Rev Dr Edgar Mayer – Living Grace Lutheran Church, Toowoomba – Date: 13 July 2014
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About a month ago – a few days before going to the Better Blokes camp outside of Canberra – I had a sudden insight into (the Bible passage of) John 20:21-23: Forgiveness is a work of power by the Holy Spirit and it works just like other Holy Spirit ministry such as praying for healing or spiritual gifts. You pray (and often lay hands on another person) and – by the Spirit of God – breakthroughs happen – including the breakthrough of becoming free from sin.
I read to you the Bible passage:
John 20:21-23: Again Jesus said, “Peace be with you! As the Father has sent me, I am sending you.” And with that he breathed on them and said, “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive anyone’s sins, their sins are forgiven; if you do not forgive them, they are not forgiven.”
On rare occasions have I pronounced the forgiveness of sins to someone privately and, when I did so, it never really dawned on me that I am doing more than pronouncing truth. I am actually ministering power (by the Holy Spirit). Likewise, have you done this to someone else or have you sought this ministry for yourself? We go forward for healing prayer but would we do the same for forgiveness?
About a month ago, it dawned on me that forgiveness works like healing – it is a work of power by the Holy Spirit – and I tugged away the insight for later use in a sermon. (Thank you, God.) First, I was off to the Better Blokes camp and then I would work on John 20, so I thought. However, even at the camp – especially on Saturday – I could not get the Bible verses out of my head: “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive anyone’s sins, their sins are forgiven.” I told myself off: “Concentrate on the job at hand. Focus on the camp, not some later sermon.”
Yet, the evening service came. I preached, then offered prayer and – to my surprise – ended up praying for people until midnight – (more than 3.5 hours) – and the prayer ministry was unusual in the sense that most people did not come forward for healing but forgiveness. Man after man confessed his sins to me – a lot of pornography (sins that keep men in bondage and addiction) – and then I understood that God had preparing me for this particular ministry time.
I was to minister (with faith, conviction and authority) the forgiveness of sins as a work of power by the Holy Spirit. Therefore, as people confessed their sins to me, I listened and then asked them to pray first and say sorry to God – turn away from sin. When they had repented (with a one minute or two minute prayer), I prayed: “By the authority of our Lord Jesus Christ and by his command, I forgive you all of your sins. You are being washed clean. There is no accusation against you. You have peace with God – perfect righteousness on account of Jesus’ sacrifice on a cross by which the devil is defeated – and now, by the power of Jesus’ blood which he poured out for the forgiveness of your sins – I break the power of this sin over your life. I take authority over it and break the addiction. I set you free in Jesus’ name.”
Usually, sometime during the prayer, the person would be overcome by the Spirit of God, fall to the ground and experience the presence of God ministering to him. It was glorious and I rejoiced and I thanked God that he had prepared me in time. One man confessed that as a young bloke he had seen something that he shouldn’t have seen (he was where he shouldn’t have been) and he could not get the images out of his head. (He did not go into greater detail.) I prayed and, the next morning at breakfast, he told me that he had seen visions while he was on the floor. He saw pictures – like old-fashioned movie slides – leave his head until the final vision was an empty TV screen – looked like static (after the regular broadcasts had finished). I said: “Great. This means that the power of the images has been broken.” Then, he understood the meaning of his own visions and also rejoiced.
As I was preparing for today, I remembered another incident which happened in my ministry years ago (maybe 15 years ago). I was called to the psychiatric unit because a woman had tried to commit suicide (if I remember correctly). She was completely doped up on drugs and very dependent on them. I didn’t know what to do. I am not a psychiatrist and all the medical experts and her pastor had tried (for years) and had not been able to help her. What was I to do?
Somehow she trusted me and began to share some deep secrets. She told me about suffering sexual abuse as a teenager and also shared some feelings of guilt over what happened. I assured her that she was the victim but then had an idea and asked her whether she wanted to confess her sins to God in prayer and I would pronounce forgiveness to her in Jesus’ name. This is what we did. (As far as I could tell,) nothing spectacular happened. I said good-bye. She was released from hospital and I did not see her again until years later but, when we met up again, she told me that after our prayer time, she no longer needed any drugs and had a new life with her husband. She had experienced an amazing breakthrough. I was a little dumbfounded but I shouldn’t have been because it is in the Bible.
Do you need forgiveness and do you need another human person saying it to you? Do you want to hear the words spoken to you by another Christian? “In the name of Jesus Christ and by the power of the Spirit of God, I take authority over the sin that is tormenting you and I wash you clean by the blood of Christ. Jesus forgives you. Amen.”
