Private Confession (Confession and Absolution)
Some ask, “Isn’t this a catholic thing?” The answer is, yes, but not catholic in the sense of Roman Catholic. Holy Absolution belongs to the whole Christian church on earth (the catholic, universal church) and not only to the Roman Catholic church. More than a “Lutheran” or “Catholic” practice, private confession is a Christian practice. As Dr. Luther put it in the Large Catechism, “When I urge you to go to confession, I am simply urging you to be a Christian.” Confession was known and practiced by the apostles (James 5:16 , 1 John 1:9) and is established on the authority of Jesus Christ to forgive and retain sins which He entrusted to His Church and exercises publicly through the Office of the Holy Ministry (Matthew 16:18-19, 18:15-20, John 20:19-23).
From the days of the Reformation the Lutherans distinctly said that “Our churches teach that private Absolution should be retained in the churches, although listing all sins is not necessary for Confession. for, according to the Psalm, it is impossible. “Who can discern his errors?” (Augsburg Confession, Article XI) The Lutheran reformers did not set aside private confession, as the later radicals did. Instead, they reformed it so that Christ’s free forgiveness was the center and focus. The Lutherans set aside such legalistic practices as forcing the faithful to come to confession at fixed times during the year, requiring that every sin be confessed in order to be forgiven, and prescribing certain religious works to offset the temporal punishments of sin. But the Lutheran reformers never would have imagined a Lutheran congregation without private confession. In fact, Dr. Luther himself included a short liturgy for private confession in the Small Catechism to teach people how to make confession. He also commended the practice highly from his own personal experience.
Private Absolution is not new to Faith Lutheran Church of Capistrano Beach. On a regular basis members darken the door of the Pastoral office to confess their sins and hear that, for Christ’s sake, their sins are forgiven. They are no more forgiven than when they hear their sins forgiven during the general confession and absolution on Sunday morning. It’s just that Private Absolution allows the confessor to name the sin that is troubling him or her so that they may hear the Pastor say, “Yes, that sin, too, is covered by the death of Jesus.”
Should I feel forced or compelled to come to Private Absolution? By no means. This is one of the abuses taken out of confession and absolution. Never would we want to make Law out of Gospel. Never would we want to make mandatory something placed in the realm of Christian freedom.
Know this about Private Absolution.
All the sins you confess die in the ears of the Pastor. Medical professionals have HIPAA laws and lawyers have confidentiality statements… but there’s something even deeper going on when your Pastor hears your confession. The Pastor may not divulge anything heard in confession because the sins confessed are removed by Christ’s absolution; they’re forgiven. Forgiven means they’re let go, they’re gone. And if they’re gone, then they can’t be brought up again. That’s an important thing to remember when your spouse, or anyone asks you to forgive them. To forgive means that you will never bring that sin up again. So be careful about saying, I forgive you, because by saying that you relinquish you’re right to hold that person’s sins over them. But then, think also about how freeing that is, to hear, I forgive you… I’m letting it all go. And that’s what you hear from God every time you confess your sins to Him. He lets them go and will never bring them up to you again. Your sins have been drowned in the waters of Baptism and nailed to Calvary’s cross. And neither can Satan accuse you of them either, because they’ve been forgiven.
Because your sins die in the ears or your Pastor, your Pastor will never judge you either. Those sins you confess are put to death with Jesus – they’re buried in tomb where the Father never looks. And if God lets them go, your Pastor must let them go as well – and that’s why your Pastor will never speak of them again in any circumstance or for any reason.
And know this for certain before you come to confession, either privately or the general confession in the Divine Service. God actually forgives sins. Coming and making confession is risky because you’re believing that God forgives sins through fallen men – “chamber pots” the Bible calls us Pastors. But that’s what the Bible says. Jesus said to his disciples, If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven. If you retain the sins of any, they are retained. So hear the words of forgiveness your Pastor speaks in the stead and by the command of Jesus, hear those words as Jesus very word to you and know that God forgives you your sins even if other people don’t – you have God’s promise on that.
And one more thing about this time. It’s going to hurt. That’s the wagging finger of the Law rightly condemning you! Let the Law of God cut you to the heart. Let the great physician of body and soul do His godly surgery on you. Let God do it even though it hurts because there’s a promise connected to it as well. If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us, but if we confess our sins, God is faithful and just and will forgive our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness.
Sometimes you feel better after Holy Absolution, and sometimes you don’t. You’re feelings don’t make what we’re doing valid. What your Pastor says to you isn’t so much about your feelings as it is about the truth of what God has done for you. No matter what you feel, know this for certain, the death of Jesus on the cross has covered all your sins and Holy Absolution is about assuring you of this great gift.
For further study, you can also listen to the following MP3, available for free download or listen online.
For further reading you can download the free PDF - Your Pastor Is Not Your Therapist by Pastor John Pless of Concordia Theological Seminary-Ft. Wayne, IN