Today I have written enough for a full-length post that could stand alone in and of itself. I don’t normally do this when I am linking to material from other people’s blogs, but the issue of confession and how it is done in the Lutheran church is one that lands pretty heavily with me, particularly in light of what we are talking about right now in my church.
My church is currently in the middle of a sermon series entitled “Taking Responsibility for Your Life”, which is all about…well, exactly what it sounds like. This week the message dealt with the issue of when it is time to stop praying and start doing the very thing that you have been praying about.
Today I would like to direct your attention to a couple of posts from blogger Pat Kyle of New Reformation Press which deal with this issue, specifically as it relates to confession of sin. Kyle is a Lutheran giving the Lutheran take on confession–which, believe it or not, actually makes sense to me. His posts are entitled “How the Confession of My Sins Kept Me in the Church”. (Part 1) (Part 2)
Part 1 deals with corporate confession of sin during the church service. This is how the Lutheran church service begins:
Pastor: In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.
Pastor: If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us.
Congregation: But if we confess our sins, God, who is faithful and just, will forgive our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness.
After a period of silence, the Pastor continued: Let us then confess our sins to God our Father.
Congregation: Most merciful God, we confess that we are by nature sinful and unclean. We have sinned against you in thought, word, and deed, by what we have done and by what we have left undone. We have not loved you with our whole heart; we have not loved our neighbors as ourselves. We justly deserve your present and eternal punishment. For the sake of your Son, Jesus Christ, have mercy on us. Forgive us, renew us, and lead us, so that we may delight in your will and walk in your ways, to the glory of your Holy Name.
Pastor: Almighty God has given his Son to die for you and for His sake forgives you all of your sins. As a called and ordained servant of the Word, I therefore forgive you all of your sins in the name of the Father, and of the, the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.
Imagine a church service where this is the very first thing that happens, right out of the chute. No announcements. No words of welcome. No popular song, funny skit, or video to lead off the service. Instead, you just jump into this thing right from the giddy-up. Now imagine a room with a few hundred–perhaps even a thousand or a couple of thousand–people reciting this thing in perfect unison. Imagine how powerful that would be.
And how Gospel-centered. We evangelicals talk a good game when it comes to the idea of confession–“confess your sins, one to another” and “God is faithful and just to forgive us” and other such buzzwords–but our practice of confession is anything but Gospel-centered. Any confession of the “big sins” (sex outside of marriage, drinking, drugs, stealing, etc.) is a sure ticket to ostracization from the community of believers. We talk about grace, but our talk of grace is always watered down with warnings about “cheap grace” and possible abuses.
The biggest thing which separates us from God is our sin. In the Lutheran service, they deal with it right out of the chute. Imagine that: With your sin out of the way, you are no longer weighed down with guilt and worry over your sins from the previous week, and are free to engage more fully in the worship that is to follow in the remainder of the service.
Part 2 deals with individual confession of sin. Now this may come as a shock to many of you, but the Lutherans have retained confession–yes, confession–as in actually going to a priest and confessing your sins and receiving absolution. But Lutherans do confession a little differently from what you may be familiar with. First of all, the enumeration of all sins is not necessary. In other words, they believe that the absolution you receive from the priest applies to all sins in your life–whether or not you actually confessed them during the session. Second, there is no penance. The priest does not assign any works of penance for you to do after your confession. With those two changes, the Lutheran version of confession is much more Gospel-centered; there is no semblance of works-righteousness attached to it.
The idea of individual confession is almost unheard of in American Protestantism–especially the evangelical variety. We evangelicals push back from the idea of confession, largely because we disagree with the way it is done in the Catholic church.
We believe that the ritual of confession–whether of the individual or corporate variety–is nothing more than vain and ineffective repetition of words. But, in my church, there is a phrase that we have been repeating every week in conjunction with the current series. Those of you who attend this church–you know who you are, and you know what the phrase is. Why do we do this? Because we want the key idea of this series to become so deeply engrained in our minds, in our hearts, and in our lives, that we never forget it and it produces real and lasting life change. We believe that repeating this phrase every week will accomplish this goal. So clearly the repetition of words is not such a vain thing as we make it out to be. Now imagine repeating the words of the corporate confession that I quoted above–every week, week in and week out. Eventually those words will become deeply engrained in your mind, heart, and life. They will be there for you one day when you are in the fight of your life against some besetting sin–and I bet they will mean something then.
We believe that we don’t need any man to hear our confession of sin–it is sufficient to confess to God alone. Really? How well does that work out? Not very well, I would venture to say. Search the word “confession” on the search engine of your choice and see how many results come up (A Google search turns up about 31 million hits). Many of these are places where you can confess anything, even the most heinous things you have ever done, anonymously, and without any reference to Christ whatsoever. Despite our protestations that it is sufficient to confess our sins to God alone, it is clear that confession of sin to other people is a basic human need. Even the secular world understands this.
Here is where the idea that it is time to stop praying and start doing comes into play. It is not enough to simply pray without doing–that is, to confess to God alone. At some point, we have to stop praying and start doing–that is, to confess to a real live person.
There are many aspects of the way the Catholic church does confession that we push back from as Protestants–and I believe that we are right to do so. The idea of the necessity of penance and the idea that absolution of sin extends only to those sins you explicitly confess turn confession into a works-righteousness thing that is not Gospel-centered. But we as evangelicals have thrown this baby out with the bath water–unnecessarily, and to our own spiritual detriment. Confessing our sins to God alone is not sufficient; at some point we have to confess to a real live person in some form or fashion. The Lutheran church gets this, and has created a venue where this can happen and where the promises of Christ with respect to the forgiveness of sins can be applied to the believer’s life in a very Gospel-centered fashion. Would that we had some framework within evangelical Protestant-dom where this could happen.