In this issue we are drawing on a twenty-four-year-old presentation given by longtime servant of the Word and LLC Board member and employee, Peter Nevala. In his presentation at an LLC Ministers Workshop in 1994, Nevala, in a timeless manner, speaks about the precious gift of confession in our endeavor of faith.
“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).
The Power of the Keys
When Christ fulfilled the saving mission His Father gave Him, He conveyed, or transferred, to His disciples the mission He had so far faithfully served. “Peace be unto you: as my Father hath sent me, even so send I you” (John 20:21).
The Apostle Paul, having been first served by this ministry himself at Damascus, writes: “…all things are of God, who hath reconciled us to himself by Jesus Christ, and hath given us the ministry of reconciliation; To wit, that God was in Christ, reconciling the world unto himself, not imputing their trespasses unto them; and hath committed unto us the word of reconciliation” (2 Cor. 5:18,19).
The office of the keys is employed by and through the power and authority of the Holy Spirit. For Jesus said, “Receive ye the Holy Ghost: whose soever sins ye remit, they are remitted unto them; and whose soever sins ye retain, they are retained” (John 20:22,23). Apostle Paul confirms this by writing: “Who also hath made us able ministers of the new testament; not of the letter, but of the spirit....” (2 Cor. 3:6).
Thus did Christ himself ordain the disciples into the priesthood of believers. And we also, the disciples and believers of this day, are truly serving in that continuing ministry of reconciliation as did the first apostles so long ago. We exercise this power of the keys whenever we serve the children of God with the general gospel, and when necessary, as confessor fathers or mothers. Absolution and confession, although they are separate in their nature, are inseparably joined in helping us survive in faith.
Absolution and Confession
If the office of the keys did not exist, confession in all its forms would be useless. This fact alone emphasizes to us the purpose of confession: namely, the forgiveness of sins.
The practice of confession exists to extend God’s comfort and healing to sin-wounded believers. Basically, confession is simply an opportunity to hear and believe the gospel of forgiveness, a forgiveness so personally addressed, so specifically focused, that all doubts of God’s forgiveness are removed. In confession, those specific sins that have grieved the conscience are forgiven and “the blood of Jesus Christ his Son cleanseth us from all sin.” The gospel of Christ, the power of God, comforts and heals the wounded one. This is the essential nature of confession that Luther taught and extolled in his time.
Let us quote him:
“Behold, this is the doctrine of the Gospel concerning Christian repentance, laid hold of and conceived in these two parts, to wit, contrition, or sincere alarm on account of sin, and faith in forgiveness for Christ’s sake…
“But we teach that one should use confession in order to hear the Gospel and thus to awaken and to strengthen his faith in the forgiveness of sins, which is the main thing in repentance. So that ‘to confess’ means not, as it does among the papists, to recount a long list of sins, but to desire absolution, which is in itself confession enough; that is, to acknowledge your guilt and confess that you are a sinner. And no more shall it be demanded or required that you mention by name all or several, many or few, of your sins, unless of yourself you have a desire to mention something which especially burdens your conscience and wherein you need instruction and advice or particular comfort, as is often necessary with young and inexperienced people, and also with others…
“Therefore, we commend and retain confession not on its own account but for the sake of absolution. And in confession this feature is the golden treasure, that there you hear proclaimed to you the words Christ commanded to be preached in his name to you and to all the world.” (From Luther’s Church Postil – Easter Sunday – Lenker)
What Is Confession?
“Confession consists of two parts; the one is, that we confess our sins; the other, that we receive absolution from the confessor as of God himself, in no wise doubting, but firmly believing that our sins are thus forgiven before God in heaven.” (Luther’s Small Catechism)
The Forms of Confession
The common confession of our sins takes place during Holy Communion, when we together before the face of our Heavenly Father “confess our sinfulness and in faith pray for forgiveness and peace, saying thus in our hearts,” etc.
Another instance of confession happens when we confess our wrongdoing and sin to a brother or sister whom we wronged or offended, and is called a confession resulting from love. “Confess your faults one to another…” (James 5:16).
A general or public confession is made if the transgression has been committed publicly against the congregation.
Private confession, on the other hand, is just that. We seek a confessor father or mother to whom we confess in confidence “those sins alone of which we have knowledge, and which we feel in our hearts and which trouble our conscience.”
What Sins Ought We to Confess?
