Liturgy by TLW



Reference Handout for

Is There Room in the Church for Private Confession?

Or, Who Lost the Keys to the Office?

 A Historical-Theological Inquiry

by The Rev. Thomas L. Weitzel
Evangelical Lutheran Church in America



"...[T]he New Testament does unambiguously enforce that the church must have some procedure and rite to deal with the sins of its members." -- R. Jenson, "The Means of Grace: The Sacraments," in Christian Dogmatics, Fortress, 1984, p.368.   (Return to outline)



Gal.6. 1 Brethren, if a man [or woman] is overtaken in any trespass, you who are spiritual should restore him [or her] in a spirit of gentleness. 2 Look to yourself, lest you too be tempted. Bear one another's burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ.

Jam.5. 14 Is any among you sick? Let him call for the elders of the church, and let them pray over him, anointing him with oil in the name of the Lord; 15 and the prayer of faith will save the sick [person], and the Lord will raise him up; and if he has committed sins, he will be forgiven. 16 Therefore confess your sins to one another, and pray for one another, that you may be healed.... 19 My brethren, if any one among you wanders from the truth and some one brings him back, 20 let him know that whoever brings back a sinner from the error of his way will save his soul from death and will cover a multitude of sins.

1 Jn.5. 16 If any one sees his brother committing what is not a mortal sin, he will ask, and God will give him life for those whose sin is not mortal.

Mt.18. 21 Then Peter came up and said to him, "Lord, how often shall my brother sin against me, and I forgive him? As many as seven times?" 22 Jesus said to him, I do not say to you seven times, but seventy times seven."

Lk.17. 3 "Take heed to yourselves; if your brother sins, rebuke him, and if he repents, forgive him; 4 and if he sins against you seven times in the day, and turns to you seven times, and says, 'I repent,' you must forgive him."

Mt.6. 12 "And forgive us our debts, As we also have forgiven our debtors.... 14 For if you forgive [people] their trespasses, your heavenly Father also will forgive you; but if you do not forgive [people] their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses." [cf. Lk.11.4]



Jn.20. 22 And when [the risen Jesus] had said this, he breathed on them, and said, "Receive the Holy Spirit. 23 If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven; if you retain the sins of any they are retained."



Mt.18. 15 "If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault, between you and him alone. If he listens to you, you have gained your brother. 16 But if he does not listen, take one or two others along with you, that every word may be confirmed by the evidence of two or three witnesses. 17 If he refuses to listen even to the church, let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector. 18 Truly, I say to you, whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven. 19 Again I say to you, if two of you agree on earth about anything they ask, it will be done for them by my Father in heaven. 20 For where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I in the midst of them."

Luther interprets v.19 to mean the keys belong to the whole church. "Treatise on Power & Primacy of the Pope," BC 324.24, Tappert.



1 Cor.5. 1 It is actually reported that there is immorality among you, and of a kind that is not found even among pagans; for a man is living with his father's wife. 2 And you are arrogant! Let him who has done this be removed from among you. 3 For though absent in body I am present in spirit, and as if present, I have already pronounced judgment 4 in the name of the Lord Jesus on the man who has done such a thing. When you are assembled, and my spirit is present, with the power of our Lord Jesus, 5 you are to deliver this man to Satan for the destruction of the flesh, that his spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord Jesus.

1 Tm.1. 18 This charge I commit to you, Timothy, my son, in accordance with the prophetic utterances which pointed to you, that inspired by them you may wage the good warfare, 19 holding faith and a good conscience. By rejecting conscience, certain persons have made shipwreck of their faith, 20 among them Hymenaeus and Alexander, whom I have delivered to Satan that they may learn not to blaspheme. 2.1 First of all, then, I urge that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgiving be made for all [people]....



2 Cor.7. 8 For even if I made you sorry with my letter, I do not regret it (though I did regret it), for I see that that letter grieved you, though only for a while. 9 As it is, I rejoice, not because you were grieved, but because you were grieved into repenting; for you felt a godly grief, so that you suffered no loss through us. 10 For godly grief produced in you, what eagerness to clear yourselves, what indignation, what alarm, what longing, what zeal, what punishment! At every point you have proved yourselves guiltless in the matter. 12 So although I wrote to you, it was not on account of the one who did the wrong, nor on account of the one who suffered the wrong, but in order that your zeal for us might be revealed to you in the sight of God. 13 Therefore we are comforted.

