We believe and teach
– that private absolution in confession is a means of grace ordained by God, equal to the other means of grace;
– that confession embraces two parts: one that we confess our sins before a confessor, the other that we receive absolution or forgiveness from him;
– that the confessor’s forgiveness is God’s forgiveness;
– that private absolution is Gospel in its most simple and pure form, given as a great consolation and help for troubled and worried consciences;
– that the Church, which from Christ has received the power to loose or absolve repentant sinners from all sins (the loosing key), also has received the power to bind in sin or hold back the forgiveness (the binding key), when a sinner is manifestly impenitent and refuses to amend his life;
– that the use of the loosing key is the most great and glorious task of the Church.
Private confession is often considered to be something typically Roman Catholic, not domiciled in Lutheran Christianity. But that is not right. We should remember that The Lutheran Church is a reformed Catholic Church. Only such things that obviously were against the Scripture were weeded out from the Church in the Reformation. And the practice of confession did definitely not belong to that category. On the contrary our Lutheran Confessions strongly emphasise that private confession is ordained by God and should be retained in the Church. Private confession is placed on level with baptism and the Holy Supper and is called the “Sacrament of Repentance” (Ap XIII, Trigl. p. 309).
The Reformers removed from confession some legalistic demands such as an exhaustive and complete confession of sins and of the fulfilment of satisfactions. Private confession then became a pure and indispensable Gospel. It was highly appreciated and honoured in the Lutheran Church, much more than during the Roman Catholic period. This is not least clear from the fact that the traditional confessionals were retained in the Lutheran churches and here and there were in use up to the eighteenth century.
Yet private confession in time unfortunately went out of practice more and more and was replaced by a general confession in the beginning of the Sunday service. First a common confession of sins was used, followed by individual absolutions. However, in the course of time the latter was replaced by a general absolution, pronounced over the entire congregation. Behind this tragic development (which has its roots in pietism) lies the loss of faith in individual absolution as a means of grace ordained by God. Even if a new interest for private confession is at times discernible today in different churches, seldom any references are made to the absolution as an ordinance of God. The confession is mostly considered useful only from a psychological or a mental health point of view.
Yet it’s not difficult at all to find the biblical basis of private absolution. The very first thing Christ did after His resurrection was to proclaim “peace” to the disciples (John 20:21 ff.). This peace with God is the result of Christ’s completed work of atonement and His victorious resurrection for us. In immediate connection with the words of peace Jesus gives the disciples and the Church the commission and the power of the Spirit to forgive individual people their sins. Jesus had previously talked with His disciples about this power and called it “the keys of the kingdom of heaven” (Matt. 16:19) – keys by which they could close or open up the heaven for sinners. Christ himself absolved individuals: “Son, be of good cheer; your sins are forgiven you”, He said to the paralytic (Matt. 9:2). He gave people peace through personally addressed simple and straight words of forgiveness. Such absolution He wanted to find in His Church even in the future.
The power of the keys is generally practised in the preaching of Law and Gospel. The loosing key is also effective in baptism and the Holy Supper. Wherever the Gospel is proclaimed and offered, it is so done to be received by individuals. Faith is always an individual thing. That’s why the Apostle's Creed in its original form starts with the words: “I believe” (Credo). No one is saved because of the faith of others or by the collective faith of the church, but through a personal faith. This becomes especially clear in private confession. The absolution is Gospel in its most pure, simple, personal and unavoidable form. Here the unconditional grace of God is directed precisely to the individual and to no one else. In the holy and blessed moment of confession God and the one who makes the confession are alone. The confessor, who pronounces the absolution, is acting in the stead and by the command of Christ. Therefore, this absolution in the confession should always be received in full certainty that it is God himself who forgives. To remind us about this the confessor in our Lutheran Church used to ask just before the absolution: “Do you believe that my forgiveness is God’s forgiveness?”
The Scripture gives us no specific ritual for private confession. External forms like the use of confessionals, mirror questions as a help to confess concrete sins, secrecy, etc., are only human arrangements that have grown up from the pastoral care experience of the Church and have been proved to be good and useful.
Private confession is not only to be used when we fall into grievous sins and feel great distress. It’s spiritually useful and salutary to make confession more regularly and humble oneself by mentioning ordinary everyday sins before a confessor. To make confession is a very tangible way of living the life of baptism. When we were baptised, we were washed completely clean, but in confession Jesus cleanses our feet, which have become dirty during our walking (John 13:10) and brings us back to the grace of baptism. Private confession also promotes our sanctification. A named sin is easier to fight than the one you cannot or do not want to put your finger on. When we mention our sins and confess our desire to be rid of them the burden is taken away by the absolution. It erases the past and liberates us to something new. Then we grow and become mature Christians. Private confession is thus a sacrament of repentance, an invaluable help for spiritual health which we as Christians should not despise and neglect.
