One of the identifying traits of evangelical Christianity is it’s insistence that individuals need only to confess their sins to God, not before any man. While some of the Reformers retained the practice of confession (though in a greatly limited practice) it’s been purged out of most modern Protestant communities, especially those which have come under the influence of evangelicalism, due to it’s perception as an unbiblical practice. A closer reading of Scripture, done in a more holistic fashion, actually presents confession as a biblical practice with it’s roots in the liturgical life of Israel under the Old Covenant. Under the Old Covenant a verbal confession was made by an Israelite making a trespass offering in the presence of the priest, who would then take the offering and make atonement for the Israelite. This practice continues into the New Covenant since the pages of the New Testament present the Church as a New Temple and the ordained ministers as priests of the New Temple. The New Testament texts which speak about confessing sins therefore need to be read in light of the Old Testament background of confession and within the context of the Church as New Temple and her ministers as the New Priesthood. In light of this the New Testament practice of confessing sins is presented as the members of the Church coming to confess their sins in the presence of the ordained ministers who have been given to authority to pronounce the forgiveness of sins.
Confession in the Leviticus 5:
Throughout the Old Testament there are multiple examples of people giving verbal confessions of their sins (perhaps most famous in the confession King David makes to Nathan the prophet in 2 Samuel 12:13). The examples in the Old Testament highlight the fact that confession in Israel was verbal and took place either in front of a single person or the community (David’s confession before Nathan is an example of a private confession in the presence of a single person while in Ezra 10 Shekaniah confesses in the presence of Ezra and a large crowd of Israelites). The central texts in the Old Testament that deal with confession, however, are intimately connected to Israel’s liturgical and sacrificial order. The primary text that places confession within the context of Israel’s liturgical/sacrificial order is Leviticus 5:5-6, “When a man is guilty in any of these, he shall confess the sin he has committed, and he shall bring his guilt offering to the Lord for the sin which he has committed, a female from the flock, a lamb or a goat, for a sin offering; and the priest shall make atonement for him for his sin.” The context of these verses is the levitical prescriptions for trespass offerings. After the Israelite commits a sin that warrants a trespass offering, and they come to a realization of their sin, they are to confess their sin and bring an appropriate offering to the priest. While the text doesn’t explicitly mention that the offending Israelite is to confess in the presence of the priest it can be assumed since the Old Testament emphasis on confession is on verbal confessions. This levitical mandate to confess the specific sin committed, bound up with the trespass offerings, means that an offending Israelite would be required to confess her or her sin, whenever the sin committed requires a trespass offering. Since the liturgical practice of confession within the life of Israel was intimately connected to the Temple we should understand the New Testament commands regarding confession to be read in light of their Old Testament background. If we can see that in the New Covenant of Jesus Christ that there’s a New Temple and a New priesthood than in order to have a consistent biblical theology the New Covenant practice of confession must necessarily be placed within this context.
The Church as the New Temple:
One of the major features of the New Covenant is that the incarnate body of Jesus is the New Temple. In fact this is a major theme throughout the entirety of the Gospel of John. In the prologue to the Gospel of John when it says that, “the Word became flesh and dwelt among us,” (Jn. 1:14) the Greek word for “dwelt” is literally translated as either “tabernacled” or “pitched his tent”. Just as the Glory of God dwelt within the tabernacle so the incarnate Word is the embodiment of the tabernacle, as the theme of glory immediately follows, “we beheld his glory, glory as of the only-begotten Son from the Father” (Jn. 1:14). The Evangelist John also directly identifies Jesus’ body as a temple in John 2 after Jesus challenges his critics, “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up” (Jn. 2:19). John adds an explanatory note saying, “but He spoke of the temple of His body” (Jn. 2:21). The New Testament theology of the Church is that by way of baptism and the gift of the Spirit all believers in Jesus are made members of His body (1 Cor. 12:12-13). Since the Spirit of God dwells within individual believers they are themselves individually temples (1 Cor. 6:12-20) as well as each member is a stone that makes up the New Temple of the body of Christ (1 Pt. 4-5). Since Jesus’ body is the temple, and the Church is the body of Christ (Col. 1:18, 1:24), the Church – by virtue of it’s union to the incarnate body of Christ through the Spirit – is the New Temple. The ministers of the Old Covenantal temple were priests and likewise the ministers of the New Covenant in Christ also practice a priestly ministry.