On the one hand, this may sound attractive but, on the other hand, you may think that this is not necessary and also not desirable. Most of us have not gone to private confession ever – because who wants to share his worst sins with another person? It’s way more comfortable to keep sins between God and yourself – safe from gossip – safe from personal embarrassment – and receive forgiveness directly from God – without any human middle-person – and, according to the Bible, this is possible:
Luke 18:9-14: To some who were confident of their own righteousness and looked down on everyone else, Jesus told this parable: “Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee stood by himself and prayed: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other people—robbers, evildoers, adulterers – or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all I get.’
But the tax collector stood at a distance. He would not even look up to heaven, but beat his breast and said, ‘God, have mercy on me, a sinner.’
I tell you that this man, rather than the other, went home justified before God. For all those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.”
However, there must be a reason why Jesus breathed the Holy Spirit on his disciples and commissioned them to forgive (and retain) sins. Jesus must have thought it important that forgiveness happens in a conversation with someone else and the Bible admonishes us:
James 5:16: Therefore confess your sins to each other and pray for each other so that you may be healed. The prayer of a righteous person is powerful and effective.
One Bible passage even talks about the “keys” to God’s kingdom and – considering the parallel passage of John 20:21-23 – these keys include the power to administer forgiveness in the church:
Matthew 16:18-19: And I tell you that you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not overcome it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven; whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.”
Our own Lutheran heritage, together with many other denominations, holds the power of the keys in the highest possible esteem:
Apology of the Augsburg Confession – Article XII (Penitence): The power of the keys administers and offers the Gospel through absolution, which is the true voice of the Gospel … Absolution may properly be called a sacrament of penitence … [Apology of the Augsburg Confession – Article XIII (The Number and Use of the Sacraments): If we define sacraments as “rites which have the command of God and to which the promise of grace has been added,” we can easily determine which are sacraments in the strict sense … The genuine sacraments, therefore, are Baptism, the Lord’s Supper, and absolution (which is the sacrament of penitence), for these rites have the commandment of God and the promise of grace, which is the heart of the New Testament.]
Martin Luther in the Smalcald Articles (VIII Confession): Since absolution or the power of the keys, which was instituted by Christ in the Gospel, is a consolation and help against sin and a bad conscience, confession and absolution should be no means be allowed to fall into disuse in the church, especially for the sake of timid consciences and for the sake of untrained young people who need to be examined and instructed in Christian doctrine.
What then is behind the practice of confessing – telling your sin and remorse – to another person and then hearing the absolution – words of forgiveness – from a human mouth? There are sins that you cannot handle by yourself. The guilt – the shame – is too much. Forgiveness seems impossible. You cannot even forgive yourself and the secrecy of it all – being alone with the shame – makes everything worse. The accusing voices – the squirming at the memory – simply do not stop. Therefore, it needs the faith and authority of someone else to speak out the truth for you: Jesus forgives you. How good it is to hear these words! What a gift!
Martin Luther in the Large Catechism: … there’s also private confession in which we confess to a single brother in secret. This form of confession is helpful when a particular thing worries or torments us, and we struggle with it, but get no rest, and that our faith isn’t strong enough. Then we should take our complaint to a brother whenever we want to and as often as we need, and get advice, comfort, and strength.
Then, there is our pride. We sin and we know but we also want to look good in the church; therefore put limits on coming clean with our sin. We may talk to God but not each other but we should if our repentance was genuine because our sin has hurt someone else – most sins do (such as stealing, gossiping, adultery and breaking trust). If you don’t watch it, your pride will be stronger than the desire to deal with sin. Opening up before someone else is truly humbling you and truly asking for forgiveness and it will be met with forgiveness.
There are other benefits of confessing our sin before a brother or sister such as receiving spiritual counsel (ways to avoid sin, insights into holiness, learning from the experience of a spiritual parent, etc) and committing to community which is building the church (the barriers of secrecy are coming down and we become vulnerable before one another).
I may add here a longer quote from Dietrich Bonhoeffer:
Dietrich Bonhoeffer: Confession and Communion (Life Together: The Classic Exploration of Faith in Community, 112-118):
BREAKING THROUGH TO COMMUNITY – In confession the break through to community takes place. Sin demands to have a man by himself. It withdraws him from the community. The more isolated a person is, the more destructive will be the power of sin over him, and the more deeply he becomes involved in it, the more disastrous is his isolation. Sin wants to remain unknown. It shuns the light. In the darkness of the unexpressed it poisons the whole being of a person. This can happen even in the midst of a pious community. In confession the light of the gospel breaks into the darkness and seclusion of the heart. The sin must be brought into the light. The unexpressed must be openly spoken and acknowledged. All that is secret and hidden is made manifest. It is a hard struggle until the sin is openly admitted. But God breaks gates of brass and bars of iron (Psalm 107:16).
