The heart of all your problems is sin, which is rooted far deeper in your heart, mind, will, and flesh than the wrong which you do and the good that you do not. It is the alienation and enmity between you and the Lord your God, whereby you turn away from Him, disregard and disobey His Word, and reject His way of Life in your pursuit of deadly and damnable idolatry. You do not fear, love, and trust in Him, but in seeking to serve and satisfy yourself, in worshiping that which is not God and cannot give you life, you are lost and wandering further and further into danger and trouble.
What is more, in rupturing your relationship with God, sin also ruins your relationship with others. For both faith and love, all true fellowship, and life itself are all broken and undone by your sin.
What you need, therefore, first and foremost, is the forgiveness of your sins. Not simply excuses or rationalizations, not explanations, exceptions to the rules, or the tolerance of your sins, but real forgiveness for real sins: Your debts paid off and cancelled, and your heart, mind, body, soul, and spirit set free from the power of sin, the fear of death, and the assaults and accusations of Satan.
Such forgiveness is fundamental and definitive to the entire Christian faith and life, and so also to the Christian Church. There is more to life and salvation than the forgiveness of sins, but there is no life or salvation without it. In this life on earth, under the curse and consequences of the fall into sin, everything depends upon the forgiveness of sins, apart from which there is only death.
As for the source and substance of all true forgiveness, it derives solely from the Cross of Christ, whereby He who is the Lamb of God, the incarnate Son, sacrificed Himself and shed His holy and precious blood for the sins of the whole world, once for all. He is the Propitiation for your sins, and He has made Atonement for them all, in order to reconcile you and all people to His God and Father; that you should not die but live, justified in His Resurrection and sanctified by His Spirit.
So has Christ Jesus done and accomplished by His perfect Sacrifice, and so has God established in raising this same Lord Jesus from the dead. No other sacrifice for sin is needed or possible. For His part, God is reconciled to you and all the world in Christ Jesus. He is not angry. He is at peace with you in Christ. But how, then, shall you be reconciled to Him and live at peace with Him?
How are you brought from your pursuit of sin and death to faith and life in Christ? Where and how do you receive and lay hold of His forgiveness with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength? Or, to say it better: Where and how does the Lord Jesus lay hold of you with His forgiveness of sins?
That purpose — the forgiveness of sins in Jesus’ Name, for the sake of faith and life in Him — that is what the Ministry of the Gospel and the means of grace are all about. Such forgiveness of sins is what the Church on earth is all about, on which your fellowship with God and man depends.
The means of grace, which are the various ways in which the Word of the Gospel is delivered in the life of the Church, are the ways and means by which the Lord Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit daily and richly forgive your sins. They are the ways and means whereby the great salvation that Christ has purchased and won for you by His Cross is wrapped up and given to you — spoken into your ears, laid upon your heart and mind, pressed into your hands, and even given into your body.
As the Gospel is administered in these means of grace, by this Ministry of the Word and Spirit of Christ Jesus, He calls you (daily and throughout your life) to repentant faith in His forgiveness.
Everything is built upon that firm foundation, the Ministry of the Gospel, the forgiveness of sins in the Name and stead of Christ Jesus. There is no Christian Church, there is no Christianity, and you are no Christian, yourself, except by these ways and means of His Gospel and His grace, by faith in these ways and means of His Gospel (and not by any works or efforts of your own).
You have no forgiveness of sins, no faith in God, no life, and no salvation — because you have no Jesus Christ — except by the Ministry of His Gospel–Word and Sacrament. For that is how He seeks you out, speaks to you, cares for you, and pours out His Holy Spirit generously upon you.
In contrast to the mind set of the world and the proclivities of your own fallen flesh, Christianity is not a do-it-yourself religion or a self-help program. You cannot raise yourself up from death to life by tugging on your own bootstraps. You cannot fear, love, and trust in the Lord by your own intellect or ingenuity, by your own cleverness or creativity. You cannot forgive your own sins.
The Christian faith and life are found in Christ Jesus alone, the Word-made-Flesh who has borne your sins in His body on the Cross, who now bestows His grace and all His benefits upon you, for both your body and soul, by and through and with His Gospel (and not apart from His Gospel).
It is by this grace of God in Christ, by the preaching of repentance for the forgiveness of sins in His Name, that your heart of stone is broken and replaced with a heart of flesh, and that you are raised up from your sin and death to life and salvation through faith in the one Lord Jesus Christ.
The fact that you still so often presume to lay hold of the Lord Jesus, and to climb your own way up to God, by your own ways and means — by your own wisdom, reason, and strength, by your own thoughts and feelings, by your own strategic plans and negotiations — is yet another aspect of your sin and unbelief. It is the evidence and demonstration of your inherent self-righteousness and self-idolatry, which are so antithetical to the grace of God and to the Gospel of Christ Jesus.
It is from this self-righteous idolatry of yours, from this way of sin and death that clings to your fallen flesh, that the Lord Jesus comes to set you free by way of repentance and forgiveness of sins. It is for this purpose that He has atoned for all your sins, reconciled you and all the world to God, and opened up the way of life and salvation to you and all people, by His sacrificial death upon the Cross and in His Resurrection from the dead — all of this in flesh and blood like your own.
