Luther On Confession Of Sin
This is an apt and timely addition to our present study of Luther when we consider today how the Apostolic Lutheran Church has come to the point where the sacrament of Holy Baptism is greatly diminished, and in reality is rejected as it is performed basically as a tradition, and the blessing of private confession has been unscripturally elevated to a sacrament and is commanded as necessary for salvation. This is to turn Christian doctrine upside down, for we reject the very command and promise of Christ concerning Baptism, and we erringly draw from Scripture non-existent commands and promises with regard to private confession.
The scriptural doctrine of the Apostolic Lutheran Church as explained in the Augsburg Confession is taken from Article 25 which reads in part:
But of Confession, they teach, that an enumeration of sins is not necessary, and that consciences be not burdened with anxiety to enumerate all sins, for it is impossible to recount all sins, as the Psalm testifies [19:13]: "Who can understand his errors?" Also Jeremiah [17:9]: "The heart is deceitful, who can know it?" But if no sins were forgiven, except those that are recounted, consciences could never find peace; for very many sins they neither see, nor can remember.
The ancient writers also testify that an enumeration is not necessary. For, in the Decrees, Chrysostom is quoted, who thus says: "I say not to thee, that thou shouldest disclose thyself in public, nor that thou accuse thyself before others, but I would have thee obey the prophet who says: 'Disclose thy way before God.' Therefore confess thy sins before God, the true Judge, with prayer. Tell thine errors, not with the tongue, but with the memory of thy conscience." And the Gloss ("Of Repentance," Distinct. v, Cap. Consideret) admits that Confession of human right only. Nevertheless, on account of the great benefit of absolution, and because it is otherwise useful to the conscience, Confession is retained among us.
We see that confession is retained not for the sake of telling our sins, but rather for hearing the absolution. It is wrongly taught today that confession and absolution is effective opus operatum, that is if the work is performed and sins are recounted, they are then forgiven. I've heard expressions concerning confession such as sin is thereby "pulled up by the roots," and that in confession sin is "put away." What of the condition of heart? What of faith? What of true penitence? These are rather what are necessary and essential unto salvation, and when these are present, sins are forgiven even before they are auricularly (spoken into the ear) confessed, for believers abide under a complete and eternal forgiveness in the New Covenant which is sealed by the blood of Christ. It is absolutely impossible for man to put away the guilt of his sin. "Put" is a verb, and man has no power over sin. But Christ does, and this is what we hear in the gospel.
The scriptural usage of the term "put away sin" means to put it out of your life and do not live in it. Make no provision for the flesh to fulfill the lust thereof. It is only Jesus Christ who can put away the guilt of sin. This is taught in both the Old and New Testaments. Nathan told David, "And Nathan said unto David, The Lord also hath put away thy sin; thou shalt not die" II Sam. 12:13. We read in Hebrews, "For then must he often have suffered since the foundation of the world: but now once in the end of the world hath he appeared to put away sin by the sacrifice of himself" Heb. 9:26. This wonderful freedom from the guilt of sin is received only by the hearing of faith; when the word of the gospel sheds abroad in the sinner's heart the love and forgiveness of Christ. This hearing brings a confidence against sin, death and hell, and we are encouraged to keep this confidence steadfast unto the end (Heb. 3:14, 10:35). May we never be moved from the hope brought unto us by the hearing of faith, that, when we find that we are sinners we would begin to doubt our salvation and seek to add something unto faith, for we know that we are justified by faith alone. That gospel which we heard at the beginning is in full force yet today.
I will include also part of a sermon of Luther from his Church Postil, also known as the Wartburg Postil.
The other aspect is the fact that they are virtually in control of confession; the pope has granted them this privilege too, by virtue of the same authority by which he permitted them to make their way through the houses. This is truly the devil's game and the women fall for it, especially those who are secretly tormented by serious and grievous sins, or, as St. Paul says, are burdened with sins [II Tim. 3:6]. For as soon as their consciences plague them and they do not know where to seek help and advice, these foolish women run and disgorge their troubles into a cowl (garment worn by a priest) and think they have succeeded in getting rid of them. But they become really enmeshed and keep on bringing and donating whatever they can and own. The holy fathers then arise and preach about the need to confess sins and cite many examples of women who were eternally damned and appeared after death and stated that they were damned because they had failed to confess something. Thus the greatest of popish lies so surround us, that the stones might well tremble and sweat.
Observe the examples cited in their sermons and you will notice that usually it is only women, not men, who were damned because of failure to confess something, so we might clearly realize that it was an archrogue who invented these examples. For he was curious to know the innermost heart and the secrets of women. Noticing that womenfolk are by nature fainthearted and bashful, more so than men, he thought: I will give them good advice and extort the innermost secrets from their hearts through the terrors of confession. With the help of the devil he succeeded in this. But in this manner he also bound and condemned the consciences of many who had failed to confess because of sheer unconquerable bashfulness and timidity, and so they sinned against their consciences because they believed it was necessary to confess and yet did not do so. God will judge you according to your faith; if you believe that it is your duty to do a thing and you fail to do it, it is a sin. In my judgment this rogue who by such examples binds consciences in a false faith and condemns them, deserves to have not only his body but also his soul torn apart by all devils and pulverized into a hundred thousand pieces. What a horrible murder of souls is perpetrated throughout the world by these hellish traitors and popish liars! Oh weep, whoever can weep, over such lamentable destruction of poor souls!
