(preached during the week of Judica 2014)
We’ve combined two articles of the AC this evening, Article XI and Article XXV. Both treat the same topic: Confession. Articles 22-28 specifically deal with some of the abuses of Rome that the Lutherans had corrected. Confession was one of those “abused things”—Private Confession, that is.
First, what are we talking about when we speak here of Private Confession? We’re not talking about confessing your sins to God in prayer, privately, at home or in some other place. We must certainly do that. We even quote the Church Father Chrysostom in Art. 25: Chrysostom is quoted, who says thus: I say not to you that you should disclose yourself in public, nor that you accuse yourself before others, but I would have you obey the prophet who says: “Disclose thy way before God.” Therefore confess your sins before God, the true Judge, with prayer. Tell your errors, not with the tongue, but with the memory of your conscience. Confessing your sins to God in prayer is good and necessary. But it’s not the Confession we’re referring to in these articles.
We’re talking about the human rite and practice of a baptized Christian going one-on-one to his or her pastor and confessing his sins in order to receive the absolution for them, spoken by the pastor, in the name of the Christ. Now Baptism is necessary for salvation. We confessed that in the article on Baptism. And with regard to the Sacrament of the Altar, we hear Jesus’ words loud and clear, “This do in remembrance of Me.” But nowhere does Jesus issue the command to “Go and confess your sins to your pastor in private on a regular basis.” And so we insist in the AC that “Confession is of human right only—not commanded by Scripture, but ordained by the Church.”
And yet, what do we confess about Confession? Of Confession [our churches] teach that Private Absolution ought to be retained in the churches… Confession in the churches is not abolished among us… Confession is retained among us.
But we retain Private Confession and Absolution somewhat differently than the Roman Church practiced it. First, the Roman Church considered Private Confession to be a divine commandment and necessary for salvation. Not that they had a basis for that in Scripture, but to them, whatever the Church ordains and the pope approves is a divine ordinance and necessary for salvation. We reject that. We recognize that other things—like Baptism, like the Lord’s Supper, like keeping the Commandments—are divinely commanded. But Private Confession is not.
Second, the Roman Church said that the absolution is only good for the sins that you specifically mention to the priest. If you forgot to mention a sin when you were in the confessional, you’re not forgiven for it. But we reject that, too. …although in confession an enumeration of all sins is not necessary. For it is impossible according to the Psalm: Who can understand his errors?
Thirdly, the Roman Church made absolution conditional on the satisfactions or the works of penance you did. Whether the priest ordered you to fast, or to say ten Our Fathers or 5 Hail Mary’s, or to amend your sinful life, or to make reparations for your sins—those things were seen as making the absolution valid and certain. As we mention in Art. 25: Aforetime satisfactions were immoderately extolled; of faith and the merit of Christ and the righteousness of faith no mention was made. We believe and confess that Christ made full satisfaction for our sins, and that absolution cannot be earned by anyone or deserved by anyone. Faith alone in Christ is necessary.
Finally, Rome insisted on a certain schedule for going to Confession and wanted the Lutherans to make it a law that people had to go to Confession at least once a year. But in the Apology, we reject their mandate.
So, what is the Biblical basis for Confession and Absolution? What is the divinely instituted part? It’s all about what we call the “Power of the Keys.” Jesus said to Peter in Matthew 16: I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.” He said again to all of his apostles in Matthew 18: Assuredly, I say to you, whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.
This business of binding and loosing—what is it? Jesus explains it in even clearer words in John 20 when He says to His apostles: “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.” To bind someone in sin is to refuse forgiveness to him. To loose someone from sin is to forgive him his sins, to release him from divine punishment, to restore him to God’s favor. This is “absolution.”
The Power of the Keys has been entrusted by Christ to the Church, who uses the Keys through her called and ordained ministers, to forgive sins to the penitent and to retain the sins of the impenitent. It’s a divine authority to act in God’s name, so that what the minister pronounces is not his own pronouncement, but God’s own voice, so that what is loosed on earth is, Jesus says, loosed in heaven. And what is bound on earth is bound in heaven.
We practice excommunication, when necessary. As we confess in the Apology, Excommunication is also pronounced against the openly wicked—those who live in manifest vices, fornication, adultery, etc., and against the despisers of the Sacraments. That’s one use of the Keys.
But if someone is coming to Confession, it usually means that he recognizes his sin and has repented of it and wants God’s forgiveness for it. So Private Confession is primarily about the “loosing Key,” as we call it. It’s all about Absolution, so that individual sinners can be sure that they are receiving God’s forgiveness for all sins, including the sins that trouble them most.
So Confession is retained among us on account of the great benefit of absolution, and because it is otherwise useful to the conscience. Our people are taught that they should highly prize the absolution, as being the voice of God, and pronounced by God’s command. The power of the Keys is set forth in its beauty and they are reminded what great consolation it brings to anxious consciences, also, that God requires faith to believe such absolution as a voice sounding from heaven, and that such faith in Christ truly obtains and receives the forgiveness of sins.
You see, you can certainly confess your sins to God in prayer. But He does not absolve you of your sins through prayer. Instead, He sends you to Christ, who has authorized men to speak for Him and who gives His Spirit in the Word and Sacraments. Does He forgive sins in Holy Baptism? Yes, and you can always rely on His baptismal promises to you throughout your entire life! But you only receive that Means of Grace once. Does He forgive sins in Holy Communion? Yes! And you receive that Means of Grace together with the assembled Church when the Church assembles. But God has also attached His promise to the spoken Absolution of the pastor, and that is available to you, individually, privately, whenever you want it.
See how richly God has showered His grace upon us in all of these Means of Grace, so that you never have to go around wondering what God in heaven really thinks about you, or what verdict He really has in store for you. He has given His Son for you, who gave His life for you and earned the forgiveness of sins for you. As the Apostle John says in his first Epistle, This is the message which we have heard from Him and declare to you, that God is light and in Him is no darkness at all. f we say that we have fellowship with Him, and walk in darkness, we lie and do not practice the truth. But if we walk in the light as He is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus Christ His Son cleanses us from all sin. If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, He is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.
And so Confession is retained among us. The four catechumens will each be given an opportunity for Confession and Absolution right here next week before they begin communing on Easter Sunday, because, as we say concerning our practice, it is not usual to give the body of the Lord, except to them that have been previously examined and absolved. That pastoral examination and absolution isn’t required before every celebration of Holy Communion. But it is offered and available to you at any time as a continual gift from Christ to His Church on earth, until we leave this sin-filled world and slough off our sin-infested flesh and join our heavenly Bridegroom in the sinless life of heaven. Amen.