What Sins Should We Confess?
This section on Confession is to help you decide when you should come to Confession. You want to hear the short, sweet answer from the get go? You should come to confession when you're ashamed to.
None of you must confess your sins to me privately. All of you are guilty before God of all manner of sins and must confess as much to Him. That's what we do in the Lord's Prayer. "Forgive us our sins," we pray even when we don't have any particular sin in mine. That's what we do in the general confession on Sunday. "I a poor, miserable sinner," we say putting all that we think, say, do and are in one sinful pile. All must confess to God, but no one must confess to the pastor. It doesn't matter how serious the sin, how gross the sin, how long standing the sin; no one must confess.
Compulsion leads people to confess what is not sin or not really confess their sin. Catholics must make their first confession at a young age. Some have told me how they made up sins or hid the sin that really bothered them. Compelling people to go to confession leads them to confess what they shouldn't and not confess what they should. It also leads to believing confession causes you to be forgiven. If I can get up the courage to confess my sins privately, then I'll know I'm forgiven.
Long before you, I, or anyone else confessed their sins privately, Jesus was flogged, crowned with thorns, and hit with a staff. There's what "causes peace"; there's the travail of Jesus' soul that the Father saw and was satisfied as Isaiah 53 says. There's the wrath removing sacrifice for not only your sins but the sins of the whole world says John. The most perfect, complete private confession in the world will not satisfy God's wrath, remove one sin, or bring peace to you. If it did, you would be doomed to forever having to confess your sins privately.
None must come to confess their sins, but all may come. Jesus died for all. As you see Jesus suffer this travesty of justice, know that what John the Baptist said about Him still applies. He's the Lamb of God that carries away the sins of the world. They're all here. Jesus bears every sin ever committed. He is the true scapegoat. Like the Old Testament type all sins are placed on Him. Unlike the Old Testament type, Jesus doesn't wander around in the wilderness. He is butchered. All sins are here; all sins are paid for; therefore, all may confess all sins.
You know what a bank branch is. Well before Christ ascended into heaven, He established a branch of forgiveness on earth: a place on earth where words are spoken that only heaven can say. It's called the Church. We earthlings need this. We're like the child who comes running into mom's bed because of a thunderstorm. The mom rightly tells her, "It's alright; go back to your bed; Jesus is with you." The child replies, "I know that, but I need someone with skin." Yes, we sinners in the flesh may need someone with skin to silence the devil's doubt that if the pastor really knew the sin we confess silently before God he'd never forgive it. O yes, he would, and you may hear him do it!
Ever been to the doctor with an infection that just wouldn't clear up? This and that antibiotic is tried, but it doesn't help. Finally, the doctor cultures the infection and gives you an antibiotic targeted to your specific infection. Bingo! That's it. The infection is gone. All may have such special medicine for their sins. The pastor in private confession applies the medicine of the Gospel to your specific sin to heal it.
But what if the sin is real serious, big, or disgusting? What if it shouldn't be forgiven? Christ our Lord binds you to the mouth of that pastor. You are to know if he forgives your sin it is forgiven before God in heaven. God Himself, for Jesus' sake, goes by the mouth of a man on earth! If the local branch of forgiveness says you are forgiven, then forgiven you are. You see; when a pastor forgives your sin privately, he takes responsibility for it. He not you will answer for it on the last day. Just as Jesus took responsibility for your sins to pay for them, so the pastor takes responsibility for them when he forgives them. Therefore, he only forgives sins that he knows Jesus carried away and paid for because he can no more bear to carry them or pay for them than you.
None must come to private confession; all may; some should. So how can I reconcile none must come with some should? Well, this is what the 5th Chief Part says, "Before the pastor we should confess" This 'should' doesn't flow from a point of the Law, but from the pain of the sinner. "Before the pastor we should confess only those sins we know and feel in our hearts." This is Jesus calling for heavy laden people to come to Him. This is Jesus saying, "Whoever comes to Me I will in no way cast out." This is Jesus not defending Himself, not accepting Pilate's repeated declarations of innocence in order to bear your sins, so you don't have to. This is Jesus wanting to be with sinners and eat with them. Shouldn't sinners be with Him and eat with Him? Yes, they should.
