Private Confession and Absolution, part 4

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From Spiritual Care by Dietrich Bonhoeffer

VIII. Confession as the Heart of Spiritual Care

The goal of all spiritual care is the confession that we are sinners. This confession actualizes itself preeminently in the confessional. So the confessional is the essential focus for all spiritual care. The invitation to confession is the invitation to become a Christian.

…Confession has always stood in highest esteem in the Roman Church as well as in the Eastern church. Originally, the Reformation church held it in high esteem, too. Luther practiced it until his dying day. He protested that the Christian life could not be maintained without confession….however, he moved away from compulsory confession and the necessary enumeration of all known sins. He intended us to move away from any pressure or torment connected with confession and to stress the value of its original meaning: confession is grace.

Luther distinguished three modes of confession:

a. Daily confession to God in one’s prayer.

b. Public confession in the common liturgical confession of sins.

c. Personal confession before a fellow Christian including a confession of concrete sins and a personally addressed absolution.

Luther contended that the first two modes of confession were obligatory; the third one was left up to the freedom of the Christian, but he urgently commended it as a divine offer which could make us sure of our salvation in Christ. “When I exhort people to confession, I am exhorting them to be Christians.” (Large Catechism)

In his early period Luther recognized that any Christian had the right to hear a confession because of the universal priesthood of all believers; later he considered it to be more closely tied to the office of the pastor….

The foundations for confession and absolution are the gift and the mandate of Christ (Matt. 18:18-19; John 20:21-23; cf. also James 5:16; Eph. 4:25, 32; Ps. 32:1-5; Prov. 28:13). In our proclamation we must point out tirelessly what great grace God offers in confession and that people may not reject this offer with impunity. Only in such a way can confession win a place once more in the evangelical church. The following rules are intended to be helpful for preaching about confession.

If I go to confession I go to God. I am not confiding to a human being, rather this person stands wholly in God’s stead. What I say to that person I say to God. He will guard it as God’s secret.

The pastor is called confessor. Thus the confession is not tied to personality….

The pastor cannot help us understand that our reluctance to use confession is groundless if he appears to live a life above and beyond daily trials. No one is beset with such difficult temptations as the Christian and especially the pastor. The devil is right there in his full being wherever the name of Christ is named…Anyone who has seen the meaning of the cross for but a moment is shocked by the godlessness of the world and by the awesomeness of his own sins; he will no longer be shocked by the sins of his sisters and brothers in Christ. The spirit of judgment is cut off at the roots. He knows the other to be accepted by god in the midst of his lostness even as he is accepted. He loves brother and sister under the cross….

In confession everything depends on a personal absolution. In order for this to be certain I must call my sins by name. I come in order to receive. I can only do that when I have previously named my sins. Absolution does not require an expression of need so much as a confession of sin. I can distance myself from my need by unburdening myself on others, but absolution requires me to make a complete confession of sin…

Why isn’t confession of sin to God sufficient? Why must I confess to another human being? Here is a threefold answer:

a. Of course there is confession before God alone. Luther suggests that may be enough for the “strongest Christians.” He reckoned himself, however, to be among the “weak,” who need the assurance that God is not a phantom and that I do not simply forgive myself in the end. I receive this certainty through a fellow Christian. Without the presence of a flesh-and-blood confessor everything might be easily lost in pure reflection. It is quite treacherous if we find it easier to confess our sins before the Holy One than before a person who is no different than us.

b. All secret sins must come to light, if not now then at the last day. “For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ” (2 Cor. 5:10). Better now than later! As long as our sin remains hidden, it gnaws away at us and poisons us. Sin creates detritus in the soul. The serpent must stick its head out of its hole in order for it to be clubbed. When another person hears my sins their danger can finally be taken away

c. The root of all sin is pride. I want to live unto myself. I become a law unto myself. I may covet and I may also hate, for I alone am judge. In my pride I wish to be like God. Confession to another human being breaks this arrogance as nothing else can. The old, prideful Adam dies a disgraceful death in great agony. Since this humiliation is so painful, we would rather bypass it and think that it is enough to confess to God. But in our degradation we find our portion in the disgrace of Christ, who was not ashamed to stand before the world as a sinner…

Complete self-surrender to the grace, help, and judgment of God occurs in confession. Everything is surrendered to God; we retain nothing for ourselves. Thus we become free of ourselves. What separates us from obedience and from certainty—our thanklessness, our lack of readiness to forgive, the things that we would cling to as uniquely our own domain—everything is surrendered to Christ and forgiven by him…We have nothing left, not even our sins; they are laid on Christ…

Genuine community is not established before confession takes place….If anyone remains alone in his evil, he is completely alone despite camaraderie and friendship. If he has confessed, however, he will nevermore be alone. He is borne by Christ on whom he has laid his sin, and by the community which belongs to Christ and in which Christ is present with us. In the community of Christ no one needs to be alone.

Related Articles

Prayer of a Person desiring to go to confession for the sake of the holy Absolution. Gebets-Schatz (

Do I have true faith? Thoughts on Announcing For Communion, Self-Examination, and Infant Communion (



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