The Sacrament of Reconciliation
(commonly called Confession)
The summer in which I finally came to grips with the call to ministry that our Lord had placed on my life was also the summer I came to understand that I needed help just being a Christian – let alone a pastor or priest. The truth be told, I had issues in my life that were too big for me to handle on my own. I wouldn’t have used these words then, but looking back I now see that I needed the fullness of our Lord’s Church to help me bear what I was going through.
I’m not sure why some Christians and Christian denominations are so keen to assert that there are only two Sacraments – that is, why they don’t want the full range of tools that Jesus gave his Church. That’s what the Sacraments are: They are the tools Jesus gave his Church for those times when we need more than the mental understanding that comes from the preaching of the Word. Just as “there’s a season for every purpose under heaven,” so also there’s a Sacrament (seven of them, to be sure) for every need in our earthly pilgrimage.
While I don’t want to put words into the mouths of our brothers and sisters who deny any Sacraments but Holy Baptism and Holy Communion, I do have to wonder why they don’t wish to receive the inward and spiritual graces that come from the outward and visible signs found in Confirmation, Holy Matrimony, Holy Unction, Holy Orders, and Reconciliation (or Confession). I believe that large segments of Christ’s holy Church have unwisely denied themselves the graces of these Sacraments because they’ve believed the lie that the Christian life is between each individual and Jesus alone (please don’t misunderstand me to say that a personal relationship with Jesus is not required for salvation – it most definitely IS!).
What I learned during that difficult summer is that our burdens are often too big to bear alone – we often need “Jesus with skin on,” as the old phrase goes. What’s more, when our burdens are not so heavy, we have a responsibility to be “Jesus with skin on” for someone whose burdens are too heavy. But even that – as wonderful as it is – didn’t seem to “hit the spot.” I continued to grope for more. I wanted something objective – beyond myself – to assure me that Jesus was with me in my desire for spiritual and physical healing, in my marriage, in my ministry, in my struggles with sin.
As I began to understand the theology behind The Book of Common Prayer (the prayer book used by Anglicans), I began to see what I had been longing for: A Sacramental theology of the Christian life. In other words, if I had need for God’s grace to do something or because of something happening in my life, I could point to the Word and to a specific Sacrament (which always includes the prayers of the Church and an outward and visible sign of Jesus’ Presence and ministry). I could finally point to the Sacramental provision Jesus had made for his children and take advantage of the grace he offers us in it!
I began to see that being a Christian in the fullest sense meant that I had to lay aside my pride, not only in my relationship with Jesus, but also in my relationship with his Church. For me, this was not a problem. I was so ready to receive the help I needed that I no longer cared who knew about my story. I cared only that Jesus was leading me to a place of healing and wholeness, and that he had appointed people in his Church to help me get there.
Going to Confession was easy for me. I had been through the wringer and struggled in silence. I was quite ready to get things off my chest. You can’t imagine the joy and freedom that came from hearing someone say to me, “Our Lord Jesus Christ, who has left power to his Church (see John 20:22-23) to absolve (that is, proclaim God’s forgiveness) all sinners who truly repent and believe in him, of his great mercy forgive you all your offenses; and by his authority committed unto me, I absolve you from all your sins: In the Name of (that is, in the power and authority of Almighty God) the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.”
Make no mistake, even after we are Baptized and washed clean of both original sin and actual sins committed up to that point, we are still going to make mistakes. There is nothing more detrimental – and dysfunctional – to the Christian life than allowing those sinful mistakes to be kept “personal.” Why? Because we never really deal with them – not until we do as the Bible commands us, confessing our sins and receiving the assurance of pardon. If we don’t deal with these sinful mistakes in this life, we are going to deal with them in the next. But even that isn’t the biggest reason to take advantage of the Sacrament of Reconciliation.
There’s one further step in Confession: Once we have confessed our sins (no details, just the name of the sin) and received the absolution (God’s pardon, given sacramentally through the priest), we receive some form of advice and/or counseling and some form of penance to undertake. These are vitally important to our growth in Christ! Once we’ve received the assurance of our forgiveness in Christ, we naturally don’t want to make the same mistakes again. A wise priest will give us some work of penance (perhaps a portion of Scripture to read each day, prayers to pray, a work of charity or mercy to undertake) that will re-direct our hearts, our minds, and our desires back to Jesus and away from sinfulness.
Here are some words regarding the Sacrament of Reconciliation (or Confession) from The Anglican Service Book:
The power to forgive sins was given to the Church by our risen Lord on the first evening of Easter (in the Upper Room): “Jesus breathed on the disciples, and said to them, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.’” (John 20:22-23) At the heart of the Gospel is the call to repentance, the call to turn from sin toward God. (See Mark 1:14-15) In the Sacrament of Reconciliation, we have the means for forgiveness of sins committed after Baptism.
In its essence, the Sacrament of Reconciliation is something extremely simple: We kneel beside another and confess to God our sins, laying bare the real failures of every day, which honest thinking compels us to admit. A confession is not a portrait of vague disgust with ourselves, but a revealing of those concrete occasions in which we have sinned. Confession and the granting of God’s forgiveness – or Absolution – not only gives us, but compels us to seek a new and enriched relationship with the Savior of the world, with our neighbors, and with ourselves. By our confession, we enter into the joy of our Lord.
The four stages of this Sacrament of the Gospel of grace are: 1. Contrition, or sorrow for our sins (by careful self-examination, we know what our sins are and the extent to which we have offended God’s love and goodness); 2. Confession, or our owning up to our sins simply, honestly, and completely (we make our confession to a Priest as a minister of God and as a representative of his holy Church – in other words, one who is Ordained to be “Jesus with skin on” in this situation); 3. Absolution, or God’s washing away of the stain of sin from our souls and his giving to us the strength to resist sin in the future; and, 4. Satisfaction, or the doing of our penance as a sign that we will try to do God’s holy will in the future, resolving not to sin again, by the help of God’s grace.
Beloved, believe it or not, most of you have – at one time or another – confessed your sins to me in my role as your pastor. I cannot count the number of conversations in which so many of you have entrusted to me – and to my prayers – the situations and struggles of your lives. Because I believe (as the Bible teaches) that there really aren’t any coincidences in this life, I can’t help but believe that you’re reading these words because our Lord is calling you to take the next step in following him more deeply. So, let’s really get real with the Lord!
May God bless your contemplations!
Father Todd Boyce, MSJ
Vicar, Saints Mary and Martha Anglican Church
Mount Sterling, Kentucky