Tuesday, April 11, 2017

Thursday, April 6, 2017

Why Confession?

Recently, a number of people have asked me about Anglican views of confession. As with most issues, Protestantism is eclectic when it comes to this subject. However, it should be noted that despite this doctrinal diversity, pretty much all Protestant denominations had some form of confession and absolution in their services. The lack of confession and absolution in most modern churches is a novel (and I would argue negative) development.

So today, I am going to lay out a vision of confession that is as close to universally practiced in the Church across time and space as possible. Then, I will answer a few frequently asked questions I have encountered about confession.

Confession is the act where a Christian acknowledges their sin before God, asks for his forgiveness, and repents (turns away from those sins). The purpose of any prayer of confession is not just an acknowledgement of one’s sinful actions but to recognize that as Christians, we must be wholly dependent on the grace which God bestows upon us through the Sacraments.

As Anglicans, there are two different means of confession: there are the prayers of confession which occur corporately and liturgically and there is a Sacrament of Confession which is a private act between an individual and a priest and God.

On Sunday mornings, we pray a corporate prayer of confession after the reading of Scripture, the sermon, and the Nicene Creed. This is because we believe that God speaks to us through His Word and through the words of the preacher which partly involves convicting us of any sin which may be in our lives.

According to the new Anglican Church in North America Book of Common Prayer (the final form of which will be released in 2019), the Deacon or Priest calls the congregation to confession by the following words:
All who truly and earnestly repent of your sins, and seek to be reconciled with your neighbors, and intend to lead the new life, following the commandments of God, and walking in his holy ways: draw near with faith and make your humble confession to Almighty God.
The people, preferably kneeling, then pray together:
            Most merciful God,
            we confess that we have sinned against you
            in thought, word, and deed,
            by what we have done, and by what we have left undone.
            We have not loved you with our whole heart;
            we have not loved our neighbors as ourselves.
            We are truly sorry and we humbly repent.
            For the sake of your Son Jesus Christ,
            have mercy on us and forgive us;
            that we may delight in your will, and walk in your ways,
            to the glory of your Name. Amen. 
Note the use of the adjective “we.” That’s not an accident. When we confess our sins together, not only do individuals bring their own sin with them but the community brings its failings before the Lord. As a church, we are recognizing that we didn’t help the poor as much as we could, we didn’t preach the Gospel as vigorously as we could, etc.

The Priest then stands and proclaims the forgiveness of the people through Christ’s sacrifice on the cross:
Almighty God, our heavenly Father, who in his great mercy has promised the forgiveness of sins to all those who sincerely repent and with true faith turn to him, have mercy upon you, pardon and deliver you from all your sins, confirm and strengthen you in all goodness, and bring you to everlasting life; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
After which, he may read what we call “Comfortable Words” which are portions of Scripture reminding us of “the Word of God to all who truly turn to him”:
“Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Matthew 11:28God so loved the world that he gave his only-begotten Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life. John 3:16The saying is trustworthy and deserving of full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners. 1 Timothy 1:15
If anyone sins, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous. He is the propitiation for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the sins of the whole world. 1 John 2:1-2
After the Comfortable Words, the Priest then offers peace to the congregation (“The Peace of the Lord be always with you.”) and they reply in kind, “And with your spirit.”

Anglicans also have the Sacrament of Confession. This is a time where a believer may go privately to a priest, confess individual sins, and receive absolution. The priest may also prescribe acts of penance for the confessing believer to do. The stereotype is of Catholic priests telling parishioners to pray 50 Hail Marys and 25 Our Fathers to be forgiven of their sins. That’s not what Anglicans (or Catholic priests) necessarily do. Sin doesn’t just hurt the individual committing the sin. Often, there is a social component to sin and it hurts others. If a man cheats on his wife, he didn’t just hurt himself but also his wife. If a drunk driver hits another car, he hurt another person. Acts of penance are typically assigned based on the situation as a means of reconciliation among people, a way of restoring peace and harmony within community.