Now friend, don't think this Gospel should can't apply to you because you're sins aren't that bad. Badness, ugliness, or seriousness isn't the standard for what should be confessed to the pastor. Don't think because your sin isn't that bad, ugly, or serious that private confession can't be for you. Look at the sins our Catechism asks us to consider for private confession: Sins against our vocation as a father, mother, son, daughter, husband, wife, or worker. Have we been disobedient, unfaithful, lazy, hot-tempered, rude, and quarrelsome? Have we hurt someone by word or deed? Have we stolen, been negligent, wasted anything, or done any harm? Where's the murdering, stealing, fornicating, or lying? Aren't these sins? Of course, but Luther is making the point that it's not this or that sin that should be confessed privately but the sin, any sin, you know and feel.
It may be something serious to the world, but maybe it isn't. In fact, in our world, there are very few sins, if any, that are serious anymore. In our world having many gods is nothing; misusing the Lord's name is commonplace; not going to church? Please. Disobeying parents, killing babies, all sexual sins, stealing, lying, and lusting aren't sins to most of the world. You're neurotic if you're bothered by any of them. So when a sin does still bother us we try to deal with it like the world does: get over it; forget it; don't mention it. And it's true: God in Christ has gotten over it; has forgotten it and doesn't mention it, but you won't until you face the shame.
Last week I said I thought few people came to confess their sins privately not because of shame but because they didn't think the pastor's absolution did anything. It's different when your sins make you feel dirty, heavy, diseased. Then there is shame. Then we are the tax collector who won't lift his eyes to heaven. Then we are Peter who wants Jesus to leave him because he's a sinful man. Then we are the woman who could only bear to touch Jesus secretly from behind.
We feel shame when we know and feel our sin. This shame doesn't forgive our sin anymore than our confession does, but facing it is important. A German Lutheran pastor says that since sin always promotes us before men, it is essential for a sin's destruction that humiliation takes place before men by confession whether public or private. Note he doesn't say confession forgives the sin, but it destroys its power over us. Chrysostom says that the person who faces the shame of confession has at last faced the greater reality of the judgment to come. The eternal reality at last has trumped the earthly reality. The person realizes it's better to face the momentary shame of sin here than their eternal shame in the hereafter. St. Jerome says that the person ashamed to show a wound to a doctor can't be helped, so once he's willing to face that shame, he's a long way down the road of recovery.
Remember, I am not saying your shame pays for your sins. The shame Jesus bore did. God in the flesh mocked, ridiculed, spat on in your place pays for sins. God having His flesh whipped, bruised, and cut pays for your sins. Your shame pays for nothing. I'm urging you to face the shame of the sins you know and feel in your heart so the shame Christ bore to pay for your sins can comfort you. In so doing, the bright light of the Gospel will dispel the dark shame around your sin. So many other things, none of them good, grow in that dark, dank shame.
This is what happens. Those who should confess their sins don't because of shame. They get some relief from the general absolution; they get some relief from the sermon; they get some relief from Communion. Now, they could and should get all their relief there, but they don't. They feel and act like guilty sinners not forgiven ones. They can't bear to say out loud their sin to the pastor because they are ashamed. But don't you see, dear friend, you're not avoiding the shame at all. No indeed, you're living with it day in and day out.
Christ has already been tortured for the sin you are torturing yourself for; Christ has already been rejected by God the Father for the sin you feel you're being rejected for. Christ has already been punished for the sin you're punishing yourself for. Christ has already bore the shame for the sin you're shaming yourself for. He doesn't need or want you being tortured, you being rejected, you being punished, you being shamed for sins He already paid for. He wants you to find relief, forgiveness, and the lifting up of your heart and head in His being tortured, rejected, punished and shamed in your place.
Don't you see the wicked cleverness of Satan here? He tells you the shame of privately confessing your sin will kill you, when in fact not confessing your sin is doing that. He tells you that you can't bear the shame of confessing the sin you know and feel in your heart when in fact you can't bear not confessing it. You should make private confession when you're ashamed to because that indicates you believe your sin is still on you. When you face that shame before the pastor, he can show you that Jesus already bore that sin, that shame. Therefore, you are free of both. Amen
Rev Paul R. Harris
Trinity Lutheran Church, Austin, Texas
Midweek IV (20070314); Confession II