What Sins Should We Confess?
Before we talk about what sins should we confess, we want to be clear. Confessional Lutherans have no set time. “With regard to time, it is certain that most in our churches use the sacraments, absolution and the Lord’s Supper, many times in a year....But a fixed time is not proscribed because not everyone is ready at the same time” (AP XI, 3,5). Yet, “[W]e also keep confession especially because of absolution” (XII, 99). And more bluntly, “It would therefore be wicked to remove private absolution from the church” (Ibid., 100). Luther adds, “’I believe now as I have taught before about Private Confession, namely that it is neither necessary nor required, but that it is beneficial and should by no means be despised’" (Walther, Pastoral Theology, 115-6). A German Lutheran theologian who lived through the change from Private Confession to public said, “’general repentance is the death of repentance.'" (Quest for Holiness, 214).
Luther sums up the tension Confessional Lutherans live with. There are 3 kinds of confession. Before God, to an offended person, and to a pastor. The first two are divinely ordered; the third is not. The third is the one commanded by the pope. Luther says, ‘”This is not commanded by God....Still it’s advisable and good. ... I would not do without this private confession for all the treasures of the world. Still it should not be taught as commanded...'" (Closed Communion, 471). But what sins should we confess? We should confess all the sins Christ died for. We say, “Before God we should plead guilty of all sins, even those we are not aware of as we do in the Lord’s Prayer.” Here’s what we say in Smalcald Articles “This repentance is not partial and fragmentary…It does not debate what is sin and what is not sin, but lumps everything together and says, ‘We are wholly and altogether sinful.’ We need not spend our time weighing, distinguishing, differentiating” (III, III, 36).
Such confession includes big sins: Abraham’s idolatry; David’s adultery; Judas’ betrayal; Peter’s denial; Paul’s murdering. By all means confess these big, ugly sins, but also confess with Paul to doing the evil you don’t want to and not doing the good you want to. Then conclude your confession as Paul does in Romans 7, that you are a wretched man chained to a body that is dead. Our Confessions say, “The keys are a function and a power given to the Church by Christ to bind and loose sins, not only the gross and manifest sins but also those which are subtle and secret and which God alone perceives….It is not in our power but in God’s alone to judge which, how great, and how many our sins are” (SC, VII, 1-2).
Confess all your sins and sinfulness. Hold nothing back. They are far more than you can deal with. They will certainly weigh you down all the way to Hell itself. If our sins overwhelmed with sorrow the holy soul of Jesus to the point of death, what do you think they’re doing to you? Thanks be to God. Jesus paid for them all. You saw that in tonight’s Passion Reading. So intense His suffering that He sweat blood. He begged for the cup of God’s wrath filled with God’s rage at our sins to pass Him by. The Man Jesus needed an angel to strengthen Him to be able to pay for all sins. He did. So any sin you keep back from your confession is stealing from Jesus. You’re saying, His bloody sweat wasn’t enough to cover all your sins; God’s tears were not enough to wash every sin away; Jesus left one drop of God’s wrath for you to drink.
Confess before God all sins; confess in Private Confession what shames you. The Devil uses sins’ shame against us. He steals shame from sinners in making them shameless in sinning; then he restores it to make us ashamed to confess our sins (6000 Illust., 123). A synod in Bavaria in mid-8th century said "'It is better to be shamed in the present, in the sight of one man than in the future judgment before all peoples'" (Peters, Confess. & Abs,81, fn. 388). 4th century Chrysostom said, “For where there is not belief in the punishment of judgement to come, there men regard the shame of confession’” (Chemnitz, Exam. II,593). Luther advises: "'What your conscience most especially presses you to say, that is what you ought to say'" (Ibid., 8). David describes in Ps. 51:3 the time before confessing his adultery and murder to Nathan: “I know my transgressions, and my sin is always before me.” And Solomon says: “He who conceals his sins does not prosper, but whoever confesses and renounces them finds mercy” (Pv 28:13).
The analogy of hidden disease and sins is used in the Early Church. Jerome, 5th century says, “’if the sick man is ashamed to show his wound to the physician, the medicine will not cure what it dos not know…. A wound that is not known is healed more slowly’” (Chemnitz, Exam. II,593). Consider this remark by a famed clinical psychologist who was known for “struggling with severe mental illness and anxiety about his sexuality” (https:psycnet.apa.org/record/2016-60235-001): "No one goes to the doctor or the dentist for fun, unless he is mad. No one goes to Confession for fun. From the nature of the case, confession cannot be easy. The result, not the process, of confession is consoling" (Crisis in Psych. & Religion, Mowrer, 202).
