Confession of sins is the public or spoken acknowledgment of either personal or collective guilt, seen as a necessary step to receive divine forgiveness. Confession is part of several religious traditions. It became especially important in the Catholic and Orthodox faiths, which evolved a formal sacramental system of confession and absolution.
The practice of confession in the Judeo-Christian tradition goes back to the time of the Exodus, when the high priest Aaron confessed the congregation's sins before sending out the scapegoat. In Jewish tradition, confession was also required before offering certain types of sacrifices, or in making restitution to an offended human party.
In the Christian churches, confession became a more formalized practice, in which Catholic and Orthodox believers verbally confess to a priest before receiving absolution. Protestants generally rejected this practice, especially the idea that forgiveness requires acts of penance. Nevertheless, most Protestants still engage in some type of confession, even if only expressed through personal prayer and repentance to God.
The origins of the Judeo-Christian tradition of confession are very ancient. In the Hebrew Bible, an early example of confession on behalf of the entire congregation is found in the tradition of the scapegoat: "Aaron shall confess over him all the iniquities of the children of Israel, and all their transgressions in all their sins" (Leviticus 16:21). Personal sins also sometimes required forgiveness before the person could atone by bringing an offering to the priestly altar: "When anyone is guilty in any of these ways, he must confess in what way he has sinned and, as a penalty for the sin he has committed, he must bring to the Lord a female lamb or goat from the flock as a sin offering; and the priest shall make atonement for him for his sin" (Lev. 5:5-6). Sins against another human being also required confession: "When a man or woman wrongs another in any way and so is unfaithful to the Lord, that person is guilty and must confess the sin he has committed. He must make full restitution for his wrong, add one fifth to it and give it all to the person he has wronged" (Num. 5:6-7).
The Israelites are described as confessing their sin of idolatry before God at Mizpah in 1 Samuel 7:6, and the Book of Nehemiah (chapter 9) portrays the confession of both individual and collective sins by the Jews as an important part of the spiritual renewal process for the exiles returning from Babylon. Confession and forgiveness is also a theme found in Psalms and Proverbs. The holiday of Yom Kippur is especially focused on the ideas of repentance and atonement, in which Jews confess before God both their personal and collective sins.
In Christian tradition, the ministry of John the Baptist involved the confession of and remission of sins Matthew 3:6, although it is not clear whether the "remission" took place at baptism or afterward, when pilgrims continued on their way to the Temple of Jerusalem to make atonement. Paul's letters speak often of confession, but he uses the term to refer to a confession of faith in Christ rather than a confession of sins prior to absolution. James 5:16 shows a clear tradition of the confession of sins in commanding: "Confess your sins to each other and pray for each other so that you may be healed." 1 John 1:9 expresses confidence in the forgiveness of confessed sins: "If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness."
On the other hand, Paul's letters and other writings indicate that certain sins should not be forgiven by the church, and that heretics, unrepentant adulterers, and blasphemers should be shunned. In later decades, controversies developed as to whether these and other mortal sins like apostasy could be rightfully forgiven by the church. Some bishops allowed repentant mortal sinners to confess and be received back into communion, while others did not. Ultimately the Catholic and Orthodox churches decided that even mortal sins can indeed be forgiven after due repentance, confession, and penance.
In the third and fourth centuries, however, the issue of apostates returning to the church was especially contentious. It became the practice of penitent apostates to go to the confessors—those who had willingly suffered for the faith and survived—to plead their case and effect their restoration to communion with the bishop's approval. Later, the word "confessor" has come to denote any priest or (in some traditions) layperson who has been granted the authority to hear confessions.
In Roman Catholic teaching, the sacrament of penance is the method initiated by Christ by which individual men and women may confess sins committed after baptism and have them absolved by a priest. This sacrament is known by several names, including penance, reconciliation, and confession.
The intent of this sacrament is to provide healing for the soul as well as to regain the grace of God, lost by sin. The Council of Trent (Session Fourteen, Chapter I) quotes John 20:22-23 as the primary Scriptural proof for the doctrine concerning this sacrament. Here, the resurrected Jesus tells his disciples:
Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive anyone his sins, they are forgiven; if you do not forgive them, they are not forgiven.
