by Rev. Michael Schuermann
One of the chief concerns of the Lutheran Reformers was to protect the conscience of each believer from being harmed by the burdens of works-righteousness or other sorts of legalism. They recognized that because of sin, man’s burdened conscience was driving him to seek relief in some way. God provided true relief in the form of His promise, even from the Garden of Eden, of the seed of the woman who would crush the serpent’s head. In the medieval Church, however, this free-by-God’s-grace promise had been lost to a doctrine of conscience-relief by way of some sort of effort on man’s part.
This reality is recognized throughout the Lutheran Symbols, but clearly articulated in Article XX of the Augsburg Confession (On Good Works):
“Until now consciences were plagued with the doctrine of works. They did not hear consolation from the Gospel. Some people were driven by conscience into the desert and into monasteries, hoping to merit grace by a monastic life. Some people came up with other works to merit grace and make satisfaction for sins. That is why the need was so great for teaching and renewing the doctrine of faith in Christ, so that anxious consciences would not be without consolation but would know that grace, forgiveness of sins, and justification are received by faith in Christ.”
The conscience is held captive by the Law and by sin. The conscience is set free by the preaching of the Gospel into the ears and hearts of people, so that through hearing they would believe that their sins are forgiven. “There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.” (Romans 8:1)
This is precisely the way that God intends His working out of salvation for each person to work. Luther writes in the Smalcald Articles (Part III, Article III):
“Whenever the Law alone exercises its office, without the Gospel being added, there is nothing but death and hell, and one must despair, as Saul and Judas did [1 Samuel 31; Matthew 27:5]. St. Paul says, through sin the Law kills. [See Romans 7:10.] On the other hand, the Gospel brings consolation and forgiveness. It does so not just in one way, but through the Word and the Sacraments and the like, as we will discuss later. As Psalm 130:7 says against the dreadful captivity of sin, “with the Lord is … plentiful redemption.””
One of those ways in which the Gospel brings consolation and forgiveness, which Luther alludes to, is through the exercise of the Keys, also rightly called Confession and Absolution. It is a powerful gift which is tied to the preaching of the Word, in which the pastor (or, one could argue, a fellow Christian) hears the repentant admission of sin from a fellow believer and announces the grace of God in Christ to them.
“Absolution, or the Power of the Keys, is an aid against sin and a consolation for a bad conscience; it is ordained by Christ in the Gospel [Matthew 16:19]. Therefore, Confession and Absolution should by no means be abolished in the Church. This is especially for the sake of timid consciences and untrained young people, so they may be examined and instructed in Christian doctrine.” (Smalcald Articles Part III, Article VIII)
Like anything having to do with the Gospel, Luther and the Reformers were careful to teach that this is entirely gift; it is not God’s intent that confession be done under compulsion but instead it is done in the freedom of the Gospel. Coercion and compulsion lead to consciences being burdened. “But the listing of sins should be free to everyone, as to what a person wishes to list or not to list.” (SA III, VIII)
However, as with anything left to the freedom of the Christian to carry out, the sinful flesh at the same time acts to tempt and lead astray. So as confession was set free from the compulsion of the law and put in its proper place as a Gospel gift, the people quickly gave in to the temptation to no longer make use of it. Luther lamented this, particularly in his writing “A Brief Exhortation to Confession”. Noteworthy in this writing is Luther’s exhortation that those who are Christians will desire to receive, and go get, the gifts of Christ in the Gospel.
“If you were a Christian, then you ought to be happy to run more than a hundred miles to Confession and not let yourself be urged to come. You should rather come and compel us to give you the opportunity. For in this matter the compulsion must be the other way around: we must act under orders, you must come into freedom. We pressure no one, but we let ourselves be pressured, just as we let people compel us to preach to administer the Sacrament.
“When I urge you to go to Confession, I am doing nothing else than urging you to be a Christian. If I have brought you to the point of being a Christian, I have thereby also brought you to Confession. For those who really desire to be true Christians, to be rid of their sins, and to have a cheerful conscience already possess the true hunger and thirst. They reach for the bread, just as Psalm 42:1 says of a hunted deer, burning in the heat with thirst, “As a deer pants for flowing streams, so pants my soul for You, O God.””
Finally, we should have a brief consideration of what a proper confession should contain. As we saw above, we teach that a cataloging of sins is not necessary and should not be demanded. Likewise, even one specific sin need not be named by a Christian in confession. Rather, Luther, in writing about repentance in the Smalcald Articles, states that true repentance doesn’t stop with just one or two sins but instead admits that the entire person is sinful, corrupted, and deserving of nothing but sin and death. Likewise, then, the person who in repentance admits that they are a sinner has in fact confessed everything.
“Such repentance is not partial and beggarly, like that which does penance for actual sins. Nor, like that, is it uncertain. For it does not debate what is or is not sin. Rather, it hurls everything together and says: Everything in us is nothing but sin ‹there is nothing in us that is not sin and guilt [Romans 7:18]›…Confession, too, cannot be false, uncertain, or fragmentary. A person who confesses that everything in him is nothing but sin includes all sins, excludes none, forgets none. Neither can the satisfaction be uncertain, because it is not our uncertain, sinful work. Rather, it is the suffering and blood of the innocent Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world” [John 1:29]. (SA III, III, 36-37)
The Rev. Michael Schuermann is pastor of Good Shepherd Lutheran Church in Sherman, Ill.