2 Cor.2. 5 But if any one has caused pain, he has caused it not to me, but in some measure -- not to put it too severely -- to you all. 6 For such a one this punishment by the majority is enough; 7 so you should rather turn to forgive and comfort him, or he may be overwhelmed by excessive sorrow. 8 So I beg you to reaffirm your love for him. 9 For this is why I wrote, that I might test you and know whether you are obedient in everything. 10 Any one whom you forgive, I also forgive. What I have forgiven, if I have forgiven anything, has been for your sake in the presence of Christ, 11 to keep Satan from gaining the advantage over us; for we are not ignorant of his designs.

1 Tm.5. 22 Do not be hasty in the laying on of hands, nor participate in another man's sins; keep yourself pure.


THEOLOGY OF SIN AND REPENTANCE - Leads to Patristic form of public penance

1 Jn.5. 18 We know that any one born of God does not sin, but He who was born of God keeps him, and the evil one does not touch him.

Gal.5. 24 [T]hose who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires. 25 If we live by the Spirit, let us also walk by the Spirit.

Rm.6. 2 How can we who died to sin still live in it? ... 4 We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, so that as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life.... 11 So you also must consider yourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus.... 14 For sin will have no dominion over you, since you are not under law but under grace.

Heb.6. 4 For it is impossible to restore again to repentance those who have once been enlightened, who have tasted the heavenly gift, and have become partakers of the Holy Spirit, 5 and have tasted the goodness of the word of God and the power of the age to come, 6 if they then commit apostasy, since they crucify the Son of God on their own account and hold him up to contempt.   (Return to outline)




TERTULLIAN, from "On Repentance" - c.203 C.E.

These poisons of [the devil], therefore, God foresaw, and although the gate of forgiveness has been shut and fastened with the bar of baptism, he has permitted some means of access. In the vestibule he has stationed the second repentance to open to such as knock: but now once for all, because now for the second time; but never more, because the last time it had been in vain....

The narrower, then, the sphere of action of this second and only [remaining] repentance, the more laborious is its probation; that it may not be exhibited in the conscience alone, but may likewise be carried out in some external act. This act, which is more usually expressed and commonly spoken of under a Greek name, is homologeo (confession) whereby we confess our sin to the Lord, not indeed as if he were ignorant of it, but inasmuch as by confession satisfaction is settled, of confession repentance is born, by repentance God is appeased. And this exomologesis is a discipline for [humanity's] prostration and humiliation, enjoining a demeanour calculated to move mercy. With regard also to the very dress and food, it commands the penitent to lie in sackcloth and ashes, to cover his body in mourning, to lay his spirit low in sorrows, to exchange for severe treatment the sins which he has committed; moreover, to know no food and drink but such as is plain -- not for the stomach's sake, to wit, but the soul's; for the most part, however, to feed prayers on fastings, to groan, to weep and roar unto the Lord his God; to roll before the feet of the presbyters, and kneel to God's dear ones; to enjoin on all the brethren to be ambassadors to bear his prayer for mercy. All this exomologesis does, that it may enhance repentance, may honour God by its fear of the danger incurred, may, by itself pronouncing against the sinner, stand in the stead of God's indignation, and by temporal mortification (I will not say frustrate, but) discharge eternal punishments. Therefore, while it abases the man, it raises him; while it covers him with squalor, it renders him more clean; while it accuses, it excuses; while it condemns, it absolves. The less quarter you give yourself, the more (believe me) will God give you. [A New Eusebius, J. Stevenson, ed., revised by W.H.C. Frend, London: SPCK, 1987, p.174]   (Return to outline)


DIDASCALIA APOSTOLORUM (early decades of 3rd c.)

X. And afterwards, as each one of them repents and shows the fruits of repentance, receive him to prayer after the manner of a heathen. And as [you] baptize a heathen and then receive him, so also lay hand upon this man, while all pray for him, and then bring him in and let him commune with the Church. For the imposition of hand shall be to him in the place of baptism: for whether by the imposition of hand, or by baptism, they receive the communication of the Holy Spirit. [R.H. Connolly, ed., Clarendon 1969, p.104]   (Return to outline)


GREGORY THAUMATURGUS (Wonderworker), Asia (213-270)