Roman Catholics believe that priests have been delegated the authority by Jesus to exercise the forgiveness of sins on earth. This power belongs to Jesus alone; however, he exercises it vicariously through the priesthood.
The basic form of confession has not changed for centuries, although in the early church confessions were made publicly. The penitent must confess mortal sins in order to restore his/her connection to God's grace and not to merit Hell. The sinner is also encouraged to confess venial sins. The penitent must a) be truly sorry for each of the mortal sins he committed, b) have a firm intention never to commit them again, and c) perform the penance imposed by the priest.
The penitent sinner begins with the words, "Bless me, Father, for I have sinned," followed by a statement of how long it has been since his his or her last confession and a listing of the sins committed since then. Absolution by the priest takes this form, although the entire formula is not always recited:
God the Father of mercies, through the death and resurrection of his Son, has reconciled the world to himself and sent the Holy Spirit among us for the forgiveness of sins; through the ministry of the Church may God give you pardon and peace, and I absolve you from your sins in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.
The penitent must make an act of contrition, a prayer acknowledging his/her faults before God. It typically commences: "O my God, I am heartily sorry…" The reception of absolution is considered necessary before receiving the Eucharist if one has guilt for a mortal sin. The sacrament of penance is the only ordinary way in which a person can receive forgiveness for mortal sins committed after baptism in Catholic tradition. However, if there is no opportunity of confessing to a priest, then perfect contrition—a sorrow motivated by love of God rather than of fear of punishment—exists as an "extraordinary means" of removing the guilt of mortal sin without confession. Mortal sin, according to Roman Catholic teaching, include, among others, murder, blasphemy, adultery, and fornication.
In 1215, after the Fourth Council of the Lateran, the Code of Canon Law required all Roman Catholics to confess at least once a year. Frequent confession, the spiritual practice of going to the sacrament of penance often and regularly in order to grow in holiness, is recommended.
For Catholic priests, the confidentiality of all statements made by penitents during the course of confession is absolute. This strict confidentiality is known as the Seal of the Confessional. Priests may not reveal what they have learned during confession to anyone, even under the threat of their own death or that of others. For a priest to break that confidentiality would lead to a latae sententiae (automatic) excommunication reserved to the Holy See (Code of Canon Law, 1388 §1). In a criminal matter, a priest may encourage the penitent to surrender to authorities. However, he may not directly or indirectly disclose the matter to civil authorities himself.
Within the Eastern Orthodox and Eastern Catholic churches, it is understood that the mystery of confession and repentance has more to do with the spiritual development of the individual and much less to do with purification. Sin is not seen as a stain on the soul, but rather a mistake that needs correction.
In general, the Orthodox Christian chooses an individual to trust as his or her spiritual guide. In most cases this is the parish priest, but may be a starets (Elder, a monk who is well-known for his or her advancement in the spiritual life, or any individual, male or female, who has received permission from a bishop to hear confession. This person is often referred to as one's "spiritual father" or "spiritual mother."
The individual turns to his spiritual guide for advice on his or her spiritual development, confessing sins, and asking advice. Orthodox Christians tend to confess only to this individual. What is confessed to one's spiritual guide is protected by the same seal as would be any priest hearing a confession. While one does not have to be a priest to hear confession, only an ordained priest may pronounce the absolution.
In Orthodox tradition, confession does not take place in a confessional, but normally in the main part of the church itself, usually before an analogion (lectern) set up near the iconostasion. On the analogion is placed a Gospel Book and a blessing cross. The confession often takes place before an icon of Jesus Christ. Orthodox understand that such confession is not actually made to the priest, but to Christ, and the priest stands only as witness and guide. Before confessing, the penitent venerates the Gospel Book and cross, and places the thumb and first two fingers of his right hand on the feet of Christ as he is depicted on the cross. The confessor will often read an admonition warning the penitent to make a full confession, holding nothing back.
In cases of emergency, confession may be heard anywhere. For this reason, especially in the Russian Orthodox Church, the pectoral cross that the priest wears at all times will often have the appropriate icon of Christ inscribed on it.
Confession is required before receiving any of the Sacred Mysteries (sacraments), including not just Holy Communion, but unction, marriage, and so on. Orthodox Christians should go to confession at least four times a year, often during one of the four fasting periods (Great Lent, Nativity Fast, Apostles' Fast, and Dormition Fast). Many pastors encourage frequent confession and communion. In some of the monasteries on Mount Athos, the monks will confess their sins daily.
