company alike. Just think what an infinite meaning was contained in those few words. Peace unto you: and again repeated.
No doubt we all find it is Satan’s one great effort to keep us from believing those words of Jesus, direct from Himself.
But now He tells them a wonderful thing. Just as He had said: not only should the heavy-laden find rest who came to Him. And the thirsty that came to Him should drink, but also, “He that believeth on me . . . out of his belly shall flow rivers of living water.” Not only should he receive himself the living water, but should communicate it, like rivers, of living water, to others: so here. Jesus had been sent to them. And from Him they had received perfect peace. And also in the fulness of abounding grace, He says, “As my Father hath sent me, even so send I you.” As they had in mercy received the message of divine grace from Him: even so they were now to be sent by Him to be the communicators of the same peace to others. And this peace would be as solid as was their own. But in order to be the communicators of this peace or perfect forgiveness of sins, two things were needed. They must have eternal life themselves, and they must receive the Holy Ghost. “And when he had said this, He breathed on them, and said unto them, receive ye the Holy Ghost: whose soever sins ye remit, they are remitted unto them; and whose soever sins ye retain, they are retained.” Now, though the Holy Ghost when, He came, did chiefly use the apostles in this great privilege: yet we must admit that the commission was given to the assembled disciples: to every individual in that company.
If we turn to the Gospel of Luke we shall find a fuller explanation of this commission had been given: so John, writing after, just names the fact in a few striking words. It was the same occasion evidently: and having spoken peace to them (Luke 20:36-44), and confirmed that peace by the proofs of His resurrection, “Then opened he their understanding, that they might understand the scriptures. And said unto them, Thus it is written, and thus it behoved Christ to suffer, and to rise from the dead the third day: and that repentance and remission of sins should be preached in his name among all nations, beginning at Jerusalem.” Both these scriptures being spoken by the Lord to all the assembled disciples: do they not clearly mean that as they had received peace, all sins forgiven through the accomplished work of Jesus: so now they were by the power of the Holy Ghost to preach forgiveness of sins to whosoever should believe the message? Jesus said, “And behold, I send the promise of my Father upon you: but tarry ye in the city of Jerusalem, until ye be endued with power from on high.”
Thus if we take scripture, we do not find in this great commission of Christ, a word about confessing to a priest: but remission of sins through preaching the glad tidings.
It may be said, but the Fathers entirely disagree with all this. We axe sorry if they do; if the Fathers disagree with scripture, so much the worse for them.
But further, the disciples did not tarry, until they were, at Pentecost, endued with power from on high. They were baptised by the Holy Ghost. How did they understand sins were to be remitted and retained? Their acts will answer. In Acts 2 we find they were all filled with the Holy Ghost. And they began to speak in other tongues, &c. Peter’s sermon is recorded. He opened the scriptures to the multitudes, as Jesus had opened them to him. He preached the death, resurrection, and exaltation of the rejected Christ. Great numbers were pricked to the heart, and cried out, “What shall we do?” Did he say you must confess your sins to us, the apostles? He must have done so, had he so understood the words of Jesus. He did not: but in perfect keeping with the high commission of the Lord, he preached to them repentance and forgiveness of sins in the name of Jesus. “Then they that gladly received his word were baptised.” It is sad that the word “repentance” has been perverted to “do penance,” and this explained to be in part, confession of sins to a priest. They who do so, well know the Greek word can have no such meaning. God does not need such unrighteousness to uphold His truth. Repentance is evidently that self-judgment, and abhorrence of sins, which always accompanies salvation. This then is how Peter used the keys committed to him. In preaching, not by confession of sins to a priest, he opened the door into the kingdom to the Jews. We shall now see how he opened the door to the Gentiles. (Acts 10.) He was specially sent by a vision to do this, to him a very strange work. Here he takes up carefully the question of remission of sins. Cornelius was a devout man, but how often it is the case, the more devout, the deeper the need is felt for sins to be remitted, and also the desire for, peace with God. Cornelius says, “Now therefore are we all here present before God, to hear all things that are commanded thee of God.” If Peter therefore believed, in the confessional, as one of the things commanded him of God; nay the great thing to meet a burdened soul; Christ’s appointed means of remission: he must assuredly so instruct Cornelius and his company. Did he do so? Not a thought of it! What did he do? He opened his mouth and preached the word. “The word, which God sent unto the children of Israel, preaching peace by Jesus Christ: [He is Lord of all].” Just as he had received peace, and preached it to Israel, so now he preaches the death and resurrection of the Lord Jesus. Can there be a question how he understood the gracious commission of Christ? Nay he explains how, “And he commanded us to preach unto the people, and to testify,” &c.