It’s well known how high Luther personally valued private confession, especially for the sake of the Gospel and absolution. He frequently encouraged people with troubled consciences to make use of it. And to those who knew what a wonderful means of grace confession was and yet abstained from it he could warningly say: “If you want to continue proudly and without confession, then we conclude that you are not a Christian…”
The binding key is the opposite of absolution. It closes and locks on God’s command the door to all forgiveness. Also this key, which is as effective as the loosing key, must be in use in the church. The binding key should however be used only on manifest and unrepentant sinners. In Matt. 18 Jesus gives us an example of when and how it should be used. It is important to remember that the binding too stands in the service of saving love. Its purpose is partly to protect the congregation by stopping the growth of evil, partly to wake up the sinner from his sin and bring him back to repentance and salvation. The ultimate aim of the binding key is always to prepare the way for the loosing key, or the absolution, the key which Lord Christ and his Church most of all wants to use.
What the Holy Scriptures say
If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, He is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness. (1 John 1:8‑9)
And 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. (Matt. 16:19, cf. 18:18)
So Jesus said to them again, “Peace to you! As the Father has sent Me, I also send you.” And when He had said this, He breathed on them, and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.” (John 20:21-23)
So David said to Nathan, “I have sinned against the Lord.” And Nathan said to David, "The Lord also has put away your sin; you shall not die.” (2 Sam. 12:13)
“Son, be of good cheer; your sins are forgiven you.” (Matt. 9:2)
Moreover if your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault between you and him alone. If he hears you, you have gained your brother. But if he will not hear, take with you one or two more… And if he refuses to hear them, tell it to the church. But if he refuses even to hear the church, let him be to you like a heathen and a tax collector. (Matt. 18:15-17)
…deliver such a one to Satan for the destruction of the flesh, that his spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord Jesus… Do you not know that a little leaven leavens the whole lump? (1 Cor. 5:5-6)
For God did not send His Son into the world to condemn the world, but that the world through Him might be saved. (John 3:17)
What the Lutheran Confessions say
Of Confession they teach that Private Absolution ought to be retained in the churches, although in confession an enumeration of all sins is not necessary. For it is impossible according to the Psalm: Who can understand his errors? Ps. 19:12. (AC XI, Trigl. p. 47)
What is Confession? – Answer.
Confession embraces two parts: the one is, that we confess our sins; the other, that we receive absolution, or forgiveness, from the confessor, as from God Himself, and in no wise doubt, but firmly believe, that our sins are thereby forgiven before God in heaven.
What sins should we confess? – Answer.
Before God we should plead guilty of all sins, even of those which we do not know, as we do in the Lord’s Prayer. But before the confessor we should confess those sins alone which we know and feel in our hearts. (SC, V, Trigl. p. 553)
Since Absolution or the Power of the Keys is also an aid and consolation against sin and a bad conscience, ordained by Christ [Himself] in the Gospel, Confession or Absolution ought by no means to be abolished in the Church. (SA III:VIII, Trigl. p. 493 f.)
Confession in the churches is not abolished among us; for it is not usual to give the body of the Lord, except to them that have been previously examined and absolved.
And the people are most carefully taught concerning faith in the absolution, about which formerly there was profound silence. Our people are taught that they should highly prize the absolution, as being the voice of God, and pronounced by God’s command.
The power of the Keys is set forth in its beauty and they are reminded what great consolation it brings to anxious consciences, also, that God requires faith to believe such absolution as a voice sounding from heaven, and that such faith in Christ truly obtains and receives the forgiveness of sins. (AC XXV, Trigl. p. 69)
It is well known that we have so elucidated and extolled [that we have preached, written, and taught in a, manner so Christian, correct, and pure] the benefit of absolution and the power of the keys that many distressed consciences have derived consolation from our doctrine; after they heard that it is the command of God, nay, rather the very voice of the Gospel, that we should believe the absolution, and regard it as certain that the remission of sins is freely granted us for Christ’s sake; and that we should believe that by this faith we are truly reconciled to God [as though we heard a voice from heaven]. - - -
But with respect to the time, certainly most men in our churches use the Sacraments, absolution and the Lord’s Supper, frequently in a year. - - -
Excommunication [the use of the binding key] is also pronounced against the openly wicked [those who live in manifest vices, fornication, adultery, etc.] and the despisers of the Sacraments. (Ap XI, Trigl. p. 247 f.)
For we also retain confession, especially on account of the absolution, as being the word of God which, by divine authority, the power of the keys pronounces upon individuals. Therefore it would be wicked [wider Gott] to remove private absolution from the Church. Neither do they understand what the remission of sins or the power of the keys is, if there are any who despise private absolution. (Ap XII, Trigl. p. 281)
We warn against
all kinds of false doctrines that contrary to the Scripture teach, for example,
– that private confession is a good pastoral practice in the church, motivated by psycho-therapeutical reasons, not being a real means of grace ordained by Christ (a common Protestant error);
– that absolution in private confession is not a special act of forgiveness from God’s side directed to an individual Christian, but only a reminder of the fact that Christ already has paid or debts and justified us (the means of grace emptied of its power);
– that an absolution is not valid unless all sins are enumerated (an old Roman Catholic error);
– that the foremost part of confession is what we do and say and not what God does (synergism);
O Lord Jesus Christ, my dear Saviour, have mercy on me, a poor sinner. Look upon me with your eyes of mercy, as you looked upon Peter in the high priest's courtyard when he denied you, and upon the sinful woman at the table in the house of the Pharisee, and upon the penitent thief on the cross. Give me your grace as with Peter to bewail my sins, with the sinful woman to love you with all my heart, and with the thief to forever behold thy face in paradise. Amen.
From the Catechismus prayer book