How The Confession Of (My) Sins Kept Me In The Church, Part 1

Saturday, March 28th, 2009

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.

Congregation: Amen.

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.

Congregation: Amen.

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

16 Comments

  1. Rick Ritchie says:

    Great post. I had the same impression the first time I was at a Lutheran service where that was done.

    What I find shocking is how when people argue against men forgiving sins, they often cite the verse “Who can forgive sins but God alone?”, which was spoken by the unbelieving Pharisees. The same ones who said Jesus had a demon. Hardly the ones to trust! Much better to believe the crowd which glorified God that He had given such gifts to “men” (plural).

  2. lownr says:

    Good on you Pat! Great post.

  3. Larry Hughes says:

    Pat,

    We are just beginning to experience this joining a LCMS church, still in membership/catechism. I come from a similar background and understand experientially what you say here (we have not taken communion yet). I cannot tell you, well actually you already know as you’ve stated here, how wonderful this is. Coming in and confessing one’s sin and receiving forgiveness. The very first Sunday I visited this LCMS church I visited alone as my kids where sick and my wife stayed home to take care of them. She had to prod me to go and visit because I knew we were Lutheran confessionally for a long time and I just hated the whole idea of leaving and explaining why (I’m very lazy and weak in doing that), and if I found a good solid Lutheran church it was going to be a for gone conclusion. Moving this time was tougher because we had a pretty good PCA church in which the Gospel was not entirely lost, the sacraments were the big issue.

    I got there and sat down and in comes the pastor and he did exactly as you described here. I confessed along with everyone else once I figured out where the liturgy was. As soon as he gave the absolution, I cannot describe the relief that gave me. It was literally like being washed with words, in fact that very baptismal scripture (washing with the word) for the FIRST time in my entire life meant something to me. Before hand it was one of those Scriptures that one kind of emptily nods one’s head at as if one understands it but does not, but is too afraid to admit to it. It was both a, “SO THAT’s what it means”, epiphany and “experience” simultaneously. It brought me to tears, which I kept hidden not being a public crier. I told my wife, she was going to visit the next week without the kids while I watched so she could take it all in unhindered, “Just wait until you hear the absolution”. It’s like hearing the Gospel all over again and it comes to you.

    Now I look forward to that every Sunday, I can’t wait to go and confess – it’s like lifting the world off of your shoulders. It fetters one to the church.

    Blessings,

    Larry Hughes, KY

  4. John, FL says:

    I grew up Lutheran. I had major flashbacks when I read your blog. I left the Lutheran church Missouri Synod because I found it to be a lifeless church, personally. Alot of tradition but really no one there who knew Jesus in a personal way. I say that this happened after I had been born again. at age 20 through conference at another church.
    I went with my dad back to the Lutheran church for 3 weeks and I felt like I was in an empty tomb awaiting for the Holy Spirit to show up.

    Funny thing, a guy I used to work with who cussed like a sailor was a deacon at the church. I was shocked when I saw him.

  5. George King says:

    I have to agree with you thank you for sharing this.

  6. Dave Begley says:

    I was brought up in a fundamental Baptist church and have been discovering a lot of good things in the Reformed and Lutheran teachings (for the past 5-6 years.) Dr. Rosenbladt’s teachings on this website have been great.

    What makes me wonder if your interpretation of John 20:21-23 is correct is the absence of this practice in Acts, and no mention of it by Paul when he gives instructions to Timothy and Titus.

    Am I missing something?

  7. Pat K says:

    Dave,

    I Cor 5:4and 2nd Cor 2:10 allude to it.

    In Lutheran and Reformed circles, the verses dictate the theology and the practice. The book of Acts is descriptive of the early church, not necessarily a prescriptive, exhaustive manual for how we do church. The pastoral epistles are prescriptive but not exhaustively so. The scriptures give rise to the theology which in turn dictates our practice

    Confession and absolution in the understanding of the Lutheran Reformation is a personal application of the Gospel to your particular situation by your Pastor.

