Why Would a Calvinist or a Baptist do Confession?

A friend shared this article today, in which one of the writers at The Gospel Coalition (a generally Reformed bunch of Evangelicals) laments the lack of confession in (his?) church:

It is puzzling to see one of the defining marks of a Christian’s identity quietly disappear from a church’s worship.

I’m speaking, of course, about confession – a time when the church comes together as a repentant people, and asks God to forgive and cleanse, to renew and restore, to inflame our cold hearts and fill us with overflowing love.

Confession is one of the defining marks of a Christian because it is linked to repentance and faith. When we confess our sins to God, we are agreeing with God that our sin is something that needs to be forgiven. We are recognizing that our sin hurts us, hurts others, and most importantly, hurts the heart of God.

(Read the whole piece here.)

It’s great to see Calvinists and other Evangelicals begin to see the value in traditional, historic Christian practices. Orthodox Christians and Roman Catholics, of course, have confession as a normal part of our spiritual lives (not taken advantage of anywhere near enough, though, I should say). So for the faithful member of those churches, this is a no-brainer.

He does distance himself from a certain image of Catholicism’s view of confession here:

Making confession a requirement in every worship service could give the impression that God is constantly angry with us and we can only approach Him after doing penance. This would lead us back to the medieval image of a God whose favor we must somehow earn, rather than the God of grace whose favor is freely received through the merits of Christ and His righteousness.

I can’t speak for the actual Catholic theology on confession (was that really its medieval theology? maybe one of you knows), but Orthodoxy certainly does not see God as being “constantly angry” or that confession is a “penance” which allows us to approach Him. No, for us, confession is part of the process of bringing our sins out into the open so that they can be identified and healed. Confession no more “earns” God’s favor than going to the doctor “earns” healing. (Of course, the whole “favor” and “merits” model is problematic, anyhow. But that is a problem for another day.)

But what especially struck me in this is the reason the writer gives for why he thinks confession has gone away in his sector of Christianity:

Today, however, the more pressing problem is not the idea of a God who is perpetually angry, but a shriveled god who is shallow and nice. If we don’t see God taking sin seriously, we won’t take it seriously either. And once we stop taking sin seriously, repentance loses its power. No surprise, then, that confession falls away, and the one thing for which all Christians should be known – repentant faith – is something we no longer express together in public.

But how is confession critical in full Calvinist soteriology (in which one is either saved or damned no matter what one does) or in the semi-Calvinist soteriology common in many Evangelical circles (in which, once one is saved, there’s no falling away, “once saved, always saved”)?

Unlike the author, I don’t think confession fell away in his sector of Christianity because of the “nice god.” (Indeed, the lack of confession long predates that little deity.) Rather, this is a soteriological issue. Confession as a lifelong discipline doesn’t do anything if there is nothing eternally at stake.

This seems to me to be one of those soteriological disconnects that seem so common in that world. We should do something (or not do something) because the Bible says so, but does the Bible have any particular reason for saying so? Or is it just something we have to obey, a “mark” of Christianity, that doesn’t actually have any eternal bearing?

One of the reasons why Orthodoxy makes so much more sense to me is that it demonstrates the reasons for all these Biblical injunctions. In this case, I need to confess my sins because if I enter into eternity as an unrepentant person, then I cannot be saved. I will have been refusing salvation.


  1. Good post, and I agree, but for Reformed Protestants, it’s not just limited to confession: none of the sacraments actually do anything. Baptism, the cracker and grape juice, ordination…

    It was all determined before the foundation of the world, so why hang onto the form of there’s no power? Sucks to be Esau.

    1. In the Hebrew it’s better understood as “Esau I loved less” and it’s a reference to the tribe he fathered more than to him, though he did lightly esteem his inheritance. And the argument between free will and predestination is alive and well in the Protestant church.

        1. The part of the Body of Christ that broke with the Church of Rome and, subsequently into many, many denominations and non-denominations.

  2. Fr. Andrew,

    Let me take a crack at it: the reason Reformed, etc. traditionally do confession (not individual and private, but as part of our corporate worship) is because of the distinction between justification (the moment of salvation) and sanctification (becoming that which we are declared to be by justification). We are justified, sure, but we are to grow in greater communion with God and greater likeness to the Son. This requires that we live a life of repentance, even though we are already saved. So, we confess and seek God’s mercy anew.

    The difficulty with reducing Reformed soteriology to predestination is that it misses the strong notions of primary and secondary causality inherent in how the world (and salvation) works: God is the primary actor, sometimes the sole one (“monergism”), but that doesn’t exclude secondary causes (our own actions). How this works is, for Reformed, a mystery, but it is what we confess. Salvation is of God, yet we actively believe. This way of thinking isn’t above reproach, of course, but it has been the standard from Calvin and is enshrined in the WCF.