It should be noted too, that contrary to popular opinion, the penitent is not confessing their sins directly to the priest. Rather, they are confessing their sins directly to God. They say:
Holy God, heavenly Father, you formed me from the dust in your image and likeness, and redeemed me from sin and death by the cross of your Son Jesus Christ. Through the water of baptism you clothed me with the shining garment of his righteousness, and established me among your children in your kingdom. But I have squandered the inheritance of your saints, and have wandered far in a land that is waste. Especially, I confess to you and to the Church…Here the Penitent confesses particular sins.
The priest is not the one who grants forgiveness to the sinner, God does through his minister, saying:
Our Lord Jesus Christ, who offered himself to be sacrificed for us to the Father, and who conferred power on his Church to forgive sins, absolve you through my ministry by the grace of the Holy Spirit, and restore you in the perfect peace of the Church. Amen.
There are two main things accomplished through the confession. First, it rights our relationship with God.  Scripture very clearly tells us, “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just, and will forgive our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness” (1 John 1:9; RSV). In the Lord’s Prayer, which is meant as a prayer (and a model for prayer) for Jesus’ disciples, we are told to pray, “forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors” (Matthew 6:12). Secondly, we confess our sins and pass the peace in the context of our community as a way of countering the social effects of sin. In Matthew 5:23-24 Jesus instructs his followers,  “So if you are offering your gift at the altar, and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother, and then come and offer your gift.”

The beauty of the Gospel is that God is always willing to forgive us when we sin against him. This is what we are reminded of during the Comfortable Words after the Absolution. During another prayer, we profess that “thou art the same Lord whose property is always to have mercy.” We aren’t wringing our hands, worried that we may not receive forgiveness from God. We are assured and confident that we will receive it! We go to the prayer of confession and the confessional booth not with trembling but with hearty remorse, humility (like the publican in Luke 18:9-14), and confidence. We come away with resolve and joy from knowing the blood or our Lord Jesus Christ covers us.

One of the things that separates Anglicans from Roman Catholics is that we do not require one to participate in the sacrament of confession before Communion or at all. As Michael Ramsey, the former Archbishop of Canterbury, says, “we are free to confess our sins to God alone without the hearing of a priest; and if we do this in sincerity God’s forgiveness is sure. But our Church has no less insisted that we are free to confess in the sacramental way if we so desire and ask absolution from the priest….The light of absolution will penetrate the entire self.” [1] 

Frequently Asked Questions about Confession

1.     Didn’t Jesus already forgive my sins past, present, and future when I became a Christian?

1 John 2:2 states, “he [Christ] is the expiation for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the sins of the whole world.” On this ground, when we become Christians, some believe that we should not confess our sins or ask for forgiveness because Christ has already covered us.

Like most errant views, this perspective takes a little bit of truth but emphasizes it in such a way that lead to error.

Holders of this view seem to forget that while Christ did pay for all our sins on the cross when he died, “the transaction of forgiveness takes place at different points in time.” [2] Similarly, the day we were brought into the Church, however you might think that happens, the sins that were forgiven were the ones we had already committed.

Dr. Michael Brown, who is an Evangelical Pentecostal, puts it this way, “there is not a single verse anywhere in the Bible that pronounces us already forgiven for our future sins (meaning, sins we have not yet committed). Not one verse. Nowhere. Not even a hint of such a concept. All the promises of forgiveness have to do with sins we have already committed, since God is dealing with us in space and time, and He only forgives us for what we have actually done…the forgiveness of all our sins has been prepaid, but that forgiveness is not applied in advance. It is applied as needed.” [3] If anything, every example of preaching in Acts is aimed towards the sins people had committed in the past or were committing in the present, none that would be committed in the future.

This view confuses justification and sanctification. When we are justified we are pronounced legally righteous which means God has applied Christ’s death and resurrection to us. He has adopted us into the Family of God. We become his children.

