Some Thoughts on Private Confession

Today in Bible class we took a detour from our study of John’s Gospel and discussed the practice of Private Confession & Absolution. It happened quite innocently, actually. After reciting our weekly portion of the Catechism, I was just making a few comments about it and then there were questions, more comments, more questions, and by the time we were done it was time to go.

Some of my members were having a hard time grasping the value of Private Confession. It’s not that they have never heard me speak about it before. We have an announcement about its availability each week in the bulletin. But still they struggle. Roughly, the thinking goes like this: why can’t I just tell God about all of my sins and dark secrets in the privacy of my bedroom and be forgiven? Well, that’s fine, but how do you know God forgives you? How can you be certain? Does a little voice sound in your head after you confess? Is your certainty based on the fact that you feel better after doing so? Eventually I think they saw my point.

Later, as I was driving to the other church, I began thinking more about this. Why is it that people have no problem confessing every dastardly deed, every nasty little secret to counselors and therapists, but are too afraid to tell it to the pastor? Counselors and therapists have their place, don’t get me wrong. They offer valuable services in managing behavior and addictions. But you can’t get forgiveness there. You don’t leave the counselor’s office with the knowledge that no matter how badly you have acted, God still loves you and forgives you for Christ’s sake.

I think that people in the pews do not really know what a pastor is for or how to use one. If I had a broken arm, I wouldn’t just sit in my room and pray for healing. I would do that, but I would also go to the doctor to get that healing. If I need my taxes done, I don’t just pray for it and expect it to get done by itself. I go to an accountant who takes care of it for me. But for some reason we think that the solution to guilt is simply to pray. Don’t bother seeking out a pastor to speak God’s Word of forgiveness, just pray for it. That does not seem right in my mind.

Another comment that was made in Bible class was that there are just some things that people do not want the pastor to know about them. But what if we treated our doctors this way? What if we didn’t tell him that we had a heart condition, or that there was a serious pain down in our abdomen? Unless we tell them what is wrong, they can’t really help us. If we want to get well, if we want the doctor to “fix” us, then we don’t hold anything back from him.

These were just a few thoughts running through my mind. Back to the point above concerning the certainty of forgiveness, I think this is a valid point. In Private Confession & Absolution, there is no need to wonder if you are forgiven or not. The Word says it all: “I forgive you all your sins.” As valid in heaven also as if Christ our dear Lord were dealing with us himself.


About Rev. Paul L. Beisel

Graduate of Concordia Theological Seminary, Fort Wayne, IN in 2001 (M Div.) and 2004 (S.T.M.); LC-MS Pastor and Adjunct Instructor for John Wood Community College; Husband of Amy and father of Susan, Elizabeth, Martin, and Theodore.
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4 Responses to Some Thoughts on Private Confession

  1. Mike Baker says:

    Alot of us who come from non-liturgical backgrounds are nervous about private confession. The lack of familiarity about the subject makes us nervous.

    For me, the feeling is similar to my first couple of adventures in public speaking. It really is a fear that has more to do with the actual rite than what is happening.

    For a congregant to stand outside of the congregation with the pastor and perform liturgy… for some it’s tough when you come from a different background.

  2. Dear Paul:

    This is an excellent and thought-provoking post.

    In my own experience, I find that most people, by virtue of not having grown up with it, as well as having the confessionless-absolution as part of our modern-day liturgy – simply do not see the point.

    It’s kind of an economic decision. Which is “cheaper” – to have to take time away from other things, talk about unpleasantries, and bare my soul to the pastor, or simply to come to church on Sunday and receive the very same forgiveness?

    I think the unintended consequence of the general confession and absolution is a cheapening of the sacrament itself – which is, to use Bonhoeffer’s term, a form of “cheap grace.”

    And yet, the confessions themselves implore us not to allow confession and absolution to “fall into disuse.” Luther tells us when he urges us to go to confession (which in his context meant nothing other than private confession and absolution), he is urging us “to be a Christian.” In fact, there are only six chief parts, and (private) confession and absolution is one sixth of the whole of the catechism!

    I think your analogies about doctors and therapists make the point beautifully – but until a person is truly burdened and crushed by a particular sin, I think the blessings of this most holy means of grace will be largely “in abstracto.”

    I’m afraid this is yet another detrimental “dropping” from the beast of Pietism, and our anti-incarnational, anti-sacramental Protestantized culture in America hasn’t helped either. Satan will use anything at his disposal to separate us from the blessings of God’s grace.

    You have to give the devil his due – he is clever.

  3. Daniel Skillman says:

    As I wonder what people are thinking in churches these days, the following thoughts come to mind:

    [Christianity today is about one’s private experience, unmediated, with God. I don’t need a pastor to “stand between me and God.” I can go to God on my own. I don’t think I need sacraments either. They’re nice, from time to time. They’re traditional. But, I don’t really need them. The bottom line is, I can go to God directly in prayer, and He comes to me directly there.]

    Now, I may be wrong about all this. This may not be what people are thinking. I suppose I should ask them. But then again, no. All I need to do is pray about it. Well, that’s what I’ve done, and God has told me what they’re thinking. After all, if God can tell me directly what He’s thinking, He can tell me what other people are thinking as well.

    In Christ,

  4. Rev. Thomas E. Fast says:

    Dear Pastor Beisel,

    Another interesting post, as usual.

    Just a couple of thoughts from me, fwiw.

    First of all, part of the problem in the LCMS is that we so emphasize what folks call “objective justification” that the bringing to bear on people the justifying Word of the Gospel gets relegated to the status of “unnecessary.”

    Second, I believe it is Loehe, in his tract on PCA, who goes even a step farther than you. You wonder why folks are comfortable confessing sins to a therapist and not to a pastor. Loehe wonders why folks are uncomfortable confessing sins to a pastor, but perfectly comfortable with committing those sins in full view of Almighty God Himself.

    I plead guilty, btw.

    Things that make you go..hmmmm.

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