There are several ways in which the word confession can be used, of course. But today, we’re talking about the confession of sin. Confessing our sin is essential to being a Christian. As Christians, we must let go of our sin in order to grab hold of the forgiveness of sin which the crucified and risen Jesus offers to all who turn from sin and believe in Him.
The confession of sin is so important that in His model prayer, Jesus teaches us to pray, “forgive us our trespasses.” That’s because to continue in sin even after God has clearly shown us that we’re violating His will by doing so is to place ourselves under judgment, to separate ourselves from God, and to refuse God’s grace.
A Lutheran bishop I once knew told me how the guys in his barracks when he was in the Army would say to him and some of the other soldiers there, "You Lutherans and Catholics are all alike. You think that you can do whatever you want on Saturday nights, then say a few words of confession on Sunday mornings, and everything will be OK." The bishop told me that it's true that some Christians, even some Lutheran Christians do take such a lackadaisical attitude about their violations of the Ten Commandments and of the meaning of confession. And it's true: Some who call themselves Christians take forgiveness for granted and see it as license to do whatever they want, when they want.
But to any Christian intent on following Christ, living for Him, and receiving the blessings He reserves for those who trust in Him, such attitudes are unthinkable! To members of the first century church at Rome who wouldn’t acknowledge their sins against others, Paul wrote: “Do you not realize that God’s kindness is meant to lead you to repentance? But by your hard and impenitent heart you are storing up wrath for yourself on the day of wrath, when God’s righteous judgment will be revealed” (Romans 2:4-5).
God is love, 1 John 4:8 teaches, meaning that everything God does is done from His self-giving love.
But God’s love does not mean (and cannot) mean that He will force His forgiveness and the gift of life with Him on people who refuse those gifts.
Unless we lay our lives before God in confession of sin, we block the Holy Spirit access to our lives, keeping Him from convicting us of sin or of convincing us of the forgiveness that God wants to give to us through Jesus Christ. (This is what the Jesus calls the sin against the Holy Spirit.)
If we want life with God, we must confess our sins to God, seeking forgiveness through Jesus, Who died and rose to set sinners free from sin and death. Since God came to earth in the Person of Jesus, belief in Jesus is the only way to life with God. (See John 3:16-18 and John 14:6, for example.)
When the evangelical reformers of the Sixteenth-century, led by Martin Luther, began their work, they did so amid a Church that wasn’t teaching in accordance with Scripture regarding the confession of sin.
You see, starting in 1215, official Church teaching was that believers were required to go to their local priest every year and confess every sin they had committed in the preceding year. If they didn’t or couldn't do so, they couldn’t receive Holy Communion. The priest could then tell the parishioner what "good works" they needed to do to make up for their sins.
The reformers looked at these practices and raised two objections.
First, they said, it’s impossible for human beings to know all their sins. They pointed to Psalm 19:12, which says: “Who can understand his errors? [Then the psalmist offers this prayer:] Cleanse me from secret faults.”
Second, the reformers said, the priest’s job is not to make up good works for a repentant sinner to do in order to be worthy of receiving Christ’s body and blood, but to declare God’s forgiveness to anyone who authentically seeks forgiveness through faith in Jesus Christ. Good works are an essential part of Christian living, of course. They're the outgrowth of faith in Jesus. But good works aren’t necessary to gain God’s forgiveness.
Originally speaking to believers in Ephesus (and now to all who believe in Christ, like you and me), Ephesians 2:8-9 say: “...by grace you have been saved through faith, and that not of yourselves; it is the gift of God, not of works, lest anyone should boast...”
The Lutheran reformers were saying: You can’t tell a repentant believer in Jesus that their repentance and belief isn’t good enough. To do so is to render Christ’s suffering and death and His promise of forgiveness and new life to all who believe in Him irrelevant. By adding non-Biblical conditions for a repentant believer in Jesus to have forgiveness, you actually poor contempt on the cross on which Christ died and the empty tomb from which He physically arose.
The Lutheran reformers were also saying: You also can’t tell repentant sinners that they have to do good works proscribed by a human being in order to receive God’s forgiveness. To put a human being--be it a priest, a pastor, or some self-appointed holy person--above Christ, denying God’s word of forgiveness to a repentant believer, the Lutheran reformers held and we who are Lutheras today hold, was and is an abuse of the “office of the keys.”
You remember the office of the keys, right?
Just to refresh your memory, turn to Matthew 16:19. To set the stage, Peter has just confessed his belief that Jesus is both the Messiah (or the Christ), the anointed king for whom God’s people had been waiting, AND “the Son of the living God,” a phrase meaning that the Holy Spirit had led Peter to believe that Jesus was (and is) God in the flesh. Then Jesus explains a power and a responsibility that He will give His whole Church:
“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.”What this means is that it’s the job of the Church to tell the whole truth about the Gospel of Jesus Christ.
The Lutheran confessions insist that there are two elements in the Word of God about Jesus that the Church must faithfully proclaim:
- First, we must proclaim the Law, God’s moral commandments embodied in the Ten Commandments, and explained elsewhere in both the Old and New Testaments, and
- Second, we must proclaim the Promise, the truth that in spite of our sin, all who repent for sin and believe in Jesus Christ, are saved from sin and death, given forgiveness of sin, and life everlasting with God.
The Gospel truth every repentant sinner needs to hear is that their sins are forgiven for the sake of Jesus Christ, Who died and rose for sinners, and that they do have life with God.
But the Reformers said, the power of the Keys, this responsibility to speak the truth in love to both repentant and unrepentant sinners is not an authorization for priests, pastors, or anyone else to impose a regimen of required good works on a repentant sinner.
