If I don't Have to Why Should I?
"Aids to Faith and Answers to Life" is our theme, and to Luther Private Confession was one of the most powerful aids and answers. But did you notice that the only Chief Part of Luther's Catechism that cites no Bible Passages is Confession? The part labeled Office of the Keys has one, but that was not written by Luther and it is not part of our Book of Concord. So why no Scripture citation here? Because the need for private confession leading to personal absolution is self-evident. While all may privately confess and no one must, it is self-evident that some should.
Because of the Devil's, the World's and the Flesh's whispering some should confess privately. If any of these whisper during general confession and absolution on Sunday, "If that pastor actually knew what you were confessing, he never would forgive it. Your sin is too big, too ugly, too evil," you should come to Private Confession. Why? Because the whisperers are wrong.
David after sexual immorality and murder confesses and the Lord covers his sin not counting it against him. The sinful woman in Luke 7 is so grateful to be forgiven for her sins that she publicly humiliates herself in thanksgiving to Jesus. Peter the denier and Paul the murderer are able to become pillars of the Church. The 11 disciples who deserted Jesus only hours after saying they would all die rather than disown Him were forgiven.
How could you possibly have a sin bigger, uglier or eviler' than these? What do you think Jesus' soul was "overwhelmed with sorrow to the point of death" for? Not just for the sins you can understand and accept could be forgiven but for ones no human being could forgive. If the cup of God was only filled with His wrath against "little" sins, Jesus wouldn't have shrank from drinking it, but it was filled with those monstrous ones, the ones you can't believe you did, said, or thought. What do you think pressed great drops of blood out of Jesus? What but the biggest, ugliest, evilest sins?
If you're hearing the whisper during general confession that the pastor would never forgive what you're confessing in your heart, you should come to Private Confession. Likewise you should come if there is a longing, aching, pulling towards this gift of the risen Savior.
Many people have a need to confess to a person. Google, Texas Confessional. They say, "We offer Texans an outlet to anonymously confess their biggest regrets, which we compile, publish in 100 little black chapbooks, and scatter throughout the state." They don't claim to be able to forgive anything, but they know just saying it to someone gives some relief. The opening scene in the movie "Sleepers" shows the same. A woman goes into a confessional and young teenage boys are on the other side. The priest finds the boys, pulls them out, and apologizes to the woman. She says, "That's okay Father; I just want someone to be listening." By contrast the movie "Plague" shows you the height of despair in the epidemic by panning to a confessional where no priest is on the other side to hear.
In none of these examples, have I said anything about absolution which is why Lutherans keep Private Confession, not so the pastor can hear your private sins, but so that you might personally hear the public Gospel. So what keeps those away who know and feel their sins because of the whisper that they aren't really forgiven? What keeps those away who would feel better even apart from absolution just to say the sin out loud or even online? Two things familiarity and shame.
I'm not in favor of long pastorates because after 10 or so years the person of the pastor eclipses his office. You can no more imagine confessing to him than you could a friend. If that's the case, go to another pastor to stop the whispering and get that ugly, big, bad sin out in the open and off your chest, heart, soul.
The shame that keeps people away is part of Private Confession. The Prodigal Son states openly he's not worthy to be called son.' The tax collector can't lift his eyes to heaven. Zacchaeus can only look at Jesus from afar. Chemnitz quotes Chrysostom saying the following: "'Where there is no belief in the punishment of judgment to come, there men regard the shame of confession" (Examination II, 593). The Gospel way of saying this is when the shame of Private Confession is at last outweighed by the pain of guilt, relief, rescue, rebirth is but a Word away.
In my experience, people usually privately confess what they have publicly confessed repeatedly. They have labored under the illusion that mere time would somehow cancel their feeling of sinfulness, and when it doesn't they find themselves locked in the circle of "I'm sorry," of papier-mache excuses, or powerless promises to make up for their sin by doing better. They are locked in this circle like a gerbil in its wheel, and I have found them so running years, decades later. As Rosencrantz says to the bedeviled Hamlet, "You do, surely, bar the door upon your own liberty, if you deny your griefs to your friend" (Act 3, Scene II).
