The Confession & Absolution that happens before the Service begins with the Introit is a recent innovation. The first president of the Missouri Synod, C.F.W. Walther encouraged pastors about private Confession, “in an evangelical way, through instruction and exhortation, and through praising it, [to] work toward the goal that it be diligently used in addition to general confession and that, where it is possible and advisable, it be finally reintroduced as the exclusive custom and that it be properly preserved where it exist. By all means he may under no circumstances yield to a congregation which does not want to permit the use of private Confession and Absolution even on the part of individual members, for ‘to remove Absolution from the church’ would certainly be ‘contrary to God.’”
When in the Small Catechism Luther provides a short model for confession, he speaks of how an individual penitent might confess to his pastor one-on-one. Pastor Wilhelm Löhe, who sent the first pastors from Germany to the Wisconsin, Michigan, and Indiana parts of the Missouri Synod, lamented the rise of a service of general Confession, because private Absolution is “the heart of the cure of souls.”
One of the beautiful parts of Lutheran theology is its emphasis on the particularity of the Gospel. Jesus died for the world, yes, but that’s not the Gospel until you know that Jesus died for you. The difference between the general Confession in the Preparatory Rite and the private Confession contained in the Catechism, extolled by Luther, and called a Sacrament by the Augsburg Confession, is particularity.
We don’t have general sins, we have specific sins. We aren’t generally sinners, we’re particularly sinners. So the sweet comfort of forgiveness, the cure for souls, is meant to be applied and received particularly in private Confession. So the Lutheran Confessions declare, “Our people are taught that they should highly prize the Absolution as being God’s voice and pronounced by God’s command” (AC XXV) and “Our churches teach that private Absolution should be retained in the churches” (AC XI).
General confession is like going to a medical seminar, led by a doctor, to address a particular health issue. While you may gain invaluable information from the seminar that you can use to improve your health, there isn’t the face-to-face contact of a visit to a doctor. In a visit to a doctor, the doctor will evaluate your particular health and prescribe a solution to benefit you in particular. General confession delivers forgiveness like a sermon and the rest of the liturgy deliver forgiveness. Private confession delivers forgiveness like a doctor writing a prescription for you. When in private Confession, the pastor puts his hand on your head and speaks the words of Christ “I forgive you,” there’s no mistaking it. This cure is for you.