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Reformed Christians, like Presbyterians differ from the Catholic and Orthodox Church in their understanding of forgiveness of ones' sins. One way in which they differ is not having the sacrament of Penance.

Why don't Reformed Christians consider it necessary to confess to a priest?

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    Because we are all "priests" (2 Peter 2:9) and we "confess our sins to one another" (James 5:16).
    – Radz Brown
    Apr 5 at 16:59
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The Question: Why don't Reformed Christians consider it necessary to confess to a priest?

I grew up in a Reformed Church which adhered closely to the teachings of John Calvin so I have some insights.

The answer is that Reformed Christians do not see a need for an intermediary at all between themselves and Jesus. This would apply to confession of sins, but also many other aspects of a believer's relationship with God.

The Biblical moment when this change occurred is shown below:

Matthew 27:50-51 NIV

And when Jesus had cried out again in a loud voice, he gave up his spirit. 51 At that moment the curtain of the temple was torn in two from top to bottom....

The curtain or veil in question is generally viewed as that which separated the 'holy of holies' (most sacred) area of the Temple from less holy areas. The tearing of the curtain opened up the holy of holies for all to see and symbolized a complete change in God's relationship with mankind.

The death of Christ was the pivotal moment in which He paid the price for all sin. Therefore, believers in Him could now be restored to a direct relationship with God, through Christ.

In the Reformed tradition, the pastor's role is that of a shepherd or guide of the congregation, not an intermediary between God and believers.

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  • Well stated. (Up-voted +1.)
    – Nigel J
    May 1 at 8:01
  • You might also like to consider the similar website on Stack Exchange Biblical Hermeneutics.
    – Nigel J
    May 1 at 8:02
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Firstly, penance was rejected at the time of the reformation because the doctrine was based on a mistranslation of the Greek word metanoia - "repentance". The Latin Vulgate had, poenitenitam agite - "doing acts of penance". Martin Luther was the one who originally made this discovery.

Secondly, although James 5:16 says "confess your sins to each other", the New Testament does not contain anything to do with confessing to a priest or doing penance for confessed sins. Protestants believe that confession is something which is a good thing to do in the Christian community, individually and corporately, but it is not something which believers have to do to a priest. Which leads onto...

Thirdly, there is an important difference between Protestant understandings of priesthood and the sacraments. For example, Protestants would reject a pastor being a "priest" (because of the priesthood of all believers, e.g. 1 Peter 2:9 "you are a chosen people, a royal priesthood". In the Church of England, the word 'priest' was retained but only inasmuch as it is derived from a medieval contraction of the Greek word presbyter - elder). Protestants also believe in only two sacraments - the Lord's Supper and Baptism (e.g. 39 Articles, article XXV).

In sum, to answer the question properly you really have to explore the much bigger difference of priesthood in Catholic and Protestant understandings as well as the Sacraments, Scripture and Tradition. And, because repentance is such a big part of the Christian life, it goes even further back to what Catholics and Protestants believe about the Christian life (e.g. sanctification and justification). So it's no small question!

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    Useful link to Martin Luther on being penitent.
    – Lesley
    Apr 10 at 11:01
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Disclaimer: I am not a pastor or trained theologian.

(Other disclaimer: Since your question asked about a Protestant perspective, this answer is written from that perspective with respect to various claims made. Feel free to mentally sprinkle "according to Protestants" in front of everything.)

That said... your main question appears to be about private confession, but you also mentioned penance, so I will address both.

Private Confession

My guess is that requiring private confession would be seen as a form of works righteousness. "For by grace you have been saved [...] not a result of works" (Ephesians 2:8-9). Salvation is the free gift of God; there is no act we can do as humans to "merit" salvation, and so saying that anything, besides wad Christ has already accomplished, is necessary for salvation would be considered by many Protestants to be heretical. (For more information, see what your Protestant/Reformed denomination of choice has to say about "sola gratia" / "grace alone". I'll omit links because Wikipedia's article is unhelpful, and for anything else I'd likely have to cite a source from a specific denomination.)