... testifies to five grades or degrees of penitents, modelled on the existing pattern for the admission of catechumens but slightly more elaborate.... The five grades of penitents were named and defined by their relation to the liturgy. The "mourners" were those altogether outside the church who pleaded with the faithful for their prayers and for readmission. The "hearers" were those permitted to stand just within the entrance hall of the church and only during the "mass of the catechumens," that is, during the Scripture readings and homily. The "fallers" (prostrators) were allowed inside the nave of the church in a posture of self-abasement (which apparently, however, also adopted by catechumens because baptism was also seen in the light of conversion from a life of sin). They were allowed in the nave only as long as the catechumens, that is, for the "mass of the catechumens." The "bystanders" were permitted to be present for the whole liturgy of the faithful, but were not admitted to communion. The "faithful" were those admitted to full communion. [Monika K. Hellwig, Sign of Reconciliation and Conversion, Michael Glazier, Inc. 1982, p.36]   (Return to outline)




1. The sinner's exclusion from communion, confession, and admission to the order of penitents by the imposition of hands, and where necessary, being taken to task by the bishop.

2. The sinner's performance of a prescribed course of self-humiliation and prostration known technically as exomologesis, the period depending on the gravity of the sin and varying at different times and places.

3. The sinner's formal absolution and restoration.

[J.N.D. Kelly, Early Christian Doctrines, rev. ed., Harper & Row 1978, p.438.]   (Return to outline)



10. If any who have lapsed have been ordained in ignorance, or even if those who ordained them were aware of the fact, this does not prejudice the ecclesiastical canon; for upon the circumstances being made known, they are deposed. [No other penance was required of clergy, however.]

11. Concerning those who have fallen away without necessity, or without the spoiling of their goods, or without being in danger, or any other such reason, as happened under the tyranny of Licinius, the Synod has decreed that although they are undeserving of any kindness, they shall nevertheless be dealt with mercifully. As many, therefore, as shall truly repent, shall continue three years amongst the hearers as believers (i.e. as having been already baptized), and seven amongst the prostrators, and for two years they shall communicate with the people in prayer without the offering.

12. Those who have been called by grace, and have at first displayed their ardour, but afterwards have run like "dogs to their own vomit" [Prov.26.11] (insomuch that some have spent money, and by means of gifts have acquired again their military station), must continue amongst the prostrators for ten years, after having been for three years amongst the hearers. In all such cases, however, it is proper to examine into the purpose and nature of their repentance; for as many as manifest their conversion in deed, and not in appearance only, by their fear, and tears, and patience and good works, these having completed the prescribed time as hearers, may properly communicate in the prayers, and the bishop may be allowed to determine yet more favourably respecting them. But those who hear their sentence with indifference, and think the form of entering into the Church sufficient for their conversion, must complete the whole time.

13. Concerning those who are likely to depart [die], the old and canonical law is still to be observed that if any one is about to depart, he must not be deprived of the perfect and most necessary provision for his journey. If, however, after having been given over, and having received the Communion, he is again restored to health, let him continue amongst those who communicate in prayers only. But generally, and as regards every one who is likely to die, and who desires to partake of the Eucharist, the bishop, after examination, shall impart it to him.

14. Concerning those who are catechumens, and who have lapsed, the holy and great Synod has decreed that they shall be only three years amongst the hearers, and after that shall pray with the catechumens. [A New Eusebius, J. Stevenson, ed., revised by W.H.C. Frend, London: SPCK, 1987, p.341.]   (Return to outline)




Because it is so necessary to reveal one's inner life in order truly to experience the grace of God as liberating one's true self and to experience the shadow or darkness of all that is inauthentic and disoriented in one's life and personal experience, it is a work of great compassion and constructive charity for the spiritual father to elicit confession from younger monks. Yet this is not done by any sort of cross-questioning or bullying or imposition of rules, but rather by warm, compassionate presence and by humble personal testimony on the part of the spiritual father. There is no element of judgment of the person, only of discernment of the movement of the Spirit in his conversion (for all alike are seen as sinners) and of discernment of the remedies for what is not well in his life. There is also an implicit sacramental theology in the desert practice of confession, because there is a strong conviction that the counsel given by such a guide in such a context is a special charismatic word. To obey it is unfailingly to be on the road to salvation.... Out of their own experience of desert life in quest of Christian perfection, the monks resisted the division of a Christian community into saints and sinners, therefore they resisted the notion of excommunication as punishment.... Expiation is for the desert father simply an incorrect category applied to the problem. The proper category is that of healing. The healing is the gift of God and all that can be done in repentance is to lay oneself open to the grace of God working in one's life and in one's innermost depths. [Monika K. Hellwig, Sign of Reconciliation and Conversion, Michael Glazier, Inc. 1982, pp.47-49.]   (Return to outline)




