You cannot separate your life with God, and where you stand in His presence, from your relationship with His other children, who are your brothers and sisters in Christ, within the household and family of faith. Nowhere is that more clear than in the forgiveness of sins.
The Lord has clearly taught you that connection in the Fifth Petition of the Our Father, with which you pray for the forgiveness of your sins, while promising to forgive those who sin against you.
By the same token, there are two main temptations or stumbling stones that Satan would use to undo you and destroy your relationship with the Lord your God and the family of your Father:
On the one hand, there is the temptation to sin against the Word of God, whether by doing what He has forbidden, or by failing to do what He has commanded. And you know that you daily fall into that trap in your heart and mind, and in the ways that you invest your time and energies. Yet, on the other hand, there is also the temptation to refuse and withhold forgiveness from those who have done you wrong in some way: by what they have done to you, or by what they have not done.
Daily repentance will mean that you cease to do evil and begin to do what is right, and that you will readily forgive and gladly do good to those who sin against you; and all the more so in the case of your brothers and sisters in Christ, within the community and life of the Church. But you learn how to live in this family of faith and forgiveness, not by instinct, intuition, or personal insight, but from your Father in heaven, who has made you His own dear child and brought you to faith and life in Himself, in Christ Jesus, through the forgiveness of all your sins.
He has first of all called you to faith by the preaching of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. In His gracious gift of Holy Baptism, He has cleansed you of all unrighteousness, poured out His Holy Spirit upon you, united you with His beloved and well-pleasing Son, and named you with His Holy Name, so that you are indeed a child of God by His gracious adoption. And this Baptism, too, is “for the forgiveness of sins.” That is the deep well from which all of its benefits spring forth and flow for you. Likewise, in the Holy Communion, the Lord Jesus gives you His Body to eat, and pours out His Blood for you to drink, for the forgiveness of all your sins.
The forgiveness of sins, at the heart of the Our Father, and at the center of the Holy Gospel, is the very life-breath of the Church: She breathes forgiveness, in and out, in preaching and in prayer.
Indeed, everything in the entire Church of our dear Lord Jesus Christ has been so arranged for the forgiveness of sins, unto faith and life with Christ in God. That really is what it’s all about, and there is nothing else on earth more important than that. It truly is heaven on earth.
Therefore, the forgiveness of sins is what defines and characterizes the household and family of God; because it is the heart and center of the Gospel, which gives Life to the entire Church, and to each and all of her members.
So, this is also what Confession and Holy Absolution is for and all about: the free forgiveness of sins, for Christ Jesus’ sake, unto eternal life with God. That is how this Fifth Chief Part of the Small Catechism (and of the Christian faith and life) should be understood, and thought about, and practiced: as a means of grace and forgiveness from your own dear Savior, Jesus Christ.
The “Office of the Keys and Confession” is most appropriately described and summarized by its most important aspect, namely, “Holy Absolution.” Everything is done for the sake of Absolution, that is, forgiveness, from the pastor as from God Himself. Everything else aims at that benefit. Indeed, the entire Office of the Holy Ministry is centered in the absolving of sinners: “in order to fulfill God’s will,” as the rite of Individual Confession and Absolution confesses and requests.
The work of the Holy Ministry and the life of the Holy Church are both found, most clearly, here in Holy Absolution; as one may discern in the Word and promise of Christ to St. Peter the Apostle (in St. Matthew 16), and in His Word concerning the apostolic Church (here in St. Matthew 18). The Ministry of the Gospel is the forgiving of sins, and the Church that lives from that Gospel is, therefore, continuously forgiven and constantly forgiving, in the Name of our Lord Jesus Christ.
In this way, the confession of sins and the receiving of Holy Absolution are also a training ground and exercise of the Christian faith and life. That is to say, it is the active practice of repentance, and of reconciliation with God and the neighbor, through faith in the Lord’s forgiveness of sins.
In this respect, as Dr. Luther also recognized and taught, the practice of Confession and Absolution is one significant way of remembering and returning to the meaning, gifts, and benefits of Holy Baptism. Not that your Baptism has failed, but that you lay hold of it by this use of God’s Word. By confessing your sins, according to His Law, and by asking for the Absolution of His Gospel, you look to the hills of Zion, that is, the Holy Church, whence the Lord’s help comes to you. And in the spoken Word of Holy Absolution, the Lord guards your going out and your coming in, from this time forth, even forevermore; precisely as He blessed you with His Name in Holy Baptism.
This return to the significance of Holy Baptism is necessary, because stumbling stones, scandals, and sins are inevitable in this mortal life in a fallen world, in which Satan is always on the prowl. The fact that sin continues to happen does not excuse it, but calls for you, as a Christian, to deal with it righteously; that is, not by your own reason and strength, but by faith in the Word of God.
The Lord calls you, and His whole Church, to confront and deal with sin seriously, by naming it for what it really is, and by addressing it with the Gospel. That is the only sure and certain way to guard yourself (and your neighbor) against the assaults and accusations of the devil. For Satan will not only tempt you to sin, but then also haunt you with guilt and shame, whether with the Law or with his devious tricks and lies. Satan holds your sins against you, even though God doesn’t. And your conscience cannot stand or survive the devil’s schemes, except by the Word of the Gospel: not simply a vague or general sense of God’s mercy, but a confident trust in His spoken Word of the Gospel, in the Word that God the Father speaks to you by Christ Jesus, His Son.
