Confession and Forgiveness

By: Dr. Gregory S. Neal

"I thought Methodists didn't make confessions?"

That depends upon what one means by "making one's confession." If one means that United Methodist don't confess their sins to God, that impression is wrong. We most certainly are called to confess our sins to God, both individually and in groups! Indeed, United Methodists have several liturgies, both in the Hymnal and in their Book of Worship, which aid groups in making congregational confessions of sin. Many of these confessional prayers are very similar to confessions of sin that can be found in other denominations, and some of them have been part of the Methodist tradition since its earliest days.

If one means that United Methodists can't sit down with an ordained minister or fellow Christian and make a confession of sin to God, that impression is also wrong. While it is true that we don't have a strong tradition of this kind of confessional, where a pastor sits with a penitent church member and hears a confession of sin and then offers words of absolution, it actually does sometimes occur among Methodists and we have formal liturgies for it. Indeed, in the Book of Worship there is a specific liturgy, found on p. 622, which can be used with individuals or small groups for making a confession, and it contains directions for the pastor in offering counsel and then words of pardon.

In my ministry as an ordained United Methodist Elder I've heard a surprisingly large number of confessions, and have been called upon to give words of advice, counsel, direction, and absolution. Let's face it, sometimes it's helpful for us to go to someone we respect for their spiritual insight, tell them what we've done wrong, and seek advice on how to go about setting things right. When I have made my own confessions, that has been my focus; yes, I want to hear words of absolution, reminding me that Jesus took my sins upon himself when he died on the cross, but in those moments I am also in dire need of counsel regarding how to overcome specific sins in my life. Confession is a means of grace through which God moves us on in sanctification toward perfection in love in this life. As such, confession is one of the most Methodist things that we can do.

© 1998 & 2014 [revised and expanded] Dr. Gregory S. Neal
All Rights Reserved

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The Reverend Dr. Gregory S. Neal is the Senior Pastor of the First United Methodist Church in Commerce, Texas, and an ordained Elder in the North Texas Conference of The United Methodist Church. A graduate of Southern Methodist University, Duke University, and Trinity College, Dr. Neal is a scholar of Systematic Theology, New Testament origins, and Biblical Languages. His areas of specialization include the Theology of the Sacraments, in which he did his doctoral dissertation, and the formation and early transmission of the New Testament. Trained as a Christian educator, he has taught classes in these and related fields while also serving for more than 25 years as the pastor of United Methodist churches in North Texas.

As a popular teacher, preacher, and retreat leader, Dr. Neal is known for his ability to translate complex theological concepts into common, everyday terms. HIs preaching and teaching ministry is in demand around the world, and much of his work can be found on this website. He is the author of several books, including
Grace Upon Grace: Sacramental Theology and the Christian Life, which is in its second edition, and Seeking the Shepherd's Arms: Reflections from the Pastoral Side of Life, a work of devotional literature. Both of these books are currently available from Amazon.com.