Personal absolution to a private confession is the equivalent of the Magic Bullet of medicine. That's the antibiotic or other medicine targeted to treat the specific bacteria or aliment you have. The pastor takes Jesus' blood dripping on Gethsemane's ground and applies it to your specific sin. He says the sin that has so long plagued you was put on Jesus 2,000 years ago. He suffered for it way back then. He paid for it way back then. It was an over and done deal 2,000 years ago, and yet here you sit in your guilt and shame. Do you do that with paid credit card bills or paid off loans? No.
Hear Luther on this: "There are some people with consciences so tender and despairing that even if they have not been publicly condemned, they cannot find comfort until they have been individually absolved by the pastor" (LW, 41, 153). Again, "'In confession, as in the Sacrament [of the Altar], you have the advantage that the Word is aimed at you personally. For in preaching it takes flight into the congregation, and though there it strikes you too, still you are not as sure. But here it cannot strike anyone except you'" (Girgensohn, 67).
You can know, agree, and trust that Jesus died for the sins of the world, but unless you see that your sins and that sin in particular we're on His head, paid for by the lash upon His body, covered by His great drops of blood in Gethsemane, and then washed away in Baptism, sent away by Absolution, or sealed as forgiven in Communion, you will be miserable and never get out of the gerbil's wheel.
Don't you see? Jesus has opened a franchise of forgiveness in your neighborhood. If you move into an area that doesn't have your favorite fast-food, what a treat it is when they finally build one. After Jesus paid for the sins of the world, after God the Father showed He accepted that as payment in full by raising Jesus from the dead, He sent the apostles out to open up franchises of forgiveness by planting churches. If you're listening to me now, this franchise has been planted for you. Here is where you can come in 2015 to get the forgiveness Jesus won in 30 AD.
Are you familiar with the late 80s hit "I'm Gonna be?" The refrain is "But I would walk 500 miles/ And I would walk 500 more/ Just to be the man who walked a 1000 miles/ To fall down at your door." Luther said a similar thing about private absolution. "If I knew that God were in a certain place and would absolve me, I would not go to some other place, but would receive absolution in that place as often as I could" (LW, 36, 359). He even speaks of going the distance like the song. "'If you were a Christian, you should be glad to run more than a hundred miles for confession, not under compulsion but rather coming and compelling us to offer it. For here the compulsion must be inverted; we must be under the command and you must come into freedom. We compel no man, but allow ourselves to be compelled" (Girgensohn, 81-2).
I've never set up times for Private Confession because that inverts the compulsion. That makes you think you're expected to confess your sins privately. Or worse, it makes you think that some sins can't be forgiven except personally by a pastor. No, 1 John ever remains true, "If we confess our sins, God is faithful and just and will forgive them." You are forgiven for every sin every time you pray, "Forgive us our trespasses," or cry, "Lord have mercy." Every time I say, "The peace of God which passes all human understanding" is yours, or "The peace of the Lord be with you always" and you say "Amen" forgiveness has been given and received.
But if you need to hear personally that Jesus still calls you friend even though you've betrayed Him by more foul things than a kiss; if you need to be told that Jesus will heal you of the guilty conscience that you got while sinning against Him; if you need to hear Jesus tell the Law, Sin, Death, Devil, Guilt, and Shame, "Let her go; let him go," then compel me to tell you this. Compel me to take your sin stained hands in mine.
That illustration is from mythology. Hercules driven to madness by the goddess Hera kills his wife and 3 sons and awakes in a welter of blood. Realizing the terrible deed he has done, he is going to kill himself. His friend Theseus reaches out his hands to clasp Hercules' blood stained ones. Not only were his own hands now stained with innocent blood but under Greek law he shares Hercules' guilt. But this absolution wasn't enough for Hercules. He went on to do his 12 labors to remove his guilt (Mythology, 163).
May the forgiving Word of God whether in your Baptism, in general absolution, or Communion be more than enough to remove any trace of your sins. May you see that in confession you reach out your sin stained hands, and God clasps them with the bloodstained hands of Jesus. His hands are so big that not even a sliver of your hand can be seen by the Father. But if you keep on seeing your sin stained hands, then run don't walk to the place on earth where Jesus has opened a franchise of forgiveness to take you by the hand and lead you to forgiveness and freedom. Amen.
Rev. Paul R. Harris
Trinity Lutheran Church, Austin, Texas
Lenten Midweek II (20150225); Confession II, Passion Reading 2