Luther and Private Confession

At the time of the Reformation, Luther and all of the faithful reformers insisted upon retaining private confession and absolution in the Church. Why? Because of the great benefit to the one who is confessing his or her sins to openly admit (confess) the same and then to hear from the lips of the called and ordained servant of the Lord (their pastor) the wonderful words of absolution.

When the Lutheran princes approached Emperor Charles V in 1530 and presented the Augsburg Confession, they stated the following in Art. XI:

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?”

Also, Luther wrote the following regarding private confession and absolution:

Private confession should be retained in the church, for in it consciences afflicted and crushed by the terrors of sin lay themselves bare and receive consolation which they could not acquire in public preaching. We want to open up confession as a port and refuge for those whose consciences the devil holds enmeshed in his snares and whom he completely bewitches and torments in such a way that they cannot free or extricate themselves and feel and see nothing else but that they must perish. For there is no other greater misery in this life than the pains and perplexities of a heart that is destitute of guidance and solace (Luther’s Works 6:297–298 AE).

Elsewhere, he said:

For this reason I have a high regard for private confession, for here God’s word and absolution are spoken privately and individually to each believer for the forgiveness of his sins, and as often as he desires it he may have recourse to it for this forgiveness, and also for comfort, counsel, and guidance. Thus it is a precious, useful thing for souls, as long as no one is driven to it with laws and commandments but sinners are left free to make use of it, each according to his own need, when and where he wishes; just as we are free to obtain counsel and comfort, guidance and instruction when and where our need or our inclination moves us. And as long as one is not forced to enumerate all sins but only those which oppress him most grievously (Luther’s Works 37:368 AE).

If you desire private confession and absolution, talk with your pastor. You and he can arrange an appropriate time. There is even a form for individual confession and absolution in our Lutheran Service Book. And remember, your pastor, at his ordination, took a vow never to divulge to anyone what is said to him in private confession. Also, do not shy away from private confession because you are concerned that your pastor will think less of you because of your sins or act differently toward you afterward. This will not happen because he rejoices that you have confessed your sins and have received full and complete forgiveness through Christ our Lord.

—Adapted with permission from the Web site of St. Paul’s Evangelical Lutheran Church Lockport, Ill.

The quotations from the Lutheran Confessions are from The Book of Concord: The Confessions of The Evangelical Lutheran Church, edited by Theodore G. Tappert, copyright © 1959 Fortress Press. Used by permission of Augsburg Fortress.

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