A Reformation Call: A Resurrection of the Biblical and Lutheran Practice of Private (Individual) Confession & Absolution
(This is a rerun of my October 2017 newsletter article. It was brought to my attention in a Bible class recently that this would be a good topic to re-emphasize, especially as we have welcomed many new members since 2017. So, enjoy, for the first time or again.)
As we celebrate the 500th Anniversary of the Reformation this month, I thought it fitting to do a little reforming of our own. In fact, there is an expression that the Church is always reforming. As you know, on October 31st , 1517, Luther wasn’t looking to leave the Roman church, but simply reform some of her errors. Due to sin, the world, and the devil, errors have a way of creeping into church bodies—things done and left undone. So, what might Luther say needs reforming in our LCMS church body today? I could guess that he would have much to say, but I highlight one point that I know he would agree with; a reformation call to resurrect the 5th Chief Part of the Small Catechism! (Maybe he would have even traveled to St. Lois to nail this to the door of the LCMS Inc. headquarters.)
Sadly, we should confess that most Lutherans in America have dropped the ball when it comes to God’s gift of Private Confession and Absolution. Many wrongly think that it is a Roman Catholic practice and not a Biblical and catholic (universal or Christian) one. And, there is some truth to that complaint. The way that the Roman Catholic Church does and requires Private Confession isn’t Biblical. They turn what Jesus gives as a Gospel gift into Law. They force and insist that all go to Confession verses urge and encourage Christians to use this gift. Additionally, they make you enumerate your sins, when Scripture clearly says that is impossible since we sin in ways we are not aware of too. Ps. 19:12 Who can discern his errors? Forgive my hidden faults. They also assign works to pay for sins—penance–Hail Mary’s, etc.—verses the free-gift of Absolution (forgiveness). But, just because Rome has perverted God’s gift doesn’t mean we should forsake It. Private Confession, done and offered rightly, is Biblical and Lutheran. And, while most Lutheran pastors and churches have let Biblical Private Confession almost reach the point of extinction, we must continue to fight to keep It alive for the sake of the Gospel for us sinners.
Why? Foremost, because it is most certainly true that Private Confession is Biblical and genuinely Lutheran. Martin Luther said this about Private Confession, “When I urge you to go to confession, I am simply urging you to be a Christian” (Large Catechism, Brief Exhortation, 32). In fact, as noted above, Private Confession is one of the 6 Chief Parts of our Small Catechism (Remember, the doctrine of our Catechisms comes from Scripture Alone). As Lutherans we confess this:
What is confession? Confession has two parts. First that we confess our sins, and second, that we receive absolution, that is, forgiveness, from the pastor as from God Himself, not doubting, but firmly believing that by it our sins are forgiven before God in heaven. What sins should we confess? Before God we should plead guilty of all sins, even those we are not aware of, as we do in the Lord’s Prayer; but before the pastor we should confess only those sins which we know and feel in our hearts. Which are these? Consider your place in life according to the Ten Commandments: Are you a father, mother, son, daughter, husband, wife, or worker? Have you been disobedient, unfaithful, or lazy? Have you been hot-tempered, rude, or quarrelsome? Have you hurt someone by your words or deeds? Have you stolen, been negligent, wasted anything, or done any harm? (Small Catechism)
According to Scripture, and therefore confessed in our Lutheran Confessions, Private Confession is considered a third Sacrament–right up there with the Sacrament of Baptism and the Sacrament of the Altar. Can you imagine if we stopped offering and highlighting Jesus’ gifts of Baptism and Holy Communion? Lutherans would be shocked and appalled that pastors/churches would deprive people of God’s gifts of forgiveness, life, and salvation. Well, Private Confession is no different.
Now, it is true, we don’t force anyone go to Private Confession, just like we don’t force anyone to go to Communion. We offer these salutary gifts of God and encourage Christians to live as Christians and make use of them. Private Confession is a gift that Jesus gives to forgive our sins (like in Baptism and Communion) and to comfort our consciences. You get more than getting something off your chest—you get real forgiveness and real sins sent away from you. I encourage you, Christians, to resurrect a common and often use of this Sacrament. It is one of the primary means that our Lord uses to forgive our sins and strengthen our faith (Pastors go to Private Confession too).
If you would like to learn or relearn more about this Sacrament, I encourage you to join our Sunday morning Adult Class, open your Bible and Catechism, look at the rite in the hymnal, or speak with me. I have always and will, by God’s grace, offer Private/Individual Confession to you so you can confess your sins and receive forgiveness as from God Himself.; it’s all for the purpose of absolution. You are free to contact me to set up a time to receive this Gospel gift; I’ll note this gift in the bulletin each week.
“If there is a heart that feels its sin and desires consolation, it has here a sure refuge when it hears in God’s Word that through a man God looses and absolves him from his sins” – Martin Luther (Large Catechism, Brief Exhortation, 14).
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