Since the confession of sin is made in the presence of a Christian brother, the last stronghold of self-justification is abandoned. The sinner surrenders; he gives up all his evil. He gives his heart to God and he finds the forgiveness of all his sin in the fellowship of Jesus Christ and his brother. The expressed, acknowledged sin has lost all its power. It has been revealed and judged as sin. It can no longer tear the fellowship asunder. Now the fellowship bears the sin of the brother. He is no longer alone with his evil for he has cast off his sin in confession and handed it over to God. It has been taken away from him. Now he stands in the fellowship of sinners who live by the grace of God in the cross of Jesus Christ. Now he can be a sinner and still enjoy the grace of God. He can confess his sins and in this very act find fellowship for the first time. The sin concealed separated him from the fellowship, made all his apparent fellowship a sham; the sin confessed has helped him to find true fellowship with the brethren in Jesus Christ.
Moreover, what we have said applies solely to confession between two Christians. A confession of sin in the presence of all the members of the congregation is not required to restore one to fellowship with the whole congregation. I meet the whole congregation in the one brother to whom I confess my sins and who forgives my sins. In the fellowship I find with this one brother I have already found fellowship with the whole congregation. In this matter no one acts in his own name nor by his own authority, but by the commission of Jesus Christ. This commission is given to the whole congregation and the individual is called merely to exercise it for the congregation. If a Christian is in the fellowship of confession with a brother he will never be alone again, anywhere.
BREAKING THROUGH TO THE CROSS – In confession occurs the break through to the cross. The root of all sin is pride, superbia. I want to be my own law, I have a right to my self, my hatred and my desires, my life and my death. The mind and flesh of man are set on fire by pride; for it is precisely in his wickedness that a man wants to be God. Confession in the presence of a brother is the profoundest kind of humiliation. It hurts, it cuts a man down, it is a dreadful blow to pride. To stand there before a brother as a sinner is an ignominy that is almost unbearable. In the confession of concrete sins the old man dies a painful, shameful death before the eves of a brother. Because this humiliation is so hard we continually scheme to evade confessing to a brother. our eyes are so blinded that they no longer see the promise and glory in such abasement.
It was none other than Jesus Christ Himself who suffered the scandalous, public death of a sinner in our stead. He was not ashamed to be crucified for us as an evildoer. It is nothing else by our fellowship with Jesus Christ that leads us to the ignominious dying that comes in confession in order that we may in truth share in His cross. The cross of Jesus Christ destroys all pride. We cannot find the cross of Jesus if we shrink from going to the place where it is to be found, namely, the public death of the sinner. And we refuse to bear the cross when we are ashamed to take upon ourselves the shameful death of the sinner in confession. In confession we break through to the true fellowship of the cross of Jesus Christ, in the confession we affirm and accept our cross. In the deep mental and physical pain of humiliation before a brother-which means, before God- we experience the cross of Jesus as our rescue and salvation. The old man dies, but it is God who has conquered him. Now we share in the resurrection of Christ and eternal life.
BREAKING THROUGH TO NEW LIFE – In confession the break through to new life occurs. Where sin is hated, admitted, and forgiven, there the break with the past is made. ‘Old things are passed away.’ But where there is a break with sin, there is conversion. Confession is conversion. ‘Behold, all things are become new’ (2 Corinthians 5:17). Christ has made a new beginning with us. As the first disciples left all and followed when Jesus called, so in confession the Christian gives up all and follows. Confession is discipleship. Life with Jesus Christ and His community has begun. ‘He that covereth his sins shall not prosper: but whoso confesseth and forsaketh them shall have mercy’ (Proverbs 28:13). In confession the Christian begins to forsake his sins. Their dominion is broken. From now on the Christian wins victory after victory.
What happened to us in baptism is bestowed upon us anew in confession. We are delivered out of darkness into the kingdom of Jesus Christ. That is joyful news. Confession is the renewal of the joy of baptism. ‘Weeping may endure for a night, but joy cometh in the morning’ (Psalm 30:5).
BREAKING THROUGH TO CERTAINTY – In confession a man breaks through to certainty. Why is it that it is often easier for us to confess our sins to God than to a brother? God is holy and sinless, He is a just judge of evil and the enemy of all disobedience. But a brother is sinful as we are. He knows from his own experience the dark night of secret sin. Why should we not find it easier to go to a brother than to the holy God? But if we do, we must ask ourselves whether we have not often been deceiving ourselves with our confession of sin to God, whether we have not rather been confessing our sins to ourselves and also granting ourselves absolution. And is not the reason perhaps for our countless relapses and the feebleness of our Christian obedience to be found precisely in the fact that we are living on self forgiveness and not a real forgiveness? Self forgiveness can never lead to a breach with sin; this can be accomplished only by the judging and pardoning word of God itself.
