A Cure without Equal: Individual Confession & Absolution

Originally published in Around the Word Volume 1, Number 2 (Summer, 2013): 35-39

You can watch an interview I did with Pastor Wolfmueller on this article here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=63wAPqNqino

“A Cure without Equal: Individual Confession & Absolution”

Could you even begin to imagine what a life free of every stress, worry, and anxiety would feel like?  All too seldom do our lives reflect the serenity of our Lord’s leading beside green pastures and still waters (Psalm 23:2).  Instead, our days are filled with the turmoil of raging nations, plotting peoples, and utter chaos (Psalm 2:1; 46:2–3, 6)!  In an effort to bring peace (or at least sell stuff!), bookstores stock their shelves with myriads of books that promise to reduce stress, remove worry, and bring at least some measure of peace to our weary and burdened consciences.

Worry is one of the most common sins of the human heart.  We can’t help but worry because the heart refuses to trust in God above all things.  As Jeremiah says, “The heart is deceitful above all things and desperately sick, who can understand it?” (17:9). When God looked at the human heart in the time of Noah, He saw that its every intention was “only evil continually,” (Genesis 6:5).  Where the heart is not filled with trust in God, it will be filled worry.  In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus teaches that if we only trusted in our gracious heavenly Father’s provision, we would not worry (Matthew 6:25–34).

Problem is, we just can’t help ourselves.  The heart cannot bring itself to trust in God as it should, and so our consciences are anxious and troubled over many things (Luke 10:41).  Maybe it’s the guilt of not trusting in God as we should.  Maybe it’s worry over finances, health, job performance, or our relationships.  Probably it’s a combination of both.  Resolving guilt is one of the deepest needs of humanity.  Mercifully, our Lord deals with guilt concretely and effectively—and so brings comfort to distressed consciences—in individual confession and absolution.[1]  Consider what happened on the very first Easter evening:

On the evening of that day, the first day of the week, the doors being locked where the disciples were for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them and said to them, “Peace be with you.”  When he had said this, he showed them his hands and his side. Then the disciples were glad when they saw the Lord.  Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, even so I am sending you.”  And when he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit.  If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you withhold forgiveness from any, it is withheld,” (John 20:19—23).

Twice in these five verses Jesus tells the disciples, “Peace be with you.”  If anybody’s consciences ever had a reason to be troubled, the disciples’ did.  They had all forsaken their Lord in His hour of deepest need (Matthew 26:56).  But instead of coming to repay them evil for evil (cf. Genesis 50:15), Jesus instead bestows on the Church one of Her most valuable treasures: confession and absolution.  Luther described confession and absolution as “a cure without equal for distressed consciences.”[2]  So Jesus sends out the newly ordained apostles (v. 21) with this commission: “Receive the Holy Spirit.  If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you withhold forgiveness from any, it is withheld.” (v. 22—23).   Peace—comfort for the troubled conscience—is found in Holy Absolution, the forgiveness of sins. 

Unfortunately, it is not our instinct to make use of this treasure as often as our Lord would have us.  Walter Koehler writes,

“The viewpoint which generally prevails in the Lutheran Church is that individual confession and absolution should only be used in exceptional situations.  Individual confession and absolution as a regular practice and continuous resource in congregational life is unheard of in most quarters.”[3]      

If there’s any church that talks a lot about guilt, it’s the Lutheran church.  Each week Lutherans gather together and confess, “I, a poor miserable sinner…”  So why is the practice of individual confession and absolution not more prevalent?  One common objection is that it’s “too catholic.”  Born and raised in the Roman Catholic Church, I can remember quite vividly not only being forced into confession,[4] but also being assigned “penance”, works done by the perpetrator to make satisfaction for sins.[5] 

