Notes on the Liturgy – Confession

This is part 3 of 22 in the series Notes on the Liturgy

(One of the goals of Brothers of John the Steadfast is to train the Brothers in good practice and theology. This article is one in a series that teaches about the liturgy.

These articles were initially intended to be put into bulletins or read during the service to educate the laity on the different parts of the service. They were therefore purposefully made short. Please use the comment section or email us to help us expand the series as appropriate, giving more information about each part of the liturgy.)

Notes on the Liturgy #3 — Confession

After the Invocation, we move to the confession. When we approach the most holy Lord Altar at Our Savior in Houston, TX in worship, it is appropriate that we confess our sins to Him and seek His forgiveness in absolution. We are reminded that sinful people only stand before God through the merits of Christ never by our own goodness. Indeed, the confession puts the hard truth of our situation plainly, “We are by nature sinful and unclean,” or “I a poor, miserable sinner.”

Note, the confession isn’t a confession of the sin of the day as if our problem wasn’t so bad so that with the proper amount of effort we could improve ourselves. Confession speaks to the heart of our problem. We are totally corrupt before God without Christ. We have no power to correct our problem because the heart of the human problem is the problem of the human heart. Christianity is not a self improvement program. It is about God doing for us what we cannot do for ourselves.

It is worth noting that when the Lutheran Confessions speak of Confession and Absolution they are primarily referring to private confession. Unfortunately this is not practiced in Lutheran churches as it once was, yet it is still available today (see LSB pg 292 or LW pg 310). You may contact your Lutheran pastor to set up a time for private confession. He is bound by oath not to reveal that which is spoken to him in the context of private Confession.

Notes on the Liturgy —


These notes were originally written in 2001 by Pastor David Oberdieck and have been edited.

About Norm Fisher

Norm was raised in the UCC in Connecticut, and like many fell away from the church after high school. With this background he saw it primarily as a service organization. On the miracle of his first child he came back to the church. On moving to Texas a few years later he found a home in Lutheranism when he was invited to a confessional church a half-hour away by our new neighbors.

He is one of those people who found a like mind in computers while in Middle School and has been programming ever since. He's responsible for many websites, including the Book of Concord,, and several other sites.

He has served the church in various positions, including financial secretary, sunday school teacher, elder, PTF board member, and choir member.

Norm has been involved behind the scenes in many of the "go-to" websites for Lutherans going back many years.


Notes on the Liturgy – Confession — 9 Comments

  1. Private confession seems kind of creepy, like some sort of perverse reality TV show. We won’t be able to enumerate our sins any more than Luther was able to, and the public absolution has covered all our sins. I’m already quite familiar with my sins. So what is its value and purpose?

  2. Twinkles,

    Our congregation offers private absolution once a week. The bulletin announcement of its availability helps teach what it is all about: “Take advantage of this opportunity to hear God’s Word of forgiveness spoken to you individually in Jesus’ Name.” Notice I called it private absolution…because that is the heart of the issue, confession is made for the sake of the absolution.

    Although we may have a week go by where no member shows up for the private absolution we offer this rite as a matter of principle. We are Lutherans. We follow the Lutheran Confessions. The Confessions state that it would be a wicked thing to let go the private absolution in the churches. Also, consider that it was precisley issues surrounding absolution (and its mispractice in terms of indulgences and conditional absolution dependent on the person’s works) that went to the core of the reason for the Lutheran Reformation. Here we have an opportunity to put our theology into practice for the sake of consciences.

    Also, your comment about a perverse reality TV show doesn’t seem accurate. Unlike a TV show no one else is watching, this is between the sinner and God…period. That is why as a pastor I took a vow NEVER to divulge the sins confessed to me. Not only does private absolution allow us to practice our theology of divine grace and our confession of the power of the Word of God…it also allows us to confess the Office entrusted with applying that Word to the Congregation. You will notice in the hymnal that the pastor asks the one making confession: “do you believe that my forgiveness is God’s forgiveness?” In short, the pastor–in his office–speaks for God. God’s verdict is precisely what consciences need to hear.

  3. Twinkles, the purpose is comfort. The point of it is not the endless enumeration of specific sins, but the blessed Holy Absolution, given personally to you – 100% pure unadulterated Gospel.

  4. Check out Pastor Harju’s blog at:

    He notes that in Matt 3:5-6, the people were confessing their “sins” not their “sinfulness.” I think his observation is profound.

    The Lutheran confessions are not arguing against confessing and enumerating specific sins (rather than “sinfulness”), rather the point that “enumeration is not necessary” is because of the mistaken notion that sins forgotten cannot be forgiven. Indeed, as the Psalmist asks, “who can remember all his sins?” But there are plenty we *can* remember.

    The “falling into disuse” of private confession that has happened is exactly what the Reformers feared would happen.