Sanctification is different. This is the process where the Holy Spirit conforms us to the image of Christ. Just because we were pronounced righteous and adopted into God’s family doesn’t change the fact that we have not yet arrived at our destination of holiness. As such, confession of sin and receiving forgiveness helps us re-orient ourselves in our pursuit of Christ. This process is like popping a shoulder back into joint. It’s painful but so very necessary.

2.     Why do you receive absolution from a priest? Isn’t Christ our only mediator?


1 Timothy 2:5-6a tells us, “There is one God, and there is one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus, who gave himself as a ransom for all.” So why is the priest there? In liturgical and sacramental contexts, the priest is a necessary figure because he stands in for Christ. This doesn’t mean the priest is ontologically the same as Christ but that he relays to us the forgiveness of our sins as Christ would if he were present. This is why Christ told the Apostles, the founders of the Church, “Truly, I say to you, whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven” (Matthew 18:18). Elsewhere he says, “If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained” (John 20:23). Christ is still the only mediator who brings forgiveness to his people. Nevertheless, he has chosen to do that in the context of the Church.  

Endnotes

     [1] Michael Ramsey, The Christian Priest Today (Eugene: Wipf and Stock, 1982), 46-47.

     [2] Michael L. Brown, Hyper-Grace: Exposing the Dangers of the Modern Grace Message (Lake Mary: Charisma House, 2014), 41.

     [3] Ibid., 43

Wednesday, April 5, 2017

Doubt Your Doubt!

Doubt is, to some extent, built into our nature. Many people find themselves going through crises of faith at different points in their lives. Some doubts are more intellectual in nature, a failure to connect faith and reason well. Still, others doubt in a raw and emotional way.

In my own experience, nothing makes me doubt my faith more than the suffering of children. It's so visceral for me I can't even formulate it in a rational way other than to look at the situation and then look up and ask God, "How is this happening?" On an intellectual level, I can express an argument for why suffering exists, why Christianity best explains it, and why we look to the future when God will right these wrongs. Even then, my heart tends to be slow in coming around.

All this is to say: doubting is inevitable and the Church should never "doubt shame" someone into belief. Instead, the Church should be a safe space where one can responsibly voice doubt and be given oversight through whatever issue they're wrestling with.

At the same time, doubt should be done responsibly with a proper posture. That posture looks less like Job and more like Habakkuk. In Job, the title character uses a theological system known as retribution theology as a way to insist that God had made some kind of error and that his suffering was unjust. Still, the problem with Job seems less to do with his theology and more to do with the way he accuses God. Indeed, the oft quoted, "For I know that my Redeemer lives" (Job 19:25; RSV) is a defiant stand on his own self-righteousness and a complaint that he has to look elsewhere to be vindicated because God is in error.

In the book of Habakkuk, the prophet sees injustice in the geopolitical circumstances of the world. Israel, God's covenantal people, are being bullied by other, stronger nations. The prophet hears God pronounce this as a judgment against Israel and can't believe his ears. He argues against God's plan but then, at the end of his protest, he says:
I will take my stand to watch,
     and station myself on the tower,
and look forth to see what he will say to me,
     and what I will answer concerning my complaint. (Habakkuk 2:1)
Habakkuk is a model for doubting for those of us within the Church. He is honest with God while at the same time raising legitimate questions due to his lack of understanding.

All this is a preface to point out that there is a fad of contemporary Christians who rely heavily on the experience of doubt in ways that cause them to seriously deviate from (little-o) orthodoxy into a progressive Post-Evangelicalism. These are people like Rob Bell, Peter Enns, and Rachel Held Evans. If you want to go further back, you could add John Shelby Spong to the list. Perhaps Richard Rohr would be a Catholic parallel.

Unfortunately, these instances of doubt can be more harmful than positive. It is possible to commodify one's doubt, to brand oneself as "enlightened" at the expense of orthodox teaching, doctrine, and practice while still claiming to be Christian. In these situations, doubt allows doctrine to become fluid and subjective. Tradition becomes just merely a path where one "walks into the mystery of God" but there is no way to measure the validity of said traditions (more on this in the coming weeks).

