Last week we heard about what Baptism means for daily life. Baptism is not just a once in a lifetime bath, but an ongoing dying and rising of the Christian. Daily the sinner dies in the death of Jesus. Daily the saint rises in the life of Jesus. Daily the washing and rebirthing work of Baptism is effected through the Word of God. Baptism is the beginning of a dying and rising that ends with our own death and our resurrection on the day of Jesus’ appearing.
This daily dying and rising brings us what is sometimes called the “third sacrament” – Holy Absolution. And such a poor and neglected one it is! It shouldn’t be so in a church that pledges her allegiance to the Lutheran Confessions which call absolution the “living voice” of the Gospel, and say that “it would be wicked to remove personal absolution” from our churches. Tell a fellow Lutheran that your church offers hours for personal confession twice a week and point out the confessional bench and I assure you that jaws will drop and eyebrows will rise. At a recent pastoral conference, one brother pastor of our district was heard to say with a sneer, “We all know that private confession is in the Confessions, but who does THAT any more?” Who indeed! The church that does not practice what the Lutheran Confessions preach is hardly entitled to be called a “Lutheran” church. If it was wicked to remove personal absolution in 1530, it is doubly wicked not to put it back where it was removed in 1997 – unless something has changed about our sin and Christ’s forgiveness.
Confession and absolution is the ongoing work of Baptism. It is a return to the water, a sprinkling with the Word of Baptism that first brought us life and cleansing. So basic is confession to the Christian life, that the Large Catechism simply says: “When I urge you to go to confession, I am simply urging you to be a Christian.” Christians confess their sins and are forgiven. Unbelievers deny their sins and have no use for forgiveness.
Bonhoeffer calls absolution without personal confession a form of “cheap grace,” a cross-less Christianity. It is the attempt to have repentance without shame, contrition without guilt. It is the equivalent of an out of court settlement – just pay the money admit no wrongdoing. God wants us at the bar of His justice. There is no back room bargaining with the Lord. There is only the Law and the Gospel, our sin and the death of Christ for our sin.
The gift of holy absolution consists of two parts. The first part is that we confess our sins. To confess means to “say the same words,” to say back what you have heard, the way a little child repeats what he has heard. We may feel badly about ourselves, have low self-esteem, feel guilty or depressed or isolated. The Law says to us, “You are a sinner.” That’s what is wrong with you. It’s not what you do, it’s who you are. We confess, “I am a sinner.” That is the only truth which a sinner can say. “I am a sinner.” Sinner means rebel, enemy of God, idolater, one who wants to overthrow God from His throne, one who fears, loves and trusts himself or herself instead of God. That is the truth about ourselves, and we must speak that truth before God.
The opposite of confession is denial. “If we say we have no sin, we deceive our selves and the truth is not in us.” When we deny our present sinfulness, we are kidding ourselves, and the truth is not at work in us. How often do we become irate if someone says to us, “You are sinning” or calls us a “sinner.”? Yet it’s the truth. That’s what we are. “If we say we have not sinned, we make (God) a liar; and his word is not in us.” The past counts too. The past and the present testify against us. We have sin, and we have sinned.
Confession puts the past and the present into concrete words. We may confess generally, such as we do in church every Sunday: “We have sinned against you in thought, word, and deed, by what we have done and by what we have left undone.” We also confess specifically, those things that we know and trouble us the most. The Lutheran Reformers were not interested in the mathematics of “how many” sins to confess. Who can know all his errors? “Forgive my hidden faults”, prays the psalmist. There is no end to the lists one could make. By the same token, the Reformers were not satisfied with a generic confession, the kind that you, me, and 5 1/2 billion people could all say together. “I, a poor miserable sinner.” True enough, but what makes you say that?
General confession without specific confession runs the risk of simply bad-mouthing ourselves. That isn’t telling the truth, but covering over the truth with a lesser truth. Specific confession run amuck can become a perverse sort of pride, a personal pity party in which we brag about our weakness and run our dirty laundry out on the line for the whole neighborhood to see. Speaking the truth of our sin means neither kicking the corpse of our body of death, nor putting it on display.
Confession is directed in three ways – to God, to the neighbor, and to the pastor. A Christian always confesses to God, and can always confess to God directly, as we do in the Lord’s Prayer and in our own personal prayers. That is your privilege as a baptized child of God. People sometimes use this privilege as a dodge and an excuse. “I can confess directly to God; therefore, I don’t need to confess before another.” That isn’t humility, but pride. The very words and deeds we are ashamed to admit before a fellow sinner, we were not ashamed to say and do in full view of the Lord of heaven and earth.
Though we may confess to God directly, He always deals with us through the external Word, the Word outside of ourselves – through Baptism, through the Lord’s Supper, through the preached Word. The person who boasts confidently, “I can confess my sins to God directly, and therefore don’t need the church,” misses the basic point. It’s not our confession, but God’s forgiveness that matters. And God always deals with us through the incarnation of Jesus, through earthy, creaturely means such as water, bread, wine, words, in this case sound waves that emanate from mouths and go into ear holes.