It echoes the situation from the ancient canonical penance. Where the authority of the bishop was previously required to reconcile with the eucharistic community those whose grave sins had warranted excommunication, the authority of the parish priest is now tightly clamped over each member of the faithful in situations where there is no emergency for the community, no excommunication to lift, no genuine reconciliation with the community to effected. The possibilities for destructive patterns of domination, that is, of plain bullying, are devastating, especially in smaller and more isolated communities.... The actual history of the diocesan clergy during and since the Middle Ages leant poignancy and substance to such possibilities.... [T]he penitent was expected to present in the self-accusation specific and recognizable sins that qualified as "matter for absolution." These confessed sins had somehow to fit into accept categories. However, the real issues of conversion and the quest for perfection of the Christian life might not fit into these recognizable categories at all.... This reversed the order of the ancient desert and monastic manifestation of conscience from which private confession had been developed. In that original practice it was rather the confession which took place within the context of continuing spiritual direction, and that confession might be of temptations, anxieties, attitudes, situations, rather than specific sinful acts. [Monika K. Hellwig, Sign of Reconciliation and Conversion, Michael Glazier, Inc. 1982, pp.74-75,77.]   (Return to outline)




AC.XI. 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. Ps.19.12 "Who can discern his errors?"

AC.XII. REPENTANCE: 1-6. It is taught among us that those who sin after Baptism receive forgiveness of sin whenever they come to repentance, and absolution should not be denied them by the church. Properly speaking, true repentance is nothing else than to have contrition and sorrow, or terror, on account of sin, and yet at the same time to believe the Gospel and absolution (namely, that sin has been forgiven and grace has been obtained through Christ), and this faith will comfort the heart and again set it at rest. Amendment of life and the forsaking of sin should then follow, for these must be the fruits of repentance, as John says, "Bear fruit that befits repentance" (Mt.3.8).



AP.XI. CONFESSION: 2. It is well known that we have so explained and extolled the blessing of absolution and the power of the keys that many troubled consciences have received consolation from our teaching.... This teaching has encouraged many devout minds, and in the beginning brought Luther the highest praise of all good men, since it discloses a sure and firm consolation for the conscience. Previously the whole power of absolution had been smothered by teachings about works, since the scholastics and monks teach nothing about faith and free forgiveness.

[HOW OFTEN] AP.XI.3,5. With regard to the time, it is certain that most people in our churches use the sacraments, absolution and the Lord's Supper, many times a year. Our clergy instruct the people about the worth and fruits of the sacraments in such a way as to invite them to use the sacraments often.... But we do not prescribe a set time because not everyone is ready in the same way at the same time. In fact, if everyone rushed in at the same time, the people could not be heard and instructed properly. The ancient canons and the Fathers do not appoint a set time.... Therefore our pastors do not force those who are not ready to use the sacraments.

AP.XII. PENITENCE: 2. This is the very voice of the Gospel, that by faith we obtain the forgiveness of sins.

[2 PARTS: CONTRITION & FAITH] AP.XII.28-29. 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 (Mt.3.8) and an improvement of the whole life and character a third part, we shall not object.... We say that contrition is the genuine terror of a conscience that feels God's wrath against sin and is sorry that it has sinned. This contrition takes place when the Word of God denounces sin. 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.

[CONTRITION: THE WEIGHT OF SIN] AP.XII.31-33. Scripture speaks of these terrors, as in Ps.38.4,8, "for my iniquities have gone over my head; they weigh like a burden too heavy for me. I am utterly spent and crushed; I groan because of the tumult of my heart." And in Ps.6.2-3, "Be gracious to me, O Lord, for I am languishing; O Lord, heal me, for my bones are troubled. My soul also is sorely troubled. But thou, O Lord--how long?" And in Is.38.10,13, "I said, in the noontide of my days I must depart; I am consigned to the gates of Sheol. I cry for help until morning; like a lion he breaks all my bones." In these terrors the conscience feels God's wrath against sin, unknown to men who walk in carnal security. It sees the foulness of sin and is genuinely sorry that it has sinned; at the same time it flees God's horrible wrath, for human nature cannot bear it unless it is sustained by the Word of God. So Paul says (Gal.2.19), "I through the law died to the law." For the law only accuses and terrifies the conscience.

