Dear brothers and sisters in Christ,
“Concerning confession they teach that private absolution should be retained in the churches…” (AC, XI) Contrary to popular belief, Lutherans do have private confession and absolution. It’s not a Roman Catholic thing, but a catholic thing, meaning that it is part of the universal church of all times and all places. However, private confession in a Lutheran church looks quite a bit different than in the Roman Catholic.
First, note that title the Augsburg Confession uses—private absolution. Emphasis is taken off the confession of sin, and put on the absolution that is spoken by the pastor. The emphasis isn’t the chance to get a sin off your chest, but the chance to hear the forgiveness of sins spoken to you, applied to you, spoken over this or that sin, applied to your sin, should you choose to confess any specific sins. The Small Catechism shows this as Luther states that confession has two parts: “One is that we confess our sins. The other is that we receive the absolution, that is, forgiveness, from the confessor as from God Himself and by no means doubt but firmly believe that our sins are thereby forgiven before God in heaven.”
This is a big difference from the Roman Catholic church, where Confession had three parts: confession, absolution, and then penance. You see, in the Roman Catholic church, your sins are forgiven in confession, but only the eternal consequences of sin are forgiven. The temporal consequences are left untouched, and that is what you have to make up now through Hail Mary’s, Lord’s Prayers, pilgrimages, works of service, etc. The Lutherans saw this as completely wrong-headed, and totally against the testimony of Scripture. Jesus’ sacrifice was the perfect sacrifice, for all sin, all people, all time. Jesus’ sacrifice wasn’t lacking. His cross is for the sin of the world, nothing is left out, even the temporal consequences of sin. So they removed the part of penance. Private absolution ends with forgiveness, and nothing else.
And how is that forgiveness to be received? As from God Himself. How can that be? This brings us to the Office of the Keys, “that special authority which Christ has given to His church on earth to forgive the sins of repentant sinners, but withhold forgiveness from the unrepentant as long as they do not repent.” There are two texts where Jesus gives this authority, the first is Matthew 18:18, “Truly, I say to you, whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.” Here Jesus is referring to the church herself, with all her members forming a conglomerate whole. This means that when you tell someone that Jesus has died for them and their sins are forgiven, they really and truly are forgiven. The other text is John 20:23: “If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you withhold forgiveness from any, it is withheld.” Here Jesus is speaking specifically to His 11 disciples, and gives them the authority to forgive sins and that when they do, so it is done in heaven as well.
I wonder how closely lifelong Lutherans pay attention to their own service. Because if you did, you’d notice something spectacular, and odd. Something that forms a bit of roadblock for those coming out of evangelicalism (such as Windsor Christian Fellowship, or the Gathering Church). You hear it every time we go through Confession & Absolution at the beginning of our service when I say, “I forgive you all your sins…” and so on. Well, wait a second, I thought God was the only one who could forgive sins? What am I doing standing up there and saying “I forgive you all your sins”? What’s going on here? It’s the Office of the Keys at work. Jesus has given this wonderful authority to His church on earth, to her pastors, to forgive sins. That means, then that you should hear that forgiveness as though God Himself were speaking to you. What great comfort this brings to us. You don’t have to wonder if that forgiveness the pastor spoke was actually good, if your sins are actually forgiven by God, if you repented properly, confessed properly. The pastor has spoken God’s judgment on you in Christ—forgiven! Not guilty for the sake of Christ. And you can take that forgiveness as though God Himself said it. Whether it be at the Divine Service, or in private confession, you can know, because Jesus put that authority in the church, in her pastors, for your comfort and assurance. You’re forgiven because Jesus says you are, and He’s given the church, He’s given pastors, to say that to you with the authority that Jesus Himself gives.
Confession & Absolution, the Office of the Keys, is given to you for your comfort, so that you can know, in no uncertain terms, that you are forgiven on account of Christ and His sacrifice for you.
Your servant in Christ,
Pastor Tim Schneider