Who can give us the certainty that, in the confession and the forgiveness of our sins, we are not dealing with ourselves by with the living God. God gives us this certainty through our brother. Our brother breaks the circle of self-deception. A man who confesses his sins in the presence of a brother knows that he is no longer alone with himself; he experiences the presence of God in the reality of the other person. As long as i am by myself in the confession of my sins everything remains in the dark, but in the presence of a brother the sin has to be brought into the light. But since the sin must come to light some time, it is better that it happens today between me and my brother, rather than on the last day in the piercing light of the final judgment. Our brother has been given me that even here and now I may be made certain through him of the reality of God in His judgment and His grace. As the open confession of my sins to a brother insures me against self-deception, so too, only when it is spoken by a brother in the name of God. Mutual, brotherly confession is given to us by God in order that we may be sure of divine forgiveness.
But it is precisely for the sake of this certainty that confession should deal with CONCRETE sins. People usually are satisfied when they make a general confession. But one experiences the utter perdition and corruption of human nature, in so far as this ever enters into experience at all, when one sees his own specific sins. Self-examination on the basis of all Ten Commandments will therefore be the right preparation for confession. Otherwise it might happen that one could still be a hypocrite even in confessing to a brother and thus miss the good of the confession. Jesus dealt with people whose sins were obvious, with publicans and harlots. They knew why they needed forgiveness, and they received it as forgiveness of their specific sins. Blind Bartimaeus was asked by Jesus: what do you want me to do for you? Before confession we must have a clear answer to this question. In confession we, too, receive the forgiveness of the particular sins which are here brought to light, and by this very token the forgiveness of all our sins, known and unknown.
Does all this mean that confession to a brother is a divine law? No, confession is not a law, it is an offer of divine help for the sinner. It is possible that a person may by God’s grace break through to certainty, new life, the cross, and fellowship without benefit of confession to a brother. It is possible that a person may never know what it is to doubt his own forgiveness and despair of his own confession of sin, that he may be given everything in his own private confession to God. We have spoken here for those who cannot make this assertion. Luther himself was one of those for whom the Christian life was unthinkable without mutual, brotherly confession. In the large catechism he said: ‘Therefore when I admonish you to confession I am admonishing you to be a Christian. Those who, despite all their seeking and trying, cannot find the great joy of fellowship, the cross, the new life, and certainty should be shown the blessing that God offers us in mutual confession. Confession is within the liberty of the Christian. Who can refuse, without suffering loss, a help that God has deemed it necessary to offer?
Are you becoming ready to open up and confess your sins to someone else? Do you see the value of hearing the words of forgiveness spoken to you?
Most Lutherans opt to confess their sins together and hear the words of forgiveness together. Like in the Anglican, Uniting and Catholic Church, there is a rite of confession and absolution in every Lutheran worship service (especially in preparation for Holy Communion). For instance, the Pastor and congregation may speak these words to each other (usually read out of a book or from the data screen):
P: Dear friends in Christ: Let us confess our sins to God our Father and ask him in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ to forgive us.
C: We confess that we are born in bondage to sin and cannot free ourselves. We have sinned against you in thought, word, and deed, by what we have done and by what we have failed to do. We have not loved you with our whole heart, and we have not loved our neighbour as ourselves. We deserve your eternal punishment. For the sake of your Son, Jesus Christ, have mercy on us. Forgive us, renew us, and lead us, so that we may delight in your will and walk in your ways, to the glory of your holy name. Amen.
P: I ask each of you in the presence of God who searches the heart: Do you confess that you have sinned, and do you repent of your sins?
C: I do.
P: Do you believe that Jesus Christ has redeemed you from all your sins, and do you desire forgiveness in his name?
C: I do.
P: Do you intend with the help of the Holy Spirit to live as in God’s presence and to strive daily to lead a holy life, even as Christ has made you holy?
C: I do.
P: As a called and ordained servant of the Word, I announce the grace of God to all of you. On behalf of my Lord Jesus Christ, and by his command, I forgive the sins of all of you who repent and believe, in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Peace be with you.
For the first ten years (or so) in my ministry, I have always used responsive words like these to go through an act of confession and absolution in every worship service. However, do you think that words to this effect would help you Sunday after Sunday? They can become mechanical and empty and you can say them without actually thinking of any actual sins that you have committed and not engaging your heart at all. This is bad enough but hearing the absolution is even worse because the words of forgiveness – after half-hearted repentance (or worse) – become misleading and cut short the deep work of repentance that God wants to do in the worship service.