But it may be asked whose sins does he remit? Hear his own answer, “To him [to Jesus] give all the prophets witness, that through his name whosoever believeth in him shall receive remission of sins.” Peter did not remit sins in his own name: neither is there a thought of coming first to the confessional, for, “While Peter yet spake these words, the Holy Ghost fell on all them which heard the word.” Is it not then sad to displace preaching forgiveness of sins by the confessional? And if we carefully compare every case in the Acts, we shall find it is through preaching the word that sins are remitted. Let us notice one more instance: Acts 13. We shall find Paul adopting precisely the same means, the preached word. Not an allusion as to confession to a priest. He first preached how God had sent Jesus, His death and resurrection. Then he says, “Be it known unto you, therefore, men and brethren, that through this man is preached [or proclaimed] unto you the forgiveness of sins: and by him, all that believe are justified from all things, from which ye could not be justified by the law of Moses.” And as justification is the ground of peace, “Being justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ.” Therefore Paul preaches peace to others, just as the Lord had proclaimed it to the gathered disciples. He declares distinctly whose sins are remitted, that is, that all who believe are justified. He thus communicated the peace he had received. And whose soever sins he thus declared remitted, were remitted, and they, all who believe, are justified.
But does he as distinctly declare whose soever sins are retained? Yes, he says also, “Behold, ye despisers, and wonder and perish.” We invite the closest examination of every preaching in the Acts, and it will be found the same. Philip at Samaria. Paul at Philippi, or, at Thessalonica: not a thought of the confessional, but in every case the preached word. Is it not strange, if the confessional were the appointed means of forgiveness of sins, that the apostles should never have once thought of it?
We will now examine a scripture, often referred to, in proof of the confessional. Matthew 16. In contrast with the mere opinions of men as to who Christ was: Peter by faith confessed Jesus thus, “Thou art the Christ, the Son of the living God.” The person of the Christ, the Son of the living God, was revealed by the Father, to Peter. The Lord Jesus in pronouncing him blessed, changes his name from Simon to Petros (a stone), He said, “And I say also unto thee, that thou art Petros [a stone], and upon this Petra [rock] I will build my church; and the gates of hell [or powers of death] shall not prevail against it. And I will give thee the keys of the kingdom of heaven: and whatsoever thou shalt bind on earth, shall be bound in heaven; and whatsoever thou shalt loose on earth, shall be loosed in heaven.”
If we compare Ephesians 2:20, we shall see that Christ did not intend to build His church on a loose stone like Petros: but to him a stone, in Himself, the rock. That is, the revelation of the Person of the Son, by the Father, is the foundation rock. Himself the rock. And, as another has shown, the keys were not given to Peter to build the church with. Christ builds the church, that which Satan who holds the power of death cannot prevail against. Distinctive power was given to Peter, as to the kingdom, not the church: he undoubtedly had the privilege of opening the doors both to the Jews and to the Gentiles, to take that new position on earth: in the place of the kingdom of Israel, now set aside: called the kingdom of heaven, whilst the king should be in heaven. It is all a mistake as to this scripture, to suppose that Peter had power to bind, or loose, in heaven. It is “on earth!” the sphere of his power was in the kingdom on earth. It may be asked, are not they the same, the kingdom of heaven and the church? Totally different in scripture. The powers of death cannot prevail against the church, that which Christ builds. Christ distinctly taught that Satan would prevail against the kingdom, and fill it with tares. And these continue in the kingdom unto the end. Have they not abounded in the kingdom, or Christendom, as we say, from that day to this? But that which Christ builds shall stand for ever. (Eph. 5.)