    The other reason Reformed do confession is that God commands it. In St James’ Epistle, he says to “confess your sins to one another” (paraphrased), so we confess them in corporate worship (the details of how this works out in practice vary considerably from church to church).

    I hope this helps clarify things. Interest in other forms of confession was restarted in many Reformed churches by RJ Rushdoony’s book on the topic (his legacy, of course, been an extremely mixed one).


    1. Right. And I get all that.

      The problem, though, with making justification the thing that gets you into heaven and sanctification the thing that gets you more heavenly in this life is that the latter becomes essentially optional. Nothing is fundamentally at risk if you don’t do it. And with nothing at risk, even if the Bible commands it, you have a big pastoral problem.

      1. Hmm… ‘At risk’ ? ‘Fundamentally at risk’ ? O.K. then something has to – or ought to be – fundamentally ‘at risk’ {no doubt ones eternal destiny} to legitimately effect spiritual growth or sanctification or theosis in the life of a believer ? Hmm… Sounds a tad bit more like a sword of Damocles component [different kind of a pastoral problem maybe?] rather than that of a changed heart motivated by gratitude accomplished by the Spirit. I’m wondering where gratefulness to God fits in if the hapless sinner is the one that has to remedy their risk by their own perpetual & sadly fallible human efforts to pass muster through to the end? Fearful thought but… fortunately… There is no fear in love – Perfect love casts out fear Such is the mystery of the work of Christ in the life of the true believer. Such is the power of the cross. It is undoubtedly a mystery – a wonderful one ….and I know Orthodox love mystery.

        1. Doing something out of gratitude is not exclusive of doing something because it advances us in holiness. It’s not an either/or proposition. But the question here is what we are doing. If what we are working on is salvation itself (cf. Phil. 2:12), then that really is something worth working on. The issue here is not the motivation, but the actual content of the deed. Spiritual growth is not an option. Something that does not grow is something that is dead.

          That is why the “risk” matters. We are engaging in the great battle for our souls, not just pious decoration out of a sense of good feelings that God did something nice for us.

        2. “I’m wondering where gratefulness to God fits in if the hapless sinner is the one that has to remedy their risk..”

          By the same token I’m wondering where gratefulness to God fits in if the hapless sinner despises the requirement of God to keep His commandments, living the Christian life within His Church. But of course the sinner is not the “one” to remedy his death, because he is never alone.

          “by their own perpetual & sadly fallible human efforts to pass muster through to the end?”

          God does accept our fallible efforts when done in faith. That’s why it’s Good News. And yes, it is a never-ending struggle. It continues every day of one’s life.

          1. Greatfulness to God most asaurwdly does not fit in if the hapless sinner despises God’s commandments because he’s a hapless sinner untouched by the grace of God and still dead in his sins – that is to say still lost -unregenerate-

    2. In some ways it is true that it is wrong to reduce Reformed soteriology to predestination and in other ways not. It is true that the Reformed have traditionally embraced secondary causation of a sort, but it should also be kept in mind that that of itself doesn’t make it any less predestinarian. (It means it is not fatalism though) It is not as if once secondary causes are admitted that the Reformed are singing the praises of libertarian free will.

      In a sense Reformed soteriology does reduce to predestination and this can be seen as placing Christology under predestination as in the WCF for example. Christ is the paradigm of predestination-he is the predestined man. This is well documented in Muller’s classic, Christ and the Decree: Predestination and Christology in Reformed Theology from Calvin to Perkins. This is why the sacraments cannot be efficacious ex opere operato, because they are only efficacious relative to the divine will in relation to whom God wills to be elect and no one knows who that is, not even the elect. So the sacraments, are efficacious only in relation to election. So even if confession were a sacrament for the reformed in their understanding of that term, there is nothing objective about it qua grace because of the predestinarianism.

      1. Can you give a thumbnail sketch of the difference between monergism/monoenergism and compatiblism?

  3. How strange since the traditional reformation liturgies of both the reformed and the Lutherans, not to mention the English, have weekly general confession for every Eucharistic or major service. The point in Reformation liturgies of having it at the beginning is because the Law or some summary of the law is read, whereby the person is moved from an experience of knowing that they are condemned to the existential release of the free offer of the Gospel. The Reformation liturgies and theology are quite at home with the idea that God’s favor must be earned, it is just the case that it can’t be earned by us, though it ought to be and is rather earned by Christ, the Pelagian par excellance.

    Confession fell out of liturgical use because, well, it was easier not to do it. And it was easier to get there once the reformers did away with individual confession. Confession is like divorce. If divorce is an option, you’re probably going to get divorced. If not having confession is an option, you’re probably not going to have it.

