The world would like to believe that sin does not exist. Nothing is more offensive to our sinful nature than to hear that we are infected with sin. The proclamation of God’s Law shows us just how far we have fallen short of God’s will for our lives. Like an x-ray at the doctor’s office, the Law has exposed the sickness lurking within all of us. What are you going to do with that information? What do you do when your sin weighs heavily on your conscience? Perhaps it has started to affect your relationships. Maybe the embarrassment, shame, and guilt of that sin have begun to take their toll on your career or home life.
God has given to His church the Office of the Keys: the special authority to forgive the sins of penitent sinners, but to retain the sins of the impenitent as long as they do not repent. Your pastor has been called by your congregation to exercise those keys on its behalf and in the stead and command of God. His work is to preach Law and Gospel to you. The practice of private confession and absolution is one way that the church uses this God-given Office of the Keys.
When you confess your sins to your pastor or even to another Christian, their primary purpose is to engage you with Jesus through the good news of the Gospel. Consider the pastor not as a detective investigating your private life, but rather as a physician who is there to diagnose your illness and to give you the medicine that brings spiritual healing. He is bound by God to keep anything you tell him confidential and will not share anything you say with others.
If you have never used private confession and absolution before, you might feel nervous and have some reservations. What sins are you to confess and how often should you go? It is not necessary or even possible for you to list every sin that you have committed (see Psalm 19:12). However, even if you cannot think of any particular sin that you have committed, consider the vocation that God has placed you in, whether that be as a father, mother, son, daughter, employer, or employee. How does your life measure up to the Ten Commandments? Have you been rebellious, disrespectful, dishonest, or lazy? Have you hurt anyone by the things you have said or done? Are you guilty of stealing, being neglectful or wasteful? If you examine your life truthfully in light of the Commandments, you will find no shortage of sins to confess.
Using private confession and absolution is a good way to humble yourself under God’s holy Law and Gospel. Confession keeps you from hiding from your sins, as David did, and from living with a guilty conscience. Confession may also be used as an important preparation for the reception of the Lord’s Supper. God has not placed a limit on how often you may confess your sins and receive absolution. Whenever you feel the burden of your sins, use this powerful gift that God has given to His church. If your pastor is not available at the time, you may also confess your sins to another Christian (James 5:16). Our ELS’ An Explanation of Dr. Martin Luther’s Small Catechism even has an order for you to use to aid you in this practice (p. 222).
Jesus said that the healthy don’t need a doctor, but the sick do (Luke 5:31). While we may not like admitting that we have the sickness called sin, the Bible says that all have fallen short of God’s glory (Romans 3:23). Our souls need God’s medicine—God’s Son Jesus Christ and the forgiveness that He promises in the Gospel. His comforting Words can also comfort us: “Be of good cheer; your sins are forgiven you” (Matthew 9:2).
Reverend Trent Saari
Our Saviour’s Lutheran Church
Lake Havasu City, AZ