While the practice of assigning penance denies the all-sufficiency of Christ’s sacrifice for the full remission of sins, Luther was careful to not throw out the baby with the bathwater.  The error of penance doesn’t negate the value of confession and absolution.  Luther was not the radical reformer that he is sometimes made out to be.  His reforms were conservative, who only sought to rid the church of abuses while keeping the good.  The Augsburg Confession concludes with the reassurance that “in doctrine and ceremonies we have received nothing contrary to Scripture of the Church universal.”[6]  Individual confession and absolution is one such beneficial practice.  So important did Luther regard confession and absolution, he counted it among the six most important things every Christian needs to know.[7]   

But perhaps the greater reason that individual confession and absolution has been neglected is because of the difficulty of owning up to one’s sins.  Sin is painful enough when it remains buried deep within the heart.  To acknowledge our sin and actually confess it in the presence of another human being may very well be one of the most difficult things a human being could do.  Koehler writes, “To humble one’s self before another in confessions strikes at the root of all sin-pride.  In Bonheoffer’s opinion this humility become a part of sharing and bearing the cross.”[8]  Koehler goes on to cite Bonhoeffer:

“Confession in the presence of a brother is the profoundest kind of humiliation.  It hurts, it cuts a man down, it is a dreadful blow to pride… Sin demands to have a man by himself.  It withdraws him from the community.  The more isolated a person is, the more destructive will be the power of sin over him, and the more deeply he becomes involved in it, the more disastrous is his isolation.  Sin wants to remain unknown.  It shuns the light.  In the darkness of the unexpressed it poisons the whole being of a person.”[9]

To keep sin concealed causes a kind of spiritual osteoporosis.  As David says in Psalm 32, “When I kept silent (that is, when he did not confess his sin) my bones wasted away through my groaning all day long,” (v. 3).  The Old Adam is a master concealer.  He lurks in the shadows and has turned the cover-up into a fine art.  His first instinct after the Fall into sin was to cover up the shame of his nakedness and hide from God (Genesis 3:7, 10).  This is what he’s been doing ever since.  To confess goes against every fiber of his being.  But where confession takes place, it is, as Luther said, a “cure without equal.”  David concurs: “I acknowledged my sin to you, and I did not cover my iniquity; I said, “I will confess my transgressions to the Lord,” and you forgave the iniquity of my sin,” (Psalm 32:5).

Sin cannot remain concealed in the heart where individual confession and absolution are utilized.  While it is good to confess one’s sins to God in general (as we do in the Lord’s Prayer), it’s easy to avoid dealing concretely with sin and guilt where they are not named in the presence of another person.  Jesus has given pastors to His church that they might, among other things, hear real sinners confess real sins, and pronounce real absolution.  There is no more concrete way of dealing with sin that to name it specifically and have it absolved.  If failure to confess causes spiritual osteoporosis, absolution is spiritual calcium.  While Baptism and the Lord’s Supper also involve the direct application of grace to the individual and are equally vital to the life of the Church, confession and absolution allows that same grace to be applied in an even more specific way.  Only in individual confession and absolution does the troubled conscience receive the assurance that that the Lord not only forgives all of their sin in general, but also specifically. 

Our Lord would continue to absolve specific sins today through the pastor as though from Christ Himself (Luke 10:16; Matthew 16:19; John 20:22—23).[10]  Jesus doesn’t want you to continually beat yourself up over past sins, keeping them locked up in your heart (Psalm 51:3).  Where sin is troubling your conscience, He would have you confess it (Psalm 51:4; Psalm 32:5).  Through the spoken absolution, God restores you to a right relationship with him, restoring unto you the joy of his salvation (Psalm 51:12).  Koehler writes, “Authorities in medicine, psychiatry, theology and psychology concur that confession is needed for any serious dealing with guilt… Ultimately, real guilt stands as a theological problem and must be treated as such.  As a theological problem guilt can only be fully dealt with by divine forgiveness and not trying to explain it away.”[11]  This is why the self-help books will never work.  Only the Gospel can cure what has been infected by sin.