When poor, fainthearted women who are naive and credulous by nature and want to be pious and devout, hear such preaching, they fall for it and are caught and seek advice and help from their spiritual father. But this course ass and blind leader of the blind knows nothing of faith or of Christ and proceeds to teach them to do penance for their sins by works and satisfactions. And so the martyrdom begins of which St. Paul speaks here when he says that they always learn and never arrive at the knowledge of the truth. But this is not the way to pacify women's consciences. Their sins burden and torment them and they would gladly be rid of them, but do not know how, and so they reach the next stage about which St. Paul speaks here when he says that they are swayed by various impulses. They then begin to fast with bread and water, to go on pilgrimages in bare feet, want to visit the saints. Some whip themselves until they bleed, some make gifts to the church, others donate a chalice. There is no end or limit to the various impulses that sway them. They fall on anything they hear as being good for the expiation of sins, and with utter seriousness they are anxious to emulate it and yet they cannot find peace. Meanwhile the spiritual, holy father sits tight, for he has trapped the poor animal and its value for him far surpasses the possession of so many cows that can be milked. Once the women are trapped, their men are soon caught too and must accommodate themselves to the extortions of secret confession. But where the true royal road to freedom is preached, they will say: Dear women, if anyone among you is burdened by sin, let her confess it, if she so desires. But whether she confesses or not, let her have the firm faith that Christ forgives her sins, and let her secretly confess to him with a full and hearty trust in his grace which he has promised to all who seek it and do not doubt it, and so her sins are most certainly forgiven. Let her thereafter avoid such sins and practice good works towards her neighbors who are in need of them; let her invite the poor, wash their feet, and humbly serve them. Behold, that would be the right way to restore a sinful woman, and all of it would be done with joy and good will, without burdening the conscience, and so would be will pleasing in the sight of God.
Luther writes again on confession in a March 16, 1522 sermon preached at Wittenberg. In it he writes of three types of confession: two of which are commanded by Scripture and one which is not commanded. He writes concerning the latter:
Thirdly, there is also the kind of confession in which one takes another aside and tells him what troubles one, so that one may hear from him a word of comfort; and this confession is commanded by the pope. It is this urging and forcing which I condemned when I wrote concerning confession, and I refuse to go to confession simply because the pope has commanded it and insists upon it. For I wish him to keep his hands off the confession and not make of it a compulsion or command, which he has not the power to do. Nevertheless I will allow no man to take private confession away from me, and I would not give it up for all the treasures in the world, since I know what comfort and strength it has given me. No one knows what it can do for him except one who has struggled often and long with the devil. Yea, the devil would have slain me long ago, if the confession had not sustained me. For there are many doubtful matters which a man cannot resolve or find the answer to by himself, and so he takes his brother aside and tells him his trouble. What harm is there if he humbles himself a little before his neighbor, puts himself to shame, looks for a word of comfort from him, accepts it, and believes it, as if he were hearing it from God himself, as we read in Matt. 18 [:19], "If two of you agree about anything they ask, it will be done for them."
Moreover, we must have many absolutions, so that we may strengthen our timid consciences and despairing hearts against the devil and against God. Therefore, no man shall forbid the confession or keep or draw any one away from it. And if any one is wrestling with his sins and wants to be rid of them and desires a sure word on the matter, let him go and confess to another in secret, and accept what he says to him as if God himself had spoken it through the mouth of this person. However, one who has a strong, firm faith that his sins are forgiven may let this confession go and confess to God alone. But how many have such a strong faith? Therefore, as I have said, I will not let this private confession be taken from me. But I will not have anybody forced to it, but left to each one's free will.
For our God, the God we have, is not so stingy that he has left us with only one comfort or strengthening for our conscience, or only one absolution, but we have many absolutions in the gospel and we are richly showered with many absolutions. For instance, we have this in the gospel: "If you forgive men their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you" [Matt. 6:14]. Another comfort we have in the Lord's Prayer: "Forgive us our trespasses," etc. [Matt. 6:12]. A third is our baptism, when I reason thus: See, my Lord, I have been baptized in thy name so that I may be assured of thy grace and mercy. Then we have private confession, when I go and receive a sure absolution as if God himself spoke it, so that I may be assured that my sins are forgiven. Finally, I take to myself the blessed sacrament, when I eat his body and drink his blood as a sign that I am rid of my sins and God has freed me from all my frailties; and in order to make sure of this, he gives me his body to eat and his blood to drink, so that I shall not and cannot doubt that I have a gracious God.
Thus you see that confession must not be despised, but that it is a comforting thing. And since we need many absolutions and assurances, because we must fight against the devil, death, hell, and sin, we must not allow any of our weapons to be taken away, but keep intact the whole armor and equipment which God has given us to use against our enemies. For you do not yet know what labor it costs to fight with the devil and overcome him. But I know it well, for I have eaten a bit of salt or two with him. I know him will, and he knows me well, too. If you had known him, you would not have rejected confession in this way.
I commend you to God. Amen.
We see that believers are justified by faith, and are in a Covenant of grace and forgiveness in which God showers us with absolution. We are a forgiven people. "And their sins and iniquities will I remember no more. Now where remission of these is, there is no more offering for sin" Heb. 10: 17, 18. Private confession is used to reassure us of our blessed condition when our conscience is burdened. It is not commanded by Scripture, neither is it used as a means of receiving forgiveness of particular sins. Furthermore, consciences must not be trained to be burdened and under pain of judgment should there be a sin on the conscience. Rather we must teach that faith in the blood of Christ brings complete and eternal forgiveness of sins and eternal salvation unto us, and the conscience must be ruled by this grace, and not by a law of confession.
Steven E. Anderson