What is Confession?


In the Catechism I grew up with and taught till 1991, the 5th Chief Part was called The Office of the Keys putting 3 questions probably not authored by Luther and not found in the Book of Concord in front of 3 questions that were both. That influenced the teaching of this section. Rather than another means for forgiving sins, giving the Spirit, and working faith, an Office was emphasized. Luther, by contrast, never wanted to give up Private Confession. He said, “I would not give it up for all the treasurers in the world” (LW, 51, 98). And that if you really knew the Devil like he did you’d never give it up (Ibid., 100). And this view wasn’t only his. Chemnitz, who went on to systemize Confessional Lutheranism said, “But with those who entirely take out of the church the use of private absolution...our churches have nothing in common” (Exam II, 621). So from rom the 40s till the 80s the LCMS and most Confessional synods in America, had nothing in common with 16th century Confessional Lutheranism. Do we? We answer this question by answering another: What is Confession?

“Confession has two parts” we say emphatically because Catholicism has at least 3. While Catholicism has the same first 2 steps – contrition and absolution, our Apology to the Augsburg Confession says, “There remains the third step satisfaction” (XII, 13), doing penance, to redeem from purgatory or blot out guilt (Ibid., 24). This is not the changed life that follows being forgiven that we will speak of. This is satisfying God by doing works. Only when penance is done properly can you be sure of being forgiven, and what do sinners ever do with unmixed motives, intentions, feelings? And so, if you were honest, forgiveness is never sure in this system.

There is no 3rd part, and don’t get stuck on the first part contrition, being sorry. Don’t question where repentance comes from whether it’s because you’ve been caught or you’re sorry for disappointing God. Don’t ask are you sorry enough? Don’t ask is your confession complete enough, detailed enough, etc. No matter how you answer these you’re wrong. Hear Luther: "'God's promise is sure in the sacrament, our remorse is never sure. He therefore does not want us to build on the shaky remorse but on His sure promise, so that we will be able to stand in all times of need'" (Peters, Conf. & Abs,54). The goal of Private Confession is not to discover or display sins but forgive them. Doctors don’t glory in finding sickness or the disgusting details of it, but in giving healing.

You probably get that Confession has 2 parts. What about Absolution? Is it a 3rd Sacrament? The ’43 Explanation gave no indication it was, and so most confirmed in that Catechism thought Private Confession Catholic. The 1991 says, “Sometime Holy Absolution is considered as a third sacrament, even though it has no divinely visible element”, and then they cite but don’t quote the Confessions which actually call it a sacrament (203). Here the 2017 Explanation is better. “Although it does not have a ‘visible element’ (like water or bread and wine), Holy Absolution is counted as a ‘third sacrament’” by Luther in the Large Catechism and the Apology. This is important. You all know that a pogo stick is unstable. You know a bipod is more so, but a tripod is the most stable because a level plane is marked by 3 points. So, the Reformed and Evangelicals who don’t believe in God’s Spirit or forgiveness comes through physical means, do till use Scripture, so they have a pogo stick’s stability. Those Lutherans taught of 2 Sacraments have bipods; we have tripods. Even devils know this is powerful. The 15th century book Hammer of Witches says investigators found some witches who denied all the articles of faith and others only denied some, "but they are all bound to deny true and sacramental confession" (Malleus Maleficarum, 76).

Confession is a 2-part Sacrament with 2 benefits. Like all Sacraments it was instituted by Christ. Easter evening,  “Jesus said, ‘Peace be with you! As the Father has sent Me, I am sending you.’ And with that He breathed on them and said, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit.  If you forgive anyone his sins, they are forgiven; if you do not forgive them, they are not forgiven’"(Jn 20:21-23). Read Gen. 2, the Creation of Man. “The Lord God formed the man from the dust of the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living being” (7). As the first time the Lord breathed into man He empowered him to pass on physical life, so this second time He empowers him to pass on spiritual life: the Spirit and the forgiveness of sins.

So the first benefit of Confession is forgiveness. In fact, Luther maintained that unless you seek forgiveness at the mouth of a man, you won’t find it on earth. True, the Lord on Easter Evening instituted an office to forgive sins publicly, but any Christian can pronounce forgiveness in Jesus’ name. This is Luther’s late in life position: "...when I lay my hands [pronouncing Absolution], it is the same as if God Himself had done it - likewise, when a boy or a woman pronounces Absolution, because both are members of Christ and have His power. We are not on this account to disparage the public office [of the ministry], which God wants to be free of contempt. But in an emergency, when no one else is available, a boy speaks the Absolution and lays his hand on my head, and it is just as powerful" (LW, 58, 75). There is no other way to forgive sins than based on the Holy Life the Man-God lived in our places, and the His damned death on the cross. You sure can’t forgive sins in your name. 

