Indifference is not characteristic of the liturgy
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A blog of the Evangelical Lutheran Liturgy

TBT – How to Make Confession: Just Do It


This throwback article is by David H. Petersen, from Gottesdienst Easter 2007

The Words of Jesus

The first thing necessary to make confession is faith. That faith is grounded in the words Jesus spoke to the apostles.

The first of these words is the gift to St. Peter:

“You are Peter, and on this rock I will build My church, and the gates of Hades shall not prevail against it.  And I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.” (St. Matt. 16:18-19)

The second word was given when Jesus breathed on the apostles as they gathered around the same table where He had given them His Body and His Blood a few nights earlier.  At His first appearance to the ministerium, in that loaded atmosphere, He breathed on them and said: “Receive the Holy Spirit.  If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained” (St. John 20:22-23.)

These are hard sayings.  Jesus gives to Peter and the others the keys to heaven, the power to forgive the sins of men.  That is a divine power, for only God can forgive sins.  But God in the flesh forgives sins as a man.  According to His exaltation, He has located Himself in the apostolic office, in men, as flesh and blood, to continue this work.  In this way the Man Jesus, God in our skin, forgives sins.

This is the clear understanding of what we teach our children regarding St. John 20 with the words of Luther’s Small Catechism:

 What do you believe according to these words?  I believe that when the called ministers of Christ deal with us by His divine command, in particular when they exclude openly unrepentant sinners from the Christian congregation and absolve those who repent of their sins and want to do better, this is just as valid and certain, even in heaven, as if Christ our dear Lord dealt with us Himself.  (CPH, 1986)

An Institutional Confusion

 If this is the case, and all our children are to learn these words by heart, why are not more people taking their pastors by the ear and demanding this great gift?  In the majority of cases the frail consciences of men have been appeased by the simple deception of imagining the Preparatory Rite in the Divine Service to be the Holy Absolution.  It is even labeled as such in Lutheran hymnals!  But technically, it is not really an absolution, an actual removal of sins.  In the first place, an absolution cannot be spoken over a group.  But even more significantly, an absolution can never be spoken over unexamined penitents.  The absolution spoken in the Preparatory Rite is a reminder of God’s grace, an assurance that God forgives the sins of penitent believers for Jesus’ sake.  The promise there proclaimed is valid: our sins are forgiven for Jesus’ sake.  Christians are not required to confess their sins to the pastors in order to be forgiven by God.  But if the Christian is to receive Absolution as it has been instituted by God, from the pastor, he needs first to confess to the pastor.

It needs to be acknowledged and embraced that Christians always have direct access to God.  The Preparatory Rite is simply a ritualized and formal way of confessing to God and then hearing assurance from the pastor that God’s mercy in Jesus Christ has covered sins.  That is no problem, for even when Christians do take advantage of the gift of Holy Absolution, they still confess their sins directly to God and ask Him for forgiveness throughout their waking hours, even as we have been taught to do in the Lord’s Prayer.  The penitents are unexamined in the Preparatory Rite.  That is why the declaration must be qualified.  It is “upon this your confession,” which is to say, if your confession is honest and heart-felt then your sins are forgiven.  This is not a promise or an action but a reminder.

But even if we know that, and we know that God promises us such great benefit in the Absolution, why would we not run to confess sins to the pastor?  Because we are afraid.  From that fear comes a multitude of excuses.  The most obvious and frequent is the proposal that we don’t need it.  We can be and are forgiven directly by God.  Why then should we endure the shame and danger of confession?  Because God has given it, and God wants us to have it.  We could ask similar questions of all of God’s gifts.  Why do we pray for forgiveness when Christ has already joined us to Himself in Holy Communion?  Why do we come to church to hear God’s Word and teaching when we can read the Bible for ourselves?  One gift of God does not stand in the place of another.  We have direct access to God in Christ, but that does not mean that we have no need of what God gives in Absolution.  In  Absolution God actually removes the eternal consequences of our sins and strengthens our faith.  It is not merely a talking about or a reminder of God’s grace, but an actual bestowal of that grace.  To despise anything that God has given, whether that is the Bible, prayer, holy marriage, the Ministry, the Sacrament of the Altar, or Holy Baptism, is to place ourselves as God’s judge, picking and choosing for ourselves what is good, what is useful, rather than submitting to His mercy and trusting that He knows what is best.