Every Christian is authorized by Christ to exercise the office of keys, but they dare not add to or take away a letter or a syllable from God’s Word. As Proverbs 30:5-6 say: “Every word of God is pure; He is a shield to those who put their trust in Him. Do not add to His words, lest He rebuke you and you be found a liar.”
The Roman Catholic theologians of the 16th-century read what the Lutheran theologians were saying about confessing sin and were horrified!
They even accused the Lutheran Reformers of doing away with private confession of sin, which is something they never did. Nor, by the way, have we who call ourselves Lutherans in 2013 done away with private confession either. As a Lutheran Christian in 2013, we are bound by our confessions and by the teachings of the Bible to believe in private confession too!
Take a look at the first article about the confession of sin in The Augsburg Confession, one of the basic statements of we Lutherans’ understanding of Biblical Christianity. It’s Article 11:
Our churches teach that private absolution [that is, the private proclamation that sins are forgiven] should be retained in our churches, although listing all sins is not necessary for Confession....While the Lutheran reformers certainly wanted everything to be done “in good order"(they were Germans, after all), they also wanted to set all Christians, clergy and laypeople, free to do their ministries, including the exercise of the office of the keys.
There’s good reason for allowing laypeople to exercise the power of the keys. You see, not everyone feels comfortable going to talk with their pastor about their sins. This is why the Lutheran confessions retain private confession, but don’t say that pastors are the only people to whom Christians can confess their sins.
Of course, we all can confess our sins to God in the Name of Jesus in personal prayers that don’t involve other human beings. In fact, we should confess our sins in that way every day, often.
But it’s good sometimes to have people who are devoted Christians to whom we can confide our sins and receive from them the Word about Christ’s forgiveness. It’s too easy for us to go solo as Christians, telling ourselves either that our sin is too big for God to forgive or that our sin is too insignificant to matter. But private confession and absolution can help us to see the truth and know God’s guidance in our lives.
I remember once when I had unintentionally fallen into a bad habit that I only realized after a time was a sin. One day over breakfast, I confided my sin to a friend. He heard me out, pointed out what I had done wrong. I was sad about my sin. There was a long silence as I sat there, running my fork around the surface of an empty plate, feeling sorrow for sin and wanting to be reconciled to Jesus. And then, seeing my repentance and my belief in Jesus, my friend told me, “Your sin is forgiven, Mark. Be at peace with that.” My friend hadn't just tapped me in the should and said, "Oh, that's OK." But, like the father in Jesus' parable of the prodigal son, he let me experience the full depth of my sorrow for my sin and let me express that sorrow in confession that also included regret that I had hurt the feelings of the God Who made me and gone to a cross for me. When he saw authentic confession of sin coming from me, he knew that as a Christian, it was time to loose a sinner from the straitjacket of sin and set me free to be Christ's child once more.
But there are times when we must be willing to use the office of the keys to announce that God has not forgiven a person. Several years after the incident I recounted, a woman of a former congregation came to me in tears and confessed a sinful relationship with a married man in which she had been involved for decades. “I know it’s wrong,” she told me. “But I also know that if he phones me tonight, I’ll go to him and sin again. I’m not forgiven, am I?” It would have been an abuse of the office of the keys for me to have lied to her. But I tried to put a positive spin on things. I told her, “You can be forgiven. Jesus died and rose so that you can be forgiven. But no, at present, you’re not forgiven because you don’t believe in Jesus enough to lay this sin at God’s feet and ask for forgiveness in Jesus’ Name.” I had to bound that sinner in hopes that, like the prodigal son in Jesus' parable, she would come to herself, confess her sin, and receive the assurance of God's forgiveness!
But why, we may wonder, is it necessary for Christians to keep confessing their sins? "If we tell God once that we're sinners," we may reason, "what more can he expect of us?"
The answer is simple. None of us is perfect. I keep a written prayer journal. I now type it out on my computer, according to the ACTS formulation: A for Adoration; C for Confession; T for Thanksgiving; and S for Supplication or prayer requests. Personally, when I look back on my confessions of sin that I offered one year ago or two years ago, I find myself confessing the same stupid sins to God now. I may be bring those same sins and same sinful inclinations before God for forgiveness for as long as I live. The only time I should get worried is if I stop confessing that sin, even if that sin is still something I turn to. I'll need God's forgiveness and help in seeking to live a life pleasing to Him as long as I'm on this earth.
When we confess our sins to God, we confess that we are in bondage to sin and cannot free ourselves. We confess, “God, this sin is bigger than me. But You are bigger than my sin. Cover my sin in the forgiveness Jesus bears for those who repent and believe in Him.” The God Who took on flesh, died on a cross, and rose from the dead in the Person of Jesus Christ is always glad to answer that prayer!
But when we confess our sins in the presence of other Christians, whether in private confession with one trusted Christian or during public worship, God helps those of us who walk by faith and not by sight (2 Corinthians 5:6-7), to hear Christ’s words of forgiveness that we can’t hear when we're just praying to God personally on our knees.
Words like: “In the mercy of almighty God, Jesus Christ was given to die for you, and for His sake God forgives you all your sins. To those who believe in Jesus Christ He gives the power to become the children of God and bestows on them the Holy Spirit.” They’re good words to hear!
In Psalm 32, David says that before he confessed his sins, his “body wasted away...for day and night [God’s] hand was heavy upon him..” But then, he tells God, “I acknowledged my sin to you...I did not hide my iniquity...and You forgave the guilt of my sin.”
Whenever we confess our violations of God’s will--in our personal prayer time, in confidence to a trusted Christian friend, or in public worship--confession is the road to the healing of relationship with God that God wants all of us to know.
[This was shared during worship with the people of Saint Matthew Lutheran Church in Logan, Ohio, and our friends and guests on Sunday.]