[FAITH] AP.XII.35-36. As for the second part of our consideration of penitence, we therefore add faith in Christ, that amid these terrors the Gospel of Christ ought to be set forth to consciences -- the Gospel which freely promises the forgiveness of sins through Christ. They should believe therefore that because of Christ their sins are freely forgiven. This faith strengthens, sustains, and quickens the contrite according to the passage (Rm.5.1), "Since we are justified by faith, we have peace with God." ... The contrition of Judas and Saul did not avail because it lacked the faith that grasps the forgiveness of sins granted for Christ's sake. The contrition of David and Peter did avail because it had the faith that grasps the forgiveness of sins granted for Christ's sake.

[ABSOLUTION] AP.XII.39. The power of the keys administers and offers the Gospel through absolution, which is the true voice of the Gospel. In speaking of faith, therefore, we also include absolution since "faith comes from what is heard," as Paul says (Rm.10.17). Hearing the Gospel and hearing absolution strengthens and consoles the conscience.

[A SACRAMENT] AP.XII.41. Absolution may properly be called a sacrament of penitence, as even the more learned of the scholastics say.

[LINK W/WORD & EUCHARIST] AP.XII.42-43. Meanwhile this faith is nourished in many ways, amid temptations, through the proclamation of the Gospel and the use of the sacraments [Melanchthon means all three! cf. Ap.XIII.3-4.]. These are signs of the new testament, that is, signs of the forgiveness of sins. Therefore they offer the forgiveness of sins, as the words in the Lord's Supper clearly state, "This is my body given for you. This cup is the new testament" (Lk.22.19-20). So faith is conceived so that it may not succumb in its struggles against the terrors of sin and death. This understanding of penitence is plain and clear, it adds to the honor of the power of the keys and the [three] sacraments, it illumines the blessing of Christ, and it teaches us to make use of Christ as our mediator and propitiator.

[CONTRITION/FAITH = LAW/GOSPEL] AP.XII.53. These are the two chief works of God in [all], to terrify and to justify and quicken the terrified. One or the other of these works is spoken of throughout Scripture. One part is the law, which reveals, denounces, and condemns sin. The other part is the Gospel, that is, the promise of grace granted in Christ.

[PENITENCE & JUSTIFICATION] AP.XII.59. For the doctrine of penitence and the doctrine of justification are very closely related.
AP.XII.72. Let pious consciences know, therefore, that God commands them to believe that they are freely forgiven because of Christ, not because of our works.

[CONFESSORS] AP.XII.103-105. ... [T]he ministry of absolution is in the area of blessing or grace, not of judgment or law. The ministers of the church therefore have the command to forgive sins; they do not have the command to investigate secret sins. In addition, they absolve us of those which we do not remember; therefore absolution, which is the voice of the Gospel forgiving sins and consoling consciences, does not need an investigation.

[THE POWER OF THE KEYS] AP.XII.176. It is only on earth, however, that the keys have the power to bind and loose, according to the statement (Mt.16.19), "Whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven." As we have said above, the keys do not have the power to impose penalties or to institute forms of worship; they only have the command to forgive the sins of those who are converted and to denounce and excommunicate those who refuse to be converted.

AP.XIII. THE NUMBER AND USE OF THE SACRAMENTS: 3-4. 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. When we are baptized, when we eat the Lord's body, when we are absolved, our hearts should firmly believe that God really forgives us for Christ's sake.




*"At first the Catechism contained five chief parts of Christian doctrine. The manual as we now know it dates from 1542. In 1531 a brief statement concerning the confession of sin, which had hitherto been appended to Baptism, was expanded and printed as the fifth part. Thus the Lord's Supper became the sixth part. In a letter to Christians at Frankfurt, Luther accounts for this insertion (Weimar 30 III, 565f). Probably John Brenz was instrumental in the formulation of 'The Office of the Keys and Confession,' which appeared in no edition of the Catechism during Luther's lifetime." [What Luther Says, E.M. Plass, ed. Concordia 1959, #357]

ANSWER: Confession consists of two parts. One is that we confess our sins. The other is that we receive absolution or forgiveness from the confessor as from God himself, by no means doubting but firmly believing that our sins are thereby forgiven before God in heaven.

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.

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 doing other evil.

ANSWER: you should say to the confessor: "Dear Pastor, please hear my confession and declare that my sins are forgiven for God's sake."


