“If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness. If we say we have not sinned, we make him a liar, and his word is not in us.” (1 John 1:8-10)
Lent begins this year on February 22, Ash Wednesday. You’re well-acquainted with it as a season of repentance. But what is repentance? What good comes from dwelling on my sin? It this supposed to be 40 days of feeling bad about myself?
No; the point of Lent is not “Lent,” it’s Easter. The point of repentance is not your sin, but Jesus’ forgiveness. We take the time to focus on our sinfulness not because we like feeling bad, but because otherwise we wouldn’t think of it at all. Our default opinion as human beings is that we’re doing pretty well on our own, we’re basically good, we only need a little help. When we assume that, we assume that we really don’t need Jesus much. So we stay away, we take His Word for granted, we live life “our own way”--but as it keeps us away from Jesus, that way only leads to death (Proverbs 14:12)
The point of a whole season of repentance is to disabuse us of that notion altogether. To let us know that we’re not doing pretty well on our own--on our own, we’re drowning in sin (Psalm 130:3). We’re not basically good--we’re born as enemies of God (Psalm 51:5; Romans 5:6-10). We don’t need just “a little help”--we are overwhelmed with sin, crushed under the weight of death (Romans 7:14-24). When we realize this, when we really own up to our sin, when we feel it’s weight heavy upon us, the relief of the Gospel is infinitely sweeter. When we realize that God’s response to our evil is not punishment and rejection, but love and forgiveness, our hearts erupt with joy, overflow with the love we have received. That overflowing love then flows out from us towards others, and everyone’s life is that much richer. The point of repentance is not the low that it brings us to, but the heights that Jesus lifts us to afterwards. It’s not being brought to the grave, but being raised from the dead. Not God’s Word of condemnation, but His Word of forgiveness. Not Lent, but Easter.
The Lutheran practice of Private Confession and Absolution--as you learned from the Small Catechism--follows the same pattern. The point of it is not to make you grovel before the pastor, but to hear Jesus’ Word of forgiveness spoken directly to you concerning those sins that are plaguing your conscience. You confess your sin again and again to hear and know better Jesus’ overwhelming love and mercy for you. And from that Word of Christ, faith lives and grows. As Jesus said of the prostitute who came to Him, “Therefore I tell you, her sins, which are many, are forgiven—for she loved much. But he who is forgiven little, loves little.” (Luke 7:47)
The following is Rev. Peter Bender’s explanation of the rite of Private Confession and Absolution. Your pastor is available to speak Jesus’ forgiveness directly to you in this setting (and many others) anytime. In fact, he loves to do precisely that--that’s what you’ve called him to do for you.
There has been no set form for private confession and absolution among Lutherans. The rites have varied according to time, place, and circumstances. The word of absolution is not required to be spoken in a specific setting only. The pastor may absolve a troubled member of his congregation from behind his desk in his study. He may also openly forgive a member who lost his temper at a congregational meeting. Brothers and sisters in Christ are to confess and forgive one another, as God in Christ has forgiven them. They are also to let go of the sins that others have committed against them, and commend every impenitent to the mercy of God. God wishes His word of forgiveness to be published freely among all those whom He has brought to repentance and faith in His Son. The proclamation of God’s Word of forgiveness for Christ’s sake is the heart of the Lutheran practice of private confession.
Private confession has enjoyed a unique and long history in the Church catholic and among Lutherans. Lutherans retained the practice for the sake of the word of absolution which strengthens faith in Christ and gives comfort against sin. It is specifically private confession before the pastor that is being taught in the Small Catechism under the heading: “How Christians Should Be Taught to Confess.” The Lutheran practice differs radically from the historic Roman Catholic practice. The medieval practice of private confession was rejected by the Lutheran reformers because is denied that salvation was by the merit of Christ’s suffering and death alone. A medieval penitent was required to go to confession is he wanted forgiveness. Confession of sins was his “good work” which merited grace. In confessing sins, the penitent was taught to rely on himself. Was his confession pure and sincere? Did he name every sin which he had committed? Is that even possible? What works of penance was he required to do to demonstrate his sincerity and to “make up” for what he had done? The reformers rejected all this, because it denied the Gospel. The medieval practice taught practice taught salvation by works, rather than salvation by grace alone through faith in Christ. God forgives sins, and absolves penitent sinners, because of what Christ has done. Private confession was a gracious opportunity to hear the Gospel.
Private confession and absolution is a natural extension of the Preaching Office. The minister of Christ is required by God’s Word to preach the Gospel, to forgive the sins of penitent sinners, and to withhold forgiveness from the impenitent. He is also called to account for the souls that have been entrusted to him. He examines the faith and confession of every communicant who comes to the altar. The practice of private confession flows out of this work that Christ has commanded every pastor to do: preach the Gospel and forgive sins. This work of the ministry is not an optional thing for the Lutheran pastor (John 20:22-23). Private confession and absolution is the ordinary way a pastor cares for the souls of his people.
Every baptized Christian should be taught that he needs a pastor to teach him the Word of God, to pray for him, to admonish him when he errs, and to comfort him with the Gospel when he falls. Every baptized Christian should be taught that his faith lives from the ministry of the Gospel. Without the word of the Gospel, faith dies. The enemies of faith in Christ are one’s own sin, from which he is powerless to set himself free, and the temptations of the devil who will let him have no peace within or without. Holy Absolution saves us from sin and the devil’s power. The Word of God calls us to hear more of the Word of God. It calls us to repentance. It calls us to confess sin. It calls us to believe in Christ.
The Lutheran penitent should be taught to understand that, in private confession and absolution, the Word of God is spoken directly to his personal need by his pastor. In the sermon, the Christian hears the “general absolution” preached to the whole congregation. But in private confession, he hears the Gospel preached specifically to him. Faith lives from that Word of God. That’s why the Lutheran reformers retained private confession. It was to be thought of as a personal sermon for every penitent who knelt before the pastor in confession. Luther emphasized that we should pay more attention to what God says to us through our pastor than what we say to God in our confession. Herein lies the great jewel of private confession: the word of the Gospel. To say that we have no need of private confession and absolution is to say that we have no sin, and, therefore, no need for the Gospel.
A Christian comes to private confession out of a desire to receive Christ’s word of forgiveness for the strengthening of his faith against sin and temptation. God’s Word exposes sin, that it might be put to death in us. Naming to our pastor specific sins which trouble us is salutary because it enables him to apply the word of the Gospel to our specific need. The Gospel not only comforts, it is the power of God for salvation from sin and the devil’s temptations. The seal of the confessional is absolute and may never be broken by the pastor. To remind the pastor and the penitent of the serious nature of private confession, it is best that a designated area of the chancel or nave be set aside for hearing confessions. It is also recommended that the pastor wear his vestments and stole as a reminder that he is hearing confessions and speaking absolution in the stead of Christ.