Book 3- Chapter 4 (Parts 1-2)
In this chapter Calvin offers us a thorough examination of confession; what it is and how it ought to work. What we need to note here is that Calvin is dealing with the Medieval and not the modern Roman Catholic Church. Even so, the discussion helps us understand confession more fully.
Summary: Calvin begins this chapter by noting how the Medieval Roman Church scholastics (official church scholars) looked at repentance. He states that repentance in their literature consists of “…contrition of heart, confession of mouth, and satisfaction of works” (pg. 623). While this appears to be a rather benign definition, Calvin reminds his readers that there are two serious drawbacks with this view. The first is that its focus is on outward actions and not inward transformation. “They are wonderfully silent concerning the inward renewal of the mind, which bears with it true correction of life” (pg. 623). In other words, confession becomes a ritual with no real power or intent to change a person’s inner orientation which then changes their outward actions.
The second problem with the scholastic view is that there is no guarantee of forgiveness. “They make contrition the first step in obtaining pardon, and they require it to be due contrition, that is just and full. But at the same time they do not determine when a man can have assurance that he has in just measure carried out his contrition” (pg. 625). For Calvin this is an even more serious concern than the first because followers of Jesus ought to be able to live with the full assurance that their sins are forgiven and that they are renewed people. “Therefore when consciences have a long time wrestled with themselves…in long struggles, they still do not find a haven in which to rest” (pg. 625). Instead of worrying about perfection in contrition, he writes, we are to “…fix our eyes upon the Lord’s mercy alone” (pg. 626). God forgives, Calvin argues, because of God’s mercy and not because of our actions.
The next issue Calvin takes up is to whom confession is to be made. In the Roman Church then and now, confession was and is to be made to a priest. Calvin argues that this is not Biblical. Instead the only “priest” to whom one ought to confess is Jesus Christ. “All priestly offices have been transferred to Christ and fulfilled and completed in him” (pg. 627). While priests and pastors have roles to play, forgiving sins is not one of them. Even so, there are times when confession should be made to another person, in corporate worship or to a minister.
In terms of confessing to another person, Calvin references the Book of James which reads, “Confess your sins to one another and pray for one another” (James 5:46), Calvin states that this allows us to “…lay our infirmities on one another’s breasts, to receive among ourselves mutual counsel, mutual compassion, and mutual consolation. Then as we are made aware of our brother’s infirmities, let us pray to God for these” (pg. 630). Confessing to one another then, while not gaining us forgiveness, allows us to be supported by those around us.
In terms of confessing communally, Calvin writes, “Now this sort of confession ought to be ordinary in the church and be used extraordinarily in a special way, whenever it happens that the people are guilty of some transgression in common…you will agree with me that it would be a beneficial regulation if the Christian people were to practice humbling themselves through some public rite of confession” (pg. 635). This is why we offer both a corporate prayer of confession each Sunday. We confess together because we are one family; one body of Christ.
Reflections: Many of us carry with us a host of sins past and present. We may have said or done something for which we know that we cannot be forgiven; that will carry with us forever. The gift of God is that we are to let go of those sins. We are to lay them down and leave them behind. We are to allow God to wipe them away and set us free; free to be God’s new and ever renewing people.
In in the previous lesson we learned that confession does not need a priest, is offered to Jesus Christ, can be communal (such as a unison prayer of confession in church) and can be to a minister, but only for the purpose of the minister assuring forgiveness in Christ. In this chapter Calvin offers us a thorough examination of confession; what it is and how it ought to work. What we need to note here is that Calvin is dealing with the Medieval and not the modern Roman Catholic Church. Even so, the discussion helps us understand confession more fully.
Summary: At this point Calvin discusses the “power of the keys” (pg. 638). This term, the power of the keys has to do with what Jesus says to Peter, “I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven” (Matthew 16:19). The Roman Church used this statement to claim 1) that Peter was the only one who could forgive 2) that Peter was the first Pope and thus head of the church 3) and that only those who were ordained in the church, meaning priests, were given this power which came down from Peter. Thus the power to forgive or retain sins (the power of the keys) was held by the Roman Church and its ministers.
Though Calvin will take up this doctrine at greater length later in the Institutes, at this point he wants to make sure that his readers understand what he believes about the power of the keys. For Calvin, the power of the keys does not refer to a gift given only to Peter and priests, but was instead the message, that Jesus was the messiah who had come to save the world (the context of the gift of the keys is Peter’s confession that Jesus was the messiah). The power of the keys, for Calvin then, rests in the preaching of the gospel, through which persons hear the good news that Jesus Christ gave his life for them and thus there is grace and forgiveness abounding (pg. 639). The power to retain and forgive sins then, is solely the work of Christ which is made known in and through the scriptures.
At this point, Calvin launches into an extended discourse on what he considers to be the flaws in the Roman Church’s understanding of confession, though he focuses on two particular areas. First, he critiques the church’s demand that believers confess all of their sins once a year; a feat that he does not believe that anyone can do, because it is impossible “…to reckon up all the acts for an entire year and gather up what sins they have committed each day. For experience convinces each one that, when we have an evening to examine the transgressions of only a single day, the memory is confused” (pg. 642). Second, he critiques the church’s ability to distinguish between those who do or do not deserve forgiveness. “Thus, according to them, forgiveness depends upon the judgment of the priest, and unless he wisely discerns who deserves pardon, his whole action is null and void” (pg. 648).
Calvin’s response to these concerns is to reit
erate his position. “The doctrine we teach is free and clear of all of these (problems). For forgiveness is conditional upon the sinner’s trust that God is merciful to him, provided he sincerely seek amends…The sinner can, indeed embrace true and clear forgiveness when that simple condition is applied of embracing the grace of Christ…” (pg. 649).
Reflections: For many of us, this discussion about the power of the keys may not appear to be particularly important. So why does Calvin spend so much time with it? The answer is that in the 1500s, when Calvin was writing, the Roman Church used confession as a tool to control people and nations. If people did not do as the church commanded, they would be denied confession and thereby salvation. By returning confession and forgiveness to the individual in relationship with Christ, not only did people find comfort in knowing they were forgiven, but people were set free from the church’s political control.