I remember being the guest-speaker in an Aboriginal community that celebrated a festival. Most people before me were there for the BBQ, not the preaching. They had stopped going to church. They were nominal Christians and I preached the offer of salvation to them and when I preached, I saw their hearts stirring. They became hungry for the Gospel. Then, the sermon was finished and the pastor immediately took them through the familiar words of confession and absolution which absolutely closed the door of salvation to them (at least on that Sunday). When the pastor announced to them that their sins were forgiven – after just mumbling the same old words of being sorry for being sinners (but without any resolve to change and commit to Jesus) – and praising the grace of God without the need for repentance, I saw all of them lose their conviction and hunger. The pastor told them that they had everything in God (already) but – as they listened to the preaching – for a little while – they had hoped that there was more.
Doing confession and absolution can be counter-productive if it is done as an empty ritual (as our Lutheran heritage knows):
Apology of the Augsburg Confession – Article XII (Penitence): They pretend that the sacrament grants grace ex opere operato [automatically just by performing the ritual], without a right attitude in the recipient, and they do not mention faith, which grasps the absolution and consoles the conscience.
Apology of the Augsburg Confession – Article XII (Penitence): … the forgiveness of sins does not come ex opere operato because of contrition, but by that personal faith by which each individual believes that his sins are forgiven.
Apology of the Augsburg Confession – Article XII (Penitence): … acts of worship which ex opere operato pay homage to God and compensate for eternal death. They attribute satisfaction to the mere performance of these acts …
[Jesus’ breathed the Holy Spirit on his disciples so that they would have the power to forgive sins. Without the Holy Spirit, there is not the power to do so.]
If you perform the ritual long enough, apart from faith and engaging your heart, you actually forget what is supposed to happen when you hear the words of forgiveness. Forgiveness is an experience. Receiving freedom from the power of sin is an experience:
Apology of the Augsburg Confession – Article XII (Penitence): When our opponents talk about faith and say that it precedes penitence, they do not mean justifying but the general faith which believes that God exists, that punishments hang over the wicked, etc. Beyond such “faith” we require everyone to believe that his sins are forgiven him. We are contending for this personal faith, and we set it in opposition to the opinion that bids us trust not in the promise of Christ but in contrition, confession, and satisfaction ex opere operato. This faith follows on our terrors, overcoming them and restoring peace to the conscience. To this faith we attribute justification and regeneration, for it frees us from our terrors and brings forth peace, joy, and a new life in the heart. We insist that this faith is really necessary for the forgiveness of sins, and therefore we put it in as one of the parts of penitence.
Apology of the Augsburg Confession – Article XII (Penitence): “… This is the witness that the Holy Spirit brings in your heart, saying, ‘Your sins are forgiven you.’ …”
Apology of the Augsburg Confession – Article XII (Penitence): We teach that such a certainty of faith is required in the Gospel; our opponents leave consciences wavering and uncertain. Consciences do nothing from faith if they always doubt whether they have forgiveness. In such doubt, how can they call upon God, how can they be sure that he hears them? So their whole life is without God and without the true worship of God … Constantly tossed about in such doubt, they never experience what faith is, and so it is that at last they rush into despair.
Martin Luther in Smalcald Articles – Part III (Penitence): Here we see how blind reason gropes around in the things of God and seeks comfort in its own works, according to its own darkened opinions. It cannot consider Christ or faith. If we look at this now in the light, then such contrition is a contrived and imaginary idea. It comes from one‘s own powers, without faith, without knowledge of Christ. In this state, a poor sinner who reflected on this lust or revenge would at times have more likely laughed than cried – except for those truly struck down by the law or falsely plagued by the devil with a sorrowful spirit. Otherwise, such contrition was certainly pure hypocrisy and did not kill the desire to sin. They had to be contrite, but would rather have sinned more – had it been without consequences.
Do you want the witness of the Holy Spirit in your heart, saying to you: “Your sins are forgiven you”? Do you want certainty – unwavering faith and peace to the conscience? Then, do the confession of your sins properly – in a private meeting with another Christian – who will listen to the sin that is burdening you and not let you leave before announcing to you the grace of God – forgiveness and freedom from guilt and shame (for eternity).
Maybe I make a few more teaching points:
Apology of the Augsburg Confession – Article XII (Penitence): In order to deliver pious consciences from these labyrinths of the scholastics, we have given penitence two parts, namely, contrition and faith. If someone wants to call fruits worthy of penitence (Matthew 3:8) and an improvement of the whole life and character a third part, we shall not object … [Apology of the Augsburg Confession – Article XII (Penitence): Thus Gregory says about restitution that penitence is false it if does not satisfy those whose property we have taken.] … We say that contrition is the genuine terror of conscience that feels God’s wrath against sin and is sorry that it has sinned. For the sum of the proclamation of the Gospel is to denounce sin, to offer the forgiveness of sins and righteousness for Christ’s sake, to grant the Holy Spirit and eternal life, and to lead us as regenerated men to do good.
