I read a wonderful reflection today on confession by Margaret Felice (you can read it here – I highly recommend it). While I was reading her thoughts it reminded me of a conversation I had with a few members of my congregation in our adult Sunday school just last week about the same topic. There are clear differences since Margaret is Roman Catholic and I serve in the Lutheran tradition, but there are also more similarities than one might initially think.
First the differences, very briefly, since they are NOT where I want to focus. In the Roman Catholic tradition, confession is a sacrament. Also in the Roman Catholic tradition, confession is typically an individual interaction between a priest and a parishioner. In the Lutheran tradition, confession does not rise to the level of sacrament (for Lutherans a sacrament must have a direct command of Christ) and is typically only practiced in a corporate setting (congregational confession in the midst of worship). In many Lutheran circles the idea of individual confession is looked down upon – and that is so so sad.
Martin Luther held confession in the highest esteem. The fact that it isn’t a sacrament for Lutherans doesn’t mean we think it’s unnecessary. Luther tied confession intimately with Holy Baptism, through which we receive forgiveness. Indeed, in the Small Catechism, confession falls under the “umbrella” of Holy Baptism and Luther even gives instructions regarding confession. Here is a small portion:
“What sins should we confess? Answer: Before God we should acknowledge that we are guilty of all manner of sins, even those of which we are not aware, as we do in the Lord’s Prayer. Before the confessor, however, we should confess only those sins of which we have knowledge and which trouble us.
What are such sins? Answer: Reflect on your condition in the light of the Ten Commandments: whether you are a father or mother, a son or daughter, a master or servant; whether you have been disobedient, unfaithful, lazy, ill-tempered, or quarrelsome; whether you have harmed anyone by word or deed; and whether you have stolen, neglected or wasted anything, or done any other evil.” (The Book Of Concord, ed. Theodore Tappert. Fortress Press, 1959, page 350 – – with my apologies to wonderful friend and godfather to our son, Timothy Wengert, who edited a very recent edition which I have yet to buy!)
In addition, we have the Augsburg Confession – one of the central writings of the Lutheran Tradition, which states very clearly in article XI regarding confession: “It is taught among us that private absolution should be retained and not allowed to fall into disuse. However, in confession it is not necessary to enumerate all trespasses and sins, for this is impossible.” (ibid., p. 34)
I share these quotes for two reasons: 1) to remind fellow Lutherans of Luther’s overall love for the Church and its traditions (the problems he had with the Church were few – BIG, but few), and that not all things “Roman” are necessarily bad. That belief has been MOST unfortunate. I liken it to the struggle children sometimes have with parents – “if Mom does it THIS way, then I’m definitely NOT doing it this way.” At some point the child must grow up and realize not all things the parent does are wrong… And 2) to hopefully remind my fellow Lutherans of the beauty and profound depth of the act of confession.
In many Lutheran churches we begin our worship with a “Brief Order for Confession and Forgiveness.” This is a wonderful chance to free our hearts and minds and souls before we receive God’s Word through Scripture and preaching, and before receiving the sacrament of Holy Communion. We hear the words of Scripture from 1John 1:8-9 (for those still using our green hymnal – I lament its omission in the new hymnal), we have a moment of silent reflection, make a verbal general confession of things done and left undone, sin in word and deed, and not loving our neighbor as ourself or God with our whole heart – then we hear the absolution.
But we have NOT done away with individual confession. I’m not advocating for its full-scale return, but I wish people could realize the profound cleansing that confession can have if there is something that is really troubling us, but also the freedom we can feel when we’ve said our wrongs out loud instead of just to ourselves where they are easier to ignore. Margaret’s article, with just a few adjustments, could easily be shared as wonderful counsel for Lutherans!
Example: “We are social beings. It is rare that our sinfulness stays between us and God. Admitting our sins to a member of our community and expressing contrition addresses the social aspect of both sin and spirituality, as does the mediation of forgiveness through another person.”
This is wonderful advice – for it reminds us that our sin impacts others, and also reminds us that we are indeed part of a faith community, not just an individual “spiritual/not religious” “don’t need to go to church” Christian that can exist apart from community.
I have only made use of individual confession a few times in my life, and each of those times were disturbing, painful, moving, sacred and beautiful – all at once. The absolution proclaimed was intensely freeing – feeling almost like I could fly! Leaving the experience pounds lighter, with years added back to my life that would have been taken away by the stress, worry and shame that was making me old.
Confession, both corporate and individual – is a wonderful gift of God. Whether it is a sacrament for us or not, it is still important, and as Margaret states, “most ignored.” That’s truly a shame. Let’s hope and pray it doesn’t continue to be so…
What do you think?