Orthodox Christians will also practice a form of general confession, referred to as the rite of "Mutual Forgiveness." The rite involves an exchange between the priest and the congregation (or, in monasteries, between the superior and the brotherhood). The priest will make a prostration before all and ask their forgiveness for sins committed in act, word, deed, and thought. Those present ask that God may forgive him, and then they in turn all prostrate themselves and ask the priest's forgiveness. The priest then pronounces a blessing. The rite of Mutual Forgiveness does not replace the Mystery of Confession and Absolution, but is for the purpose of maintaining Christian charity and a humble and contrite spirit.
Protestant churches believe that no intermediary is necessary between the Christian and God in order to be absolved from sins. With some exceptions, Protestants confess their sins in private prayer before God, believing this suffices to gain God's pardon. However confession to another is sometimes encouraged, especially when a wrong has been done to a human being as well as to God. Confession is then made to the person wronged, and is part of the reconciliation process. In cases where sin has resulted in the exclusion of a person from church membership, public confession is often a prerequisite to readmission. The sinner confesses to the church his or her repentance and is received back into fellowship.
Lutheran tradition initially embraced some aspects of the Catholic tradition of confession, but later moved farther away from the practice. In his 1529 catechisms, Martin Luther praised private confession (before a pastor or a fellow Christian) "for the sake of absolution." However, the Lutheran reformers held that a complete enumeration of sins is impossible (Augsburg Confession XI with reference to Psalm 19:12) and that one's confidence of forgiveness is not to be based on the sincerity of one's contrition nor on one's doing works of satisfaction imposed by the confessor. The Lutheran reformers abolished the Catholic tradition of acts of contrition, holding that absolution is obtained simply by confession of the penitent and the absolution spoken by the confessor. Faith or trust in Jesus' atonement for sin and his complete authority to forgive is all that it necessary to receive forgiveness by the word of absolution.
In early Lutheran tradition, confession and absolution was made either in private to the pastor or with the assembled congregation making a general confession before the pastor in the Divine Service. In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, however, private confession and absolution largely fell into disuse. At present, it is generally used only when specifically requested by the penitent or suggested by the confessor.
The Anglican sacrament of confession and absolution is usually a component part of corporate worship, particularly at services of the Holy Eucharist. The form involves an exhortation to repentance by the priest, a period of silent prayer during which believers may inwardly confess their sins, a form of general confession said together by all present, and the pronouncement of absolution by the priest, often accompanied by the sign of the cross.
Private confession is also practiced by Anglicans, either through the venue of the traditional confessional, or more frequently in a private meeting with the priest. This practice permits a period of counseling and suggestions of acts of penance. Following the confession of sins and the discussion of remedies, the priest makes the pronouncement of absolution. The seal of the confessional, as with Roman Catholicism, is absolute and any confessor who divulges information revealed in confession is subject to deposition and removal from office.
Historically, the practice of private confession was a highly controversial one within Anglicanism. Though still not widely practiced, private confession within mainstream Anglicanism became accepted in the second half of the twentieth century; the 1979 Book of Common Prayer for the Episcopal Church in the U.S. provides two forms for it in the section "The Reconciliation of a Penitent."
In Anglican tradition there is no requirement for private confession, but a common understanding that it may be desirable depending on individual circumstances. An Anglican aphorism regarding the practice is "All may; none must; some should."
Most other Protestant denominations have no formal tradition of confession and absolution, but many do practice the confession of sins informally. Such practices include:
In contemporary Judaism, confession is an important part of attaining forgiveness for both sins against God and another man. However, confession of sins is made to God and not man, except in asking for forgiveness of the human victim of the sin. In addition, confession in Judaism is normally done communally. Unlike the Christian "I have sinned," Jews confess that "We have sinned." However, a personal confession of sins is recited in preparation for the Day of Atonement, by the bridegroom before his wedding, and by the sick person who prepares for the approach of death.
In Islam, the act of seeking forgiveness from God is called Istighfar. It is one of the essential parts of worship in Islam. This act is generally done by repeating the Arabic words astaghfirullah, meaning "I seek forgiveness from Allah."
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