Confession Is Not Enough
On the brink of war we need a strong conscience, one not made afraid by its sins real or imagined, to stand boldly in the face of war and terror and know that these indications of God's wrath against sin are not aimed at us. Where does such a conscience come from? Ask St. Peter. How can he who shamefully denied Jesus dare write later in an epistle, "Set apart Christ as Lord in your hearts, always being ready to make a defense to everyone who asks you?" How could he write that to people who knew good and well that he had flagrantly and repeatedly denied Christ and not die of shame and guilt?
Just confessing sins doesn't give you a clean, strong conscious. It if did, things would've turned out differently for Judas. Judas confessed his sin. He said clearly to the chief priests and elders in the temple, "I have sinned, for I have betrayed innocent blood." If confession was enough, we might be having Epistles from St. Judas and not just St. Peter. We would be naming our kids not only Peter but Judas. Trinity could've been called St. Judas.
But confession isn't enough, and it wasn't enough for Peter. After all the disciples deserted Jesus in Gethsemane, surely Peter confessed his sin. Only hours earlier Peter had boldly said that even if everyone deserted Jesus he would not. So you can bet Peter says, "I'm sorry; I'm sorry; I'm sorry" as he picks his way through Gethsemane after having deserted Jesus.
Peter is so sorry. He's determined to do better. That's why he goes into the high priest's courtyard. John we see had open access. He wasn't in danger. Peter was, but he's glad for another chance to prove he's faithful. But he fails; confesses, and tries harder. Once more he fails, confesses, and tries again. Each time he fails, his confession is more pained and sincere than the time before just like yours are in regard to that particular sin you struggle with. When he falls the third time, Peter is brought face to face with Jesus and with how impotent all his efforts to be faithful, all his pleas of sorrow, and all his promises to do better are. He is reduced to bitter weeping. Peter's strong words about setting apart Christ as Lord and being always ready to make a defense didn't come from this.
It seems my Mom was right when she would say, "Sorry is not enough." You have plenty of sorrow going on when you fail or fall, don't you? When you're convicted of your sin, you say, "I'm sorry." When you realize how big, how serious, how disgusting your sin is, you might even tearfully say, "I'm sorry, I'm sorry, I'm sorry." But sorry is not enough. Confession is not enough. That is why Confession has two parts. "The first that we confess our sins and the second that we receive absolution, that is forgiveness, from the pastor as from God Himself."
Absolution is what is needed. Judas was denied it. He went to the temple, to the pastors of his day, confessing his sins, and what did they say, "What is that to us? That's your responsibility." They didn't want anything to do with Judas' sin of betraying innocent blood. Where did confession without absolution lead Judas? Only to despair. Only to a tree, a noose, and death.
Peter, on the contrary, received absolution privately and publicly. On Easter morning Paul tells us Jesus appeared to Peter by himself then to the 12. In John 21, at the Sea of Galilee, before witnesses Jesus asks Peter 3 times if he loved Him more than the things of his fishing trade. Peter goes through great anguish in answering yet twice assures Jesus that he does. Jesus absolves him twice saying the first time, "Tend My Lambs," and the second, "Shepherd My sheep." The third time Jesus asks him Peter breaks down and concedes that what he knows doesn't really matter. What matters is what Jesus knows. Jesus responds, "Tend My sheep." Peter had messed up his office as apostle and pastor. He thought all he was fit for now was his fishing trade, but Jesus came and brought him back by forgiving him.
Absolution is the reason Jesus gave us this sacrament. He didn't give it so a pastor could prowl around in your life sifting out what is and isn't sin, but so the sins that bother you could be taken from you. Hear our Apology of the Augsburg Confession, "The ministers of the Church therefore have the command to forgive sins; they do not have the command to investigate secret sins" (XII, 104). Again, "We fail to see what good confession is without absolution" (XII, 61). The Large Catechism says that "those who do not go to confession willingly and for the sake of absolution [should] just forget about it." It says the same thing to those who go relying on the purity of their confession. "[L]et those who go there relying on the purity of their confession just stay away from it" (LC, Confession, 21).
For the sake of absolution the Lutherans kept what Article XIII of the Apology calls "the sacrament of repentance." It applies what we see Jesus winning for us in our text. The abuse and suffering Jesus endures in this text is to pay for sins. He's betrayed, disowned and cursed by friends because you and I have betrayed, disowned, and cursed our friends and families. He is mocked, beaten with fists, and spat upon because we have done horrible things with our mouths and hands. We think no one knows about such things, but God surely does, and so Christ mouth's is slapped and His hands are nailed in place of our foul mouths and dirty hands.