"I, a poor sinner, confess before God that I am guilty of all sins. In particular I confess in your presence that, as a manservant or maidservant, etc. I am faithful to my master, for here and there I have not done what I was told. I have made my master angry, caused him to curse, neglected to do my duty, and caused him to suffer loss. I have also been immodest in word and deed. I have quarreled with my equals. I have grumbled and sworn at my mistress, etc. For all this I am sorry and pray for grace. I mean to do better."

A master or mistress may say: "In particular I confess in your presence that I have not been faithful in training my children, servants, and wife to the glory of God. I have cursed. I have set a bad example by my immodest language and actions. I have injured my neighbor by speaking evil of him, overcharging him, giving him inferior goods and short measure." Masters and mistresses should add whatever else they have done contrary to God's commandments and to their action in life, etc.

If, however, anyone does not feel that his conscience is burdened by such or by greater sins, he should not worry, nor should he search for and invent other sins, for this would turn confession into torture; he should simply mention one or two sins of which he is aware. For example, "In particular I confess that I once cursed. On one occasion I also spoke indecently. And I neglected this or that," etc. Let this suffice.

If you have knowledge of no sin at all (which is quite unlikely), you should mention none in particular, but receive forgiveness upon the general confession which you make to God in the presence of the confessor.

Then the confessor shall say: "God be merciful to you and strengthen your faith. Amen."

Again he shall say: "Do you believe that the forgiveness I declare is the forgiveness of God?"

Answer: "Yes, I do."

Then he shall say: "Be it done for you as you have believed. According to the command of our Lord Jesus Christ, I forgive you your sins in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen. Go in peace."

A confessor will know additional passages of the Scriptures with which to comfort and to strengthen the faith of those whose consciences are heavily burdened or who are distressed and sorely tried. This is intended simply as an ordinary form of confession for plain people.



LC.457.1. Concerning confession, we have always taught that it should be voluntary....

Luther enumerates confession to God alone, as in the Lord's Prayer [LC.458.8-9], as well as "toward" the neighbor, also in the Lord's Prayer [LC.458.10-12].

[CONFESSION WANING = PIGS] LC.457.5,7. Unfortunately, [people] have learned it only too well; they do whatever they please and take advantage of their freedom, acting as if they will never need or desire to go to confession any more. We quickly understand whatever benefits us, and we grasp with uncommon ease whatever in the Gospel is mild and gentle. But such pigs, as I have said, are unworthy to appear in the presence of the Gospel or to have any part of it. They ought to remain under the pope and submit to being driven and tormented to confess, fast, etc., more than ever before. For he who will not believe the Gospel, live according to it, and do what a Christian ought to do, should enjoy none of its benefits....

To others who hear it gladly, however, we must always preach, exhorting, encouraging, and persuading them not to lose this precious and comforting treasure which the Gospel offers.

[PRIVATE CONFESSION TO A FELLOW CHRISTIAN] LC.458.13-14. Besides this public, daily, and necessary confession, there is also the secret confession which takes place privately before a single [fellow Christian]. When some problem or quarrel sets us at one another's throats and we cannot settle it, and yet we do not find ourselves sufficiently strong in faith, we may at any time and as often as we wish lay our complaint before a [fellow Christian], seeking advice, comfort, and strength. This type of confession is not included in the commandment like the other two but is left to everyone to use whenever [it's needed]. Thus by divine ordinance Christ himself has entrusted absolution to his Christian church and commanded us to absolve one another from sins. So if there is a heart that feels its sin and desires consolation, it has here a sure refuge when it hears in God's Word that through a [fellow Christian] God looses and absolves him from his sins.

15. Note, then as I have often said, that confession consists of two parts. The first is my work and act, when I lament my sin and desire comfort and restoration for my soul. The second is a work which God does, when he absolves me of my sins through a word placed in the mouth of a [fellow Christian]. This is the surpassingly grand and noble thing that makes confession so wonderful and comforting.

[NO CONFESSION = NO CHRISTIAN!] LC.460.26-27. If you are poor and miserable, then go and make use of the healing medicine. He who feels his misery and need will develop such a desire for confession that he will run toward it with joy. But those who ignore it and do not come of their own accord, we let go their way. However, they ought to know that we do not regard them as Christians.

[NO CONFESSION = NO EUCHARIST!] LC.460.28-29. 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. 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.



