I have recently become an inquirer of the Orthodox Church in America, and, to some extent, have been able to look at my previous Protestant worldview from the outside. In view of that, I present here the beginnings of my thoughts on the Sacrament of Confession and what its loss has meant for Protestants. I hope you enjoy and I look forward to your comments.
In the oldest churches of Christendom, the Roman Catholic and the Orthodox, the Sacrament of Confession is critically important. In it, sinners confess their transgressions in the presence of, or, depending on the particular understanding of the Sacrament, directly to, a priest. The priest then gives a penance, if appropriate, and grants absolution from God. Although in the earliest years of the Church Confession was made publicly, nowadays it is traditionally private; in many Catholic churches, in fact, a confessional booth is used so that even the priest does not know who is confessing, except perhaps by his voice.
In contrast, auricular confession, outside of Anglicanism, is largely unknown in the Protestant world. Protestants by and large do not privately meet with their pastors, confess their sins, and receive absolution and guidance in the future avoidance of sin. Although in the Evangelical world a non-sacramental analogue to confession seems to be rising up, under the name of “accountability,” what I will be writing about today is a practice of many Protestant pastors that I consider to be the inversion of the Sacrament of Confession, brought into their churches in an attempt to deal with sin in their congregations while lacking the historic Sacrament our holy and God-bearing Fathers handed down to us for this exact purpose.
This practice is what I will call the “accusatory sermon.” The relevant characteristics of the Sacrament of Confession are as follows:
- The penitent accuses himself of sin.
- The priest delivers God’s forgiveness.
- It is individual; that is, it deals with the sins of particular parishioners, not the congregation as a whole.
- It is private; only the sinner and the priest know what is confessed.
- Pastoral guidance is given, often in the form of a penance, to assist the penitent in avoidance of that sin in the future.
By contrast, many Protestant pastors (and this reflects the Protestant elevation of preaching as a replacement for the sacramental role of the pastor) preach a sermon to deal with sin. This sermon generally refers to sinners as “some of you” and talks in broad generalities about the sins of “some of [his parishioners].” This inverts Confession. The relevant characteristics of the accusatory sermon are as follows:
- The pastor accuses the parishioner of sin.
- The parishioner has to go get forgiveness on his own.
- It is general; it does not deal in any way with a particular person’s sin, but rather broadcasts general trends of sin to the whole congregation, whose business it really isn’t.
- It is public; the whole church is let in on it, but not in such a way that they can help.
- No pastoral guidance is given to assist the accused in the future avoidance of sin, but rather, as with forgiveness, he is expected to figure it out on his own. This, by the way, is, I believe, due to the absurd degree to which the role of preacher (that is, public speaker; sermonizer; opinion-giver) has been emphasized at the expense of those of priest (sacramental mediator of Divine Grace) and pastor (shepherd, guide, father) in the Protestant churches.
So we see that the purpose of this sermon is as much to complain as anything else. Rather than dealing with specific sins privately, with discretion and pastoral care, the Protestant preacher deals with vague sins publicly, through humiliation, and so fosters continual vague guilt, but no real healing or progress.
For an example of what I’m talking about, you can watch this sermon by Mark Driscoll:
Now I say this not to condemn Protestant pastors per se; I’m sure most of them are doing the best they can with the light they have. But the accusatory sermon is not healthy, in my humble opinion, and is the direct result of a key Protestant distinctive: the loss of the sacraments and the overexaltation of preaching and sermons.