Home > Luther, The Office of the Keys and Confession > Private Confession and Absolution for Lutherans, part 3

Private Confession and Absolution for Lutherans, part 3

OfficeOfTheKeysPrivate 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.


From the Large Catechism: A Brief Admonition to go to Confession

Martin Luther

We have always urged that confession should be voluntary and that the pope’s tyranny should cease.  As a result we are now rid of his coercion and set free from the intolerable load and burden that he laid upon Christendom…now…we have been granted the right to go to confession freely, under no pressure of coercion or fear; also, we are released from the torture of needing to enumerate all sins in detail; besides this we have the advantage of knowing how to make a beneficial use of confession for the comfort and strengthening of our consciences.

Everyone is now aware of this.  But unfortunately people have learned it only too well.  They do as they please and apply their freedom wrongfully as if it meant that they ought not or must not go to confession.  For we readily understand whatever is to our advantage, and we find it especially easy to take in whatever is mild and gentle in the Gospel.  But, as I have said, such pigs should not be allowed near the Gospel nor have any part of it.  They should stay under the pope and let themselves continue to be driven and pestered to confess, to fast, and so on.  For whoever does not want to believe the Gospel, live according to it, and do what a Christian ought to be doing, should not enjoy any of its benefits either.  Imagine their wanting to enjoy only the benefits, without accepting any of the responsibilities or investing anything of themselves—what sort of thing is that!  We do not want to make preaching available for that sort nor to grant permission that our liberty and its enjoyment be opened up to them…The rabble that will not obey the Gospel deserves nothing else than that kind of a jailer who is God’s devil and hangman.  But to others who gladly hear the Gospel we must keep on preaching, admonishing, encouraging, and coaxing them not to forget the precious and comforting treasure offered in the Gospel…

…besides the confession here being considered there are two other kinds, which may even more properly be called the Christians’ common confession.  They are [1] the confession and plea for forgiveness made to God alone and [2] the confession that is made to the neighbor alone…

Besides this public, daily, and necessary confession, there is also the confidential confession that is only made before a single brother.  If something particular weighs upon us or troubles us, something with which we keep torturing ourselves and can find no rest, and we do not find our faith to  be strong enough to cope with it, then this private form of confession gives us the opportunity of laying the matter before some brother and receiving counsel, comfort, and strength when and however often we wish.  That we should do this is not included in any divine command, as are the other two kinds of confession..  Rather, it is offered to everyone who may need it, as an opportunity to be used by him as his need requires.  The origin and establishment of private confession lies in the fact that Christ Himself placed His absolution into the hands of His Christian people with the command that they should absolve one another of their sins.  Thus any heart that feels its sinfulness and desires consolation has here a sure refuge when he hears God’s Word and makes the discovery that God through a human being looses and absolves him from his sins….

God’s Word in the absolution part of confession we should hold in high and great esteem.  We should not proceed as if we intended to perform and offer to Him a splendid work, but simply to accept and receive something from Him.  You dare not come saying how good or bad you are…but what you must see to is that you lament your problem and that you let yourself be helped to acquire a cheerful heart and conscience.

Moreover, no one may now pressure you with commandments.  Rather, what we say is this: Whoever is a Christian or would like to be one is here faithfully advised to go and get the precious treasure.  If you are no Christian and do not desire such comfort, we shall leave it to another to use force on you…As I have said, we teach that whoever does not go to confession willingly and for the sake of obtaining the absolution, he may as well forget about it…Nevertheless, we strongly urge you by all means to make confession of your need, not with the intention of thereby doing a worthy work but in order to hear what God has arranged for you to be told.  What I am saying is that you are to concentrate on the word, on the absolution, to regard it as a great and precious and magnificently splendid treasure, and to accept it with all praise and thanksgiving to God.

If this were explained in detail and if the need that ought to move and induce us to make confession were pointed out, then one would need little urging or coercion, for everyone’s own conscience would so drive and disturb him that he would be glad to do whtat a poor and miserable beggar does when he hears that a rich gift of money or clothing is being handed out at a certain place; so as not to miss it, he would run there as fast as he can and would need no bailiff to beat and drive him on…

Exactly so the pope’s preachers kept silent in the past about the splendid gift and inexpressible treasure to be had through confession.  All they did was to drive people in crowds to confession, with no further aim than to let them see what impure, dirty people they were.  Who could go willingly to confession under such circumstances?  We, however, do not say that people should look at you to see how filthy you are, using you as a mirror to preen themselves.  Rather, we give this counsel: If you are poor and miserable, then go to confession and make use of its healing medicine.  He who feels his misery and need will no doubt develop such a longing for it that he will run toward it with joy.  But those who pay no attention to it and do not come of their own accord, we let them go their way.  Let them be sure of this, however, that we do not regard them as Christians.

Thus, we teach what a splendid, precious, and comforting thing confession is.  Moreover, we strongly urge people not to despise a blessing which in view of our great need is so priceless.  Now if you are a Christian, then you do not need either my pressuring or the pope’s orders, but you will undoubtedly compel yourself to come to confession and will beg me for a share in it.  However, if you want to despise it and proudly continue without confession, then we must draw the conclusion that you are no Christian and should not enjoy the Sacrament either.  For you despise what no Christian should despise and you thereby bring it about that you cannot have forgiveness of your sins.  This is a sure sign that you also despise the Gospel.

…If you were a Christian, then you ought to be happy to run more than a hundred miles to confession and not let yourself be urged to come; you should rather come and compel us to give you the opportunity.  For in this matter the compulsion must be the other way around: we must act under orders, you must come into freedom.  We pressure no one, but we let ourselves be pressured, just as we let people compel us to preach and to administer the Sacrament.

When I therefore urge you to go to confession, I am doing nothing else than urging you to be a Christian.  If I have brought you to the point of being a Christian, I have thereby also brought you to confession.  For those who really desire to be true Christians, to be rid of their sins, and to have a cheerful conscience already possess the true hunger and thirst.  They reach for the bread, just as Psalm 42:1 says of a hunted hart, burning in the heat with thirst, “As a hart longs for flowing streams, so longs my soul for Thee, O God.”  In other words, as a hart with anxious and trembling eagerness strains toward a fresh, flowing stream, so I yearn anxiously and tremblingly for God’s Word, absolution, the Sacrament, etc.  See, that would be teaching aright concerning confession, and people could be given such a desire and love for it that they would come and run after us for it, more than we would like…Let us, however, lift our hands in praise and thanksgiving to God for having graciously brought us to this our understanding of confession.

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