Dear brothers and sisters in Christ,
When we sit in the pew and listen to a sermon, doubt may remain. “I don’t know if the pastor would be saying that if he knew what I was guilty of.” On the flip side of the coin of doubt is the person who deflects the preached Word because he or she “isn’t like that.” Or the person who looks at the others in the pews and says, “I hope they’re hearing this sermon.”
While a sermon that preaches Christ crucified for the forgiveness of sins gives the comfort of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, and all its blessings, it is a general word of grace, spoken to the whole assembly.
This is also true for the general Confession/Absolution in the Divine Service that we know and love. A friend of mine recently said, “We confess in the abstract, but are not used to speaking of our particular sins.” This can result in a church where people will readily admit “I’m a sinner,” but are unsure exactly where they have sinned, or which commandment they have sinned against.
There is a gift of the church, however, that doesn’t leave our confession, or our absolution, in the abstract. This is a gift that speaks forgiveness to the individual and comforts him or her for their “secret” sins. Of course this gift is Private Confession and Absolution.
Luther taught about this particularly comforting gift many times:
“While through preaching the Gospel we publish this forgiveness everywhere and tell it to all in general, in absolution we tell it specifically to one or more desiring it.” (When Luther spoke of absolution he spoke of the private Word of a pastor to a penitent, not the general corporate form we know and love. The general confession/absolution wouldn’t be a part of the Divine Service until hundreds of years after Luther’s death.)
In another place, Luther wrote the following:
“Yet I will let no man take private confession away from me, and I would not give it up for all the treasures in the world; for I know what comfort and strength it has given me. No man knows so well what it can do for him as he who must struggle and fight much with the devil. The devil would have slain me long ago if confession had not sustained me. For there are many doubts and false matters which a man cannot settle by himself…So he takes a brother aside and tells him his trouble. What harm does it do him to humble himself a little before his neighbor and put himself to shame? When you receive a word of comfort from him, accept and believe that word as if you heard it from God himself”
For Luther, confession took place in many places and in many forms. He saw The Lord’s Prayer as a complete form of confession, and didn’t encourage the practice of Private Confession and Absolution so much for the confession aspect.
“For the sake of this part (absolution) most of all do I use confession, and I will not and cannot do without it, for it has given me great comfort and still does so daily when I am sad and downcast” (emphasis added).
The real treasure of this gift is the comfort of the absolution; the Gospel spoken to an individual with a burdened conscience. There’s no saying, “Is that for me?” No more can a man dodge the Word by saying, “I think he might be talking about me, but sometimes I’m not like that.” Private Confession and Absolution leaves no doubt about who the Gospel is for—and who is forgiven. And that, my friends, is something that we poor sinners would demand to receive from our pastors if we understood it properly. Luther writes as much in his Large Catechism:
“When I urge you to go to Confession (privately), 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…See, that would be teaching right about 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.” (emphasis added)
Make no mistake, Private Confession and Absolution can not be commanded, thus turning God’s gift into a burden. And at the same time, we would never want to diminish the sermon, the Sacraments, or for that matter, the general confession and absolution, for indeed, Christ is proclaimed and given through all of these gifts. But one gift doesn’t diminish another. Particular comfort for the particular sinner—that sounds like a gift to be treasured.
In the peace of the Lord. Amen.