Martin Luther in the Large Catechism: … confession is made up of two parts. The first part is our action and deed, when I groan about my sins and long for my soul to be comforted and refreshed. The second is an action which God does. Through the Word, delegated to a human mouth, he pardons me from my sins. And this is the first and foremost thing which makes confession a delight and comfort.
Up till now the emphasis was on what we did. The only concern anyone had was that we made no mistakes of any kind in our confession. Nobody took any notice of the vital second part, nor preached on it. People acted as if our confession was a good deed on its own, and should be used to pay God. If the confession wasn’t perfect and complete to the last detail, it was thought that the absolution was null and void and the sins not forgiven. So people were driven to the point where everyone had to despair of ever confessing so purely – which can’t be done. Nobody was able to have his conscience soothed or rely on his absolution. So they made our beloved confession not only worthless to us, but also a burden and a misery, to the obvious harm and ruin of the soul.
Martin Luther in the Smalcald Articles – Part III (Penitence): As for confession, the situation was like this: Everybody had to give an account of all his sins – an impossibility and the source of great torture. The sins which had been forgotten were pardoned only when a man remembered them and thereupon confessed them. Accordingly he could never know when he had made a sufficiently complete or a sufficiently pure confession …
Satisfaction was even more complicated, for nobody could know how much he was to do for one single sin, to say nothing of all his sin. Here the expedient was resorted to of imposing small satisfactions which were easy to render, like saying five Our Fathers, fasting for a day, etc. For the penance that was still lacking man was referred to purgatory.
Here too there was nothing but anguish and misery. Some thought that they would never get out of purgatory because, according to the ancient canons, seven years of penance were required for a single mortal sin. Nevertheless, confidence was placed in man’s own works of satisfaction.
Martin Luther in the Large Catechism: I’m saying that the Word, or absolution, is what you should look at with deep appreciation, and value it as a great, marvellous treasure which should be received with all honour and thanks.
If all this were clearly explained, as well as the need described which should move and encourage us, there wouldn’t be much need to force people to confess their sins. Every person’s own conscience would urge him and make him so scared that he would be glad to go. He would act like a poor, miserable beggar who hears that a large donation of money or clothing is to be made at a certain place. He wouldn’t need the strong arm of the law to drive and beat him. He would run there himself as fast as he could so as not to miss out.
… If you are a Christian, you ought to be glad to run more than a hundred kilometres for confession.
Martin Luther in the Smalcald Articles – Part III (Penitence): St Paul teaches the same thing in Romans 3:10-12: “None is righteous, no, not one; no one understands, no one seeks for God. All have turned aside, together they have gone wrong.” And in Acts 17:30, “Now he commands all men everywhere to repent.” He says “all men,” that is, excepting no one who is a man. Such repentance teaches us to acknowledge sin – that is to acknowledge that we are all utterly lost, that from head to foot there is no good in us, that we must become altogether new and different men.
This repentance is not partial and fragmentary like repentance for actual sins, nor is it uncertain like that. It does not debate what is sin and what is not sin, but lumps everything together and says, “We are wholly and altogether sinful.” … On this account there is no uncertainty in such repentance, for nothing is left that we might imagine to be good enough to pay for our sin …
Martin Luther in the Large Catechism: But if you are going to look down on it and carry on proudly without confession, we can only come to the conclusion that you are no Christian and shouldn’t receive the Sacrament either.
Martin Luther in the Large Catechism: So, when I tell you to go to confession, all I’m doing is telling you to be a Christian.
There is one more fantastic benefit of private confession. We do not have to rely on any subjective experiences – (how we feel or how much our skin tingles) – to figure out whether grace is available to us. No – we can put all of our trust in the words of God that are external from us and sure. No matter how we feel, we know that we are ready to receive; therefore exercise faith and receive the blessing of the absolution:
Apology of the Augsburg Confession – Article XII (Penitence): Hearing the Gospel and hearing absolution strengthens and consoles the conscience. Because God truly quickens through the Word, the keys truly forgive sin before him, according to the statement (Luke 10:16), “He who hears you, hears me.” Therefore we must believe the voice of the one absolving no less than we would believe a voice coming from heaven …
So faith is conceived and confirmed through absolution, through the hearing of the Gospel, so that it may not succumb in its struggles against the terrors of sin and death.
