Wednesday, September 05, 2007

Private Confession and Absolution: An Outdated “Roman Catholic” Practice, or an Exercise in the Gospel?

Most Lutherans, and most Protestants in general probably think that the practice of private confession and absolution was done away with during the Reformation, as a burdensome and outdated practice. The idea of a minimum yearly required visit to the confessional booth, to enumerate all your sins to a priest strikes many as a bit legalistic, or at the very least somewhat odd.

Turn your thoughts for a moment to the world around us. Television is filled afternoon talk shows where guests eager for 15 minutes of fame spill the private details of their life for public consumption and entertainment. As family members and lovers squabble and audiences laugh and gasp, we wonder what moves people to reveal their “dirty laundry.” I’ve heard callers on the radio, bragging about their wildest and most adventurous behaviors. Internet websites are cropping up where you can “confess your sins online”…essentially post your secret sins on a public forum to receive the therapeutic benefit of “letting it out.” We have a world that is burdened with guilt, but without God’s Word to guide them, these “confessions” more often serve the purpose of bragging, voyeurism, and shock-value entertainment. But in all these and even among more serious examples of people who are legitimately seeking relief from their guilt through confession, there is one key element missing. ABSOLUTION! That is the forgiveness of sins. In none of these circumstances, was the forgiveness of sins offered.

Back to our question of whether private confession and absolution is an outdated Roman Catholic practice, or an exercise in the Gospel. We may be surprised what we find in the Augsburg Confession.[1] When it came to the article of confession, (as in confessing our sins) they wrote “Concerning confession it is taught that private absolution should be retained and not abolished. However, it is not necessary to enumerate all misdeeds and sins, since it is not possible to do so. Psalm 19:12: ‘But who can detect their errors?’”(AC XI) They also added that “the preachers on our side diligently teach that confession is to be retained because of absolution (which is confession’s principal and foremost part) for the comfort of terrified consciences and because of other reasons.” (AC XXV). While the Reformers rejected the idea of mandatory private confession, and the requirement that people enumerate all their sins, the nevertheless insisted that private absolution be retained. It’s not insignificant that they referred to it as private absolution, because as you notice in the second quotation, the reason they retained the practice was for the sake of that personal pronouncement of forgiveness and the comforting of terrified consciences.

But where in Scripture does Christ give pastors the authority or responsibility to absolve sins? Two places in Matthew; chapter 16:19, and then explained more thoroughly in the context of forgiveness in chapter 18:15-18. And again in John 20:19-23, where Jesus gives His disciples the Holy Spirit and tells them “If you forgive the sins of anyone, they are forgiven; if you withhold forgiveness from anyone, it is withheld.” The Reformers were also very clear on this point, that when absolution is pronounced, “It is not the voice or word of the person speaking it, but it is the Word of God, who forgives sin.” (AC XXV) It’s not by any special power that pastors have to forgive sins, but rather as they have been called to be mouthpieces of God’s declaration of forgiveness through Christ.

On a Lutheran talk radio show called Issues ETC ( a caller named “Adam,” who identified himself as a “recovering evangelical” gave this description of his experience with private confession and absolution:
“This is probably one of the most difficult issues that I had to overcome—the idea that I could receive forgiveness for my sins from the pastor and that it was just something where I had to deal with sins privately, me alone in my bedroom just between me and God. But because Lutherans understand confession and absolution to be pure grace, not something that’s done as a command it has been just an incredible blessing to me…I will never forget the first time I went to confession, and I still get a little emotional about it, so please bear with me…but I have struggled with sins, particular sins for twenty years, and I recall the first time I went to confession and I just blurted out the ugliest, nastiest sin I could think of, and to actually get that off my chest and then just a few moments later hear the words of forgiveness given to me as Pastor Curtis laid his hands onto me, it was like a million chains were just, just fell to the ground that had been wrapped around me, and I had felt like I was in such bondage, and finally it was just relief. And you know I don’t want to look at confession only as something for its utilitarian purposes, but I received a freedom in confession and absolution that I never received in just private prayer.”

I can personally identify with that description, having gone to private confession and absolution myself, and experienced the tremendous relief that comes from simply speaking your sins before a pastor, and to hear those words: “In the stead and by the command of my Lord Jesus Christ I forgive you all your sins in the name of the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.” Why is it such a relief? Why does it feel like a million chains wrapped around you just fell to the ground? Because that is the power of Christ’s forgiveness. That a broken, wounded soul, troubled by past or present sins that nag the conscience—will personally hear that their particular sins are forgiven them. The joy and the confidence that we can have in Christ’s Word of forgiveness is the joy that can reply to the devil when he comes accusing, “Yes I did commit that sin, and thanks be to God it is paid for and forgiven at the cross. Go take it up with Jesus!”

So why bring up private confession and absolution at all? Certainly it should never become something imposed upon people as a yearly obligation, or requiring the enumeration of all their sins. Nevertheless, Lutherans retain this practice, and may even want to reeducate people to its value, for the sake of the forgiveness of sins and troubled consciences. For those who are troubled by guilt, and have trouble believing God’s promises—having the opportunity to confess their sins in total confidentiality and hear personally the Word of forgiveness, can be a welcome relief. And neither do specific sins have to be confessed. A person may come to private confession and simply make a general confession of their sin without naming them, and come to hear the personal words of forgiveness. Also a reminder that Pastor Fricke and myself both solemnly pledged in our ordination vows, to “forgive the sins of those who repent, and promise never to divulge the sins confessed to you.” This “confessional seal” means that sins privately confessed to a pastor will never be spoken of to anyone else, not a friend, family member, wife, or even someone who doesn’t know the individual who has confessed.

In fact the confidentiality of the confessional seal is even upheld in the court of law, that a pastor cannot be forced to reveal sins privately confessed to him. And one of the things I came to realize through seminary, is that pastors are never “shocked” to find out that their parishioners are sinners. After all, we know our own hearts all too well. So in the end we have to answer our question with a “Yes”—private confession and absolution is an “exercise in the Gospel.” It is a very specific way of laying our burdens at the cross, and personally hearing that our sins are forgiven. Because the primary purpose of the Gospel is to bring consolation and forgiveness to sinners, and this is exactly what is done in private confession. Should anyone feel a constant pressing burden of guilt in their lives, they may want to consider it. There is always an open invitation to any person to ask one of our pastors to offer private confession and absolution. May we all find peace from our sins in Christ Jesus!

[1] Written in 1530 as a presentation of the Christian faith to the Emperor, as the Lutheran Reformers were asked to express their teachings. In this key Lutheran document, the Reformers showed their continuity with the faith of the historic Christian church, while rejecting those errors that had accumulated in the Roman Catholic church at the time.

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