A Public Confession

In the past, I’ve challenged the mindset that the sacraments are really just more of the same thing we get in confession and absolution. If baptism and communion were nothing more than additional vehicles for forgiveness, then they wouldn’t do anything more than what absolution does for us every time we hear God’s words of forgiveness. In truth, the sacraments do a great deal more, which is why confession and absolution can never be a substitute for them.

In a recent conversation, a brother pastor made the point that if anything were to be considered unnecessary, it is the public confession and absolution typically found in Lutheran worship services. That isn’t to say public confession is necessarily bad or useless. The point is more that if you were to compare public confession and the sacraments, it is public confession that is of secondary importance.

Let me explain a bit here. First, a little church history tells us that public confession is actually quite new to the liturgy. It was something that cropped up here and there in Luther’s day, but was not a regular piece of the worship service. Additionally, Luther accepted that public confession could be used, but worried that it would supplant private confession and absolution, which it most certainly has in American Lutheranism. Luther saw the exercise of private confession as being far more effective at helping someone come to grips with the magnitude of the sin in their lives. Private absolution then met that sin with the magnitude of God’s grace and did so in such a way as to make crystal clear that God had forgiven you, specifically and personally. This is something public confession can never quite achieve.

Most other church bodies, at least those who take sin and grace seriously, do not use public confession with any frequency. Private confession, in the Catholic and Orthodox churches, for example, is the norm and that isn’t likely to change. It used to be fairly common, up until 30-40 years ago, that Lutherans were expected to “announce for communion” where they would visit the pastor during the week to announce their intention to communion on Sunday. This visit was meant to attend to the needs of private confession as well, though all of this has largely fallen by the wayside.

I say public confession isn’t as important, not to downplay the need for God’s grace, and especially the need to hear those words of forgiveness on a regular basis, but rather to emphasize the expansive nature of the sacraments. Jesus’s own words indicate that forgiveness is a part of the Lord’s Supper. The Lord’s Supper goes well above and beyond the basic ideas of grace that come in absolution. Nevertheless, forgiveness is a part of the Supper and forms the root of everything that takes place there. It is further true that communion is not something done privately. It is the community of the faithful, the Body of Christ, gathered together around the table together to receive the body and blood of Christ as one. Communion is necessarily a public act and it is a public act that offers forgiveness. We also know that forgiveness is only received when an individual recognizes he or she is a sinner and wants the free grace God offers. That means every time a Christian shares in the sacrament, he is making a public confession and receiving God’s grace. In effect, the Lord’s Supper does what public confession and absolution are trying to do, but the Supper does even more effectively and with greater results. This, of course, assumes the person receiving communion does so properly, acknowledging his sinfulness and the need for God’s grace.

As such, if the desire of the pastor and congregation is to make clear that God’s forgiveness is for you and that you are a redeemed child of God, public confession will do little to add to this. The sacraments both cover this sort of activity in their own unique ways. The answer instead is to bring back private confession and emphasize the power of God’s grace for the sinner. Looking through the Gospels, Jesus never uses public absolution. He always intentionally seeks out the sinner to give them absolution. It is never in a generalized “God forgives everyone,” sense. It is always in the specific and personal sense, “I forgive you.” This instance further illustrates the extent to which the sacraments are meant to fill the life of the church and of the individual Christian. Let them do the job they were intended to do and the church will be better off for it.

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