It is nothing else and nothing less than this forgiveness, life, and salvation of His own Cross and Resurrection that He speaks to you and delivers to you through the Ministry of His Gospel: in the preaching and catechesis of His Word, in the washing of the water with His Word and Spirit in Holy Baptism, in the Holy Communion of His Body and Blood — and in His Holy Absolution.
Take to heart how exceedingly rich in His grace toward you the Lord is, that He has provided so many ways and means of forgiveness for you! Indeed, He has so established His Church on earth for this very purpose of daily and richly forgiving all your sins (as He has also taught you to pray).
These ways and means of forgiveness — these various ways and means of the Gospel of Christ — are not like the scattered pieces of a puzzle, as though you were supposed to hunt them down, gather them together, and assemble them into some intricate, composite picture.
Each of the means of grace has its own particular characteristics and benefits; and to be sure, none of them can take the place of any other. Nevertheless, each and all of these means bestows the same Lord Jesus Christ with all His gifts and benefits, His free and full forgiveness of all your sins, and His divine, eternal life and salvation. There is nothing piecemeal or partial about any of this.
So, for example, if the question is posed, whether you “have to” go to your pastor for Individual Confession and Holy Absolution, then the answer (at least in general) must be “no.” This is not a matter of the Law, a requirement or work that you must perform in order to satisfy some quota. It is rather a gift of the Gospel, whereby the Lord provides an extraordinary benefit and a most gracious opportunity for pastoral care in opposition to the assaults and accusations of the devil.
The forgiveness of Holy Absolution is the same forgiveness of Christ Jesus and His Cross which is yours in Holy Baptism, which you hear and receive in the preaching of His Gospel, and which you receive with His Body and His Blood in the Holy Communion. So, in that respect, there is no forgiveness “missing” if you abstain from this particular gift and benefit of your Lord Jesus.
But the practice of Individual Confession and Holy Absolution is not simply another alternative means of getting the same forgiveness of sins. It is surely such a means of forgiveness, which is already a precious blessing in itself. But it also provides its own unique contributions to your Christian faith and life, that you might be strengthened in the grace, mercy, and peace of Christ.
Dr. Luther, for example, was adamant that this particular means of grace and forgiveness not be taken from him, nor from the life of the evangelical Christian Church. When others spoke against the practice of Individual Confession and Absolution while Luther was being kept at the Wartburg Castle, he returned to Wittenberg in order to insist that it be preserved and to encourage its use. For he himself knew how beneficial it was to his own faith and life and to his defense against the attacks of Satan. Elsewhere, Luther credits his own father confessor, Johannes Von Staupitz, with teaching him to know and understand the Gospel. And in the Large Catechism he indicates that, when he urges you to go to Confession, he is simply urging you to be a Christian!
Aside from Dr. Luther himself, the Lutheran Confessions likewise insist that it would be wicked to remove Individual Confession and Absolution from the life of the Church; and again, that anyone who despises this Christian practice neither knows nor understands the Gospel at all.
Along the same lines, but more positively stated, at one point following Dr. Luther’s death his younger colleague Philipp Melanchthon characterized the entire Reformation as Luther’s rescue and recovery of Individual Confession and Absolution for the evangelical use of the Church!
Certainly, for any confirmed Lutheran — for anyone taught the Word of God from Luther’s Small Catechism — it should be clear and understood that a regular practice of Individual Confession and Absolution is intended to be a normal part of your life as a baptized disciple of Christ Jesus.
Specifically, Confession and Absolution returns you to the life-giving waters of your Baptism into Christ, that is, to the ongoing significance of your one Holy Baptism, by the exercise of contrition, repentance, and forgiveness of sins, which are worked in you and for you by the Word of the Lord.
To examine yourself and to consider your place in life according to the Ten Commandments, and to confess those sins that are thereby brought to light, is to let the Word of God have its way with you, that it might defend and protect you against the lies and deceptions of the devil, the world, and your own sinful flesh (your pernicious old Adam, who is ironically your own worst enemy).
Even more to the point at hand, to hear and receive the spoken Word of Holy Absolution by which your dear Lord Jesus Christ forgives you all your sins through the mouth of His servant on earth, and so also before your God and Father in heaven, is to be strengthened and sustained in the one true faith, unto the Life everlasting of your body and soul with the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
Do not imagine that your sins are too small to bother with, nor suppose that your sins are too big and bad and shameful to be dealt with and absolved. Rather, repent of your sins, confess them, and trust the ways and means that Jesus, your Good Shepherd, has provided to care for you, His sheep.
And by this way and means of His Gospel and His grace, by this pastoral care of Confession and Holy Absolution in His Name, learn from the Lord Jesus Christ (not only in theory, but in practice) to live by faith in His forgiveness of sins. Thus are you reconciled to your God and Father, as He has reconciled you to Himself in His beloved Son. And so also learn how to be reconciled to your neighbors by way of mutual repentance and forgiveness of sins, by confessing your sins, and by gladly doing good and speaking words of forgiveness to those who trespass against you. Not by excuses or explanations, rationalizations, or even second chances, but by the grace of Christ Jesus.
This exercise of confession, forgiveness, and reconciliation within the household and family of God is truly the breathing of the Holy Spirit in the Life of His holy Christian Church on earth.
In the Name + of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.