Pastors have a public office. I too forgive in Jesus’ name, but  I do so “by virtue of my office as a called and ordained servant of the Word.” You want to know what God Himself thinks about your sin? Ask your pastor. He’s been commanded by God to tell you. Think of your pastor like a McDonald’s franchise. I can remember when one finally opened up where I lived. It was a big deal. The local Christian Church is to be a forgiveness franchise. This is how Luther viewed it, “If I knew that God were in a certain place and would absolve me I would not go to some other place, but would receive absolution in that place as often as I could” (LW, 36, 359).

The other benefit isn’t regarded as such today. Not forgiving sins, but binding them. This is found in Jesus’ words instituting this Sacrament. In fact, binding sins is one way we know loosing happens. In answer to what do we believe according to Jesus’ words on Easter Evening our Explanation says, “I believe that when the called ministers of Christ deal with us by His divine command, in particular when they exclude openly unrepentant sinners from the Christian congregation…” Churches practicing open Communion don’t recognize sins in doctrine. How could they believe, teaching, living, or believing contrary to Scripture is sinful when they exclude no one from Communion? Therefore their loosing of sins is not valid or certain in heaven. Where the binding key is used, where a pastor will say your sin is not forgiven, you can’t partake of Communion, you know that here is a place that doesn’t want you to go to hell no matter how mad you get, how much you complain, how much you vilify them. 

Confession is a 2-part Sacrament with 2 benefits and 1 goal: receiving absolution, that is forgiveness. Stop fooling yourself. Unconfessed sin is not inert. I don’t mean sin not confessed to another person. I mean not confessed before God. Unconfessed sin is the puncture wound that doctors worry over. It appears healed on the outside but is festering on the inside. This is David. He says when he kept silent about his sin his bones wasted away and he groaned all day. God’s hand was heavy on him (Ps. 32). This is the disciples in the upper room. They all say, “Surely I’m not the one that will betray Jesus.” Within 2 hours they all do. Read the Tell Tale Heart, watch The Machinist or Vanished. Read Dostoevsky or Graham Green, even Stephen King knows the devasting power of guilt. Guilt can come from unconfessed sin, but more often it comes from unreceived Absolution. Judas will confess his sins. You can’t get much clearer of a confession then,  “I betrayed innocent blood” (Mt. 27:4). The OT church leaders didn’t absolve him. He couldn’t live with his guilt, and so killed himself. Many people think they can and do live with unforgiven sin just fine. Maybe so; but you can’t die with it without dying forever.

The goal of Confession is your forgiveness, a result of that happening is a changed life. The person who knows he stands before God in heaven forgiven, clean, clothed in Jesus’ blood and righteousness, so that not a single sin in thinking, doing, or speaking remains visible, must be, will be, can’t but be: changed. A changed life is a result of having confessed your sin and been absolved of them. People living together outside of marriage, people who identify themselves as Christian homosexuals, lesbians, trans, etc. are not one bit different than the thief or murder or liar who wishes to keep his sin with Christ’s blessings. That’s not possible. If a changed life isn’t the result, either sin was not confessed or not absolved. At the same time, we have to point out: a changed life doesn’t cause forgiveness. That’s how Catholicism views the 3rd part of Catholic private confession: penance. It’s satisfying God; it’s making up for your sin.

Ever find an old set of keys laying about? Notice how rusty they are, and unlikely to work?  Keys used regularly get brighter and brighter; but if they’re laid aside, unused, they grow rusty. Evangelist Billy Sunday said, “Dust on your Bible is rust on your soul.” Rust on the keys is dust on your soul. Luther notes that as soon as the Pope’s requirement of Private Confession once a year was rejected by Lutherans, the keys were pocketed. In his 1529 Exhortation to Confession he said, “Therefore, when I urge you to go to confession, I am simply urging you to be a Christian” (Tappert, 461, 32). From this same document: “'If you are a Christian, you need neither my compulsion nor the pope's command at any point, but you will force yourself to go and ask me that you may share in it’” (LC, Exhortation to Confession, 28 in Confessing the Gospel 2, 984-5). Then he uses an illustration of a wounded deer that always heads for water. Luther says: “’rush forward toward the absolution like a hunted deer’" (Peters, Confess. & Abs,76). It’s been observed that: "Whenever in the history of Christianity the Spirit of God, through the Gospel has awakened true repentance and a living faith in individuals or congregations, we meet with an irresistible impulse towards the revealing of sins to a confessor" (Quest for Holiness, 232).

What is Confession? It’s the answer to the wounded, hunted, hounded soul’s need. AmenHa

Rev. Paul R. Harris

Trinity Lutheran Church, Austin, Texas

Ash Wednesday (20230222); Confession I, Passion Reading 1