Isn't Private Confession Catholic?
This Advent/Lent we've been studying the sacraments under the theme "Aids to Faith and Answers to Life." We're on Confession now, also called Individual Confession, Private Confession, or even by our Confessions, Penance. Whatever you call it be clear on this: we're not talking about the general confession and absolution that happens in public worship. And whatever you call it most people think it's Catholic. Anything truly Roman Catholic, the Pope, Purgatory, or Indulgences isn't an aid to faith or an answer to life. Anything you consider Catholic can't be for you either.
Is Private Confession catholic? Of course it is, if you spell it with a small c' where catholic has the meaning universal." In the Old Testament; the Church's Levitical system had a liturgy for private confession. We see David confess his sin privately to Pastor Nathan and Nathan absolve him. In the New Testament, the first thing Jesus established after rising from the dead was an office that was filled with the Holy Spirit to forgive and retain sins. James 5 says confess your sins one to another.
The Lutheran Reformation while rejecting the Pope, Purgatory, and Indulgences, retained Private Confession. We say in one of our Confessions of faith, "[W]e also retain confession, especially on account of the absolution" (AP, IV, 4). Chemnitz writing about 20 years after Luther died said "our churches have nothing in common" "with those who entirely take out of the church" private confession. (Examination, II, 621). It makes you wonder how it came to be almost entirely taken out of our churches from 1950 to 1980.
That's another topic. Now we're asking is Private Confession Catholic? It is if you're spelling it with a capital C'. Then it refers to the church headquartered in Rome with the Pope as its leader. But Roman Catholic Private Confession has little to do with the Lutheran rite.
For starters, it's mandatory for Catholics before they receive First Communion and once a year thereafter. Listen to the official Catechism of the Catholic Church. "Children must go to the sacrament of Penance before receiving Holy Communion for the first time" (1457). "According to the Church's command, after having attained the age of discretion, each of the faithful is bound by an obligation faithfully to confess serious sins at least once a year'" (1457). These must be recounted out loud to a priest (1456). You commit adultery, fornication, murder, abortion, steal, etc., and you can say the Lord's Prayer "forgive us our trespasses" all day, every day till the cows come home and you aren't forgiven according to the Catholic Church.
Even the forgiveness a priest does pronounce is conditional. Let Rome speak for herself. The acts of man required in the Sacrament of Penance are "contrition, confession, and satisfaction" (1448). Later they explain why this is important, "Absolution takes away sin, but it does not remedy all the disorders sin has caused. Raised up from sin, the sinner must still recover his full spiritual health by doing something more to make amends for the sin: he must make satisfaction for' or expiate' his sins. This satisfaction is also called penance'" (1459).
Say you aborted a baby; say you cheated on your spouse; say you stole from a parent; say you lied to an employer; what would be enough to make amends, make satisfaction, expiate that sin? Don't worry; the priest will tell you. But will you do what he says sincerely enough, faithfully enough, fully enough? If you don't, guess what? You're not forgiven. If you do, it's even worse. Then you're forgiveness is based on you having done something, i.e. on works, not on what Jesus did for you.
The Catholic system makes sense. Examining the motives of the one confessing, the sincerity of repentance, and the genuineness of the will to amend one's ways are part of the admission procedure of many manmade groups (Girgensohn, II, 72). The big "C" kind of private confession mirrors man-made judicial procedures too: The priest is a judge who determines the facts, looks at motives, and fixes penalties for a crime (Ibid. 73). Finally, Rome uses Confession like cops use information. "Anybody who knows another man's sins has him in his power. The Roman church rules by means of the confession and this is why regular confession is required" (Ibid.).
This being said, the real question you have about Private Confession is can it take away these ashes on my forehead that are a sign my individual sins and sinfulness are killing me softly but surely. Maybe on Ash Wednesday, perhaps on Good Friday, but certainly in your nightmares you have a sense of just how guilty, filthy, and fallen you are. So is there a power on earth and does mortal, sinful man have it to forgive the sins that are turning me into dust?
Look at the Passion Reading. Say you're Judas. Say Jesus has given you 4 opportunities to confess your sins. He tells you He knows who will betray Him. He tells you its one who has dipped his hand into the bowl with Him. He tells you it would be better not to have been born than to go ahead with the betrayal. Then he offers you the piece of bread dipped from that bowl. Say you take it anyway, and Satan enters into you, but Jesus isn't done trying to bring you to confession. He says what you're going to do, do quickly or you will never do it.
