Thursday, March 12, 2009

Do I Have to?

When people hear of Lutheran parishes offering private confession, they often suppose such a thing is Roman Catholic. It’s not. It’s no more Roman Catholic than belief in a Triune God is Roman Catholic. It’s not, either. It’s Christian.

In fact, private confession is distinctly Lutheran. It’s one-sixth of the Small Catechism, and it’s in the hymnal. But neither of those things makes it Lutheran. What makes confession Lutheran is how it delivers the Gospel. The Roman church makes confession a matter of the Law, requiring people to confess, and adding to the absolution works of penance. And so-called Evangelical chruches who deny that God works through means would never suppose Jesus actually to have meant for His disciples to be forgiving sins in confession (John 20:21-23). No, confession--done properly--is distinctly Lutheran.

Confession as practiced in Roman churches is as much an abomination as the way the Mass is changed from God’s gracious action toward men to deliver salvation into a work that is offered toward God to merit His favor.

In his “Brief Exhortation to Confession” from the Large Catechism, Luther rails against the Roman errors of confession and declares that such abuses have been excised from the proper, evangelical use of Confession:

“Concerning confession, we have always taught that it should be voluntary and purged of the pope’s tyranny. We have been set free from his coercion and from the intolerable burden he imposed upon the Christian church. Up to now, as we all know from experience, there has been no law quite so oppressive as that which forced everyone to make confession on pain of the gravest mortal sin. 2 Moreover, it so greatly burdened and tortured consciences with the enumeration of all kinds of sin that no one was able to confess purely enough. 3 Worst of all, no one taught or understood what confession is and how useful and comforting it is. Instead, it was made sheer anguish and a hellish torture since people had to make confession even though nothing was more hateful to them. 4 These three things have now been removed and made voluntary so that we may confess without coercion or fear, and we are released from the torture of enumerating all sins in detail. Moreover, we have the advantage of knowing how to use confession beneficially for the comforting and strengthening of our conscience.”

In this Exhortation, Luther is at his finest. Do you have to go to confession? Of course not, neither do you have to be a Christian. Do you have to go to the Lord’s Supper? Of course not, neither do you have to be a Christian. Here’s Luther:

“Further, no one dare oppress you with requirements. Rather, whoever is a Christian, or would like to be one, has here the faithful advice to go and obtain this precious treasure. If you are no Christian, and desire no such comfort, we shall leave you to another’s power. 21 Hereby we abolish the pope’s tyranny, commandments, and coercion since we have no need of them. For our teaching, as I have said, is this: If anybody does not go to confession willingly and for the sake of absolution, let him just forget about it. Yes, and if anybody goes about relying on the purity of his confession, let him just stay away from it. 22 We urge you, however, to confess and express your needs, not for the purpose of performing a work but to hear what God wishes to say to you. The Word or absolution, I say, is what you should concentrate on, magnifying and cherishing it as a great and wonderful treasure to be accepted with all praise and gratitude.
23 If all this were clearly explained, and meanwhile if the needs which ought to move and induce us to confession were clearly indicated, there would be no need of coercion and force. A man’s own conscience would impel him and make him so anxious that he would rejoice and act like a poor miserable beggar who hears that a rich gift, of money or clothes, is to be given out at a certain place; he would need no bailiff to drive and beat him but would run there as fast as he could so as not to miss the gift.

“28 Thus we teach what a wonderful, precious, and comforting thing confession is, and we urge that such a precious blessing should not be despised, especially when we consider our great need. If you are a Christian, you need neither my compulsion nor the pope’s command at any point, but you will compel yourself and beg me for the privilege of sharing in it. 29 However, if you despise it and proudly stay away from confession, then we must come to the conclusion that you are no Christian and that you ought not receive the sacrament. For you despise what no Christian ought to despise, and you show thereby that you can have no forgiveness of sin. And this is a sure sign that you also despise the Gospel.
“30 In short, we approve of no coercion. However, if anyone refuses to hear and heed the warning of our preaching, we shall have nothing to do with him, nor may he have any share in the Gospel. If you are a Christian, you should be glad to run more than a hundred miles for confession, not under compulsion but rather coming and compelling us to offer it. 31 For here the compulsion must be inverted; we must come under the command and you must come into freedom. We compel no man, but allow ourselves to be compelled, just as we are compelled to preach and administer the sacrament.
“32 Therefore, when I urge you to go to confession, I am simply urging you to be a Christian. If I bring you to this point, I have also brought you to confession.”

Brilliant! Those who are compelled to come to confession are preachers who have no choice but to forgive the sins of the penitent! Christians will simply come without coercion.

Luther concludes, saying, “In this way, you see, confession would be rightly taught, and such a desire and love for it would be aroused that people would come running after us to get it, more than we would like. We shall let the papists torment and torture themselves and other people who ignore such a treasure and bar themselves from it. 35 As for ourselves, however, let us lift up our hands in praise and thanks to God that we have attained to this blessed knowledge of confession.”

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