The word confession has more than one meaning, but in this brief study confession will be used as an admission or acknowledgement of one’s sins. In the pages of Scripture, we have examples of individual confessions to God, mass public confessions, and confessions made to injured parties. What we do not find in the Bible is a demand for auricular confession—the practice of believers confessing their sins to a professional clergyman as penance or to obtain forgiveness.
According to Roman Catholic tradition, auricular confession is a sacrament involving the confessing of one’s grave sins to a qualified priest for absolution. Auricular, based on the Latin auricula, meaning “external ear,” implies the confession is made verbally. As a sacrament, auricular confession did not exist prior to the eighth century. The process of auricular confession was ratified by the Council of Trent (1545—1563). If auricular confessions are necessary for salvation, believers who die before confessing “mortal sins” to a priest risk eternal damnation, but this frightful contingency does not square with the teachings of the Bible.
The Bible speaks of the confession of sins but attaches no special importance to confession to a priest. The apostle John wrote of general confession to God: “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, ESV). We see this truth illustrated in the following parable told by our Lord Jesus:
He also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and treated others with contempt: “Two men went up into the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee, standing by himself, prayed thus: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other men, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give tithes of all that I get.’ But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even lift up his eyes to heaven, but beat his breast, saying, ‘God, be merciful to me, a sinner!’ I tell you, this man went down to his house justified, rather than the other. For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but the one who humbles himself will be exalted” (Luke 18:9–14, ESV).Taking responsibility for one’s sins is a prerequisite for forgiveness; the boastful Pharisee did not receive forgiveness, for he was blind to his faults and fancied himself fully justified before God by his own acts of righteousness. By contrast, the tax collector knew he was a vile sinner and, without making excuses or mincing words, confessed as much to God. Grace is granted to the humble, not to the proud (James 4:6).
An example of a mass public confession took place in the city of Ephesus where the apostle Paul was ministering. After seeing the reality of spiritual warfare, the town reacted:
And fear fell upon them all, and the name of the Lord Jesus was extolled. Also many of those who were now believers came, confessing and divulging their practices. And a number of those who had practiced magic arts brought their books together and burned them in the sight of all. And they counted the value of them and found it came to fifty thousand pieces of silver. So the word of the Lord continued to increase and prevail mightily (Acts 19:11–20, ESV).Convicted of their sin, those who had practiced the magic arts publicly renounced their evil en masse as a testimony to God’s renewal and forgiveness. As a result of this public testimony, the word of the Lord multiplied at an unstoppable rate.
Some argue that auricular confessions are justified based on this passage: “Therefore, confess your sins to one another and pray for one another, that you may be healed. The prayer of a righteous person has great power as it is working” (James 5:16, ESV). A perfunctory reading of this verse may appear to support the Roman Catholic tradition; however, this is more likely a command for believers to confess wrongdoings to those they have injured by ill-spoken words or insensitive deeds. This seems to be borne out by Jesus:
You have heard that it was said to those of old, “You shall not murder; and whoever murders will be liable to judgment.” But I say to you that everyone who is angry with his brother will be liable to judgment; whoever insults his brother will be liable to the council; and whoever says, “You fool!” will be liable to the hell of fire. So if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go. First be reconciled to your brother, and then come and offer your gift (Matthew 5:21–24, ESV).If A injures B, then A is to confess the grievance to B; nowhere are we taught that, if A injures B, then A is to confess the act to a priest. In other words, the Bible does not teach the necessity of auricular confession.
Is this to say believers should not discuss their weaknesses or spiritual shortfalls with a trusted pastor or mature Christian mentor? No, for those acting as counselors may have a legitimate need to understand the exact nature of the struggles facing those who come to them for help. But pastors and counselors offer guidance and wisdom—not the forgiveness of sins. Jesus alone forgives sin (Acts 4:12).