[LUTHER'S PERSONAL TESTIMONY] WLS #972. Yet I will let no [one] take private confession away from me, and I would not give it up for all the treasures in the world; for I know what comfort and strength it has given me. No [one] knows so well what it can do for him as he who must struggle and fight much with the devil. The devil would have slain me long ago if confession had not sustained me. For there are many doubts and false matters which a [person] cannot settle by himself.... So he takes a [friend] aside and tells him his trouble. What harm does it do him to humble himself a little before his neighbor and put himself to shame? When you receive a word of comfort from him, accept and believe that word as if you heard it from God Himself.

[I DO NOT WANT IT ABOLISHED] WLS #973. Although it cannot be proved from Scripture that private confession, which is now customary, must be practiced, yet private confession pleases me greatly. And it is useful, yes, necessary, and I do not want it abolished. In fact, I am glad that it is found in the church of Christ, for it is an extraordinary remedy for afflicted consciences.

[I CANNOT DO WITHOUT ABSOLUTION] WLS #19. For the sake of this part (absolution) most of all do I use confession, and I will not and cannot do without it, for it has often given me great comfort and still does so daily when I am sad and downcast.

[DOES MORE THAN PREACHING CAN DO] WLS #974. Private confession is to be kept in the church, because consciences afflicted and oppressed by the terrors of sin lay themselves bare in private confession and receive a consolation which they could not lay hold of in a sermon preached in public. To people we want to open the door of confession as a refuge -- people whose consciences the devil holds captive in his snares and has fascinated and worn out so thoroughly that they do not know how to release and extricate themselves but only feel and see that they are bound to perish. For there is no greater misery in this life than the pains and the anguish of a heart that lacks advice and consolation.
Therefore such people should be given an open door to confession so that they may seek and find consolation from the ministers of the church. Or if the matter is so repulsive that one is ashamed to confess it before the minister, let him confide in some other Christian and pious person, whoever he may be, whose faith is apparent. To him let them complain about what is distressing them and troubling their conscience. And let them seek his advice by telling him: O my [friend], advise my disturbed and afflicted conscience lest I die in my sins or suddenly end my life in this or that manner.... If in such a case a person hears God's Word about the forgiveness of sins either from the minister or from someone else, he will be raised up and take comfort, and his heart, torn by the missiles of the devil, will be healed.

[GOSPEL AS PUBLIC & PRIVATE ABSOLUTION] WLS #3. By the power of the keys secret sins are to be forgiven.... The Gospel is a public absolution; in the presence of the minister private absolution is given.   (Return to outline)




The reformer's hopes for an evangelical penance were defeated by the same Constantinian secularization that had undone ancient penance and by the oral individualism and relativism of the modern world. And we must record that the medieval system of private penance is now collapsing also in the Roman Catholic church, following promptly the Second Vatican Council's opening to modernity. In both quarters the vacuum has most recently been filled by "pastoral counseling." Some of this has been excellent and pastoral, more has been a poor imitation of secular therapies, directed to a relativistic society's goal of personal self-fulfillment rather than to the church's goal of righteousness. None, without an audible and visible rite, reaches to the level where the sin of the baptized is. Where in the world church or in smaller sectarian communities the consciousness of mission is alive, there also discipline is maintained, and with it some form of disciplinary penance. But in the established Western church there is little discipline of any sort. [R. JENSON, "The Means of Grace" in Christian Dogmatics, C. Braaten & R. Jenson, eds., Fortress, 1984, pp.374-5.]   (Return to outline)



1. The Scriptures provide ample evidence of calls for repentance, commands for loosing and binding, procedure for such, and admonitions to assist one another in the Christian life.

2. Much more, we have a Savior who reveals to us the love of God which reaches through the multiple horrors of the cross, sin, despair, death and the law until it touches us concretely, forgiving and saving us.

3. Such saving is startlingly grace-filled, life renewing, and radically converting.

4. Yet the tensions of the old life (old Adam/Eve) pulling me from the new life remain. It is the twin pull of the law and the gospel, God's wrath and God's love, my sin and my forgivenness, contrition and faith. The struggle goes on, though the struggle is now itself filled with grace.

5. The Church offers assistance in this struggle: baptism as the point of departure and from which all the rest follows, the baptized community, the forgiving and renewing eucharist, the word of grace in preaching and teaching, the general word of forgiveness.

6. But is there a personal word of forgiveness -- to me?

7. Is it in pastoral care and counseling? Is what the pastor says the same as what God says? Who speaks God's words to me?

8. And how often?