A Christian also confesses to the neighbor, especially when he or she has sinned against the neighbor. Whenever we hurt and harm another, we need to confess it to that person, and forgive one another as God has forgiven us. We need to let Jesus get between us, or else our sins will push us apart. That is the double absolution for which we pray in the Our Father – that our Father in heaven would forgive us as we forgive others. Our problem is that we are out of practice. Our tongues are tied in knots. The language of confession sounds foreign to our ears because we don’t use it. Instead we harbor grudges and resentments. We nurse quarrels for years. We isolate and alienate each other. And this ought not be, especially in the Christian congregation which God instituted to be a place filled with forgiveness. The Christian has the call and command of Christ to go to the brother or sister who has sinned, to be like Nathan to David, rebuke the sin and restore the sinner.
Even the secular psychologists have caught on, at least in a small way. They are beginning to speak of “forgiveness therapy” – husbands and wives intentionally and specifically forgiving one another, parents and children confessing their sins against each other and absolving one another. Of all places, the church ought to be a laboratory where the conversation of confession is practiced and applied among the baptized children of God. But then again, “Who does that kind of thing anymore?”
Christians also confess to their pastor. There are several good reasons for doing this. First, he is ordained to hear confession. That’s what we put him there for. It is one of the tasks laid on a pastor at his ordination. Second, he is equipped by practice and training to help others sharpen and deepen their confession and to square them to the Word of God. Third, he is bound by solemn vow to secrecy, something that a close friends is not. For a pastor to break the seal of confession is grounds for dismissal.
Fourth, the pastor is a public, corporate person. He holds an office. The pastor does not speak for himself but for Christ and for the whole church. The pastor is a minister, a servant of the Word, a steward of God’s mysteries revealed in Christ. He is not there as superior, but as servant. He serves not “from above” but “from below.” He is there not to condemn but to forgive. He is under holy orders to forgive. A friend may forgive you simply to keep you as a friend. A family member may forgive you for no other reason than to keep peace in the family. Friends and family we have aplenty. Pastors, we have precious few. A pastor forgives by the divine order of the crucified, risen, and reigning Son of God, “in his stead and by his command.” He represents the person of Jesus, not his own person. Even if the pastor doesn’t like you, or even if you don’t like him, his forgiveness is Christ’s forgiveness, sure and certain, addressed to you. And that’s really all that matters.
That brings us to the second part, and more important part of confession, which is the absolution. “If we confess our sins, God is faithful and just, and will forgive our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness.” Absolution is spoken forgiveness, release, freedom. God releases the sinner from his or her sin; He puts our sin as “far as the east is from the west;” He buries it in the death of Jesus; He cleanses us with His holy, precious blood. He surrounds us with His innocent suffering and death.
God is faithful. He is trustworthy. He has promised to forgive. We can approach Him with confidence. He will not treat us as our sins deserve. “I forgive you,” God says to us, and who dares to contradict Him? To say, “No, it can’t be,” is to deny the cross of Christ. It’s the equivalent of saying, “Jesus did not die for me.”
God is also just. His justice demands a judgment, a verdict. God is just, and He justifies the sinner in Christ. He made Jesus into our sin. He judged Jesus guilty, and put on Him what we deserve. He condemned Jesus in our place. In Jesus, that is, baptized into His death and believing on His Name, God judges us innocent, righteous. God justifies the sinner in His Son.
“I absolve you. I forgive you.” This is no cheap, idle word. No “smile, be happy, God loves you,” saccharine sentimentality. This is a costly Word from God to you. It cost the Son of God his life. He sweat and suffered and bled and died so that this word might be spoken. It is a Word anchored in the past, nailed to the bloody cross of Golgotha, a Word that reaches into our present, into the here and now of our lives. It reaches into our ears and minds and hearts, a divine Word that says, “Christ Jesus died for you.” It is a word authorized and approved by the crucified and risen Son of God Himself, freshly risen from the dead with the wounds to prove it, who breathed His Spirit and words into His disciples and said, “The sins you forgive are forgiven; the sins you retain are retained.”
People are sometimes offended by the absolution. “Who can forgive sins but God alone?” The unbelieving Pharisees asked that of Jesus. “How dare that guy speak as though he were God!” People should be offended. The absolution is as offensive as the Incarnation of the Son of God. It is as offensive as the God who wears diapers and sleeps in a manger, or the God who hangs naked and bleeding on a cross. Only God can forgive. That’s true. And God only forgives through His Son, who became man, who speaks through His Church and the Ministry He ordained to speak. It is the living voice of God that we hear when we hear the absolution. “So if there is a heart that feels its sin and desires consolation, it has here a sure refuge when it hears in God’s Word that through a man God looses and absolves him from his sins” (Large Catechism V.14)
Do we have to go to confession? Does a thirsty deer question whether he has to drink from a cold mountain stream? Does a hungry person ask whether he has to eat a free meal offered to him? Does one who hungers and thirsts for righteousness ask whether he has to hear a Word from Christ? Does a Christian ever ask whether he or she has to be forgiveness? Do we have to go to confession? Oh, you already know the answer. Of course you don’t have to go; God never forces anyone to be forgiven. You get to be forgiven; and always as a gift.
If we confess our sins, [God] is faithful and just and will forgive our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness. (1 John 1:9)