The Apostle Paul urged Christians to “confess your sins, one to another.” I guess the church has fallen on hard times in that regard. In many of the churches I used to attend, confessing to any of the ‘big sins’ (sex mostly, but drinking, drugs or stealing were almost as bad) was a one-way ticket to being ostracized. Lip service was given to God’s grace, but it was always diluted with warnings about cheap grace or possible abuses.
I’ll never forget the first time I visited a Lutheran church. The service began like this: (no announcements or words of welcome)
Pastor: In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.
Pastor: If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us.
Congregation: But if we confess our sins, God, who is faithful and just, will forgive our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness.
After a period of silence, the Pastor continued: Let us then confess our sins to God our Father.
Congregation: Most merciful God, we confess that we are by nature sinful and unclean. We have sinned against you in thought, word, and deed, by what we have done and by what we have left undone. We have not loved you with our whole heart; we have not loved our neighbors as ourselves. We justly deserve your present and 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.
Pastor: Almighty God has given his Son to die for you and for His sake forgives you all of your sins. As a called and ordained servant of the Word, I therefore forgive you all of your sins in the name of the Father, and of the, the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.
Now imagine this in a sanctuary with a couple hundred people, all responding in perfect unison. Not only was it powerful, but I found it to be outrageous. Outrageously grace-filled and Christ-centered. Here were people who took Christ at His word regarding their sins. With my sins out of the way, I could actually more fully participate in the worship because my conscience wasn’t weighed down with all the guilt over my sins from the past week.
I also have to respect the bold and forthright way of dealing with the most unpleasant aspect of our relationship with God, namely our sin. When you start worship in this way, it’s serious business, and not easily given to levity or entertainment. It’s not a show for the visitors and unbelievers. It’s about receiving God’s gifts, and praying, praising, and giving thanks in return.
This was something I really needed, having washed up on the shores of the last church I was ever going to try, a bruised reed and a smoldering wick. I was sick to death of sermons on “biblical principles” for having a “godly relationship” or five biblical steps to overcoming this sin or that sin, none of which ever worked. Finally, here were a people who said “Enough… Repent!” and called sin for what it is, and urged the real biblical solution – repentance and forgiveness.
I often give my Evangelical friends a hard time, telling them that Lutherans don’t need altar calls because we have everyone repent and recite the sinner’s prayer right out of the gate at the beginning of the service. All joking aside though, the public confession and absolution was an apt word for me when I needed it most.
I can already anticipate the objections of those of you unfamiliar with the Lutheran tradition.
The first is “How can a man forgive sins?” (Hmm… I’ve heard that somewhere before, but I digress.) Answer: John 20:21-23, Matt 18:15-18. Jesus gives the power to forgive and retain sins to His apostles, and by extension to all those called into an ordained ministry. This is the best explanation of that passage that I have heard, and it takes the text at face value.
The second is “Just repeating words on a page over and over is ‘vain repetition’ and after awhile people don’t mean it.” True enough, some people may not mean it, but if you repeat those words every Sunday, someday you will be in a fight for your life against a besetting sin, and they’ll mean something then. To those of us who pay attention, those words mean something every day; they are life and death. They allow me to tell the truth about my life to God, my neighbor, and to myself, and allow me to hear God’s gracious reply with my own ears.By Pat K