A brief history of private confession in the Lutheran Church
The blessings of private confession
It’s very likely that you have never gone to private confession. From 1856 to 1982 there wasn’t a rite for it in the hymnals published by the Lutheran Church – Missouri Synod (one did appear for the first time in the Worship Supplement of 1969). From 1943 to 1986 the description in the Small Catechism of how confession is done wasn’t included in the English translation used by the LCMS. From 1943 to 1991 the description in the Small Catechism of how confession is done wasn’t included in the Explanation of Luther’s Small Catechism used for catechesis in the LCMS. If you don’t read and speak German, and you received catechesis and Confirmation between 1943 and 1991 it is almost certain that you never learned about private confession, much less how it is done.
That describes my own experience in the Lutheran church. I was confirmed in 1983 and received catechesis using the 1943 synodical catechism. The new hymnal Lutheran Worship had been out for barely a year. I did not know that there was a rite of “Individual Confession and Absolution” in it, and I don’t remember anyone ever telling me that there was such a thing. I didn’t learn about private confession until I went to college at Concordia, Ann Arbor. I never made use of private confession until right at the time I went to the seminary.
So it’s not surprising if you have never made use of private confession. To do so means that it is going to be the first time, and like anything we do for the first time this can produce uncertainty and apprehension – all the more so because private confession is about admitting our sin.
The good news is that in our hymnal, Lutheran Service Book, we have the best rite for private confession that has ever been produced in the Lutheran church. That’s not an exaggeration. The “Individual Confession and Absolution” follows the model in the Small Catechism more closely than any before it, while also being the most user friendly in leading us to confess individual sins.
Like Holy Baptism and the Sacrament of the Altar, private Confession and Absolution takes place in church. The pastor, vested in alb and stole, sits in a chair turned at ninety degrees to the chancel rail. The first rubric (the red words that tell us how to do things) says: “You may prepare yourself by meditating on the Ten Commandments (pages 321-322). You may also pray the penitential psalms (6, 32, 38, 51, 102, 130, or 143).” Those psalms are at the front of the hymnal. This is a time to consider the specific ways you have sinned by violating God’s commands. The next rubric states:
If you are not burdened with particular sins, do not trouble yourself or search for or invent other sins, thereby turning confession into a torture. Instead, mention one or two sins that you know and let that be enough.
There may be times when we come to confession with a sin that is deeply troubling our conscience. However, people now have the false impression that private confession is only for this kind of sin. Instead, private confession is intended to be part of the ordinary means by which we deal with sin in our life. Most of that, while still sin against God, looks rather ordinary. They are the kinds of things that happen during a normal week. Private confession helps us to identify those things as sins, and to confess them. So confess a couple of ways you have sinned and be done. If there is something more troubling, then confess that.
Confession begins when you kneel at the chancel rail (just as you do in receiving the Sacrament of the Altar) adjacent to where the pastor is seated. You will say: “Pastor, please hear my confession and pronounce forgiveness in order to fulfill God’s will.” The pastors replies with: “Proceed.” Then you begin to confess using words that sound very much like what we use on Sunday in the Divine Service. They speak in a general way as they start with the First, Second and Third Commandments, and then move on to the Second Table of the Law (Commandments Four through Ten) as we confess about how we have treated our neighbor:
I, a poor sinner, plead guilty before God of all sins. I have lived as if God did not matter and as if I mattered most. My Lord’s name I have not honored as I should; my worship and prayers have faltered. I have not let His love have its way with me, and so my love for others has failed. There are those whom I have hurt, and those whom I have failed to help. My thoughts and desires have been soiled with sin.
Now this is a confession of sin. One could stop there and receive Absolution as Jesus Christ speaks to you as an individual through His called servant and says, “I forgive you all your sins.” Perhaps when you first use private confession, this will be more comfortable. It’s a great way to start.
Then the hymnal says: “If you wish to confess specific sins that trouble you, continue as follows: “What troubles me particularly is that….” At this point you can name the sins you have committed and are confessing. The rubric that follows provides some guidance: “Confess whatever you have done against the commandments of God, according to you own place in life.” It is always best when we state individual sins and identify what commandment they have broken. This forces us to recognize our sin for what it is – a violation of God’s will. We also confess sin according to our place in life – our vocation. We examine our life as we consider the responsibilities God has given to us as spouse, parent, congregation member, citizen, employer and employee. We identify our sin in these specific settings that God has entrusted to us. The rubric adds: “The pastor may gently question or instruct not to pry or judge – but to assist in self-examination.” Generally speaking, the pastor is just there to listen. But if you are struggling to express what you have done wrong or begin to make excuses for why you sin, he may gently question and instruct you so that you see and express the matter according to God’s word.
When you are done confessing, you will say: “I am sorry for all of this and ask for grace. I want to do better.” Confession and Absolution isn’t only about escaping the consequences of our sin. Absolution is the Gospel and we come to Confession as repentant sinners who not only regret our sins but also want to avoid sin in the future. We know that this can only happens by God’s grace – his undeserved loving favor that we receive through the Gospel.
The pastor will say, “God be merciful to you and strengthen your faith,” and you will respond, Amen.” Then he will ask the question that is answered in faith: “Do you believe that my forgiveness is God’s forgiveness?” Our faith doesn’t make it to be God’s forgiveness. God speaks it, so it is. But our faith must receive the forgiveness as what God says it is: God himself forgiving our sins. And so the pastor will respond: “Let it be done for you as you believe.”
Then the pastor will place his hands on your head – an action that leaves no doubt about the person God is now forgiving – as he says: “In the stead and by the command of my Lord Jesus Christ I forgive you all your sins in the name of the Father and of the ╬ Son and of the Holy Spirit.” Those words are spoken by Christ to you through the pastor (“in the stead and by the command”) and they do what they say – they forgive.
The next rubric says: “The pastor may speak additional Scripture passages to comfort and strengthen the faith of those who have great burdens of conscience or are sorrowful and distressed.” Often the pastor will speak some additional Scripture verse and comment briefly in a way that highlights the certainty of forgiveness, peace and salvation found in Jesus Christ. Then the pastor concludes by saying, “Go in peace” and you will say “Amen” - a statement of faith that you can in fact go in peace because the crucified and risen Lord has just forgiven your sins. You heard him say it to you, and to you alone! A final rubric says, “You may remain to say a prayer of thanksgiving. Psalms 30, 31, 32, 103 and 118 are also appropriate.”
That is how private confession is done. Like anything, it becomes comfortable the more we do it.
Next month: Why people are hesitant to use private confession.