Whatever power Peter had, then, was as to the kingdom, the new order of things on earth. By his preaching we have seen he loosed the door, for both Jews and Gentiles. And the unbelieving Jews have been bound in blindness of heart to this day.
Now as to binding and loosing, or the ordering of things on earth: is there any reference to its continuance, or a succession? There is a remarkable one, and this demands our close attention: Matthew 18, “Verily I say unto you, whatsoever ye shall bind on earth, shall be bound in heaven, and whatsoever ye shall loose on earth, shall be loosed in heaven. For where two or three are gathered together in my name, there am I in the midst of them.” Here then at least is the true apostolic succession. The very words spoken to Peter are given here. Who then are these two or three gathered to the name of Jesus? And what is it that they have power to do, the Lord Himself being in their midst? We find in this scripture, Jesus is teaching the lowliness that becomes those who enter the kingdom. And a forgiving, loving, seeking spirit is taught. A case is then supposed, of a brother trespassing against a brother: mark, it is not a matter of sins against God. Neither is there a thought of man having power to forgive such sins. The brother offended, is first to seek to gain his brother: failing this he is to take one or two more; if he still fails to win his brother he is to tell it to the church. He does not say the Church of Rome: or the Church of England, &c., but “tell it to the church.” In the beginning this was possible, Now it is not. Where is “the church”? Man has made many churches, but in the present state of division and confusion, what does the Lord consider to represent “the church”? He makes this quite clear: “For where two or three are gathered together in my name, there am I in the midst of them.” Yes, that little gathering, which the priest might despise with disdain or persecute to the bitter death, is that to which Christ speaks the same words as He spake to Peter. But the binding and loosing here evidently refers to restoration of an offended brother in forgiveness and in love. Thus Peter understood it, as he says, “How oft shall my brother sin against me, and I forgive him, until seven times?” Now is it not most sad to wrest such plain scriptures as these, and build upon them the terrible mistake that Christ has given power to forgive sins against God!
Confession of sins is of essential importance: and is connected in scripture with the blessedness of sins forgiven. But there is no uncertainty as to whom we should confess. “I acknowledge my sin unto thee, and my iniquity have I not hid. I said, I will confess my transgressions unto the Lord; and thou forgavest the iniquity of my sin.” (Ps. 33.) “Against thee, thee only, have I sinned, and done this evil in thy sight, that thou mightest be justified,” &c. (Ps. 51.)
And in the New Testament, speaking of Christians, we read, “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins, and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.” (1 John 1:9.) Is “He” God, or the priests? John wrote these words that we sin not. “And if any man sin.” Here we come to the very point. If a Christian should fall into sin, those who defend the confessional would say, he must confess to the priest, and in this way receive absolution. The scripture says, “If any man sin, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous: and he is the propitiation for our sins,” &c. Could you tell us of any two things more opposed than scripture and the confessional? In this paper we do not propose to speak a word about its abuse, but to show that in principle it is utterly opposed to the truth of God, and has not surely a single text to rest upon. We might refer to every word that came from the lips of Christ in proof. Take the parable of the prodigal. Would it not entirely falsify the true character of God, who had given His Son to die for the lost one, to say that before the Father could receive the lost son, he must first confess to the priest, and pay for his sins? “When he was yet a great way off, his father saw him, and had compassion, and ran, and fell on his neck, and kissed him.” Do you think such a Father needs a priest to soften His heart towards the returning sinner?
We do not for a moment question discipline in the assembly, as 1 Corinthians 5, but this is altogether a different matter from private confession to a priest. And if the Lord had a thought of this (discipline) even in John 20:23, we have seen it was spoken to the company of disciples. And as “the church” is no longer gathered together in separation from the world, the only thing that answers to it now, is that which the Lord still recognises. “For where two or three are gathered together in my name, there am I in the midst of them.”
The confessional proves how sadly men have lost the true knowledge of God. The apostle John said, “We have known and believed the love that God hath to us. God is love.” Is it possible to know God and then require a sinful man to stand between us and infinite love? C. S.