While the Bible does not speak directly of private confession, it is firmly founded in Scripture. In the Old Testament, Solomon wrote: “He that covereth
his sins shall not prosper: but whoso confesseth and forsaketh them shall have mercy” (Prov. 28:13). The apostle John in his day confirmed: “If we
confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins, and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness” (1 John 1:9).
Within Zion today we have discussion about the role of confession in the endeavor of faith. We believe that confession is part of the endeavor in faith, and faith – not confession – is what saves us. Let’s examine what we teach about confession.
Confession Is a Gift
Confession is a gift from God. It is an invaluable tool He has given us. In the Small Catechism Luther explains that it has two parts. One is that we confess our sins. The other that we receive absolution – forgiveness – from the confessor father or mother as from God Himself. We needn’t doubt, but rather firmly believe that our sins are forgiven before God in heaven. Before God, for example in the Lord’s Prayer, we plead guilty to all sins, even those we are not aware of. Before the confessor mother or father, however, we confess only those sins which we know and feel in our hearts.
Christian Doctrine* states that in order to administer the peace of the forgiveness of sins, God has also provided confession for His congregation. It is not the purpose of confession to exhaustively list one’s sins. We confess so we can hear that God also forgives those particular sins that trouble our heart and burden our conscience. If we believe this word of absolution, we own God’s forgiveness. Salvation is not based on confession. It is founded solely on the rock, Christ, and the work He has done on behalf of sinners. His work is most clearly seen in the precious words of absolution, in forgiveness preached in His name and blood. When we have faith in Christ, we have assurance of salvation.
Not Required but Necessary
Luther battled misunderstanding concerning confession. The Roman church required an enumeration of all sins. Sin that was not expressly confessed was not forgiven. Thus God’s grace order was rendered void. Confession is not required in order to be saved. Rather, living faith saves.
Luther battled on a different front as well. Since he preached that confession was not mandatory as Rome taught, but rather voluntary, some began to live with a new freedom, freedom from confession. They no longer found a need for confession, no longer felt compelled to put sin away. Luther, on the contrary, found a great need for confession. The need was not the result of external compulsion, but rather it came from within. A person is impelled to confess and put away sin by a burdened conscience. Lack of a need for confession suggests a hardening of heart and conscience.
Absolution is the Pearl of Confession
Luther, though, continued to see the importance of confession. In fact, he treasured it. He rebuked the ones that neglected or despised it. He said those that dismissed confession should turn back to Catholicism and its enslavement, that it would be better for them there. Luther said a Christian who feels the burden of sin would walk a hundred miles to find the confessor father or mother who could preach the good news of the gospel. The pearl of confession is absolution, the forgiveness of sins. The songwriter calls this the pearl of greatest worth, far more dear than gold and gems of earth.
Our rational mind could find a foothold in a life without confession as well as in a life of mandatory confession. Both would lead us down a wrong path away from faith. Our doctrine of confession is clear. Confession has a rightful place in the endeavor of faith, but confession in and of itself does not save us. Faith saves us. Luther states that we urge people to confession, not for salvation’s sake, but that we all could live as believers; we can confess and receive absolution such that worries and fears and sins would not weigh us down so much that we give up faith. It pays to continue to believe that Christ suffered and died and was resurrected so that we can believe our sins forgiven and be heaven acceptable!
* Christian Doctrine Briefly Presented. Evangelical Lutheran Church of Finland, 1948.