The New Priesthood:
In the New Covenant there is a single priesthood: Christ’s. As the book of Hebrews articulates Jesus was appointed as a priest forever according to the order of Melchizedek and by His ascension entered into the heavenly tabernacle with His own blood to offering it as an atoning sacrifice. This follows that His ministerial representatives are participators in, and manifest, His priesthood. The Gospel of Matthew has a number of texts that portray Jesus in a priestly light and then show how he extends these priestly ministries to His disciples. In Matthew 13 when Jesus teaches the crowds through parables the disciples approach Him and ask why He teaches the crowds in parables. Jesus responds to them, “to you it has been given to know the secrets of the kingdom of heaven” (Mt. 13:11). One of the priestly functions during the Old Covenant was that of teaching (Lev. 10:8-11). Jesus’ ministry of teaching is fundamentally a part of His priesthood. By giving the secrets of the kingdom to the disciples he extends His priestly duties of teaching to His disciples. Another aspect of the priesthood is the offering of sacrifices. The Last Supper is presented as a memorial grain offering. In Leviticus 2, where we find the prescriptions for grain offerings, the first portion is offered up on the altar as an offering to God while the rest is given to Aaron and his sons for consumption (Lev. 2:1-10). The fact that Jesus takes the first portion during the Last Supper indicates His divine identity while His distribution of the bread to the disciples indicates their priestly identity. This priestly duty of offering the Eucharist is given directly to the disciples in Matthew 14 at the feeding of the five thousand. The event itself anticipates the Last Supper since when Jesus receives the bread and fish it says that He blessed, broke, and gave it to the disciples. The startling fact is that He doesn’t give it to the crowds directly but rather gives it to the disciples so that they can give it to the crowds. This indicates that Jesus is not only handing on His priestly duty of teaching to the disciples but also the priestly duty of offerings. Further texts within Matthew also allude to the priestly ministry of the disciples (such as 12:1-6, 16:16-18, and 19:28-30) so just as the New Testament presents the Church as a New Temple so the ministry of the Apostles is a New Priesthood.
Confession in the New Testament:
The first example of confession that we see in the New Testament occurs within the Gospel accounts of the ministry of John the Baptist. Matthew 3 introduces John the Baptist, and his ministry, and recounts how people go out to him to be baptized by him, “then went out to him Jerusalem and all Judea and all the region about the Jordan, and they were baptized by him in the river Jorden, confessing their sins” (Mt. 3:5-6). The Old Testament background to the baptism of John is the numerous purifying rites within the book of Leviticus (the book of Hebrews calls these ritual cleansings “baptisms” – see Heb. 9:1-10). Many of the purity laws within the book of Leviticus prescribe a ritual washing when an Israelite became ritually unclean. Many of the laws involved the unclean Israelite to present him/herself to a priest after their time of ritual uncleanliness had expired; either to be inspected by the priest or to bring the appropriate sacrifice for the priest to offer. By baptizing the people of Israel John is performing a priestly duty (he himself came from a priestly line – see Lk. 1:5-24). Since John is a priestly figure, performing a priestly duty, we see that he performs another priestly duty in hearing the confessions of repenting Israelites; just as the priests in the Old Covenant heard the confessions of repenting Israelites as they brought their trespass offerings.
While John’s ministry occurs within the pages of the New Testament his ministry operates near the end of the Old Covenant. Following the resurrection, ascension, enthronement of Christ, and the outpouring of the Spirit we find a few texts in the New Testament. that deal with the practice of confession. The first of these is found in James 5:14-16, “Is any among you sick? Let him call for the elders of the church, and let them pray over him, anointing him with oil in the name of the Lord; and the prayer of faith will save the sick man, and the Lord will raise him up; and if he has committed sins, he will be forgiven. Therefore confess your sins to one another, and pray for one another, that you may be healed. The prayer of a righteous man has great power in its effects.” Here the context of the confession of sins is the anointing of the sick by the elders of the Church. A second text is found in 1 John 1:9, “if we confess our sins, he is faithful and just, and will forgive our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness.” A third text is found in John 20:23 when Christ says to His disciples, “if you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.” Jesus says this to His disciples immediately after He breathes upon them with the Holy Spirit. The gift of the Holy Spirit has many facets to it but one of them, which illuminates this passage, is connected to the ordination of priests. Leviticus 8 describes the ordination ceremony of Aaron and his sons. One of the rituals involved consecrating Aaron for the priesthood by pouring anointing oil on Aaron’s head. Elsewhere in the Old Testament the oil of anointment is directly connected with the Spirit (see 1 Samuel 16:13). The ministry of the priests in the Old Testament was a ministry of cleansing and forgiveness of sins through the sacrificial offerings on behalf of Israel. The connection then between the gift of the Spirit to the disciples and their authority to forgive sins is an indication that they are being ordained by Spirit to operate as priests of His New Covenant. With this in sight the texts of James and 1 John indicate that the confession of sins is made to the ordained ministers of the Church, who function as priests of the New Covenant. The apostolic authority to forgive sins that have been confessed is given to the priests of the Church who continue the apostolic ministry. The pages of the New Testament give an image of repentance by confessing sins in the presence of a priest. Jesus gives the authority to forgive sins to His disciples in an event that indicates their own ordination to a new priesthood. The texts of James and 1 John that deal with confession therefore need to be read in light of the Old Testament backdrop, the example given by John hearing confessions, and the authority to forgive sins given to the Apostles by Christ.
When analyzing both the Old Testament and the New Testament texts that deal with confession it becomes clear that the traditional Christian practice of confession is far from unbiblical; rather it follows from a holistic approach to the Scriptures. During the Old Covenant it was instituted that the people of Israel should confess their sins in the presence of one of God’s consecrated priests so that he might offer up a sacrifice on their behalf, cleansing and forgiving them of their sins. Through Christ the Church has become the New Temple and her consecrated servants are priests. Throughout the Gospels the Apostles are given priestly duties and following the resurrection of Jesus are anointed with the Holy Spirit and given the priestly authority to forgive the sins of all. Within the Church, the New Temple, when sins are committed and the believers are exhorted to confess their sins it is done in the presence of the elders, the New Priests, who have the authority to forgive sins, and through their confession they are cleansed of all unrighteousness.