Q: Does a sinner receive full absolution for a sin by confessing it to God alone in prayer, or does one have to confess it personally to the pastor? Is the general absolution received in church full forgiveness for those sins which continue to give us trouble daily?
A: Since the full authority to forgive sins rests with God alone, it is paramount that all sins be confessed to him, regardless of whether one uses a confessor or not. At the same time, the sinner who makes confession of his sin is to be certain of God’s full forgiveness, due to the objective Gospel promises which clearly states that Christ has made the once-for-all atoning sacrifice for all sins. If the declaration of absolution is made by the pastor in a public service, or if it is in a private setting by him or another Christian, or if it is read from Scripture by the one making confession of sin in the quiet of his home, or if the absolution is simply recalled to memory through previous contact with the Gospel; in every case, one should not doubt but firmly believe that his sins indeed are forgiven by God in heaven. There is no such thing as partial forgiveness in God’s economy of salvation. When sin is confessed (even the ones we do not know about, as we say in the Lord’s Prayer), there is no hesitancy on God’s part to grant full pardon. The sinner, again, can be sure of this only because the Savior’s act of redemption has been accomplished perfectly. The Bible says, “If we confess our sins, He is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness” (I John 1:9).
Martin Luther emphasized the universal priesthood of all believers, stressing that fellow Christians need not go through any kind of priestly mediator to communicate with God and to be assured of absolution. The Roman Catholic Church has misled people in this matter by leading them to believe that only an ordained priest could legitimately declare individual sins forgiven.
It is unfortunate, however, that many Lutherans have assumed that Luther then discouraged parishioners from going to the pastor privately and making confession. The point is that the compulsory nature of doing so was removed. But Luther still encouraged people to make use of private confession, so that the Gospel might be applied specifically to individual needs. This is what he is referring to in his Small Catechism under the subject of “Confession”: “…Before the pastor or confessor we should acknowledge those sins only which we know and feel in our hearts.”
Though we know we sin much daily, and though we are well enough acquainted with our sinful nature to realize the tendency to repeat sins already confessed, this does not destroy the validity of God’s absolution. Paul reminds us: “If we are faithless, He will remain faithful, for He cannot disown Himself” (II Tim. 2:13). In fact, it is the power from God’s absolution (his Gospel) which helps every Christian wage war against those pet sins which keep popping up again and again out of our weakness. On the other hand, the heart that deliberately plans to continue sinning even at the very moment confession is made, cannot and does not benefit from the validity of God’s absolution. Faith always apprehends the blessings offered in the Gospel. The writer of Proverbs reminds us: “He who conceals his sins does not prosper, but whoever confesses and renounces them finds mercy” (Prov. 28:13).