You cannot separate your life with God and where you stand before Him from the life that you live in relation to His other children, who are your brothers and sisters in Christ within the household and family of faith. Nowhere is that more clear and basic than it is with the forgiveness of sins.
The Lord has clearly taught you that connection in the Fifth Petition of the Our Father, by which you pray for the forgiveness of your sins and you promise to forgive those who sin against you.
By the same token, there are two main temptations or stumbling blocks that Satan sets before you to destroy your relationship with the Lord your God and with the family of your Father in heaven.
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 wronged you, whether by what they have done or by what they have failed to do.
Daily repentance requires that you cease from doing evil and that you begin to do what is right. It also requires that you 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.
The Lord your God has called you to faith by the preaching of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. And in His gracious gift of Holy Baptism He has cleansed you of all unrighteousness, poured out the Holy Spirit upon you, united you with Himself in Christ Jesus, the beloved Son, and named you with His divine and holy Name. Thus are you 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 its gifts and 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 life-breath of the Church. She breathes forgiveness in and out in preaching and in prayer.
Indeed, everything in the life of the Church on earth has been established and arranged for the daily forgiveness of sins unto faith and life with God in Christ. That really is what it’s all about, and there is nothing else in all of creation more important than that. It truly is heaven on earth.
The forgiveness of sins is what defines and characterizes the household and family of God. It is the defining center of the Gospel, which gives Life to the whole Church and to all her members.
This same Gospel is also what Confession and Holy Absolution is all about, that is, the free and full forgiveness of sins for 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. It is a means of grace and forgiveness from your 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 which the pastor speaks in Jesus’ Name. Everything else aims at that Word.
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 in the Keys of forgiveness. That is revealed 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. 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 for 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, wherein the Lord’s help comes to you. And by His Word of Holy Absolution the Lord guards your going out and your coming in, from that speaking of forgiveness unto eternal life, just as He named 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 entire family to confront and deal with sin seriously, by naming it for what it really is, and by addressing it with His real 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 cope with or survive the devil’s schemes except by the Word of the Gospel. Not with a vague or abstract sense of God’s mercy, but with confident trust in His spoken Word of the Gospel, that is, the Word that God the Father speaks to you by His incarnate Son.
To this end, the practice of Confession and Absolution teaches you to examine yourself and your life according to the Ten Commandments; and to discipline your body and life, not only by curbing your bad behavior and fulfilling your duties, but also by confessing your sins and calling on 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 and hands and feet, so by faith in the forgiveness of sins do you bring forth the fruits of repentance in the way that you live, in what you say and do.
Of course, it is not any fun or easy to confess your sins. It’s far more enticing to pass around the embarrassments, faults, and failings of your neighbors than to own up to your own indiscretions, crimes, and misdemeanors. What is more remarkable and rather strange, is how readily people will broadcast their sins on the internet, and yet remain shy about confessing their sins to their pastor.
I suspect that the latter trend is due in part to a false sense of control over what you choose to post on social media, and to an ungodly pride and boasting about your wrongdoing. Whereas going to your pastor and confessing your sins to him in person is humbling and places you in a position of weakness and need. Nowhere are you less in control and more dependent on the grace of God than on your knees before His Altar in Confession and Absolution. Yet, right there by His Word of the Gospel spoken to you, the Lord raises you up and exalts you, gives you life and strengthens you.
The pain of confessing your sins — which is costly and hard, I acknowledge, 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 sorrows with you in the confession of your sins, and he too may shed tears of anguish for the hurt that you have borne or caused with your transgressions, it is then with great joy and gladness that he is also able to administer the real rescue and remedy of the Lord’s 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 as you deal with the neighbor who sins against you. 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 by grace.
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 about your neighbor to others, you seek out your neighbor to be reconciled to him through mutual repentance and forgiveness of sins. Or, if the offense does not warrant such effort, then, by all means, bear with it in love and overlook it!
Confessing your own sins, and relying on the Lord’s Absolution of your own sins, is precisely the way and the means by which to remove the log from your own eye, before you attempt to get the tiny splinter 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 best to help and serve your neighbor, namely, by forgiving his trespasses against you, just as you are freely forgiven by your Father in Christ Jesus.
It is not only within the broad household and family of God that Holy Absolution teaches you and trains you to live by faith in peace with your brothers and sisters in Christ. It does so also within your own household and family — with your parents, spouse, and children; with your siblings; and with all your friends and neighbors in this life on earth. Holy Absolution catechizes you to follow the path of repentance and reconciliation in all of your relationships: at home, at school, at work. Knowing your own sins, yet living by faith in the Gospel, you are both forgiven and forgiving.
The practice of Confession and Holy Absolution is able to do all these things and contribute all these benefits — not as your own hard work, sacrifice, suffering, discipline, or accomplishment — but because it is done and accomplished by the Word of God, His Law and His Gospel.
It is the Word of the Lord that examines you, exposes your sin, and calls you to contrition and repentance. Even this work of His Law is due to His tender mercy and steadfast love for you, that you should 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 that 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 His God and Father is your God and Father; and that all of His children are your own dear brothers and sisters, now and forever.
In the Name + of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.