Calvin on the Public Rites of Confession and Absolution

John Calvin argues that the church’s worship should begin with a corporate prayer of confession:

Besides the fact that ordinary confession has been commended by the Lord’s mouth, no one of sound mind, who weighs its usefulness, can dare disapprove it. For since in every sacred assembly we stand before the sight of God and the angels, what other beginning of our action will there be than the recognition of our own unworthiness? But that, you say, is done through every prayer; for whenever we pray for pardon, we confess our sin. Granted. But if you consider how great is our complacency, our drowsiness, or our sluggishness, you will agree with me that it would be a salutary regulation if the Christian people were to practice humbling themselves through some public rite of confession. For even though the ceremony that the Lord laid down for the Israelites was a part of the tutelage of the law, still the reality underlying it in some manner pertains also to us. And indeed, we see this custom observed with good results in well-regulated churches: that every Lord’s Day the minister frames the formula of confession in his own and the people’s name, and by it he accuses all of wickedness and implores pardon from the Lord. In short, with this key a gate to prayer is opened both to individuals in private and to all in public.[1]

Some observations:

I.  The assembly of saints is special: it is a sacred assembly. We come then in a unique way before God and in the sight of the heavenly host (see Heb 12:18–24). How can we do so without straightaway being struck with a sense of our own sinfulness and unworthiness? And what does this lead to but to some expressed prayer of confession?

II.  Though there is a confessional element in every prayer in which we ask God for mercy, given our human “complacency,” “drowsiness,” and “sluggishness,” a public rite is appropriate. It is fitting for one to pray on behalf of all and for all, and such a prayer as focuses on confessing the sins of the congregation.

III.  Calvin refers somewhat cryptically to “the ceremony that the Lord laid down for the Israelites.” Calvin fills out a bit of what he has in mind in the previous section: “For this reason, the Lord ordained of old among the people of Israel that, after the priest recited the words, the people should confess their iniquities publicly in the temple.… For he foresaw that this help was necessary for them in order that each one might better be led to a just estimation of himself. And it is fitting that, by the confession of our own wretchedness, we show forth the goodness and mercy of our God, among ourselves and before the whole world.”[2] 

It is unclear which OT practice Calvin has in mind. The editor, John T. McNeill, suggests Lev 16:21, where on the Day of Atonement the high priest confesses the sins of the people over the scapegoat. Though we cannot know for sure which text Calvin specifically had in mind, his words do call us to deeper reflection on the pattern of corporate confession of sin that is woven throughout OT worship.

IV.  Calvin says that it is the “minister” who prays this prayer of confession. This reflects Calvin’s high view of the pastoral calling. He writes of pastors in the following section: “The Lord has appointed them by the very calling of the ministry to instruct us by word of mouth to overcome and correct our sins, and also to give us consolation through assurance of pardon. For, while the duty of mutual admonition and rebuke is entrusted to all Christians, it is especially enjoined upon ministers. Thus, although all of us ought to console one another and confirm one another in assurance of divine mercy, we see that the ministers themselves have been ordained witnesses and sponsors of it to assure our consciences of forgiveness of sins, to the extent that they are said to forgive sins and to loose souls. When you hear that this is attributed to them, recognize that it is for your benefit.”[3] 

In this context, Calvin is speaking of private admonition and assurance, in which the ministers have a primary role. Though all Christians should admonish one another and console one another in God’s mercy, pastors have a unique and primary role by reason of their ordination and pastoral office. What is true in private is also true in the corporate gathering: pastors, by virtue of their office and calling, have a primary role in confessing sin on behalf of the congregation and in assuring them of God’s mercy.

V.  Calvin therefore favors not just a pastoral prayer of confession in the corporate gathering, but also a pastoral assurance of pardon. In Calvin’s liturgy, as in many Reformed liturgies, a pastoral absolution follows the pastoral confession. Pastors should not just confess sins on behalf of the congregation, but they should then afterward “give us consolation through assurance of pardon.” He writes of this pastoral assurance or absolution a couple sections later on: “For when the whole church stands, as it were, before God’s judgment seat, confesses itself guilty, and has its sole refuge in God’s mercy, it is no common or light solace to have present there the ambassador of Christ, armed with the mandate of reconciliation, by whom it hears proclaimed its absolution.”[4] There is no naked confession for Calvin. Confession terminates in “assurance of divine mercy.”



*This article was first published at Through Him & for Him and is republished by permission of Clayton Hutchins.

[1] John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, ed. John T. McNeill, trans. Ford Lewis Battles (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 1960), 3.4.11 (emphasis mine).

[2] Ibid., 3.4.10.

[3] Ibid., 3.4.12.

[4] Ibid., 3.4.14.