  8. [...] How The Corporate Confession Saved My Faith. And Part 2. From our friend Patrick [...]

  9. zoebios121 says:

    Wow. I really admire the gospel first as the solution to our problems. Almost makes me want to be Lutheran. At least, take a page out of their book regarding this.

    Yes, I’m quite sick of the Christianiese way of forcing a Bible passage to fit in a sort “self-help” kind of way for our own purposes. “Biblical” my foot.

  10. fws says:

    From around age 8 or so, I knew that I had a terrible secret. A sin that I could not overcome. I was raised Lutheran and thought that my salvation would be to study theology carefully and make sure I got it all right. Literally salvation by systematic theology that only a born Lutheran might understand.

    I ended up leaving the church for a long time because I feared the rejection that I was certain would follow if other Lutherans knew about me.

    There were two things that brought me back to the church: I saw that my life was simply not working without Jesus in it. The second thing, that gave me the courage to come back to church even though I had not succeeded in my original plan of cleaning up my life and THEN returning to church was the general confession and absolution.

    I decided that God had sent his pastors to tell me that I was forgiven over and over again in that general confession and that God did this knowing fully my secret even if those pastors did not. I decided that I would hold God to what he said to me every sunday in the confession and absolution growing up and be sorta stubborn about that point with God.

    I resolved that I would be completely honest with at least the pastor of the congregation I sought out, and I was quite certain at the time, that the pastor would forbid me to commune and that I would sit in the back pew, and leave quietly and quickly after the service and was desperate enough to be the dog looking for those crumbs from the table…

    I found over time, that the people confessing their sins at the beginning of the service actually meant what they said and that this had a certain effect upon them or maybe it was that the general confession simply attracted other similar lost and screwed up and untidy riff-raff like me. People, who as a very very last resort, and only after being beaten up pretty badly by “law school”, would be willing to be the dogs accepting those crumbs….

    I found that as those people came to know me over the 14 years at my little church (you were one of those people), I was accepted as any other member and met with true love and concern and found communion in a way I had not been expecting.

    my first private confession and receiving of Holy Absolution was very very tearful and very very joyful. I, raised as a Lutheran, had memorized something about private confession as a kid, but was told that that was something only to use when you did some REALLY bad stuff. well…. the shoe fit so….

    so for me too, confession saved literally saved my life.

    • Mary says:

      I so loved this, your candor and your obvious love and appreciation for Christ. I will read and reread for my own encouragement. I love the crumbs.

  11. [...] in March of 2009 I put up Part 1 of this post and talked a bit about corporate confession and absolution and how its regular [...]

  12. [...] me.  His posts are entitled “How the Confession of My Sins Kept Me in the Church”.  (Part 1) (Part [...]

  13. John Dostal says:

    It seems that we are members of a unique fellowship where our faith was shipwrecked by modern evangelical theology and practice. If this was the end of the story, I would be bitter and resentful. Instead, the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob; our Savior Jesus Christ, has had mercy on us and lead us into an exodus into the Gospel as it is rightly proclaimed through Word and Sacrament. Instead of being among church members who have to put up edifices and cover their sin, we can live simul iustus et peccator, knowing Christ alone is our forgiveness and salvation.
    May God continue the work of rescuing those who are burdened by their sin and their church.

  14. Mike says:

    The Methodists even retain this practice in their communion liturgy. I agree that it is a powerful moment.

  15. Paula says:

    Wonderful. Thank you. Just this week we had a discussion at church which involved the importance of maintaining Lutheran distinctives. Several people made the argument “we want to preach Christ, not Lutheranism.” *sigh* — this is becoming endemic.

    The vote to keep the old bad Arminian evangellyfish hymnals instead of getting the denomination’s Lutheran ones passed, by a 2/3 majority. If this trend isn’t reversed, we are in for trouble.

    It’s very hard to find any church that is even monergistic around here, much less distinctly Lutheran. We fled Evangelical Covenant mush and are watching the same thing infiltrated the church we fled to. The pastor at least is not ashamed of Lutheran teaching.

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