One of the implications of this mode of questioning is that the doubter can easily become the provocateur. Often times this can be out of a desire to be "prophetic." However, like Rachel Held Evans has pointed out on the Liturgists podcast, "Being prophetic is not an excuse to be an ass." Doubt isn't an excuse to obfuscate, confuse, or "be an ass" through vague, obnoxious, or cynical comments. It all goes back to posture.

Which brings us to the point. As Timothy Keller would say, "doubt your doubt!"

That's not an empty platitude. It's an exhortation to radically interrogate the source of your doubt. Frequently, doubt can become a means by which we either intentionally or subconsciously distract from our own shortcomings and allow them to perpetuate. Sometimes are doubts can show us larger problems with ourselves than with our belief system.

But in instances where we do have legitimate doubts, let us remember the posture of Habakkuk and ultimately be willing to submit to God's answer to our problem. Wielding doubt responsibly can help us further conform to the image of Christ and work through the tough issues. When it's done irresponsibly, it can take us places we don't want to go.

Sunday, January 24, 2016

The Loss of Rigor in Higher Education: How Consumerism is Killing College

Higher education is a place where students can realize their potential and find their voices. From a Christian perspective, the goal of education needs to be: “To know God and make him known.” For Christians college can play a major role in showing students how they can contribute to the Kingdom through whatever field they are entering.

Those who apply themselves can achieve academic success. Unfortunately, a large number of students choose to squander their time at university, doing most just enough work to get by (or less). While some are content not to throw themselves into their studies, many expect to be graded like they had.

This culture of entitlement is indicative of numerous societal problems which get magnified by the college campus. However, this is a mindset especially problematic for Christians because the vocation one enters, generally determined by their education, becomes their mission field.

Lutheran theologian Gustaf Wingren once stated, “In his vocation man does works which effect the well-being of others; for so God has made all offices. Through his work in man’s offices, God’s creative work goes forward, and that work is love, a profusion of good gifts. God gives his gifts through the earthly vocations, toward man’s life on earth.” All fields of work are platforms for individual Christians to live out their “royal priesthood” (1 Peter 2:9). College is preparation to perpetuate the Body of Christ through one’s calling.

As a whole, college academics used to be much more rigorous than they are today. One recent study indicates that, on average, instructors expect only about 50% of students to participate in class. Another found that somewhere around one-third of students fail to make advances in critical thinking skills after spending four years at a university. That same study also discovered that 35% of students studied only five hours a week at the most. Meanwhile, 50% of students said they had no courses which mandated 20 or more pages of writing.

One of the reasons for this decline in academic rigor is because professors are scrutinized by students in course evaluations and other outlets like Rate My Professor. More significantly, the paradigm for evaluating professors has deviated from its traditional metric. 

In former times, a professor was deemed “good” by their ability to inspire their students and impart wisdom in class. Today, an increasing number of students evaluate based on how difficult a professor is. Students avoid those classes and professors deemed “tough,” opting for easy A’s when possible. During my undergraduate studies, there were multiple times my peers tried to dissuade me from taking certain classes because the professor assigns large papers or expected students to be prepared for class.

All this has been enabled thanks to consumerist modes of logic imported into the educational sphere. To students in today’s colleges and universities, education is not a sacred rite of passage or tool for development. It is a commodity. A degree is seen as good only insofar as it can create revenue for the student in the future. The focus is not on learning or the pursuit of knowledge in hope for developing wisdom but on acquiring a limited skill set which will hopefully make that student a productive economic contributor.

This is all ironic given that the word “student” finds a root in the Latin verb studio which means “am eager, devoted to, to strive after.” Along the same lines, St. Clement observed, “you’re truly educated if you bring everything to bear on the truth.” Being a proper student requires a tenacious mindset, determined to discover the truth and absorb as much knowledge as possible. Not only that, but the fruition of education should be to produce wisdom so students are prepared to apply the knowledge they have learned. Christian students should be fulfilling their vocation in a godly manner.

