During the Lenten mid-week Vespers we have been learning about Individual Confession and Absolution. We have been listening to the Word of God from the Penitential Psalms and have been instructed from the Small Catechism as we have learned about the importance of Individual Confession and Absolution in the life of believers and Christian congregations.
Undoubtedly, this time of instruction has raised some questions in your minds. This is a very good thing. As a congregation, what we are about is receiving God’s Word of forgiveness for the sake of Jesus Christ. When questions arise, this means you have been hearing the Word. I have anticipated some of your questions and have tried to answer some of them in this month’s Partner.
Does this mean that God only forgives my sins if I go privately and speak to the pastor?
In a word, No! Remember, God forgives sins by several different means: Baptism, preaching, the Word of God, the Lord’s Supper, AND individual absolution. It is not really our place to play one of God’s gifts off of another, or to try and say that one is more important than the other.
Isn’t Individual Confession/Absolution Roman Catholic?
No. The Lutheran Confessions repeatedly state that this is a good, evangelical practice that should be retained in our congregations. Remember, this point has been made repeatedly, the point of confession and absolution is the absolution, that is, forgiveness.
Does God forgive me when I pray for forgiveness?
Yes and no. Yes God forgives your sins, but no, He doesn’t do it by means of your prayers. When you pray to God to forgive your sins, you are asking God to forgive your sins. That is what prayer is, asking God for something. You pray this every day in the Lord’s Prayer, "forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us."
But prayer is not the same thing as the Word of God. God forgives you through His Word. In other words, when you pray that God would forgive you, He does so by pointing you to His Word of truth in the Scriptures, giving you a pastor to speak forgiveness to you, by drawing you to the Lord’s Supper, and by giving you His Word. But prayer, in and of itself, does not forgive sins.
Let me give you an example. If a teenager asks his parents to buy him a new car, that does not give him the new car. They have to actually do it. So when you ask God to forgive your sins, He answers your plea through the Scriptures and the Sacraments. That’s how God speaks to you.
So how exactly do I go to the pastor for individual confession and absolution?
In the weeks to come, the Board of Elders and I will be seeking to establish a schedule of times that individuals may take the opportunity to confess their sins and receive absolution. In addition, time will always be made available for individuals who desire to confess and be absolved by appointment. You may look at the rite of Individual Confession and Absolution on page 310 in Lutheran Worship. The Order we will be using at Our Redeemer is actually simpler than this. We follow an order that is basically the same as that which Luther used.
What if I have something really bad to confess? Will the pastor tell anyone?
When your Pastor was ordained, he made a vow before God never to reveal the sins confessed to me. This same promise is included in the Installation Service of a Pastor. If a Pastor breaks this vow, it is grounds for his removal from the Office of the Ministry. Pastors take that vow very seriously. Furthermore, when you confess your sins to the pastor, you are really confessing them to God. Your Pastor is just his ear and His mouth. First he listens to the confession and then he speaks God’s absolution. What does God do with your sins? The Prophet Micah reminds us, "You will again have compassion on us; you will tread our sins underfoot and hurl all our iniquities into the depths of the sea."
But I feel awkward talking to my pastor about these things. Won’t I be embarrassed?
You might be embarrassed. It is proper to be ashamed of your sins. But remember: this isn’t about your relationship with the pastor; this is about your relationship to God. God desires to speak His word of forgiveness to you personally. Be ashamed, but confess your shame to God! He will cover up your sins forever and remove that shame by His gracious absolution.
Do I have to go to individual Confession and Absolution?
Absolutely not! Confession and Absolution, like Baptism, the Lord’s Supper, and hearing the Word, are never to be made matters of the Law. The goal of this teaching on the topic of Individual Confession and Absolution, is to extol the blessings and benefits that God bestows in the Absolution and to make it available for those who then desire to make use of this gift.