Your Pastor Is Not Your Therapist: Private Confession

Reading Time: 3 mins

Forgiveness of sins does not come in bits and pieces. There are no levels of forgiveness.

This is an excerpt from Chapter 48 in “Pastor Craft: Essays and Sermons” written by John T. Pless (1517 Publishing, 2021).

Only in the context of law-gospel preaching will the value of private confession be appreciated, and the gift of holy absolution be treasured. The practice of private confession is actually an extension of such preaching. Genuine evangelical preaching proclaims a “located God.” God is for us where he puts himself for us—in the water of baptism, in the body and blood present and distributed in the Lord’s Supper, and in the words proclaimed in the sermon and spoken in the absolution. It is not that the forgiving words proclaimed in the sermon are somehow less than the words of absolution spoken to the individual penitent. The gifts of Christ are never piecemeal. Forgiveness of sins does not come in bits and pieces. There are no levels of forgiveness. Rather, the Smalcald Articles confess that the gospel “offers counsel and help against sin in more than one way, for God is surpassingly rich in his grace” (SA III, IV, Tappert, 310). The forgiveness of sins proclaimed in the sermon is not to be played off against the forgiveness of sins proclaimed in absolution to the individual penitent. In the abundance of his merciful will to save sinners, God has given us both sermon and absolution. The great value of individual absolution is that in the words of absolution, God would give to the penitent the certainty that this forgiveness is indeed “for you.”

Following the example of Luther’s “A Brief Exhortation to Confession” in the Large Catechism, pastors will extol confession in their preaching: “Thus we teach what a wonderful, precious, and comforting thing confession is, and we urge that such a precious blessing should not be despised, especially when we consider our great need” (Tappert, 460). Very practically, this means that pastors ought to look for those places in the lectionary where the text invites (and yes, even compels) that we give exposition to the benefits of confession for the sake of the absolution. To begin with, pay special attention to the Sundays in Advent and Lent. The penitential seasons especially afford bountiful opportunities for the preacher to set before the congregation the blessings of confession and absolution. A midweek Lenten series on the penitential psalms or a series devoted to Psalm 51 alone would provide another opportunity to proclaim confession and absolution as the concrete expression of the life of repentance and faith.

Careful and continuous catechesis of confession and absolution is essential. Fortunately, the 1986 translation of the Small Catechism restores Luther’s “A Short Form of Confession” to the Fifth Chief Part. Here the catechist will follow the path of the catechism itself in teaching both what confession is and how confession is to be made. This catechization ought to continue in other contexts within the congregation, such as youth retreats, adult Bible classes, or study sessions built into regularly scheduled meetings of the board of elders and/ or the church council. Peter Bender’s Lutheran Catechesis and Harold Senkbeil’s Dying to Live: The Power of Forgiveness provide excellent and accessible material for such teaching. Jobst Schöne’s short monograph The Christological Character of the Office of the Ministry and the Royal Priesthood lends itself well for use as a study document with the board of elders or other lay leaders in the congregation in helping them to understand God’s ordering of the office of the ministry and the function of that office in delivering Christ’s forgiveness.

In catechizing his people, the pastor will make it clear that confession and absolution is the ordinary means of pastoral care in the church. It need not be reserved only for extraordinary circumstances or situations. Therefore it is salutary to establish and announce set times when the pastor will be available for confession and absolution.

Setting aside a period of time each week for confession and absolution has several advantages. First, it says to the congregation that confession and absolution is indeed a natural part of the church’s life and the ordinary means of pastoral care. Confession and absolution is not reserved for desperate cases or extraordinary expressions of sinfulness. Second, it provides an avenue for those who have never taken advantage of this gift to approach their pastor without awkwardness. Third, it reminds our people that confession and absolution is there for them. The weekly announcement in the church bulletin or on the sign in front of the building gently reminds parishioners of this gift. Knowing that confession and absolution is regularly offered often prompts people who do not come at the scheduled time to seek out confession and absolution at other times when they are pressed hard by their sin and tormented by Satan.

This is an excerpt from Chapter 48 in “Pastor Craft: Essays and Sermons” written by John T. Pless (1517 Publishing, 2021), pgs 293-295