The hidden treasure of private confession
His grace awaits you. The door is open.
by Peggy Pedersen
The church’s treasures are the gifts Christ our Lord, Himself has given us: Baptism, Holy Communion and the Office of the Keys. In these ways He comes to us, cleansing us from our sins and giving us fellowship with Himself. All of these are delivered through our other great treasure: His Holy and Living Word. These are all freely offered to us as He calls us to come to Him and promises that “Whoever comes to Me I will never cast out” (John 6:37).
As Lutherans, we are exquisitely blessed by an understanding that it is Christ Himself acting for us in these gifts. The pastor is conveying God’s own blessings to us by His authority.
In Baptism He makes us His own, in Holy Communion He enters and strengthens us giving forgiveness, life and salvation. These are public acts by which we confess our faith in Him. The hidden treasure is private confession.
Martin Luther was very careful to offer both Holy Communion and Private Confession without requiring any particular frequency. However, he also stated that these were the natural acts of a Christian, for to be a Christian means acknowledging that we are sinners who cannot cleanse ourselves and need the grace and mercy of God. Furthermore, it is to have faith that Jesus Christ, indeed, is God and has all the authority of God to forgive sins; that He can cleanse us from all unrighteousness; turn away the anger of God; and reconcile us with our heavenly Father. When we receive these gifts we acknowledge our trust in His Word.
Almost a year ago I began attending private confession and absolution. I had read in Luther’s Small Catechism, “When I urge you to go to confession, I am simply urging you to be a Christian,” and as I read further about the means of grace, I questioned why I should exclude myself from this mercy Christ was offering me. Surely, in the daily struggle with sin and temptation I needed all the grace I could get! It seemed a natural part of an examination of conscience as preparation for Holy Communion. Indeed, the liturgy for private confession states that “it is in order to fulfil God’s will.”
I noted that our weekly bulletin listed hours for private confession and new to Lutheranism, I did not know how few actually took advantage of it. After making an appointment, I spent time the evening before reading Luther’s Small Catechism about private confession and thinking about ways in which I believed I had failed to follow our Lord and of which my conscience accused me. Reviewing the Table of Duties and Ten Commandments helps along with reading some of the penitential psalms.
This gives glory to Him and puts an end to my efforts at self-justification.
I didn’t know what to expect and there is the tendency to feel embarrassed because we always want to present our clean faces not our soiled hearts. Yet, I knew acknowledging I am a sinner before God is to agree with Him that I have no righteousness of my own; His judgement regarding me is true; He needed to die for me; I constantly need Him; and cannot cleanse myself by anything I do, only by being washed in His blood. This gives glory to Him and puts an end to my efforts at self-justification.
Preparing for confession gave me an opportunity to not just note particular sins, but see the underlying lack of trust or faith behind them, as well as the pattern of recurring sins where I was particularly resisting God’s will. It also prevented me from growing complacent about my sins or unaware if, in the bustle of daily life, I was drifting from my “first love.”
After private confession became a regular part of my life it reinforced the understanding that all my attempts to improve myself fall short and that I have to wholly rely on Him who loves me and forgives me despite my sinfulness. I realized that my entire life will be a daily pattern of repentance and that frequent confession and absolution is an important part of that, because without it, I could easily become discouraged looking at my own failures rather than trusting God’s unmerited grace towards me.
Although we daily pray for forgiveness, the adversary whispers to us, “How are you sure God has heard you or forgiven you?” Our conscience, too, accuses us and, unless quieted, can lead us to despair or cause us to shut our ears even to the guiding voice of God. Just as in Holy Communion we hear, “This is His body given for you,” likewise we need to hear His voice telling us that our particular sins are forgiven and cast into oblivion.
The catechism says private confession is the unburdening of our hearts regarding those sins that most disturb us, not an exhaustive list of every infraction. I need not worry about forgetting something because when absolution is pronounced, all sins are forgiven. God’s forgiveness is not based on emotional feelings or on having sufficiently repented, but rather on His already accomplished work and promise. Scriptures tell us, “If we confess our sins, He is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness” (1 John 1:9). Absolution is His work, not mine.
Although we daily confess our sins to God, we also need the grace of private confession and absolution
It is perfectly acceptable to simply make a general confession without details, and the pastor will not probe. But it helps to openly state those things we most need to hear God has forgiven. In fact, this is why, although we daily confess our sins to God, we also need the grace of private confession and absolution. We need to hear those words spoken directly to us: “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.”
As a servant of our Lord, our pastor has been given the keys to the Kingdom of Heaven. That is why I am assured this absolution comes straight from the Throne of God for me. Those words are like cool water to a parched throat. Afterwards, as the pastor reads a hymn or psalm telling of God’s kindness and mercy towards us, and the realization of His great love enters my heart, often tears of joy come unbidden because I know my sins are no more.
When I see my pastor afterwards I am not ashamed to face him nor does he treat me differently than before because He knows every one of us sitting in the pews is a sinner, but we are sinners who have a Saviour. Just as God forgets our confessed sins, the pastor has pledged to keep them secret forever.
If you believe what you see on television and in movies, the only people who go to private confession are murderers, adulterers, thieves and Catholics. This is the work of the evil one to discourage us from what he knows is the operation of God’s power. Jesus died to win our forgiveness and to set us free. He wants us to believe in, receive and live in the assurance of His forgiveness. He wants us to have the joy of knowing we are in His grace.
Our Lord gave authority to His disciples to forgive sins in the following words:
“Whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven” (Matt. 18:18).
“If you forgive anyone his sins, they are forgiven” (John 20:23).
Hearing the words “you are forgiven,” and knowing that pronouncement echoed in heaven, fills me with thankfulness that God has bestowed such mercy upon me. His grace awaits me. The door is open. There are words He wants us to hear. “Take heart; your sins are forgiven” (Matt. 9:2).
Peggy Pedersen is a member of Redeemer Lutheran Church in Victoria, B.C.