"By His stripes we are healed," says Isaiah. What produces welts and bruises and blood on the holy body of Jesus produces forgiveness, life and salvation for our sinful bodies. Horrible, terrible, tragic, shameful things that you can't bring yourself to think of, Jesus has already suffered for, died, for, paid for and forgiven. "It is finished," Jesus cried from the cross, and the paying for your sins is what He was talking about it.
So why do I need Absolution? Jesus paid for my sins 2000 years ago. I get forgiveness of them in Baptism and Communion, why do I need the Absolution? So you never go through what a member of mine at another church did. This person was ill in the hospital. I visited them and celebrated Communion. The person made the general confession we make on Sundays and I absolved them in that general way. As I left the room, as I was shutting the door, this person cried out in anguish, "Pastor please tell me that I could not have done something so horrible that I can't be forgiven."
Of course, I assured them that they could not have as Christ bore the sins of the whole world, but had this person been willingly to tell me the sin that was so terribly unforgivable to them, I could have applied the blood of Christ right to that spot. I could have looked them in the eye in the place of and by the command of Jesus Christ and said, "I forgive this sin."
Private absolution is available to any of you, but this is not what we have on Sunday mornings. That's a general confession and a general absolution. This first came into use with the 1941 hymnal. Prior to that the pastor did not pronounce an indicative absolution to the congregation generally. He did not say, "I forgive you (plural)," but made a declaration about forgiveness. He said, "Almighty God our heavenly Father has had mercy upon us and has given His only Son to die for us and for His sake forgives us all our sins."
The truth is that a general confession and absolution were specifically rejected by Luther in his 16th century Church Orders. Luther kept private confession and absolution; general ones were not even permitted. The 1542 Church Order signed by Luther says, "'If any preacher should assemble those who want to commune in the morning and speak a general absolution to them: that should by no means be done'" (Walther, Pastorale, 122).
This was the teaching in the early days of our Synod too. In 1859 a district president told a congregation they could do away with private confession, but he warned them that doing so would deprive themselves of the blessings of the "glorious rite" of private confession, harm the congregation, the whole synod, their children and their posterity. This would be the result, the district president went on to say, Especially "if you would establish beside private confession also general confession" (Moving Frontiers, 241).
Friends, although I grew up in our Synod it wasn't till I went to seminary that I heard of private confession and absolution. How wonderful I thought! But when I went out into the parish, I found it nowhere. O there were pastors who said that their pastoral counseling was really private confession. Not so. In counseling you try to fix things. In Absolution you forgive things. The absence of private absolution troubled me greatly because we say in our Confessions, "It would therefore be wicked to remove private absolution from the Church" (AP, XII, 100-01).
Don't misunderstand. The Lutherans have never wanted to make private confession and absolution mandatory at fixed times. They said in the Apology to the Augsburg Confession, "But with respect to the time, certainly most men in our churches use the Sacraments, absolution and the Lord's Supper, frequently in a year...But a fixed time is not prescribed, because all are not ready in a like manner at the same time" (XI, 60,62).
Lutheran pastors don't compel anyone to go to private confession. Luther says in the Large Catechism, "For here [in private confession] the compulsion must be reversed; we are the ones who must come under the command and you must come in freedom. We compel no one, but allow ourselves to be compelled, just as we are compelled to preach and administer the sacrament" (LC, Confession, 31).
You know how come pastors might hesitate to hear confessions and absolve? Because it is very difficult and draining for a pastor to take on his conscience what use to be on yours. It's not fun. No godly pastor likes to hear of sin anymore than a good doctor likes hear of disease. Nor does a godly pastor want to hear what is sinful in you to lord it over you as if your sinfulness makes him holier. No good doctor thinks finding disease in you somehow promotes health in him or her.
A good doctor wants to find your illness to give you relief; a good pastor wants to hear your sins to give you forgiveness. Confession is not enough to give you forgiveness; absolution needs to be there. The absolution is here whenever I preach or teach the forgiveness of sins for Jesus' sake. It's here whenever I give you the Body and Blood of Christ for forgiveness. But sometimes a sin will bother and fester, so that it looks too big to the person to be forgiven by such means. That's why we have private confession. Far from exalting the power of the pastor to forgive sins; it exalts the privilege of the layman to have his or her sin forgiven personally, privately, certainly. It gives the lay person yet one more medicine, one more weapon in the war the devil would wage to make your conscience guilty of sins that have long, long ago been forgiven. Amen.
Rev. Paul R. Harris
Trinity Lutheran Church, Austin, Texas
Lent III Midweek (3-19-03), Confession I