Say this isn't Judas, but you. How often does Jesus call you back from your sin and sinfulness? If you come to Divine Service every week, He does it every week. If you come to Bible classes, He does it more than that. He's calling you to confess your sin; get it out in the open; drag it into the light of day. But you fear its ugliness even though you know that nothing is as ugly in the light of day as it is when hidden in shadows, and so Satan enters in. He's perched on your guilt; he's pecking your eyes out with pricks of shame. Luther says that if you knew the Devil as well as he did "you would never have rejected confession" (LW, 51, 100).
I got a head of myself. The question before us is there power on earth, given to sinful men to deal with the Devil who uses our own sin and guilt to master us? It's true what Jesus' enemies say; only God can forgive sins. Why? Because He alone is the one sinned against. Wrap your head around that. After Nathan brings David to confession and absolves him of his sin of raping Bathsheba and murdering her husband, David examines what happened and says to the Lord, "Against Thee only have I sinned." What? Tell that to the violated Bathsheba and the dead Uriah.
But it's true. Get this through your head and into your very soul. God is the One you have offended. God is the One who needs to be appeased. God is the One who must forgive you. The ashes on your forehead indicate that against God only have you sinned even though you have hurt others, loved ones, friends, coworkers. And God knows you have done it even if every one else doesn't. Jesus knew what Judas was up to even though everyone else didn't. Jesus knew Judas guilt, spite, lies, hatred, and greed; and Jesus knows yours.
Do you? Do you really? Do you know that the words "poor, miserable sinner" refer first and foremost to you and that we're not talking about a feeling but a condition? We're saying there is a load on us which if nothing is done will break us (God in the Dock, 121). Those ashes that you really can't feel indicate a weight that is so heavy it's sinking you into the floor even now and will sink you all the way into hell if nothing is done about it.
Now do you see why we cry, "Lord have mercy?" Now do you see why we praise the Lamb of God that takest away the sin of the world? Now do you see why we cry "Blessed is He that cometh in the name of the Lord!" and conclude with "Hosanna" which means "save now?" Now do you see why after Communion we can depart in peace and proclaim that His mercy endureth forever?
God is the One sinned against and we men are guilty. So God came into our flesh and blood. By a perfect life, a life not guilty of one lustful, greedy thought, let alone foul word or disgusting act, do you know what Jesus won? He won the right to suffer and die as a sacrifice for the sins of the world. That's right; a spotted, blemish Man couldn't carry away anyone else's sins but His own. So Jesus' holy life was "rewarded" with an unholy, hellish, damnation and death. All of God's wrath against the world's sins were taken out against this One man. Till God's wrath was satisfied, appeased, finished.
Jesus paid for the world's sins, for your sins. What you pay for you own. What you pay for you can do with what you want. Jesus shows you what He wants to do with your sins by instituting right off the bat the office that forgives sins. He told us in the upper room that His blood was poured out for the forgiveness of sins. It wasn't poured out to make you more guilty, more shamed, or more pained, but to forgive you.
There's no doubt in any of your minds that I really put ashes on your forehead. There should be do doubt in your mind that when I forgive your sins I am putting the blood of Jesus over them. And while some of you have no trouble believing that the ashes are a flowering of what is buried in your very bone marrow and soul, most of you have no idea of the depth, the completeness, the fullness of your forgiveness. You foolishly think that because you can remember that sin and have a hard time forgiving yourself that means God does as well.
Look at the Passion Reading. We know the remaining 11 disciples have sinned against Jesus for 3 years. We know every single one of them is going to abandon Him before the night is over. Yet Jesus says, "You are those who have stood by Me in My trials." Is Jesus lying? Of course not. Jesus is doing what the mother does who tells her 3 year old she is a big help when all she really did was make a bigger mess. Jesus is looking at them through His forgiving love which is not based on what they do or don't do but on what He will do to pay for and cover all their sins.
In a nutshell, our Private Confession isn't Catholic with a big C', but the forgiveness bestowed there is catholic with a small one. Amen
Rev. Paul R. Harris
Trinity Lutheran Church, Austin, Texas
Ash Wednesday (20150218); Confession I, Passion Reading 1