Therefore, the practice of Confession and Absolution teaches you to examine yourself, your place in life according to the Ten Commandments; and to discipline yourself, not only by curbing your bad behavior and prompting you to do your duties, but also by confessing your sins and calling upon the Name of the Lord. As you sin in your thoughts, words, and deeds, not only with your heart and mind, but also with your eyes and lips, your hands and feet, so does true contrition or sorrow for your sins bear fruits of repentance, not only on the inside, but in what you say and do.
Of course, it is not easy or enjoyable to confess your sins. It’s far more enticing to pass around the embarrassments, faults and failings of your neighbor, than to own up to your own indiscretions, crimes and misdemeanors. What is perhaps more remarkable, and rather surprising in some ways, is how readily people will broadcast their sins on the internet, on blogs, and facebook, and twitter, and yet would be too scared or shy to speak of such things with their pastor in private confession.
But boasting of wrongdoing on social media (where pastors and parents and anyone else can see), and committing sins online with perverse language and immoral pictures, is not a “confession,” but a compounding of sins, which runs the risk of shipwrecking faith and spiritual life altogether.
If you are caught up in such trespasses, repent: Confess your sins, and receive forgiveness from Christ Jesus through His spoken Word of Holy Absolution.
The pain of confessing your sins — which is costly and hard, on one level, because it is a slaying of your sinful flesh, a pouring out of your sinful life, and a sacrificing of your old Adam on the Altar of the Cross — is not sorrow for its own sake, but for the joy and comfort of genuine peace and new life in the forgiveness of your sins; lest your sins continue to control and consume you.
It is also for that joy and comfort of the Gospel that Individual Confession and Holy Absolution is such a profound and personal means of God’s grace and forgiveness in Christ Jesus. Although your pastor also sorrows with you in the confession of your sins, and he may at times shed tears of anguish for the hurt that you have borne or caused with your transgressions, it is then also with full rejoicing that he is able to administer the real rescue and remedy of Holy Absolution.
In this way, your pastor is able to shepherd you with the grace of the Good Shepherd, Christ Jesus.
Confession and Absolution likewise teaches you, and trains you — not so much intellectually, but experientially — to have a pastoral heart for your neighbor, and to deal gently and compassionately with your brothers and sisters in Christ. In confessing and being forgiven all of your sins, you learn not only how to sympathize and to be patient, but also how to respond with the Gospel, in dealing with your neighbor who trespasses against you. For in faith and forgiveness, in humility and love, you learn to know the goal of God, which is to rescue the lost, and to give His Life to all.
Instead of harboring ill-will, resentment, anger or bitterness, in your heart and mind, against the neighbor who has hurt you — and instead of speaking ill of your neighbor to others — you seek out your neighbor to be reconciled to him through repentance and forgiveness of sins. Or, if the offense does not warrant such an effort, then, by all means, bear with it in love and overlook it!
In any case, confessing your own sins, and relying on the Lord’s Absolution of your own sins, is precisely the way and means by which to remove the log from your own eye, before you should ever attempt to get the tiny splinter from out of your neighbor’s eye. And when your eye has been cleared up and focused by the forgiveness of sins, then you will know how to help your neighbor: by forgiving his trespasses against you, as you also are forgiven by your Father in Christ Jesus.
It is not only within the Church, the household and family of God, that Holy Absolution teaches you and trains you how to live by faith, in peace with your brothers and sisters in Christ. It is also within your own household and family; with your parents, spouse, and children, if you have any of these relations; with your siblings in this life; and in all of your human relationships on earth — Holy Absolution catechizes you to follow the path of repentance and reconciliation: Knowing your own sins, yet living by faith in the Word of Christ, you are both forgiven and forgiving.
The practice of Confession and Holy Absolution is able to do and contribute all of these benefits — not as your work, sacrifice, suffering, discipline, or accomplishment — but, because it is rooted in, and worked by, the Word of God: the Law and the Gospel.
It is the Word of the Lord that examines you, exposes your sin, and calls you to contrition and repentance. He does even this work of the Law because of His grace and mercy for you, that you might be turned away from sin and death, and called back to Him in peace by the Holy Gospel. For it is by His Word of the Gospel, in particular, that He freely and fully forgives you all your sins, and restores you to the fellowship of His family, and therein gives you life and health and peace, in body and soul, in heart, mind, and spirit, unto the resurrection and the life everlasting.
In truth, Holy Absolution is the Gospel “in a nutshell.” For it is the pastoral care of Christ Jesus, the Good Shepherd Himself, who bears the burden of your sin, and who bears you in His Body. It is in Him that you are reconciled to God and to each other; that you belong to God, your Father, and that you are brothers and sisters in His household and family, both now and forever and ever.
In the Name + of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
A sword in the hat is better than a foot in your mouth. All the better if it is that double-bladed sword that slices and dices between bone and marrow. But I have always liked to sort things out by thinking out loud with friends and colleagues. And since my opportunities to do so are limited, I figure I can multiply my thinking and sorting here.
Married 30 years, my wife and I have had ten children born to us (six boys, four girls); we have another son and daughter by marriage, a son who went ahead of us to heaven from the womb, six grandchildren and counting. I was ordained in 1996, and have been the pastor of Emmaus since then. I have a Ph.D. in Liturgical Studies from the University of Notre Dame (2003), and an S.T.M. from Concordia Theological Seminary, Fort Wayne, Indiana