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The hidden treasure of private confession

November 18, 2010 7 Comments

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.


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  • Judith Burns said:

    Private Confession and Absolution is definitely one of our best kept secrets. Articles like this will certainly help in getting the secret out!!! Thanks for a very thoughtful and thought-provoking article.
    At the foot of the cross,
    Judith Burns

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  • cassa said:

    In theory, I would love the opportunity to take part in Private Confession and Absolution. I’ve read and reread the orders for Private Confession in the hymnals, read some of what Luther had written on the topic and also read articles like this one and have felt very drawn to the idea of taking part in this myself. In reality, the idea of actually taking the step of sitting down face to face with my pastor or any other pastor I know in that setting scares me half to death.

    While my pastor is very aware of my human condition, the idea of sitting down and sharing the specifics, no matter how minor, almost makes me sick to my stomach.

    I’m afraid that either he will take what I confess and later use it against me, say if having to choose between me and another for a position of trust or responsibility or else would be annoyed at the stupidity or silliness of what I was confessing. So then, in my mind, either way, even though he would not repeat what I have confessed, his opinion of me or of my abilities would be coloured.

    Are there any pastors reading this article and the replies? Would you be willing to comment on the fears I’ve shared?

  • Pwasheim said:

    Hi Cassa,

    I understand your concerns about private confession. Even as a pastor I fear exactly what you say. I think it’s our natural inclination to fear some backlash from confessing our sins especially to an imperfect person. I think we have to overcome our fears and allow for God to use an imperfect pastor to bring His sweet comfort to us. Satan would love nothing better than us having to live with the constant burden of our sin weighing heavily on us. That’s how he breaks us down. But, to have someone hear that sin without judgement and pronounce forgiveness, WOW what a great gift!

    Pastors do take a vow at their ordination that those sins we hear confessed will never be spoken of. I like to talk about my ears as a tomb where those sins are buried forever. I take the vow very seriously and am honoured to have the privilege to be God’s vessel for such a high purpose.

    Another benefit of private confession is that pastors can actually preach and speak to the needs to the congregation as he hears confession. It gives him the ability to pinpoint and work to strengthen the faith of those he shepherds.

    I hope that helps.
    Phillip Washeim
    Redeemer Lutheran Church
    Langford, BC

  • cassa said:

    Hello Pastor Washeim,

    Thank you for getting back to me. Your response was very insightful and I have needed some time to read, reread and fully digest what you said before replying.

    It’s good to hear that you have had the same anxieties I do with Confession and Absolution; everything I read when I search others’ writings they make it sound like it’s silly to be afraid or else that one should be totally ashamed to be before their pastor in Confession, thinking of the words of Pr. Wilhelm Loehe. I’m glad I’m not the only one who sees it as a very intimidating thing.

    >>. I take the vow very seriously and am honoured to have the privilege to be God’s vessel for such a high purpose. <>I think it’s our natural inclination to fear some backlash from confessing our sins especially to an imperfect person.<>I think we have to overcome our fears and allow for God to use an imperfect pastor to bring His sweet comfort to us.<< That involves a intimate level of trust in the pastor, which isn’t an easy thing to give. Then again, if I am going to share those parts of myself that I’m not proud of, I would rather be looked in the eye by an equally sinful human being who knows he’s no different or better than I am than to be looked down on by someone who never did wrong.

    I appreciate your thoughtful answer and the insights it gave me; it has definitely given me more to think about. Thank you for giving of your time to reply to me.


  • Individual Confession & Absolution said:

    […] The Hidden Treasure of Private Confession from The Canadian Lutheran (the magazine of the Lutheran Church in Canada). […]

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