What God Has Given

God has given the Office of the Keys for the good of His people.  By this office, God speaks a personal and audible word directly to the penitent.  He has attached a mighty promise to that word.  If it is loosed on earth, it is loosed in heaven.  Our personal, direct access to God tends to leave us wondering if it really happened.  We ask God for forgiveness but on our own we do not hear a voice from heaven speaking us clean.  The Holy Absolution is objective and removes our forgiveness with Christ from our emotions and mental games.  How do I know I am forgiven?  Not because I had a warm tingling in my tummy at midnight in the light of a full moon and asked Jesus to set up house in my heart, which may or may not have been related to spicy food I had earlier in the evening.  How do I know I am forgiven?  Jesus instituted the Office of the Holy Ministry and that Ministry ministered to me.  I heard the voice of the pastor.  What he said is a historical reality.  He forgave my sins and what he forgives in Jesus’ name is forgiven.  Nothing can bring comfort to a battered conscience like objectivity.

More Excuses

 So now we understand what God has given, what He wants us to have, and we know where to get it (from the pastor).  We want it.  How do we do it?

The first thing is to simply go to the pastor and do it.  That is not as easy as it sounds.  The easy thing is to wait for the right moment, either when you might be feeling particularly bad about your sins, or when the perfect father confessor appears. 

Such waiting might well last beyond the apocalypse.  For we are Lutherans.  We are rightly confident in our Baptisms.  We abide in grace and revel in the Gospel.  If we start to feel bad about our sins or are bothered by doubts, we have learned from the Blessed Reformer to fend off the devil and such dark thoughts with Baptism.  We are baptized!  Jesus died and rose again for us.  We are saved, forgiven.  And we have our Bibles.  We hear our Shepherd’s voice.  Along with direct access to God, we also have this great confidence born of faith.  Thus we are ever free of the sort of feelings that would require lesser men, of weaker faith, to go and hear the Holy Absolution from the mouth of a mere man.

And if that is the case, then I advise you to go immediately to confession and confess your arrogance that you think yourself above needing the grace that God provides.  It is as though our Lord has laid before us a great feast with delicacies of every kind and we politely refuse, telling Him we will wait until we are hungry, all the while secretly filling our tummies with Turkish Delight.  Do not wait for the moment.  Go in the discipline and trust that what God gives is always best and He has given us the Office of the Keys.

Besides this latent pietism of thinking maybe we don’t need it, is the problem of the man in the office.  He is never quite up to snuff.  He might tell.  He might laugh.  He might be disgusted.  And there is no need for it since we are already forgiven.  If only we could confess to Ken Korby, Kurt Marquart, or Robert Preus, or even Martin Chemnitz or Luther himself; then, we think, we could partake of this great gift.  But not with fallible and stuttering Moses over there who has a sack of his own problems anyway.  Besides, we love our pastor and consider him a friend.  Confession would ruin everything.  Once again we see how our fear drives our excuses.  God has instituted this office and in His wisdom filled it with fallible men.  Our role is not to second-guess God, but to receive what He gives.

The Real Problem and the Real Solution

Those are only the most pious-sounding reasons for abstaining, but I suspect what really keeps us ultimately is fear of exposure.  No matter how much you like the idea of being absolved, how attractive the objective promise of Holy Absolution is, making confession is a cross.  It is a shameful and painful thing to say your secret thoughts and conniving ways out loud in the presence of another man.  It is not merely that you don’t want anyone else to know these things, it is mostly that you don’t want to know them yourself.  You want to keep up the charade.  Thus what scares us in confession is in fact one of the greatest benefits: the tearing down of our false comforts, exposing our desperate need for a Savior.

 Getting Over It

 You just have to get over it and do it.  Make confession.  For no matter how we pad that fear with pious-sounding excuses, or find examples of non-use in modern confessional heroes, the fact remains that one-sixth of the Catechism, one of the three numbered Sacraments in the Apology to the Augsburg Confession, is barely used and sometimes not even known among us.  Imagine if we treated the Lord’s Prayer so casually!  What would we say if some of our churches had never prayed it, even once; if a handful had heard of it, but only a sliver of them prayed it a few times a year.  The stones themselves would cry out in despair that men took so lightly such a great benefit and gift from God.  In the Holy Absolution Christ Himself intercedes and sins, guilt, and shame are removed by His Word.  If we are to take Christ at His Word, then this Holy Sacrament must be held as the greatest of God’s gifts to man alongside of Holy Baptism and the Holy Eucharist. 

OK, so it is not quite as easy as that.  Knowing is one thing; doing is another.  But where the heart is, the mouth soon follows.  If you believe that God forgives sins through the mouth of the pastor and that you need it, you will seek it.  But let me make it easy for you: the first time you confess, don’t confess any specific sins.  Just leave it at the general confession.  That way you can safely reconnoiter and give nothing away except your faith in the words of Christ in St. John 20 and your desire to receive the things that Christ has given for your benefit.  Then you will know what to expect, what your pastor’s demeanor is like, and something of what it feels like to kneel alone in church and whisper into Christ’s ear.  From there the pastor will guide you and you will learn that in Holy Absolution God has given us a marvelous treasure.