Those who are conversant with the religious thought of our time must be aware of the faith that there is a trend among certain of the Protestant clergy to set up in their churches something akin to the confessional of the Roman Catholic Church. This does not mean that they, like the Roman Catholics, are setting up confessional boxes in their chapels. In most cases it may be a small, quiet room in the church, simply furnished with a desk and a couple of chairs. It is not called a confessional but a "room for confession."
Of course, it is not the intention of the Protestant clergy to follow the pattern of Rome. And doubtless those who specialize in this work would be the last to admit the danger of such a practice. But that there is such a danger is clearly recognized by many. It matters little whether one sits behind a curtain in the confessional box or behind a desk in a confessional room—the principle is the same if it means placing a human confessor between God and the sinner. And it is against this possibility that caution is offered.
That there is a place for counsel is clearly evident from this statement:
"There is need of shepherds who, under the direction of the Chief Shepherd, will seek for the lost and straying. This means the bearing of physical discomfort and the sacrifice of ease. It means a tender solicitude for the erring, a divine compassion and forbearance. It means an ear that can listen with sympathy to heartbreaking recitals of wrong, of degradation, of despair and misery."—Gospel Workers, p. 184.
A man who finds himself a slave to some besetting sin, such as smoking or drinking, can come to his pastor with a request that he join him in prayer for deliverance from his bondage. And there are instances in which it is proper for a sinner who has become so involved and entangled in the consequences of his sins that he does not know how to extricate himself, to seek counsel and guidance from a mature and godly minister concerning the dilemma in which he finds himself. In this case the sinner can state his problem and receive the needed counsel concerning how to get right with God and how to make amends to one's fellow men.
And for this work of counseling there is need of spiritual and technical preparation. But what causes concern is the tendency for such counseling to drift into a confessional, where, instead of confessing to God, men confess to their fellow men that which should be confessed to God alone. We should remember that this trend is a decided departure from the old belief and practice of the Protestant church.
Ever since the Reformation swept over Europe, its ministers, with the exception of the comparatively few so-called high church men, have been opposed to the confessional as such. They have maintained, and justly so, that there is to be no human confessor interposed between God and the sinner. With the open Bible in hand they have proclaimed the glorious gospel message that "if any man sin, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous," to whom the darkest sinner may come without fear or trembling, with the full assurance that "if we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins, and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness."
Now, as already noted, there has come a marked departure from this old-time belief and practice. Instead of pointing sinners to Christ Jesus as the only divinely acknowledged confessor, some Protestant pastors are following the example of the Catholic priests in assuming, perhaps inadvertently, the role of a confessor. Yet no human confessor can absolve a sinner from his guilt.
Through the Spirit of prophecy the Lord has pointed out in no uncertain language the evils of the confessional:
The church's claim to the right to pardon leads the Romanist to feel at liberty to sin; and the ordinance of confession, without which her pardon is not granted, tends also to give license to evil. He who kneels before fallen man, and opens in confession the secret thoughts and imaginations of his heart, is debasing his manhood and degrading every noble instinct of his soul. In unfolding the sins of his life to a priest,—an erring, sinful mortal, and too often corrupted with wine and licentiousness,—his standard of character is lowered, and he is defiled in consequence. His thought of God is degraded to the likeness of fallen humanity, for the priest stands as a representative of God. This degrading confession of man to man is the secret spring from which has flowed much of the evil that is defiling the world and fitting it for the final destruction. Yet to him who loves self-indulgence, it is more pleasing to confess to a fellow mortal than to open the soul to God. It is more palatable to human nature to do penance than to renounce sin; it is easier to mortify the flesh by sackcloth and nettles and galling chains than to crucify fleshly lusts. Heavy is the yoke which the carnal heart is willing to bear rather than bow to the yoke of Christ."—The Great Controversy, pp. 567, 568.
It is true that the above paragraph deals primarily with the practice in the Roman Catholic Church. The principle is the same, however, if practiced in the Protestant church. God is no respecter of persons. What is wrong when practiced in the Roman Catholic Church is wrong when practiced in any other church.
The Lord has given abundant instruction both in the Bible and in the Spirit of prophecy on the subject of confession of sin. Notice the following extracts:
"The gospel makes no compromise with evil. It cannot excuse sin. Secret sins are to be confessed in secret to God; but for open sin, open confession is required."—The Desire of Ages, p. 811.
"God will be better glorified if we confess the secret, inbred corruption of the heart to Jesus alone than if we open its recesses to finite, erring man, who cannot judge righteously unless his heart is constantly imbued with the Spirit of God. God knows the heart, even every secret of the soul; then do not pour into human ears the story which God alone should hear. . . .
"There are confessions that the Lord has bidden us make to one another. If you have wronged your brother by word or deed, you are first to be reconciled to him before your worship will be acceptable to heaven. Confess to those whom you have injured, and make restitution, bringing forth fruit meet for repentance. If anyone has feelings of bitterness, wrath, or malice toward a brother, let him go to him personally, confess his sin, and seek forgiveness."—Testimonies, vol. 5, pp. 645, 646.
According to the above lines, there are some sins that are to be confessed only to God, whereas sins against our fellow men should be confessed to the one or ones injured. In other words, the confession is to be as wide as the circle wronged. If I have sinned against my brother I must confess to him; if against my family, confession must be made to the family, and if against the church, divine justice requires that I confess to the church.
"Confess your faults one to another, and pray one for another, that ye may be healed" (James 5:16) .
These sacred principles every shepherd in Israel should make known to his flock. It is his duty before God to do so. He must instruct his people regarding God's plan for deliverance from sin. Instead of encouraging men and women to make him their confessor, he must point them to Jesus, the Lamb of God, as the only One who can forgive and cleanse them from all unrighteousness. As the ambassador of Heaven he must beseech sinners to be reconciled to God and to one another. This is the only way to find release from the bondage of sin.
Sin concealed in the heart is a terrible thing. Especially is this true in the experience of a Christian. It robs him of his joy in the Lord. Life loses its sweetness. His conscience troubles him, his soul is in anguish, the mind becomes depressed, and the body suffers. The only sure cure for this sad affliction is to be found at the foot of the cross. There, as he opens his heart to the Saviour in humble confession and receives the assurance of pardon, sweet peace comes into his soul. Life takes on new color and new meaning.
God's plan for the confession and remission of sin is wonderful. It is perfect. It needs no modification. We must not attempt to alter or improve it. By the grace of God we must not permit ourselves to be carried away by any modern trend that would interpose a human confessor between God and man.