    The fact is that people generally fear confession, because they fear opening themselves up, all their secrets, because they imagine that they have power over all of those secrets, rather than all of the secrets having power over them. That is why a good confession often results in tears, as well as a sense of relief, and a solidity of person. Because once you say it to another person, rather than a general confession, it is truly out there. It is done.

    1. “The Reformation liturgies and theology are quite at home with the idea that God’s favor must be earned, it is just the case that it can’t be earned by us, though it ought to be and is rather earned by Christ, the Pelagian par excellance.”

      I remember the day this dawned on me (although I’ve never thought to use Pelagius’ name…if the shoe fits…): we hadn’t done away with works-righteousness, just shifted the focus of it.


  4. One thing that isn’t immediately clear from the linked article, and not clear from your response to it, is that the author is not talking about the sacrament of private confession and absolution, but about the “general confession” that forms a part of the orders of worship of classical Protestantism (such as the Book of Common Prayer). Among the Reformed, it’s my understanding that sacramental confession was rejected entirely at the time of the Reformation. Among Lutherans and Anglicans, sacramental confession is available in principle, but not encouraged nor expected to form a part of the Christian’s normal discipline.

    I’ve long been curious about how the practice of “general confession” came about, both as to its historical provenance and its theological rationale. My guess is that the Reformers, having once jettisoned sacramental confession, felt that they needed to put something in its place to remind people that they are still sinners and that repentance and contrition are a necessary part of the Christian life. But that is just a guess; I don’t actually know whether general confession was invented at the time of the Reformation, or whether it has any pre-Reformation (or pre-schism) antecedents.

    1. Right. I thought about this and figured it didn’t make much difference to either argument.

      There is something much more personally challenging about private confession, though, because it brings my sins in particular into the open.

    2. I’ve long assumed that at least part of its historical provenance, and possibly in practice the most significant, is taking a relatively late addition to the Roman Rite liturgy (e.g., the Confiteor) and not only retaining it, but making it central to Reformed liturgical praxis, while abolishing much more ancient ones – and perhaps also taking the relatively ancient (very late 5th Century) Kyrie eleison/Christe eleison, which St. Gregory the Great substituted for the long “Deprecatio Gelasii” litany, as though it were (as in fact it was not) the remnant of some sort of corporate confession of sin.

      Of course, this making much of relatively late features of medieval Roman liturgy, while jettisoning more ancient and venerable features, was a practice of Reformed and Lutherans alike.

  5. Just a quick observation: a general confession is recited by the assembly at the beginning of every RC mass, but that in no way substitutes for private sacramental confession in case you have serious sin on your conscience and plan to receive the Eucharist. One exception: if say a plane is about to crash a priest on board can act as a confessor to everyone on board via the general confession because obviously there’s no time for the private version.

  6. I’ve witnessed a megachurch’s what I can describe as “seance” titled “confession”. A group if devout congregants sitting in small section of largely empty dark auditorium with a microphone on a stand, lit by a single spotlight few feet further down the isle. Quiet gentle music playing on the main sound system. One by one, at random, people would walk up to the mic and say things like “Father, we are sorry for the sin of abortion commuted by people in our nation” or “we are sorry for valuing possessions too much in this country”. No one confessed something they have committed personally.

    1. I’m an Orthodox Christian at an Evangelical Seminary. Recently there was a discussion about “confession” at a local church. Perhaps its because I live in Silicon Valley…perhaps its a sign of the times…or the depth of the departure from the relational core of the gospel…who knows…but this particular church decided to provide “confession” via computer after services. Simply post your sins on the computer…no interaction with a person. As convenient as Amazon or Facebook…no muss, not fuss. Apparently, the line was out the door.

      As I picked my jaw up off the floor, many were excited about such “progress.”

  7. From my upbringing as a protestant, confession lacked any theological depth to contribute to the transforming work of Christ in my life. Without a clear understanding of confession, I had no theology to deal with “the sin that so easily beset.” The soteriological answers I was given were not satisfying. Thankfully I discovered through my own reading of scripture the parable of the “house swept clean” only to be reinhabited by the demons (Matthew 12:43-45). This along with the positive theology of theosis from the Orthodox (John 10:31-18) has given me a much larger picture into the kingdom Jesus came to establish. Without a theology of confession and theosis (perfection) from the historic church in some form, I find any theology of conversion lacking reality.