Years ago I had infected cyst on my neck. It was foul and ugly. So much so, that I could chase my teenage sons around the house by exposing it. A doctor was Elder that Sunday. I said while exposing the vile, disgusting thing, “Can you take a look at this?” He, without hesitation, hand outstretched, stepped to me and felt it. Why? Because a doctor is all about disease. He’s not afraid of it. Not disgusted by it. He knows there is no healing apart from exposing sickness. So a pastor is with sin. In truth, there is no sin of yours so ugly, vile, unbelievable, that hasn’t been confessed to me before. From my own members, of all ages by the way, to street people, to soldiers, been there heard that. You can confess to me and you won’t hear: “You did what?” Or, “I’m disappointed in you.” But a personal relationship between pastor and penitent is a problem with long pastorates. I try to preserve the office by not having you address me by my first name or even Pastor Paul. However, being forgiven and unburdened is so important, if you can’t or won’t come to me, go to any Confessional Lutheran pastor. This is especially true if you’re related to me. The pastor can see this sermon to know he has my permission to hear you.
Don’t let anyone or thing stop your from confessing what needs to be brought into the light of day to be buried and forgotten. Even secular law recognizes the Seal of the Confessional, however, it’s no longer absolute. Some sins the State requires a pastor to report. The LCMS since 2000 doesn’t regard the seal as unbreakable either. But a seal that is not absolute is no seal. No one opens an airlock with just a tiny leak. No one says the airplane door is sealed except for one little corner. Luther said it this way: “I have been absolved of my sins, however many and great they may be, by means of the key… Let no one remind me of my sins any longer. All are gone, forgiven, forgotten. He who promises me, 'Whatever you loose shall be loosed,’ does not lie; this I know. If my repentance is not sufficient, His Word is; if I am not worthy, His keys are; He is faithful and true. My sins shall not make a liar of Him” (LW 40 375).
Historically the seal was absolute. "This meant that even in a criminal case he [a pastor] could make no statement to the court. Luther gave the example of a mother who had confessed to him that she had murdered her child and whom he had absolved" (Brecht, Luther III, 257). He was asked if a woman confessed to strangling her child and the deed later became public would the pastor testify: "'Most certainly not! For one must distinguish between the ecclesiastical and secular government; since she did not confess anything to me but to the Lord Christ, and since Christ keeps it secret, I should also keep it secret and immediately say, ‘I have heard nothing; if Christ has heard something, let Him say it'" (Closed Communion, 317).
The images of forgiven sins in Scripture are absolute. David sees his sins removed from him by the Lord as far as East is from West not put down where he or anyone else can go through them when they want (Ps 103:12). Scarlet sins become white as snow not pinkish (Is. 1:18). Our sins publicly put on Jesus at His Baptism and punished there without pity or mercy till darnation and death, are all put behind His back not before His eyes (Is. 38:17). Twice in Isaiah the Lord says He blotted out our sins and remembers them no more (43:25; 44:22). Micah describes God in Christ hurling our sins into the depths of the sea (7:19) not into shallow water. Here the plop and see them sink not only out of sight but out of His mind.
Private Confession and Absolution drag into the light of day what wants to be kept hidden. Bonhoeffer said that as long as you make confession to only yourself, everything remains in darkness. Before a brother it comes into the light of day. And sins will come, they have to come, to light some day. Better in the presence of you and your brother than on the Last Day when the books of conscience will be opened (Peters, Confess. & Abs,81. Fn. 388). This is the problem with the general absolution on Sunday morning. The Devil, the World, or your own Flesh can whisper: If that pastor really heard the sin you confessed, he’d never, ever forgive that. And there it sits in the darkness. You at first try to forgive it yourself; then you try to justify it; then excuse it; and at length try just to forget it. And you do for a while, for a time, till it creeps out of that dark corner of your mind and says, “What about me?” Committed sin is in the light of day and doesn’t look too bad. Unconfessed it retreats into the darkness and grows. Confession brings it out; absolution sends it away, buries it, drowns it for Jesus’ sake.
Confessional Lutheran pastors use the law till sin is confessed, and then work to show the penitent that his sin is nothing but the common failing of mankind. His sin is not the big, ugly monster his conscience, the Devil, or others have made it. Did you see that in our Reading? After telling them: “This very night you will all fall away on account of Me”, Jesus goes right on to say: “But after I have risen, I will go ahead of you into Galilee." The forgiveness of sins won on Calvary and proclaimed on Easter is so powerful it sweeps away even falls from faith. Can you imagine? No, don’t imagine it; use it. Amen
Rev. Paul R. Harris
Trinity Lutheran Church, Austin, Texas
Midweek Lent II (20230301); Confession II, Passion Reading 2