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Private Confession and Absolution for Lutherans: How Important is it, Really?

Portrait of Martin Luther as an Augustinian Monk

Private Confession and Absolution in the Lutheran Church

Some Quotes from Martin Luther and the Augsburg Confession by way of introduction,

Together with some Comments from Dietrich Bonhoeffer Explaining why General Confession and Absolution is not an Adequate Substitute for Private Confession.

Of confession they teach that Private Absolution ought to be retained in the churches…Augsburg Confession Article XI

Confession in the churches is not abolished among us; for it is not usual to give the body of the Lord, except to them that have been previously examined and absolved.  An the people are most carefully taught concerning faith in the absolution, about which formerly there was profound silence.  Our people are taught that they should highly prize the absolution, as being the voice of God and pronounced by God’s command.  The power of the Keys is set forth in its beauty, and they are reminded what great consolation it brings to anxious consciences; also, that God requires faith to believe such absolution as a voice sounding from heaven, and that such  faith in Christ truly obtains and receives the forgiveness of sins.  Augsburg Confession Article XXV: 1-4.

On this point our churches can scarcely be faulted.  For even our adversaries are compelled to grant us that the teaching concerning confession has been most carefully treated and brought to light by our people. Augsburg Confession XXV: 6, Latin text


According to Luther, the absolution that one Christian offers to another in the name of God is absolutely valid.  God forgives through the word of the brother.  If a man fails to believe this word, so much the worse for him.  But the fact that God’s peace was offered to him remains unaffected whether he accepts the offer in faith or not.  Thus Luther never thought of abolishing private confession.  He knew and used its benefits in his own spiritual struggles, and he could not conceive of a Christian who could get along without it.  He never designed an order of public confession, but in the Small Catechism he offered two forms of private confession.[emphasis mine]


Luther’s Works, American Edition, vol. 53: Liturgy and Hymns, Fortress Press: Philadelphia, pp. 116-117.


A Short Order of Confession before the Priest for the Common Man

Martin Luther (in 1529 edition of Small Catechism)

Reverend and dear sir: I beseech you, for God’s sake, give me good counsel for the comfort of my soul.

What then do you desire?

Answer: Miserable man that I am, I confess and lament to you before God that I am a sinful and weak creature.  I do not keep God’s commandments; I do not really believe the gospel; I do nothing good; I cannot bear ill.  Especially have I committed this and that [here the penitent enumerates the particular sins which distress him] which burdens my conscience.  I therefore ask that you, in God’s stead, would declare unto me my sins forgiven and comfort me with the word of God.

Another Form of Confession


I confess before God and you that I am a miserable sinner, guilty of every sin, of unbelief and of blasphemy.  I also feel that God’s word is not bringing forth fruit in me.  I hear it, but I do not receive it earnestly.  I do not show works of love toward my neighbor.  I am full of anger, hate, and envy toward him.  I am impatient, greedy, and bent on every evil.  Therefore, my heart and conscience are heavy, and I would gladly be freed of my sins.  I ask you to strengthen my little faith and comfort my weak conscience by the divine word and promise.

Why dost thou desire to receive the sacrament?

Answer: Because I desire to strengthen my soul with God’s Word and sign and to obtain grace.

But hast thou not found forgiveness of sins by absolution?

Answer: So what!  I want to add the sign of God to His Word.  To receive God’s Word in many ways is so much better.

From “How one should teach the common folk to shrive themselves” by Martin Luther (1531—this is included in the Small Catechism used by the LCMS)

What is confession?

Answer: confession consists of two parts: one is that we confess our sins, the other that we receive absolution or forgiveness from the father confessor (beichtvater) as from God himself, in no wise doubting, but firmly believing that our sins are thus forgiven before God in heaven.

What sins ought we to confess?

Answer: In the presence of God we should acknowledge ourselves guilty of all manner of sins, even of those we do not ourselves perceive, as we do in the Lord’s Prayer.  But in the presence of the father confessor we should confess only those sins we know and feel in our hearts.

Please give me a brief order of confession.

Answer: Thus you shall say to the father confessor: Reverend and dear sir, I beseech you to hear my confession and to declare unto me the remission of sins in the name of God…Thus a master or mistress may speak: Especially do I confess before you that I did not faithfully rule my children, servants, and wife to the glory of God.  I have cursed, given a bad example with vulgar words and deeds, hurt and slandered my neighbor, sold at too much profit, given poor or underweight merchandise…, and whatever else he did against the commandments of God and his own calling.

But if someone should not be bothered by such or still greater sins, let him not try to find or feign other sins and thus make confession a torment.  Let him tell one or two sins that he knows, e.g., especially do I confess that once I cursed, once I was inconsiderate in my words, once I neglected this…, etc.  And let it remain at that.

But if you know of no sin at all (which seems almost impossible), don’t confess any particular one, but receive forgiveness upon the general confession [Luther evidently thinks here of a general confession such as was customarily repeated by the congregation after the sermon…],  which you make to the father confessor before God.

Then the father confessor shall say: God be gracious unto thee and strengthen thy faith.  Amen.

And further: Do you believe that my absolution is God’s absolution?

Answer: Yes, dear sir.

Then let him [the father confessor] say: As thou believest, so be it done unto thee.  And I, by the command of Jesus Christ our Lord, forgive thee all thy sin in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Ghost.  Amen.  Go in peace.

But the father confessor will know how to comfort with additional Bible verses those who are greatly afflicted in conscience or who are grieved or tempted, and how to incite them to faith.

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