Project Canterbury

The Value of Confession
by Selden Peabody Delany
Dean of All Saints' Cathedral, Milwaukee

Milwaukee: The Young Churchman, 1914.


It is the testimony of many who have made conscientious use of sacramental confession that it gives them a sense of making a fresh start in life with a clean slate.

The ordinary moral experience of Christian people is something like this: they go along for a considerable period perhaps with only an involuntary slipping into little sins every day; then a period of carelessness sets in, when the little sins become more frequent and voluntary; finally there is a general letting down of moral standards and ideals, and this soon results in a serious fall into grievous sin.

Such a lapse would ordinarily lead to a long spell of depression and discouragement. Confession prevents that by bringing about a quick recovery. The fall is repented of with shame and contrition, the little sins that led up to it are recalled, and the penitent forms an earnest purpose of amendment. Then come the words of absolution: "Our Lord Jesus Christ, who hath left power in His Church to absolve all sinners who truly repent and believe in Him, of His great mercy forgive thee thine offences: And by His authority committed to me, I absolve thee from all thy sins, In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Ghost, Amen." The penitent arises from his knees with a consciousness that a burden has been lifted which was too heavy for him to bear. He looks out upon a new world: the sunlight seems more golden, the sky a deeper blue. He goes back to his home and his daily tasks a new man, with strong resolves to live from that day forward a truer Christian life.

This sense of a new beginning, with a soul not only cleansed from sin but refreshed and invigorated, gives a powerful impetus to one's moral and spiritual life. This is of course more or less true of all new beginnings. The boy entering a new grade in school, after the summer vacation, takes up his studies with renewed enthusiasm and high ambitions. The mistakes of the past year are forgotten; his record is clear; there are no demerits marked down against his name. If school were continuous and there were no vacations nor promotions, much of this valuable impetus would be lost. So it is in the spiritual life. There must be a definite break with the past, a squaring of accounts, the turning over of a new leaf, a fresh start. All this is supplied most completely by sacramental confession.

Why may we not receive the same impetus if we confess our sins privately and directly to God, without the intervention of a priest? Because that kind of confession does not bring the same definite conviction that the past has been cleaned up and a new beginning has been made. This is doubtless because one hears no declaration of absolution or forgiveness. It is one thing to confess your sins to God and hope that He has forgiven them; it is quite another thing to confess your sins to God and then hear the words of absolution pronounced by His accredited representative: "By His authority committed unto me, I absolve thee from all thy sins." That kind of confession brings a definite assurance of forgiveness, which clears the mind of anxiety and stimulates the will to more heroic efforts in the future. It is probably the experience of most people who go to confession that immediately after confession they go on for many days, not only without any serious fall into sin, but even without feeling any great temptation to their besetting sin. Before their confession, that temptation had seemed so formidable that they had little hope of being able to overcome it; but after their confession, it has shrunk to so insignificant an attraction as to be negligible. Of course this experience may not continue very long. The brightness of the cleansed and forgiven soul is soon clouded over by the breath of evil. It will very soon need to be cleansed again. But who would deny that the frequent cleansing of the soul from the stains of sin, and the consequent impetus toward a better life, and the ensuing period of refreshing respite from temptation, are of immense value as factors in our spiritual development?

Those who do not make use of sacramental confession, but simply use the ceremonial form of general confession in church, or confess their sins to God in the privacy of their own homes--if they really make a sincere effort to repent--would doubtless say that they do feel convinced that they are making a new beginning after they have thus confessed their sins. Let us hope they do. Every sincere spiritual effort ought to bring some compensation of this sort. But what is here being maintained is that the sense of a fresh start, and the consequent impetus toward a higher life, which result from sacramental confession, are much more intense in degree, if not absolutely different in kind. This is an assertion which cannot be proven, except by the person who has tried both ways of repentance. With very few exceptions it would be corroborated by all serious minded people who have taken up sacramental confession conscientiously in adult life, after having long been in the habit of simply confessing their sins directly to God. Their first sacramental confession meant something entirely new in their spiritual experience. They felt that a burden had been taken from them, the fog of doubt had been lifted, and a new light had burst upon their inner life; they experienced a joy and a lightness of heart they had not known before.

Sometimes the opponents of the sacrament of penance admit all this, and use it as an argument against confession. They say that confession makes light of sin; it makes the Christian life too easy; it makes repentance a mechanical thing like taking a bath. People who go to confession, it is alleged, feel that they can sin with impunity and then go to the priest and be made right with God--until they have made their communion, or recovered from an illness, or gone through a crisis in their affairs--and then they commit sin as before. This is a serious charge. What is to be said in reply?

In the first place, it must be understood that absolution has no effect unless the sinner is really penitent; and a necessary element of penitence is a firm purpose of amendment. Unless the priest finds some indication of such purpose of amendment, he has no right to give absolution. But what if the person deceives the priest in this regard? Then absolution given has no effect. One who goes to confession in a light-hearted way, without any serious intention of giving up what is sinful, receives no benefit whatever from the words of absolution. This is the unanimous teaching of moral theologians.

In the second place, it may be said that the above objection may be urged with equal force against direct confession of sin to God. In fact many people do think they can sin with impunity and then repent sometime in the future. Moreover in such cases there is little fear of God to hold one back in the moments of temptation; whereas, if one knows one must go to confession to a priest whom one respects and fears, this does serve as a powerful restraining influence at such a time.

In the third place, one would be very foolish to think one could sin with impunity on the ground that one can very easily repent and be forgiven, because no one knows what shall be on the morrow. Whatever view of confession we take, we must never forget that we are "dying men in a dying world."

Do you not in your best moments feel convinced of the vast issues at stake in your life? You will come this way but once. This day will never recur. Life is an enterprise of tremendous significance; a business that needs all the capital you can command. Can you afford then to despise or neglect such a store-house of spiritual energy as this that stands in the midst of the highway of life? You may at any time you wish summon a priest to hear your confession. To him it would be an ordinary act in the exercise of a manifold ministry; but to you it would be a "death unto sin and a new birth unto righteousness." It would transform your whole inner life, give you a new sense of values, turn your face to the light, and infuse into you high resolves and a new love for God and His ways.

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