  8. My understanding is that the general confession in Reformed traditions came at the beginning of the service and focused on the 10 Commandments. This reflects the law _as_ grace, a thread that is somewhat lost these days. Because the 10 Commandments start with the reminder that God brought the elect out of the land of Egypt, obedience to the laws God gives is done in gratitude for that great act of salvation. Furthermore, the placing of the corporate/communal confession at the beginning with the commandments underscores that the Old Testament and New Testament God is the same –Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. If I had to venture a guess as to why the communal confession has fallen out of practice lately, I would say it was likely due more to a modern day Marcionism (belief that the God of Law and God of Grace are different, and further, that the creator and redeemer are not the same). Because the laws that God gave in grace are not so palatable to many, it probably seems easier just not to remind people of them so much.

    As to whether medieval Catholicism was all about appeasing an angry God, the short answer is no. The long answer is Nooooo! We shouldn’t take the Reformers word on this one, for several reasons: 1)Actual accounts of medieval Catholicism demonstrate a multivalent and rich tradition of festivities, healing, spirituality of grace and adoration of God, pilgrimages and other devotional acts as ways of making one’s soul more like one who could befriend God (the Aquinas-washed talk about Theosis), beautiful iconography, shrines and saints, universities and hospitals, all of which depended on the idea that God loves people and wants to redeem them. 2) Reformers had to get pretty angry in the tirades in order to justify taking over the immense wealth of the Catholic church and to cast down in a single blow the far greater cultural wealth of Christian art, shrines, festivals, and sacramentals (like candles, giving flowers to shrines, etc., that would be recognizable to Orthodox and Catholics alike). We should also recall that they destroyed the entire system of mourning. When you take away a society’s means of grieving, I suppose it’s to be expected to blame the previous system for being mean instead of admitting what one has done. 3) It’s very common to misunderstand Augustine, Anselm, and Aquinas. For instance, Anselm reused the pearl metaphor that we see in the 4th and 5th C fathers, to emphasize that God’s mercy required that he not leave what he had made to fall into ruin. But what do people (who’ve scarcely ever read both halves of Cur Deus Homo) say about Anselm? The silly satisfaction theory — which ignores his conclusion that the beauty of it all was that God’s justice and mercy were both demonstrated and made evident in the one act of redeeming humanity by becoming man. The language of merit and friendship with God are Western code for Theosis. When one actually reads all (or most of, if I’m honest) Augustine’s works, one sees a profound emphasis on the deep grace of God and the humility of the Christian. That’s his calling card, not predestination. Was this understood well? No. Through Aquinas, we get an examination of the question that leads to difficult to understand ideas because of the format of his text. In one book, he talks about knowledge, for instance, and several _books_ later, he says that knowledge is only fully available through communion with God in the sacraments. I would trust Calvin to have understood what Aquinas said, and indeed, his works are more nuanced and reliant on God’s grace (though they depart from Aquinas and especially from St. Augustine). But his followers grabbed onto much harsher, more rigid/simplified/black and white ideas, and we got the big stream of predestination. Reading back through predestination as they received it a generation later, the 2nd generation reformers could paint a plausible picture of the medieval Catholic God as cruel and demanding. And why not? The churches were stripped of icons, candles, linens, graves, shrines. Only the bones of the cathedrals were left. The mourning rituals and the festivals were gone. What a waste, and what a great lie to show one’s children: that God wanted to punish. (Nope.)

    In that context, I don’t think the “nice God” was a problem, either, because God was seen as kind, the lover of humankind, in ages where confession flourished. I agree that the problem is soteriological, but I think that it is primarily failure by means of poor ecclesiology and theological anthropology. By losing the heart of why God became human (that we might become like God), the modern Protestant churches tend to forget that God is merciful and just and that Christian life is therefore to be laid out for the purpose of Theosis. The first Reformed feared idolatry (which goes back to the primary Reformed heresy of Marcionism==two Gods) and got rid of papal “excesses” in order to avoid it. The current ones likely fear that their gracious God will be mistaken for someone inaccessible, so they avoid confession as the unpleasant reminder that we are not yet like God. The solution is to revisit the question of the Incarnation. Only then can the Body of Christ participate in confession as a means of becoming like God through the sacraments and imitation of the God who became man and loves humankind.

  9. It seems to me that people try too hard to “balance God out”… that is, to balance our understanding of his love and mercy with his wrath and judgment… as if God has 2 sides to him that need to be moderated.
    Of course, as Orthodox, we believe in a great and fearful judgment as well, but the concepts of mercy and justice are intricately interwoven- both in this life now, and in the final judgment, as well as the eternal condition.

  10. As a former Catholic, I don’t know if it’s a formal part of the theology, but the sense that God is constantly angry with you seems to be an extremely common Catholic sentiment. Even as an atheist, I feel like God probably hates me, and I’m as much hoping He doesn’t exist as actually believing He doesn’t.

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