You Should Confess
Once a month the seminary had a confessional service. We use it here on Maundy Thursday. The first question the pastor asks begins, "Do you sincerely confess?" You respond, "I do confess." The pastor replies, "Verily, you should confess." 40 years later I can still hear that pastor's distinct way of saying "you should confess" echoing in my soul.
You should confess because unconfessed sin is not inert. Unlike the poisons in your homes which are anywhere from 95 to 99.5% inert, inactive ingredients, unconfessed sin is 100% poison. David says of his silent impenitence for adultery and murder: "When I kept it all inside, my bones turned to powder, my words became daylong groans. (Ps. 32:3)." The wisest man in the world says "He who conceals his sins does not prosper, but whoever confesses and renounces them finds mercy" (Pv. 28:13). A confessional pastor of the 19th century said that he regarded it as one of the greatest defects of the Lutheran Church that she permitted her people to grow up "'without having it occur to us, that there was anything wrong in our silence concerning our sins" (Lohe, in Quest for Holiness, 232). David's wasting bones, Peter's bitter tears, and Judas' spilling guts say otherwise.
Sin causes pain. Unconfessed sin is like the pain of a tooth that gets worse and worse telling you to go to the dentist but then stops hurting altogether because it's done all the damage it can do, (Lewis, God in the Dock, 124). No, it's worse than that. Unconfessed sin is the highway to hell. Jesus had warned Judas a year previous that he was a devil. On Maundy Thursday Jesus warns him that it would be better never to have been born than to betray the Son of Man. Jesus warns him that if he takes the piece of bread from Him there's no turning back. But Judas won't confess his sin, and as he reaches for the piece, Scripture says, "Satan entered into him" and he was in the express lane on the highway to hell.
Jerome, 400 A.D., says, "'[I]f the sick man is ashamed to show his wound to the physician, the medicine will not cure what it does not know'" (Chemnitz, Exam. II, 608). I still hear the woman's voice over 20 years ago pleading with me as I closed the door to her hospital room, "Pastor please tell me there is nothing I could have done that I can't be forgiven for." She wasn't the first or last person to say that. Of course, I could assure her that Jesus carried away the sins of the world, that He was the atoning sacrifice for the sins of the world, and her that included all her sins even that one. But you know what the Devil whispered in her ear? "If that pastor knew what sin you're talking about he'd never, ever tell you that was forgiven."
The only person God ever left alone with sin was His only beloved Son on the cross. The only person God ever turned a deaf ear to was His Son. He hasn't, doesn't, won't leave you alone with your sins, not even that sin. But that's the one you should confess. That's what we say in our catechism. "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." In the explanation of the 5th Petition of the Lord's Prayer we confess, "We daily sin much and surely deserve nothing but punishment." In the Smalcald Articles we say, "A person who confesses that all in him is nothing but sin embraces all sins, excludes none, forgets none" (III, III, 37).
Everyone that has ever asked me to tell them that they couldn't have done something not able to be forgiven has been an every Sunday attender; confessing their sins in the Confession, the Kyrie, and Lord's Prayer. How come? A priest in a 2015 TV show quotes Bertrand Russell saying, "'The center of me is always and eternally in terrible pain.'" Then the priest says, "The man who said that was an atheist; imagine how I feel" (Aquarius, 1, 9). And did you hear what sins Luther gives as examples of the kind one might "know and feel" in their hearts? "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?" How mundane, how pedestrian? These hardly seem worthy of the penitent saying, "What bothers me particularly is." G.K. Chesterton observes, "The little sins are sometimes harder to confess than the big ones that's why it's so important to confess them" (Father Brown, 303).
Verily you should confess, but don't base your forgiveness on your confession. Well, do I remember the pastor saying, "You should confess", and just as intensely do I remember at the Communion service the next day another pastor saying, "Upon this your confession." If the first pastor's voice echoes even today in my soul, the second pastor's voice haunts it. He had a stentorian voice and he seemed to pause forever after, "Upon this your confession" giving my conscience all the time in the world to consider, reconsider, and doubt my confession and find myself once again on the highway to hell.