(I won't go into the rabbit hole of whether repentance is "necessary". On the one hand, it is. On the other, we are incapable of repenting on our own, and it is only through the Spirit working within us that we can repent. However, there is no specific mechanism of repentance required.)

That said, there are means by which God's grace is made manifest... one of which is confession. At least some Protestants commend parishioners to engage in private confession, as there are significant benefits (for one, the relief of conscience to be had from receiving forgiveness one-on-one after confessing specific sins). However, it is not required.

Penance

Protestants, AFAIK (Evangelicals/Lutherans, certainly) mostly reject penance, for much the same reason; it leans very much to being a form of works righteousness. No act we can do as humans can make up for our Sin; only Christ's death can accomplish that. And since Christ already died for us, and His redemption is complete (John 19:30), no act we can do can "add" to what He has already done.

That's not to say that some form of penance (and here I'm thinking more something that an individual chooses for themself, rather than something "assigned" by a priest) might not be salutary, but it must rightly be an act which is undertaken freely, and not because it is seen as "necessary" or as having some benefit with respect to our salvation.

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  • I don't think one can even use the term "salutary. Penance in Catholic terms appears to me to be specifically a form of salvation by works. It also facilitates the elevation of the priest to the level of being an intermediary between man and God. I find it an anti biblical doctrine as Jesus clearly said "no one comes to the father except through me" (in referring to the act of intercession specifically).
    – Adam
    Apr 5 at 21:38
  • @Adam, I don't disagree, but to clarify, what I'm trying to say is that a protestant might use some form of penance as a means of trying to improve their own self control. "Salutary" may not be the right word, and I definitely did not want to write "beneficial". Also, when I say "some form", I'm leaning heavily to something that the individual chooses to do, not something that is "assigned"; that is, I'm using "penance" in more its general, dictionary meaning and not the more specific Catholic meaning.
    – Matthew
    Apr 6 at 1:34
  • I think the penance that Jesus commended is more like that of Zacchaeus who was a tax collector defauding his own people: "Behold, Lord, the half of my goods I give to the poor. And if I have defrauded anyone of anything, I restore it fourfold.” The assignation of 4 "Our Fathers" and 7 "Hail Mary's" pales in comparison. True penance springs from true repentance. Apr 7 at 1:59
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I think Reformed Christians believe that salvation is a one and done event accomplished by Christ without intervention by man.

If one believes that you are once saved always saved, then nothing you can do, confessing or being an atheistic mass murderer can unsave you.

My personal opinion is that this cannot be supported by either scripture or the traditions of the apostolic churches.

But this is what they believe. Im eastern catholic and I do believe that the apostles were clearly given authority to administer ministries to bind and lose in the Church.

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  • What's the connection between salvation being accomplished by Christ and Christians not confessing to church priests/pastors? Please edit this to explain in detail.
    – curiousdannii
    Apr 6 at 2:04
  • Well if you believe that you are once saved always saved, then nothing you can do, confessing or being an atheistic mass murderer can unsave you. Apr 6 at 2:10
  • How in the world can one be saved (believe in the Lord Jesus Christ) and be an atheistic anything? Apr 7 at 2:02
  • Reformed Protestant John Stott (author of many books, and this quote taken from his "Why I Am A Christian" (IVP 2203): I have been saved – in the past – from the penalty of sin – by a crucified Saviour. I am being saved – in the present – from the power of sin – by a living Saviour. I shall be saved – in the future – from the presence of sin – by a coming Saviour. A – Romans 8:24 B – 1 Corinthians 1:18 C – Romans 5:9 - check these for the Protestant view, confirming Stott's quote here. Salvation is not a one-off 'thing' but sanctification is, which needs to be distinguished
    – Anne
    Apr 24 at 12:24

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