“Before God we should acknowledge ourselves guilty of all manner of sins, even of those which we do not ourselves perceive; as we do in the Lord’s Prayer. But before the confessor we should confess those sins alone of which we have knowledge, and which we feel in our hearts and which trouble our conscience.” (Luther’s Small Catechism)
What Confession Is Not
“God has given the grace-privilege of confession into His kingdom for the care of consciences. Our salvation is not in confession. Neither is confession repentance, or even a part of repentance. When a sin besets us, we can put sin away in confession, that we would not become shipwrecked in faith. Thus we keep faith and a good conscience and preserve the mystery of faith in a pure conscience.” (From Rippi—Näin on kirjoitettu, Erkki Reinikainen)
A Dangerous Distortion of Confession
Even the use of confession has sometimes suffered from the attacks of the enemy of souls. As we have already noted, confession consists of two parts: first the confession of the sins that trouble the heart; then the second part: absolution, the forgiveness of sins. Only in God’s kingdom are these truths properly recognized and used. But the danger always exists, that our attention can shift to the first part, to focus on our confession of sin instead of the forgiveness of God.
At the turn of the century these dangerous reversals of the confession practices appeared very prominently in the First-Born and New Awakenist heresies. They emphasized public confession and repentance to such excess, that many members of those schisms suffered mental breakdowns. There is a very graphic description of their excesses in Heikki Jussila’s book, Grace of the Caller.
Here I want to translate a statement by Juhani Uljas, presented at the meeting of elders and speakers at Rovaniemi, June 29, 1979. It describes the unfortunate ends to which the abuse of this precious grace can lead.
“When the main stress is upon the first part, the foundation of salvation shifts to the perfection and flawlessness of our repentance. What follows from this, is that the freedom of believing is lost and we succumb under the law. When confession has been made and matters have been repaired, momentary joy and relief has been experienced. But then, when the flesh that did not repent, begins to demand its rights, the heart is frightened and doubts overcome the mind: my repentance was defective and my confession of sins was superficial and unspecific. It must be amended. Thus one can be drawn into a hopeless circuit that has no end. One is lost in one’s own heart and the freedom, joy, and peace of a child of God is lost. The mind has forgotten that although my confession was flawed, the gospel was perfect. In that gospel one can believe all sins forgiven in the holy name and atoning blood of the Lord Jesus.
“In the battle against permissiveness of sin and the freedom of the flesh, a false doctrine of confession has appeared. Its instigator and basis has been a legalistic spirit. Where the Spirit of God can rule the heart, there exists a desire to endeavor rejecting sin. There it also has become true, that we have salvation only of faith and only of grace. Where permissiveness of sin has defiled the spirit, there also is the righteousness of faith dimmed or lost.”
Traces of these spiritual distractions and wavering in the matters of confession have been noted from time to time even during the most peaceful periods of the kingdom’s history. And they will continue to surface again. Therefore, it is good for us all to retain a calm and scriptural attitude whenever we are faced with deviations of this nature.
“For though we walk in the flesh, we do not war after the flesh: for the weapons of our warfare are not carnal, but mighty through God to the pulling down of strongholds; Casting down imaginations, and every high thing that exalteth itself against the knowledge of God, and bringing into captivity every thought to the obedience of Christ” (2 Cor. 10:3–5).
The enemy will ever continue to assail the kingdom in various ways until the end of time. But we can be quietly cheerful and confident in faith, “because greater is he that is in you, than he that is in the world” (1 John 4:4). We can be imperfect and erring even in these matters, but Christ our righteousness is perfect in all things. Here “we know in part, and we prophesy in part. But when that which is perfect is come, then that which is in part shall be done away” (1 Cor. 13:9,10). In these matters and all things that pertain to our serving the kingdom we need patience. “Be ye also patient; stablish your hearts: for the coming of the Lord draweth nigh” (James 5:8).
We conclude with words of Väinö Havas: “We must remain as total sinners in the care of that High Priest of ours, who with His innocence clothes even the most wretched, underling shepherd of His Zion” (Havas, p. 71).
Let us remain believing our sins forgiven in Jesus’ name and atoning blood. His forgiving grace is the only foundation of our hope. (PLN, April 20, 1994)
The Book of Concord (1959) pp. 302–313, 349
Sermons of Martin Luther (1989) pp. 193–203, 235–237, 342–363
Hän uskoi meille sovituksen sanan, Havas (1946), pp. 72–83 [He Entrusted Us with the Word of Reconciliation], (1964), pp. 44–50
Näin on kirjoitettu, Reinikainen (1986), pp. 104–113
Rippi ja avainten valta, Uljas, Juhaani (1990), pp. 42–51
Lutheruksen Vähän Katekismuksen yksinkartainen Selitys, Olaus Svebilius (1908), pp. 118–121
The Small Catechism
The Large Catechism
The Handbook of Sacred Acts
Apology of the Augsburg Confession