No, no a thousand no's. We say in the Smalcald Articles that it is the papists who taught people to place their confidence in their confession. In his Exhortation to Confession Luther says, "It used to be that we emphasized it [our confession] only as our work; all that we were then concerned about was whether our act of confession was pure and perfect in every detail. We paid no attention to the second and most necessary part of Confession (i.e. absolution), nor did we proclaim it. We acted just as if Confession were nothing but a good work by which payment was to be made to God, so that if the confession was inadequate and not exactly correct in every detail, then the Absolution would not be valid and the sin unforgiven. By this the people were driven to the point where everyone had to despair of making so pure a Confession (an obvious impossibility) and where no one could feel at ease in his conscience or have confidence in his Absolution. So they [the papists] not only rendered the precious Confession useless to us but also made it a bitter burden (Mat. 23:4) causing noticeable spiritual harm and ruin" (16, 17).
In the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina an Army general famously advised a journalist not to get "stuck on stupid." Well, don't you get stuck on sorry.' Don't get stuck on the amount you're sorry, the extent, depth, width, height of your sorry. Here's what the first president of the Missouri Synod said, "If you have cruelly insulted someone, how can you be assured that he has forgiven you? "Will you wait until your heart feels some kind of relief, which would make you think that your former friend has forgiven you? If you take that approach, everybody will tell you: You are an idiot. The important point is not how you feel, but how the person whom you insulted feels'" (Law & Gospel, 200).
And just how does the God you offended feel about your sins? That's the only Person you have sinned against. Least that's what David says in Psalm 51. Even though which the Holy Spirit tells you it deals with David committing adultery, David says, "Against Thee, Thee only, have I sinned, and done this evil in Thy sight." What about Bathsheba whom David "took"? What about Uriah the faithful soldier whom he killed after taking his wife? How can David say, "Against God" and then for emphasis, "Against Thee only have I sinned"? First, because we can talk ourself into believing another sinner deserves our sins against them. Second, because there is forgiveness with God; there may not be with men. How would David ever know if dead Uriah forgave him or not? And what of benighted Bathsheba in a king's place? Couldn't David always wonder about what she really thought? As Norma Jean sang in the 60's, "God may forgive you, but I won't; I won't even try."
No, we base our forgiveness not on our repentance, confession, or even our faith, but on Jesus who allowed His holy Person to be betrayed into the hands of sinners, Death, and the Devil himself for sinners. He follows Judas into the dark night of demons to suffer and die even for his sins. He goes to the depths of not just dying but damning to be among us as one who serves' as our Scapegoat to bear what we cannot, to suffer as we cannot, to die as we cannot - holy, without sin - so that He might be the offering for sin that we sinners cannot be, to win for us a place at the Lamb's feast.
On Good Friday, God the Son will say those words that put an end to all doubts about our sins being paid for or our being paid back for our sins: "It is finished." On Easter morning, God the Father will roar, "Amen to that!" by raising Jesus from the dead. And on Easter evening, Jesus will institute the office that distributes the forgiveness of sins declaring "whosoever sins you forgive they are forgiven." And about 2,000 years later the words of absolution will ring in your ears. The word of forgiveness permeates Baptism and the Lord's Supper but it is concentrated form in the Absolution (Peters, Baptism & Lord's Supper, 66). Another German Lutheran describes it this way: "Absolution is a condensation of the Gospel as Word" even as it is condensed in the body and blood of Christ. (Brunner, Worship in the Name of Jesus, 133).
You know what stain removers are. Concentrated cleansing meant for spot cleaning. Confession is not the spot remover. Your being sorry removes no spots. Your believing doesn't cause a single sin to be removed. The absolution for Jesus' sake does. And when applied specifically to a sin you know, feel, and have dragged out into the open in confession, it works wonders. That horrible, ugly thing that has bedeviled your conscience, your sleep, and your heart is no match for the cleansing power of Jesus' blood applied to it. To paraphrase Jesus' words to the adulterous woman, "Where is that sin that chased you, threatened you, shamed you?" Gone, sent away, forgiven by the Word of Absolution spoken in Jesus' name.
Luther said that despite the resistance of all devils, the whole world, and our despairing thoughts, even in the presence of death, and evil omens, "A simple, trusting heart can boldly rely on God's action. I have been absolved of my sins, however many and great they may be, by means of the key, Let no one remind me of my sins any longer. All are gone, forgiven, forgotten. If my repentance is not sufficient, His Word is; if I am not worthy, His keys are: He is faithful and true. My sins shall not make a liar of Him" (LW, 40, 375). So said Luther and so can all confessed and absolved sinners say today. Amen
Rev. Paul R. Harris
Trinity Lutheran Church, Austin, Texas
Ash Wednesday (20190306); Confession II, Passion Reading 1