(watch here: https://youtu.be/-b4qNlwpALk)
This morning we return to our teachings from Luther as presented in his small and large catechisms. Recall that we’ve dedicated the 2nd Sunday of each month for the last several months to exploring Luther’s wisdom as a way of commemorating the church’s celebration of the 500th anniversary of the Reformation. All year long both Lutheran and Catholic churches have in one form or another reflected on the time in the Christian church’s history when it had abused its power and strayed from its primary purposes of serving and sharing God’s love with all people. The church of the early 16th century had become an oppressive, elitist institution that was no longer concerned with helping people. Luther and a handful of daring colleagues set about the difficult task of curbing the church’s many abuses and reforming it into its intended form as the body of Christ in this world. The church got back to focusing on service and love and we celebrate its re-formation 500 years later.
One of the tools used by the corrupted church to oppress its believers was through the ritual of confession. It is a ritual that we, as Lutherans, have for the most part removed from our daily living. Our seminaries no longer train clergy to properly receive confessions and offer absolutions. Because clergy are no longer trained, parishioners no longer feel compelled to give them. And seminaries no longer train clergy probably because they remember far too well the abuses associated with them by the pre-Reformation church. Indeed, there was a time when the church mandated that people give regularly confession of their sins. People were required to give a full account of their sins if they wanted to be considered faithful Christian believers. People were forced into confession…forced into recognizing their sins and asking for forgiveness for them. The clergy would invariably offer absolution but because coercion was used, people no long felt the joy of receiving God’s grace. There were hung up on being forced to do it in the first place, and rightly so! No one should be forced to do anything, especially by a church that espouses nothing but love and service. No, by forcing people into confessions the church drew the attention away from God’s awesome gift of grace and focused it on the sins themselves. After all, without the sins there would be no need for absolutions, or so the church taught at that time. Because of this, the sins took on a greater value than the absolutions when the church forced confessions out of its believers.
Coerced confessions won’t hold up in a court of law. It’s no wonder they won’t hold up in God’s church either! Luther saw how ineffective and unreliable confessions had become and worked to shift the value from the sins to God’s grace. He wanted us to be less concerned with what we do and more concerned with what God does. Luther didn’t want to get rid of confessions but rather to change our understanding of them. For too long, the church had taught that confessing sins was more important than receiving forgiveness. On the one hand it is true, one can’t receive forgiveness without confession. That is, we can’t understand forgiveness without acknowledging what it is we need forgiving. On the other hand, we aren’t necessarily guaranteed forgiveness through confession. Just because we acknowledge our sins doesn’t mean we have to receive forgiveness. No, forgiveness is a gift whether we ask for it or not. God’s grace is a gift whether we deserve or not. Forgiveness and grace are gifts, plain and simple. So how important is confession really? Surely no more important than God’s loving gifts!
By forcing coercions, the church placed disproportionate value on confession over forgiveness. Luther understood this as a great abuse and worked to place greater value on forgiveness. How? By reminding us of just how good forgiveness makes us feel. None of us likes to carry the burden of sin. We all sin and yet none us like the consequences of our sins. Sins lead to suffering and death. Sins take us away from joy and acceptance. Perhaps most importantly, sins separate us from God. And none of us like to be separated from God. None of us like living in sorrow and despair. We want to live and live abundantly. In order to do that, we must rely on God’s abundant grace. We must rely on God’s forgiveness. God’s grace and forgiveness enable us to live free of anxiety and fear. God’s grace and forgiveness free us of our bondage to sin and death. Is there any greater gift than God’s grace and forgiveness? No, of course not! Luther helped us to remember this. Confession isn’t about acknowledging sin as much as it is about receiving God’s great gift. As Luther notes, “we urge you, however, to confess and express your needs, not for the purpose of performing a work but to hear what God wants to say to you. The Word or absolution, I say, is what you should concentrate on, magnifying and cherishing it as a great and wonderful treasure to be accepted with all praise and gratitude.”
It is disheartening that our Lutheran churches have pulled away from the practice of confessions. Luther clearly saw great value in them despite the church’s misuse of them in his time. We need constant channels for God’s grace if we’re going to make it through this world. Confession isn’t about us, it’s about God. At its root, Luther understood confession as a means of living as a Christian. It enables us to die to ourselves and live in Christ. As we continue through this season of reflecting on the Reformation, let us be less critical of practices like confession. We all need to be regularly reminded of God’s love and grace. I’ll leave you with a closing thought from Luther: “Therefore, when I exhort you to go to confession, I am doing nothing but exhorting you to be a Christian…for those who really want to be upright Christians and free from their sins, and who want to have a joyful conscience, truly hunger and thirst already.”
In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.