What is Confession?
Before we answer what Confession is, let's answer what Confession is not. This part of our Small Catechism isn't dealing with confessing your faith but your sins. Second, we're not talking about the general confession of sins we do in the service. We're talking about individual confession of sins where the person confesses his or her sins privately to the pastor.
The Lutheran reformers didn't want to lose the sacrament of private confession but they wanted to reject the Catholic errors. Catholics were and are required to confess their sins at least once each year to a priest. Mortal sins must be confessed out loud to a priest or they cannot be forgiven. These errors we rightly reject, but in America we ended up rejecting private confession all together. What has replaced it is the Sunday morning general confession. In 1859 this was a hot button issue in the LCMS. A district president wrote a congregation that they were free to do away with private confession. But if you do, you "deprive yourselves of the blessing of the glorious rite of private confessionharm the entire congregation, the whole synod, your children, and posterity especially if you would establish beside private confession also general confession."
General confession began in Luther's time. Some of the reformers rejected it completely because they thought it could confirm people in their sins. Luther disagreed. He said the Gospel could rightly be applied publicly and privately. He considered the sermon a public absolution as well as the pastor saying, "The peace of the Lord be with you always" in the liturgy. However, Luther never included a general absolution in any of his liturgies.
The fact general confession is the rule today doesn't bother me. What bothers me is that I'm not allowed to urge people to go to confession. I can urge you to remember your Baptism, come to the Lord's Table, but not go to confession. Luther did. He said, "When I urge you to go to confession, I am simply urging you to be a Christian." Note urging is not compelling. The compelling has to be on your side not mine. The Large Catechism says people are to compel and pressure pastors to hear their confessions and absolve their sins. A consistent sign of a true Gospel revival whether in groups or individuals is an irresistible impulse toward private confession. You see this in John the Baptist's ministry and in Paul's at Ephesus.
So what is confession? First it's that we confess our sins. Confession is not promising to do better. You can see Peter trying that. The Lord had just warned him that all the disciples would desert Him and Peter himself would deny Jesus 3 times. You can imagine how shamed bold Peter felt when he fled from Gethsemane with all the other disciples. He resolves that won't happen again, so he follows Jesus all the way into the courtyard of the high priest. He denies once again, but he stays to do better. He denies again, and then seeks to run but is caught again. How much better it would have been if Peter had confessed his sin the first time rather than determined to do better the next.
Confession is what Judas did. Judas went to the office of the ministry, the people ordained on earth to forgive sins in God's stead, and said, "I have sinned, for I have betrayed innocent blood." Let that confession stand; don't water it down saying, "He wasn't really sorry." Modern translations imply this by translating "seized with remorse," "changed his mind," rather than "repented." See, Judas went to hell because he really wasn't sorry or sorry enough. Don't go there. Because the next time you say or think, "I have sinned," you'll wonder, "Am I really sorry or sorry enough?"
Don't measure the degree of your sorrow for sins or the sincerity of your confession. Yet, don't think you can get by without confessing your sins. Since we don't compel you to go to private confession, I am not saying you must confess them out loud to me, but I am saying you must confess them. Unconfessed sins don't lie dormant in the heart. They eat it away. You try to stop the gnawing by excusing your sins, but it doesn't work. You try promising to do better; still the chewing continues. Finally, you try doing something to make up for your sin, but the ache is there. King David committed adultery and murder and didn't confess them. He writes, "When I kept silent, my bones wasted away through my groaning all day long."
Do you see what happens to Jesus in our reading tonight? He's slapped, spat on, and struck with clenched fists. All man's contempt of God and all God's wrath against your sins are behind those blows, in that spit. What happened to Jesus on the outside for your sins goes on in your insides when you don't confess. Ah, but you say, how so? There are plenty of happy people who don't confess their sins at all. Yes, you can be one of them too. Just as you could put 100 pounds on the chest of a dead man and he would feel no weight, so sins can be carried around in the heart of one dead in their sins like so many living rats and they'll still feel no gnawing.
