Although as a Lutheran church we have always had the opportunity and obligation to confess our sins to one another, we offer posted hours for Individual Confession and Absolution with the pastor using the rite in our hymnal Lutheran Service Book, pp. 292-293. In this way we want you to know our commitment to the importance of using this means of distributing God’s forgiveness. The penitential seasons of Advent and Lent offer the logical time to post a schedule when the pastor is available for the dedicated purpose of distributing individual absolution – usually on a weekday – but it may be offered at other times of the year as well.
Our forefathers said in the official confessions of faith of the Lutheran Church: “Since Absolution or the Power of the Keys is also an aid and consolation against sin and a bad conscience, ordained by Christ himself in the gospel, Confession or Absolution ought by no means to be abolished in the Church…” (Smalcald Articles Part III, Art. VIII). Martin Luther wrote in the Large Catechism regarding Individual Confession and Absolution: “Christ himself entrusted absolution to his Church and commanded us to absolve one another from sins. So if there is a heart that feels its sin and desires consolation, it has here a sure refuge when it hears in God’s Word that through a fellow human being, God absolves a person from sin.”
Where’s the power in it?
Confession and absolution are part of what the Lutheran church calls “The Use of the Keys.” The Small Catechism says, “The use of the keys is that special power and right which Christ gave to his church on earth: to forgive the sins of penitent sinners but refuse forgiveness to the impenitent as long as they do not repent.” Jesus said, “I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven; whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven” (Matthew 16:19). Also, “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive anyone his sins, they are forgiven; if you do not forgive them, they are not forgiven” (John 20:22-23).
Individual Confession and Absolution is the personal reception of forgiveness of sins from God given through the pastor or a fellow Christian. Christ comes to us through means: the Holy Scriptures, Baptism, and Holy Communion. Through individual confession and absolution, he also comes to speak a word of forgiveness.
What happens in private confession and absolution?
Very simply, you go to the pastor, confess your sins and receive individual forgiveness. You need not mention any specific sin, although you are welcome to confess sins that trouble your conscience. The pastor doesn’t probe into your life or try to make you feel guilty. It’s not a counseling session. You simply confess sin, using the rite in the hymnal. Then you receive full forgiveness from God through the pastor who says, “In the stead and by the command of my Lord Jesus Christ I forgive you all your sins… Go in peace.”
Do I really need Confession and Absolution?
Before we think there’s no need for confession and absolution today, we have only to look at our society to see that acts of confession and contrition are very prevalent and even popular on TV and in social media. But what is missing is the absolution that only Christ can give.
We are not forced to go to confession any more than we are browbeaten to be baptized or go to Holy Communion. However, individual confession and absolution fulfills the very essence of the gospel: “Your sins are forgiven!” Christ died for you. This is an individualized word to you from the pastor or fellow Christian, acting in the stead of Christ. Our Lutheran Confessions say, “It is not the voice or word of the man who speaks it, but it is the Word of God, who forgives sin, for it is spoken in God’s stead and by God’s command. We are told that God requires faith to believe such absolution as God’s own voice heard from heaven, and are assured that such faith truly obtains and receives the forgiveness of sins” (Augsburg Confession XXV 3,4).
Must I “tell all”?
No, you don’t need to confess any specific sins. Of course, you may want to do so. There is great spiritual and psychological benefit in baring your soul. King David writes about his experience in Psalm 32. Sometimes a person cannot find real peace and assurance of God’s forgiveness without full disclosure of what is troubling him or her. The pastor, of course, is under the “confessional seal” and is bound to confidentiality. He must not share with others what has been confessed to and forgiven by Christ.
God has given his Church special means by which we can know for sure that he loves us and forgives us. May the word go out: “Our Savior’s offers the fullness of God’s grace, love, and forgiveness through Word and Sacrament at many times and in many ways!”