Individual confession and absolution with a pastor provides the penitent with a safe place to confess sin.  There is nowhere else in the world a person can go to unburden their conscience with the assurance that whatever is confessed will never be divulged by the pastor to another human being, but remains strictly between the penitent and God Himself.  The pastor is there to serve only as the mouthpiece of Christ, to speak in His stead and by His command.  To divulge sins confessed in this manner is an abuse of the Pastoral Office of the worst kind.  When a pastor is ordained and/or installed in a congregation, he makes a solemn vow before God and the congregation to never divulge the sins confessed to him—no exceptions.  As Dr. A.L. Barry once observed, “The pastor’s ear is a tomb.  What goes in, never comes out.”[12]  What is spoken to the pastor in confidence remains between God and the penitent alone.  In the Lutheran confessional, there is no penalty (as in the world or other churches), but only grace.    

Luther said, “When I urge you to go to confession, I am simply urging you to be a Christian.”[13]  The whole Christian life is one of ongoing confession and absolution.  This is necessary because we continue to daily sin much, even after we are baptized.  If anything, growing in faith (sanctification) doesn’t mean sinning less, it means becoming more aware of one’s own sins and feeling a deeper need to confess them.  The significance of baptism for the daily life of the Christian doesn’t mean living a sin-free life.  Quite the opposite.  As Luther says, Holy Baptism “indicates that the old Adam in us should by daily contrition and repentance be drowned and die with all sins and evil desires, and that a new man should daily emerge and arise to live before God in righteousness and purity forever.”[14]  As St. Paul writes in Romans, chapter 6: “We were therefore buried with Him through baptism into death in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, we too may live a new life,” (Romans 6:4).

[1] Koehler suggests “individual” is a better term than “private” in referring to this practice.  He says, “private confession can easily be mistaken for either the “private” or secret confession of a person in the silence of his or her heart before God, or for the “private” situation of reconciliation between two or more people—in each case no formal absolution is given; furthermore, “individual” can refer not only to the person but also to the process by which “individual” or specific sins are confessed and forgiven,” Counseling and Confession (new edition with introduction by Rick W. Marrs), (St. Louis: Concordia Seminary Press, 2011), 46.

[2] Luther’s Works, Vol. 36 (St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House; Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1955), 86.

[3] Counseling and Confession, 80.

[4] Luther warns against this harmful practice, saying, “If, however, someone does not find himself burdened with these or greater sins, he should not trouble himself or search for or invent other sins, and thereby make confession a torture,” (Small Catechism, “A Short Form of Confession”).

[5] The Catechism of the Catholic Church states, “Raised up from sin [in Absolution], the sinner must still recover his full spiritual health by doing something more to make amends for the sin: he must “make satisfaction for” or “expiate” his sins.  This satisfaction is also called “penance,”” (New York: Doubleday, 1994), par. 1459.

[6] Augsburg Confession, Conclusion (5).

[7] The six chief parts of Luther’s Small Catechism are the Ten Commandments, Creed, Lord’s Prayer, the Sacrament of Holy Baptism, Confession, and the Sacrament of the Altar

[8] Counseling and Confession (50).

[9] Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Life Together, trans. John W. Doberstein (New York: Harper and Row, 1954), 114 as cited in Counseling and Confession (51—51).

[10] It is on the basis of texts like these that Luther says, “We receive absolution, that is, forgiveness, from the pastor as from God Himself,” in his discussion on Confession in the Small Catechism.  It is also on this basis that the pastor absolves “in the stead and by the command of” Jesus (see the Absolution in Divine Service, Setting III of Lutheran Service Book from CPH (St. Louis: 2006)), 185.

[11] Counseling and Confession (63, 71).

[12] “What About Confession & Absolution?” from Unchanging Truth in Changing Times: The Complete Collection of What About Pamphlets (St. Louis: The Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod, 2001).

[13] Luther, “A Brief Exhortation to Confession” in Concordia: The Lutheran Confessions.  A Reader’s Edition of the Book of Concord (St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 2005, 2006), 32.

[14] Small Catechism, Baptism IV.

Categories: Theology

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