Confess your sins! Better yet, confess that in you there is nothing but sin. Our Smalcald Articles say, "He who confesses that all in him is nothing but sin includes all sins, excludes none, forgets none." Confess you're nothing but a poor miserable sinner, but please don't stop there. Lutherans kept private confession not for the sake of investigating sins but for forgiving them, not so the pastor might hear the salacious details of your life but so that you might hear the absolution of Christ coming from his mouth. The absolution is always in the indicative. "I forgive you." Not, "May God forgive you." Modern Lutheran services have replaced a true absolution with an announcement of pardon which tells you what God at one time did and may do now, but not what He does about your sins right here and now. All 5 services in the new hymnal have an announcement of pardon as an option.
In the liturgy for private confession as well as for the general confession on Maundy Thursday, the pastor asks, "Do you believe my forgiveness is God's forgiveness?" The pastor doesn't ask, "Are you really, really sorry for your sins?" That's because as Luther explained: "it is not as necessary to ask when a person is absolved, Are you sorry?' as it is to ask, Do you believe that you can be forgiven by me?'"
I'm convinced that what keeps many people away from private confession isn't shame over their sins, but doubt that by the pastor's words sins are really forgiven before God in heaven. He is stating what might happen, what could happen, what he wants to happen, but he doesn't actually send sins away from me. Well, who then can send sins away?
We chant Psalm130 often enough, you should know the answer to that. "There is forgiveness with Thee that Thou mayest be feared," we chant to the Lord. How can there be forgiveness with God? Only by the shedding of blood says Hebrews, and the Book goes on to say that the blood of goats and bulls in the Old Testament wasn't enough. The holy God is the One wronged by your sin and sinfulness. The holy God is the One you slap in the face when you fear anything more than you do him. The holy God is the One you spit on when you love your kids, your spouse, or yourself more than you do Him. The holy God is the one you punch in the face when you trust men, science, technology, or money more than you do Him.
Ever been slapped, spat on, punched? Made you mad, didn't it? I dare say I've been mad enough to kill in that situation. If it was up to me, I would've if I could've. God could've. He could've taken the hands that slapped Him and nailed them to a cross. He could've made the tongue that spat on him so dry it'd crack and bleed. He could've loaded a cross on you and marched you out naked to crucify you for all to see and laugh at. Did God do that to any of you? Even if He had, would've it done any good? Would you've paid for even one slap, spittle, or punch? No, sacrificial animals have to be holy and unblemished. That's not my hands, tongue, or person.
Only God could appease God's wrath. Therefore, God the Son was slapped, spat on and punched. The blood that spattered from His slapped mouth is sprinkled on you in Absolution. The spit running down His face made it possible to lift up your face by Absolution. The welts on Jesus' body are applied to your holy face for healing in Absolution. That's what Isaiah says, "By His stripes we are healed."
Jesus won forgiveness for your sins. He bought and paid for it, and He can do with it what He wants. On Easter night, Jesus put the forgiveness of sins in the mouths of men saying, "Whoever sins you forgive they are forgiven." Judas went to the right place to get forgiveness for his horrible sin of betraying Jesus, but horror of horrors the forgiveness wasn't there. And friend, absolution, the actual sending away of your sins in real time, isn't there for you at Reformed Churches. At best, they'll tell you what Jesus did for you, not that your painful, oozing sore of a sin is forgiven, healed, sent away. Nor is absolution for you at a Catholic church. There a priest will absolve you, but it will be in connection with the penance he assigns. You will be forgiven if you do the work he assigns you. So who knows if they ever do it well enough?
The real tragedy is that even at most Lutheran churches absolution will not be present for you. Pastoral counseling might be. Assurance that Jesus died on the cross for your worst sin will be there, but you've been telling yourself that already. This is what absolution has become to you: talking to yourself. A kind of whistling in the dark night of your sin and guilt. You keep telling yourself that Jesus died for your sins. That's true. You keep telling yourself you are forgiven for this sin that bothers you; that's true. Then why is it still so dark and you are left to whistle ever louder?
You can't go to yourself for absolution. Only Jesus has absolution. You know on Easter Jesus sent the women to tell Peter especially that He had risen. Then Jesus appeared to him personally. But all wasn't right till Jesus went to guilty Peter on the seashore and absolved him. Jesus has sent me to you. I am to tell you that Jesus is in that font, on that altar, and in my words to forgive your sins. Jesus doesn't want you doubting whether all or even just one of your sins are forgiven. Amen
Rev. Paul R. Harris
Trinity Lutheran Church, Austin, Texas
Midweek Vespers III (20070307); Confession I