I have just finished writing the portion of the forthcoming Lutheran Service Book Handbook that will deal with all forms of Confession and Absolution in Lutheran Service Book. The following is the last in a series of four church newsletter articles about private confession that I have written for my congregation:
Private confession is a Means of Grace that few use in the Evangelical Lutheran Church. There are historical factors that have contributed to this, and we surveyed those in the first newsletter article in this series. At the same time, I think there are four factors that regularly dissuade people from making use of private confession.
First, congregation members are often concerned about how their pastor will view them if they confess to him the sins present in their life. Will he be shocked? Will he think less of them because they have committed these sins?
The answer to the first question is: No. There are those who have been serving in the Office of the Ministry for far longer than I, but after fourteen years as a pastor I can say that apart from murder, I don’t think there is a sin that I have not heard confessed. Speaking in general terms, it doesn’t take long before pastors hear the confession of sins like adultery, fornication, homosexual acts, use of pornography (including child pornography), drug use, and alcohol abuse. Most likely there is no sin you are going to confess that a pastor has not already heard. Certainly he has heard serious offenses confessed, and the experience quickly prepares a pastor not to be surprised by anything. If we really believe our theology, then we know that the devil, the world and our own sinful nature are powerful forces that tempt us and lead us into sin. The fact that sin occurs is not surprising. We wish it were not so, but we are not shocked to hear that sin – even very serious sin - has occurred.
The answer to the second question is also, No. The thing that congregation members often fail to realize is that there is probably no one who is more aware of his own sin than the pastor. The pastor spends his life studying God’s Word, which is always revealing his own sin. He reflects on how to preach the law to his congregation, and often judges the effectiveness of it by how it reveals the sin in his own life. You will not find a person who understands more than your pastor about how sin can entangle us, because he is painfully aware of how this is true for him.
Second, congregation members are often concerned about whether sins confessed to the pastor will becomes known to others. At his ordination, and at every subsequent installation at a new congregation, the pastor is asked, “will you forgive the sins of those who repent, and will you promise never to divulge the sins confessed to you?” This is one of the most serious commitments made by a pastor. It is something that even our legal system acknowledges. I experienced this first hand in a federal court room in Chicago when I was asked about a matter revealed to me in private confession. When I refused to answer, the judge acknowledged that this was proper and ordered that the questioning move on to something else.
Third, congregation members can find it uncomfortable to put their sin into words and say it out loud to another person. But this discomfort is in fact one of the blessings of private confession as it aids us in our struggle against sin. Confessing our sins out loud forces us to face our sin for what it is – sin against God. In the absolution we receive the Gospel through which the Holy Spirit strengthens us to resist sin and temptation. And during our daily life as we face temptation, the knowledge that an action is a sin – something to be confessed – helps us to resist and avoid it.
Finally, congregation members often see no real need for private confession because they already confess their sins and receive absolution in the general confession and absolution that occurs at the beginning of the Divine Service. We never want to play off these two forms of confession and absolution against each other. Both are true confession of sin and both are true absolutions that deliver forgiveness. Yet the same thing can be said about the forgiveness received in all of the Means of Grace. Just because we receive forgiveness in the proclamation of the Word does not mean that therefore we don’t use Holy Baptism or the Sacrament of the Altar. Instead we recognize that each of these gives us forgiveness in a unique way.
The same is true of private confession. It is unique in that it provides the opportunity to confess particular sins that we know have been present in our life. And then the Christian gets to hear Jesus Christ speak forgiveness directly to that person as an individual. Christ speaks that forgiveness “to me” and only to me. That is a gift you receive nowhere else. As Martin Luther wrote: “No one needs to drive you to confession by commanding it. Rather we say this: Whoever is a Christian or would like to be one, has here the reliable advice to go and obtain this precious treasure” (“A Brief Exhortation to Confession,” 20).