Christ comes to you and me through the means of grace: the Holy Scriptures, Baptism, and the Lord’s Supper. He offers forgiveness of sins to us not only through these means of grace, but also through individual confession and absolution. Confession and absolution are part of “the Office of the Keys.”
The Small Catechism states, “The Office of the Keys is that special authority which Christ has given to His Church on earth to forgive the sins of repentant sinners, but to withhold forgiveness from the unrepentant as long as they do not repent.” This forgiveness is valid before God Himself.
“[Jesus] breathed on them and said to them, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of anyone, they are forgiven; if you withhold forgiveness from anyone, it is withheld’ ” (John 20:22–23).
What Happens in Individual Confession and Absolution?
Very simply, you go to the pastor, confess your sins, and receive the personal, individual assurance of forgiveness. You need not mention any specific sin, although you are welcome to confess sins that trouble your conscience. The pastor doesn’t probe into your life or try to make you feel guilty. You simply confess sin, using a formula from the catechism or hymnal, or just talk about it in a counseling setting. Then you receive full forgiveness (absolution) from Almighty God through one of His pastors, who says, “Your sins are forgiven. Go in peace.”
“Our people are taught that they should highly prize the Absolution as being God’s voice and pronounced by God’s command” (Augsburg Confession XXV 3).
Do I Really Need Individual Absolution?
Some persons may feel that careful self-examination before Communion eliminates the need for private confession. However, the practice of individual confession and absolution is really a separate and unique act in its own right. It does not necessarily precede the Sacrament of Holy Communion, although you will undoubtedly desire to commune the next time the Eucharist is offered.
Individual confession and absolution fulfills the very essence of the Gospel: “Your sins are forgiven!” Christ died for you. This is an individualized word to you from the pastor, acting in the stead of Christ. What a blessing! What great benefit! As the Augsburg Confession says (XXV 3–4): [We] are taught that [we] should highly prize the Absolution as being God’s voice and pronounced by God’s command. . . . God requires faith to believe such Absolution as a voice sounding from heaven. . . . Such faith in Christ truly obtains and receives the forgiveness of sins.
“Any heart that feels its sinfulness and desires consolation has here a sure refuge when he hears God’s Word and makes the discovery that God through a human being looses and absolves him from his sins” (Large Catechism V 14).
Must I “Tell All”?
No, you don’t need to confess any specific sins to your pastor. Of course, you may want to do so for the “release” it will give you. Sometimes a person cannot find real peace and the certain assurance of God’s forgiveness without full disclosure of what is troubling him or her. The pastor is under the “confessional seal” and is bound to confidentiality. The pastor never repeats what he has heard in confession.
If you are not burdened with particular sins, do not trouble yourself or search for or invent other sins, thereby turning confession into a torture. Instead, mention one or two sins that you know and let that be enough.
What a “blessing often overlooked” individual confession and absolution can be! What peace can come to your heart when hear the pastor say personally to you: “Your sins are forgiven! Go in peace.”
Based on the Rite in Luther’s Small Catechism
When you are ready, say:
Pastor, please hear my confession and pronounce forgiveness in order to fulfill God’s will.
I, a poor sinner, plead guilty before God of all sins. I have lived as if God did not matter and as if I mattered most. My Lord’s name I have not honored as I should; my worship and prayers have faltered. I have not let His love have its way with me, and so my love for others has failed. There are those whom I have hurt, and those whom I failed to help. My thoughts and desires have been soiled with sin.
If you wish to confess specific sins that trouble you, continue as follows:
What troubles me particularly is that ….
Confess whatever you have done against the commandments of God, according to your own place in life.
The pastor may gently question or instruct you—not to pry or judge—but to assist in self-examination.
Then conclude by saying:
I am sorry for all of this and ask for grace. I want to do better.
God be merciful to you and strengthen your faith.
Do you believe that my forgiveness is God’s forgiveness?
Let it be done for you as you believe.
The pastor places his hands on the head of the penitent and says:
In the stead and by the command of my Lord Jesus Christ I forgive you all your sins in the name of the Father and of the T Son and of the Holy Spirit.
The pastor may speak additional Scripture passages to comfort and strengthen the faith of those who have great burdens of conscience or are sorrowful and distressed.
The pastor concludes:
Go in peace.
You may remain to say a prayer of thanksgiving. Psalms 30, 31, 32, 34, 103, or 118 are also appropriate.
Scripture quotations are from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version, copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a division of Good News Publishers. Used by permission, All rights reserved.
The quotations from the Lutheran Confessions in this publication are from Concordia: The Lutheran Confessions, copyright © 2005 Concordia Publishing House. All rights reserved.
Luther’s Small Catechism with Explanation is copyright © 1986, 1991 Concordia Publishing House.