If you knew that your pastor could cure your illness and heal all your bodily diseases — and that he would gladly do so with a word, without cost — you would go to him. You know that you would. For medical care, you’re willing to do a lot, to go through a lot, to pay a lot, even if you are one of those people who tend to put it off too long.
When it finally does come down to it, for your physical health and well-being, you’re even willing to let your medical doctor examine you in ways that would otherwise be quite immodest and inappropriate. Likewise, you’re willing to let a surgeon cut into your body and open you up — in ways that actually are quite dangerous and even deadly — for the sake of dealing with even more dangerous and deadly conditions.
You’re willing to do and suffer all of these medical treatments, even though there are no guarantees or “warranties” when it comes to your bodily health in this mortal life.
Why, then, is there such hesitation and resistance on the part of so many Christians when it comes to seeking out the spiritual care of their pastor and allowing him to serve them with the sure and certain Word of Christ? Is it self-righteous pride and conceit? Stubborn self-reliance? Or is it, rather, embarrassment and shame?
No matter what your own reasons or excuses may be, if you recognize your sin, if you know how serious and dangerous it is, then, for heaven’s sake, seek and receive the rescue; just as you go to the doctor when you’re sick, even though you’d rather not.
But, if you do not recognize or realize your sinful condition and its prognosis, then all the more do you need to be rescued and healed from it — lest it kill you eternally! For your sin is real, and it is deadly; all the more so when you deny it.
It is for this reason that the Holy Scriptures and the Small Catechism teach you and admonish you to examine yourself according to the Commandments of God.
It’s actually far more important than regular medical check-ups and exams, even as wise and beneficial as those kinds of physical maintenance are. For the truth is, your body is going to die in any event, whether sooner or later, no matter what you do. But then, what will happen to your body and your soul after that, and forever and ever, depends on where you stand in relation to God: whether in repentance and faith, unto the resurrection and the life everlasting, or in sinful unbelief, unto eternal punishment.
Examine yourself, therefore, and discipline yourself according to the Word of God.
Otherwise — and thanks be to God for this, although it is unpleasant in the meantime — the Lord, in His love for you, will discipline you and call you to repentance, in order that you not remain in your sin, but be rescued for the faith and life of His Son.
To this end, the Lord your God allows you to suffer some of the consequences of your sins. Although, in mercy, He spares you from so much of what you rightly deserve, He also chastens and wounds you, in order to heal and repair you. And He sends His Nathans, His pastors and “prophets,” as it were, to preach His Word to you, lest you be left in your ignorance, or, what is even worse than that, your presumptuous sins.
The Lord uses the Law and the Gospel to call you and bring you to repentance, that is, to the daily dying of contrition, and to the rising of faith in His forgiveness of sins. He puts the Old Adam in you to death; He raises the New Man within you unto life.
You should recognize this dying and rising for what it is, namely, the ongoing, daily, and life-long significance of your Holy Baptism. It is not your work; nor is it in your own power, no more than your Baptism itself and its great benefits are your doing. There simply is no “do-it-yourself” or “self-medicated” Christianity, but the Lord works through His own means to recall you to Himself, and to keep you close to Him.
This good work of repentance is precisely what He does for you, and gives to you, and works in you, through the practice of Confession & Holy Absolution.
Though it seems natural that you should focus on your confession — on its difficulty and embarrassment, on its character and content, on its length and other qualities — the real focus, and the “center of gravity” in this means of grace, is Holy Absolution, that is, the spoken Word of forgiveness in the Name and stead of Christ your Savior; and then, along with that, the pastor’s preaching of the Gospel to you in that context.
The emphasis is not on your work, but on Christ. Not how “good” or “bad” you are, but how good Christ is, and how gracious and merciful He is in forgiving you all your sins. It is not what you give or suffer, but what Christ gives to you as the fruit and benefit of His suffering for you. Not your remorse for the past, nor your promises for the future, but the certainty of Christ’s Word and promise to you in the here and now.
The Lord gives you all these good things, and He does these good things for you, by and with His Word; and not at all apart from His Word. So did He send the Prophet “Nathan” (whose very name means gift) to speak His Word to David.
And so does He also send a pastor to you; not as a master and commander of His Word, but as a called and ordained servant of His Word, and as a gift of His grace.
It is true that Individual Confession & Absolution is a matter of freedom; for it is a gift of the Gospel, not an obligation or burden of the Law. That is not the case in matters of public sin or with a stubborn persistence in unrepentant sin, which call for the use of the binding key and for the exercise of church discipline. But the ordinary use of Individual Confession & Absolution is freely given to be freely received in repentant faith. No one is keeping score or grading you on this practice.
However, do consider and take to heart the unique and powerful benefit and blessing of Individual Confession & Absolution, which rests upon the authority of Christ your Savior, and which is so highly praised by Dr. Luther and our Lutheran Confessions.
For the Word of Christ that is spoken and preached in Holy Absolution surely does and gives exactly what it says: By it, the Lord your God removes your sins from you and lays them on the Son of David, Jesus Christ, who suffers and dies in your stead.
In removing your sin, He then also strengthens your faith with the Gospel. For the Word of Absolution sets Christ against your sin and death, against the temptations and the accusations of the devil. What is more, it sets the same Lord Jesus Christ, not against you, but with you and for you, as your great Champion of Salvation.
The life-giving Word of Holy Absolution pours Christ Jesus Himself into you, into your ears, in much the same way that His Body and His Blood are given into your mouth in the Holy Communion. In both cases, the Holy Spirit lays Christ upon your heart to strengthen and sustain your body and your soul in steadfast faith and real life.
So, too, along with this central gift and benefit of Holy Absolution itself, the practice of Individual Confession & Absolution is a tremendous means of pastoral care and catechesis in the Word and faith, as I can attest from both sides of that relationship. It is a most personal bestowal of forgiveness, which addresses itself to your particular sins and weaknesses; not to condemn you, but to heal, help, and strengthen you.
Thus, it is a powerful weapon against the assaults and accusations of the devil, and a source of unsurpassed comfort, peace, and rest in the sweet Gospel of Christ Jesus.
For a pastor, let me tell you, honestly, that Individual Confession & Absolution is a difficult and humbling task. Nevertheless, it is also a sacred trust and responsibility, and a profound means of care that can hardly be equaled and cannot be replaced.
Actually, the Office of the Keys and the Office of the Holy Ministry go hand-in-hand: Hearing confession and absolving sinners in the Name and stead of Christ Jesus is integral to, and in some ways definitive of, the entire pastoral office.
So much is this a part of who your pastor is and what he does, that he is not shocked or appalled, nor even surprised by your sins. But he is grateful for the opportunity to help you with the gifts of Christ, that is, with the Holy Absolution of the Gospel, and with the preaching of the Gospel to your own sins and personal circumstances.
In this way, and by this means of grace, your pastor is given to assist you in bearing the burdens of your sin and death. Not by his own wisdom or strength, but by the Word and Spirit of Christ Jesus, and by His authority as the crucified and risen Lord. That is the special authority, not of worldly power, but of loving service.
Through this exercise of pastoral care, your pastor serves, not only as a physician of your soul, but as your shepherd under Christ, and as your spiritual father in Christ.
Do not be ashamed to be a patient, a sheep, and a child of this servant. But take to heart that Christ Jesus — who has purchased and won you to be His very own, so that you might live with Him in His Kingdom in eternal peace and joy — He has entrusted you to the care of this poor man, so that you might kneel at this Altar and recline at this Table; that you might here be fed and nourished with the Gospel; and that you might be a son or daughter of God in the House of the Lord forever and ever.
In the Name + of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.