Martin Luther in the Smalcald Articles – Part III (Penitence): In these matters, which concern the external, spoken Word, we must hold firmly to the conviction that God gives no one his Spirit or grace except through or with the external Word which comes before. Thus we shall be protected from the enthusiasts – that is, from the spiritualists who boast that they possess the Spirit without and before the Word and who therefore judge, interpret, and twist the Scriptures or spoken Word according to their pleasure. [Thomas] Münzer did this, and many still do it in our day who wish to distinguish sharply between the letter and the spirit without knowing what they say or teach.
The papacy, too, is nothing but enthusiasm, for the pope boasts that “all laws are in the shrine of his heart,” and he claims that whatever he decides and commands in his churches is spirit and law, even when it is above and contrary to the Scriptures or spoken Word. All this is the old devil and the old serpent who made enthusiasts of Adam and Eve. He led them from the external Word of God to spiritualizing and to their own imaginations, and he did this through other external words. Even so, the enthusiasts of our day condemn the external Word, yet they do not remain silent but fill the world with their chattering and scribbling, as if the Spirit could not come through the Scriptures or the spoken word of the apostles but must come through their own writings and words. Why do they not stop preaching and writing until the Spirit himself comes to the people without and before their writings since they boast that the Spirit came upon them without the testimony of the Scriptures …
In short: enthusiasm clings to Adam and his children from the beginning to the end of the world – fed and spread among them as poison by the old dragon. It is the source, power, and might of all the heresies, even that of the papacy and Mohammed. Therefore we should and must insist that God does not want to deal with us human beings, except by means of his external Word and sacrament. Everything that boasts of being from the Spirit apart from such a Word and sacrament is of the devil. For God even desired to appear to Moses first in the burning bush and by means of the spoken word; no prophet – not even Elijah or Elisha – received the Spirit outside of or without the Ten Commandments; John the Baptist was not conceived without Gabriel’s preceding Word, nor did he leap in his mother’s womb without Mary’s voice; and St. Peter says: the prophets did not prophesy “by human will” but “by the Holy Spirit,” indeed, as “holy people of God.” However, without the external Word, they were not holy – much less would the Holy Spirit have moved them to speak while they were still unholy. Peter says they were holy because the Holy Spirit speaks through them.
Are you ready now to make an appointment for private confession? Will I see you in my office? There is actually no particular need to see me as the pastor of the congregation. The privilege to pronounce forgiveness belongs to all Christians. Still, are you ready to see someone?
If the answer is “no” and I mean “no” from all of us, then we could suspect that we are not living in revival times because whenever the Spirit moves among a people, they become acutely aware of their sin (because the Spirit of God is holy and convicts of sin) and they confess their sins openly before everyone. Their consciences are so stricken that they don’t care. [E.g.: Healing the Land ministry in Melanesia.] And it could be that if we only allowed the Holy Spirit to search our consciences (and we may not have done so in a while), we would grow in our hunger for the absolution – the soothing words of forgiveness. [We seem to have moved the practice of confession and absolution into the inner healing prayer ministry.]
You may consider the practice which John Wesley introduced and which worked amazing fruit in Great Britain. How can this fail to make anyone mature?
These are questions which John Wesley asked himself daily and recorded the responses in his journal:
1. Am I consciously or unconsciously creating the impression that I am better than I really am? In other words, am I a hypocrite?
2. Do I confidentially pass on to others what has been said to me in confidence?
3. Can I be trusted?
4. Am I a slave to dress, friends, work or habits?
5. Am I self-conscious, self-pitying, or self-justifying?
6. Did the Bible live in me today?
7. Do I give the Bible time to speak to me every day?
8. Am I enjoying prayer?
9. When did I last speak to someone else of my faith?
10. Do I pray about the money I spend?
11. Do I get to bed on time and get up on time?
12. Do I disobey God in anything?
13. Do I insist upon doing something about which my conscience is uneasy?
14. Am I defeated in any part of my life?
15. Am I jealous, impure, critical, irritable, touchy or distrustful?
16. How do I spend my spare time?
17. Am I proud?
18. Do I thank God that I am not as other people, especially as the Pharisees who despised the publican?
19. Is there anyone whom I fear, dislike, disown, criticize, hold a resentment toward or disregard? If so, what am I doing about it?
20. Do I grumble or complain constantly?
21. Is Christ real to me?
The heart of Methodism during the life of John
Wesley was the Methodist Class Meeting. This was a small covenant discipleship
support group where members were accountable to each other. They confessed
their faults one to another, prayed for each other, and stirred up one another
to love and good works. Here the teachings of the Bible were examined in light
of actual personal experience. Here leaders were nurtured and equipped.
