On the Lively Practice of Confession and Holy Absolution
I suppose that we are all well enough aware of Dr. Luther’s comment, “When I urge you to go to Confession, I am simply urging you to be a Christian.” And to be sure, our Lutheran Confessions indicate in multiple places the importance and significant benefits of Individual Confession and Holy Absolution, something Dr. Luther prized for himself as a penitent and would not permit to be taken from him or from the people of God. It is, indeed, by our Lord’s own divine command and with His own authority that His called and ordained servants forgive sins in His Name and stead – a Word that avails in heaven as the very voice of the living God spoken here on earth.
Though Luther insists that no one should be “forced” or “compelled” to go to Confession, he is rhetorically forceful and compelling in his “Admonition to Confession.” Yet, for all that, and in spite of its place in the Small Catechism, the actual practice of Confession and Absolution was for many years neglected and allowed to languish within the life of the Lutheran Church. I can recall that, in the 1990s, when I was a seminary student and in my early years as a pastor, very few pastors were teaching, advocating, and providing regular opportunities for Confession; and those who were doing so were often viewed with suspicion, if not regarded with open hostility. I’m exceedingly thankful that my field work pastor was one of those few, because it was from him that I learned the practice, myself, not “academically” or “theologically,” but experientially.
By God’s grace, especially through the efforts of the few, the practice of Confession has become more common among us, and it no longer seems so strange or unheard of as it did for so long.
The thing is that, while we do not force or compel anyone to go to Confession, it is incumbent upon us as ministers of the Gospel to provide opportunities for the people of God to confess their sins and to hear and receive the Lord’s spoken Word of Holy Absolution. The rite of Individual Confession and Absolution in the Lutheran Service Book (p. 292) fittingly invites the penitent to begin with the request: “Pastor, please hear my confession and pronounce forgiveness in order to fulfill God’s will.” That is exactly right. And that is what the Lord has so ordered His Church on earth to be about, namely, the forgiving of sins by and with the Word of Christ Jesus.
Along with providing opportunities for Confession and Absolution, pastors need also to teach the people under their care to understand the significance and great benefits of this particular means of grace, which affords such a unique opportunity for pastoral care and counsel. So, too, a steady patience is required in allowing the people to acclimate to the practice and learn to appreciate it. That won’t happen overnight, and it likely won’t happen “easily” for anyone, but it can develop and grow over time, and it is worth the effort. Truly it is. And to that end, because pastors ought not hear Confession without also going to Confession as penitents, themselves, it is fundamental that every pastor have his own father confessor: not only for the experience and example, but for the sake of that forgiveness of sins which we also need, and by which we too live in Christ Jesus.