This is simply not the attitude of a large faction of students anymore. Whether they explicitly think it or not, they see themselves as customers who demand good grades because their potential degree is a “good” offered by the school, making it an entitlement. Unfortunately, even Christian students are often prone to having this mentality.


The most effective solution to remedy this problem is for professors to refuse to play this game. Students should not be at their school because it’s a product they’re purchasing. Dumbing down material and lowering expectations for students doesn’t make them better, it coddles them while perpetuating attitudinal entitlement. When wielded correctly, academic rigor is a tool which can propel students to achieve the goal of their education. So to those in any kind of education, particularly at the college level, use academic rigor to aid students in their journey to wisdom.  

Saturday, August 29, 2015

Integrating Liturgy and Classical Education

James K.A. Smith, professor of philosophy at Calvin College, believes (and I along with him) that humans are inherently liturgical animals. For those who may not know, liturgy is a structured order of service, generally used in worship. All churches have a liturgy. Some churches use formalize it (the Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, Anglican, Lutheran, and some Presbyterian) and others do not (Baptists, community churches, etc.). The point of the liturgy is to focus on God and therefore has a place outside of Sunday worship in "the common" or "the mundane" (if you're interested in what draws me to a liturgical church, I've posted about that previously here and here and here). One way I've been trying to incorporate this in my life has been to participate in the four daily offices (Morning Prayer, Afternoon Prayer, Evening Prayer, and Compline) laid out in the Book of Common Prayer.

The reason liturgy is so powerful as to do with its intentionality. For example, if you ever visit or attend a church where incense is used, it's there because the smell will linger on you for the rest of the day, constantly reminding you that you are a sweet smelling aroma to God (2 Cor. 2:15). Before the priest (or minister) reads the Gospel, he'll say, "The Gospel according to _______" and everyone makes the sign of the cross on their foreheads, lips, and hearts as a reminder to keep the Word of God on our minds, mouth, and lips. There are lots of examples that could be discussed by liturgy isn't just rote actions, it's purposeful and layered with a range of theological depth in meaning and symbolism. I have a theory you could bring someone to Christ merely by walking through the liturgy with them (I'll let you know if I ever try that).

But today, I don't want to just talk about liturgy during the service, though it is an important topic. Today, I want to explore the liturgy as it applies to classical education.

For a refresher on what classical education is, I've also written about that here. But basically, the idea of classical education is to explore all subjects under the holistic picture of Creation with the intent of knowing God and making him known.

There are two main things to discuss about this connection. First is education as liturgy and the second is how to incorporate formalized liturgy into the classroom.

The central thesis of Christianity is that God has revealed himself to humanity first through nature, then through Scripture, and ultimately through the crucifixion and resurrection of Christ. As such, God is knowable because in his transcendence of Creation, he is also imminent in it. This means formal theological study is a helpful and vital way to learn about him, but it is not the only way. As a Christian, nothing about education is a "neutral space." If the project of secular education is to create "productive" or "functioning" citizens (as if that has done much good), it is at its best incomplete. The Christian understands that to know God and to make Him known and as such, education becomes an act of worship. In the same way that Christians should foster intentional methods in their church services to foster reverent worship, so also a Christian educator should formalize their classroom (or homeschool room) in a way that integrates God into all subjects, not just implicitly but explicitly. The Danish philosopher Soren Kierkegaard taught that Christ must permeate everything we do or nothing--maybe it's time we listened to him and applied this to our education philosophy.

Classical educators are in a unique place to bring liturgy into the classroom. Building liturgy into the school day helps students understand their vocation as royal  priests (2 Peter 2:9) or long-term missionaries in the world of academics. Some ways that you can incorporate these liturgical elements are praying collects (the collect for education, found below is a good way to start the day), or have your student write collects for each individual subject they are involved with and then praying them together at the start of each subject, call/response reading of the Psalms and/or other Scriptures to keep the Word at the center of your time together, etc. These are just some basic ideas. There is an endless realm of possibilities. The main question to ask yourself when instituting these into your day is, "Is Christ permeating all things in our classroom?"