John Wesley’s Rules for the Band-Societies (drawn up Dec. 25, 1738)
The design of our meeting is, to obey that command of God, “Confess your faults one to another, and pray one for another, that ye may be healed.”
To this end, we intend:
1. To meet once a week, at the least.
2. To come punctually at the hour appointed, without some extraordinary reason.
3. To begin (those of us who are present) exactly at the hour, with singing or prayer.
4. To speak each of us in order, freely and plainly, the true state of our souls, with the faults we have committed in thought, word, or deed, and the temptations we have felt, since our last meeting.
5. To end every meeting with prayer, suited to the state of each person present.
To desire some person among us; to speak
his own state first, and then to ask the rest, in order, as many and as
searching questions as may be, concerning their state, sins, and temptations.
of the questions proposed to every one before he is admitted among us may be to
this effect …
of the preceding questions may be asked as often as occasion offers; the four
following at every meeting:
1. What known sins have you committed since our last meeting?
2. What temptations have you met with?
3. How were you delivered?
4. What have you thought, said, or done, of which you doubt whether it be sin or not?
Conditions of Membership into Methodist Society:
There is one only condition previously required in those who desire admission into these societies: a desire “to flee from the wrath to come, to be saved from their sins:” But, wherever this is really fixed in the soul, it will be shown by its fruits. It is therefore expected of all who continue therein, that they should continue to evidence their desire of salvation.
Today is all about good news. Jesus did something beautiful when he came to the disciples after his resurrection:
John 20:21-23: Again Jesus said, “Peace be with you! As the Father has sent me, I am sending you.” And with that he breathed on them and said, “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive anyone’s sins, their sins are forgiven; if you do not forgive them, they are not forgiven.”
Forgiveness is a work of power by the Holy Spirit and it works just like other Holy Spirit ministry such as praying for healing or spiritual gifts. You pray (and often lay hands on another person) and – by the Spirit of God – breakthroughs happen – including the breakthrough of becoming free from sin. Do something new. Seek out a brother or a sister (in Christ) and share the sin that keeps producing shame and guilt in you and become free. Hear the words of forgiveness spoken to you with authority. Amen.
From Luther’s Small Catechism:
Confession embraces two parts: the one is, that we confess our sins; the other, that we receive absolution, or forgiveness, from the confessor, as from God Himself, and in no wise doubt, but firmly believe, that our sins are thereby forgiven before God in heaven.
Before God we should plead guilty of all sins, even of those which we do not know, as we do in the Lord's Prayer. But before the confessor we should confess those sins alone which we know and feel in our hearts.
Here consider your station according to the Ten Commandments, whether you are a father, mother, son, daughter, master, mistress, a man-servant or maid-servant; whether you have been disobedient, unfaithful, slothful; whether you have grieved any one by words or deeds; whether you have stolen, neglected, or wasted aught, or done other injury.
You should speak to the confessor thus:
Reverend and dear sir, I beseech you to hear my confession, and to pronounce forgiveness to me for God's sake. Proceed!
I, a poor sinner, confess myself before God guilty of all sins; especially I confess before you that I am a man-servant, a maidservant, etc. But, alas, I serve my master unfaithfully; for in this and in that I have not done what they commanded me; I have provoked them, and caused them to curse, have been negligent [in many things] and permitted damage to be done; have also been immodest in words and deeds, have quarrelled with my equals, have grumbled and sworn at my mistress, etc. For all this I am sorry, and pray for grace; I want to do better.
A master or mistress may say thus:
In particular I confess before you that I have not faithfully trained my children, domestics, and wife [family] for God's glory. I have cursed, set a bad example by rude words and deeds, have done my neighbour harm and spoken evil of him, have overcharged and given false ware and short measure.
And whatever else he has done against God's command and his station, etc.
But if any one does not find himself burdened with such or greater sins, he should not trouble himself or search for or invent other sins, and thereby make confession a torture, but mention one or two that he knows. Thus: In particular I confess that I once cursed; again, I once used improper words, I have once neglected this or that, etc. Let this suffice.
But if you know of none at all (which, however is scarcely possible), then mention none in particular, but receive the forgiveness upon your general confession which you make before God to the confessor.
Then shall the confessor say:
God be merciful to thee and strengthen thy faith! Amen.
Dost thou believe that my forgiveness is God's forgiveness? Answer.
Yes, dear sir.
Then let him say:
As thou believest, so be it done unto thee. And by the command of our Lord Jesus Christ I forgive thee thy sins, in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Ghost. Amen. Depart in peace.
But those who have great burdens upon their consciences, or are distressed and tempted, the confessor will know how to comfort and to encourage to faith with more passages of Scripture. This is to be merely a general form of confession for the unlearned.
We may also consider that Jesus talked about retaining the sin of some.