    This is the work of Satan. We need private confession and absolution. Notice in John 20:22-23, the apostles are to forgive or retain “sins” (again, not “sinfulness”). But how can the pastor determine whether or not to to forgive or retain the sins if we’re just talking about a vague general confession?

    I’m afraid the general confession has made us lazy and Satan has used it to deny people one of the holy sacraments and a tremendous source of the blessings of the Gospel he specifically gave the apostles.

  5. Pr. Beane:

    Thanks for the reminder of the historical/theological background to our Confessional stance and for pointing us, via Pr. Harju, to the biblical basis that grounds both our confession and our practice.

  6. I have two questions:

    I have some old hymnals and have not found the Absolution “Upon this your confession . . . I forgive you all your sins, etc.” in any hymnal but TLH and its successors. When did this Absolution first appear?

    Secondly, do any other churches use a similar full and complete absolution as confessional Lutherans do? I have never heard of a single one. Either they don’t do it or it is made contingent upon us doing satisfaction.

  7. After a long conversation with a Reformed Baptist pastor earlier today, I believe this is becomming a practice in their churches. They seem to think that there is more of value they can learn from us Lutherans than there is that they can learn from Evangelicals and even conservative Presbyterians (other 5-point Calvinists).

    David, in one of the psalms, points out how valuable it is to openly confess our sins. It is my experience that when we “confess them to God in our hearts,” that we are really deceiving ourselves and are just talking to our consciences. Deep down we are still pretty convinced that somehow God doesn’t really know yet. The God in our hearts is often little more than an idol. God came in human flesh and bone, and He continues to speak to us and listen to us through men in the public office. This method by-passes the secret idols of our hearts.

    In the Small Catechism Luther said that Baptism with water indicated the daily drowning of the old man as we confess our sins and receive absolution. I am convinced he was speaking of more than just doing this between God and ourselves in the privacy of our bedrooms and thoughts, but actually confession to our pastors. Nothing crushes the old flesh in us more than his/her sins being exposed. It strips away the fig leaves of self-justification. Then we are ready to be clothed with the new garment of the righeousness of Christ, which we receive in the absolution. This drowns and buries the old man with all his sins and strengthens the new man in faith and righteousness. Sins confessed in this way are much less likely to be repeated five minutes later, and as they are repeatedly confessed, they eventually go away.

    This, of course, does not make us better people, although your family is likely to think so. The experience of every Christian who has ever practiced this is that as we become outwardly better, inwardly we are able to see even more sins than we could before. The result is often the feeling of making no progress at all, which is as it should be. Otherwise, we might think that we were getting less sinful and thus less in need of fogiveness, which will never happen.

    It is “creepy” because your flesh absolutely does not want to do this. Your flesh does not want to be drowned, does not want to be exposed, does not want to be found out. All of these are reasons why you should do it, rather than reasons not to. Of course you can never enumerate all your sins, but, as has been said before, there are plenty that you do know and feel, and these you should confess to your pastor.

    I have introduced this idea to a congregaion who had never heard of such a thing. A handful have taken advantage of it, and they all said that afterward they felt like a huge load had been taken off their shoulders. Unfortunately, none of them have had the courage to tell others how valuable it was for them.

    You pastor is not only under oath, but when listening to your confession, he is not even supposed to remember what you said, because it is really between you and God, and the pastor is just there as an earpiece and a mouthpiece. A professor at seminary made a wonderful statement about how a pastor should respond if ever asked to divulge in court something confessed to him. “Nothing was confessed to me, she was talking to God. I was just there as a human telephone.”

    Confession helps the pastor know how to apply the Gospel in a special way to you, but other than that, should have no impact on your relationship with him. However, although he is in the office of the Holy Ministry, and is under oath, he is also a sinner, and may have reations that he will also have to confess to his “pastor”. Once he does so, thing should return to their proper relationships. But, even if your pastor proves to be quit sinful in this area, continue to confess, as the bennifits of absolution to you far outweigh the consequences of either your sin or his.

  8. First, to answer Twinkles, you stated that “I’m already quite familiar with my sins.” That’s part of the point of private confession. There are some sins that torment us in spite of the general confession and absolution of the Divine Service. Think about that deep, dark sin that you’d never tell your spouse and/or that sin that you do over and over again and just can’t seem to stop. It’s for sins such as these, as well as sins that you just can’t shake the guilt over that private confession is truly a benefit. If you’re not sure of its value, you’ve probably never experienced this gift yourself. I have never known “…the peace which surpasses all human understanding…” better than after I have been through this special rite (and dare I even say, sacrament?).

    As far as Confession/Absolution goes in the Divine Service, this is setting the rhythm of the liturgy and worship service. We have come into the very presence of the Triune God, and we are faced with His utter and perfect holiness. There is nothing that we poor miserable sinners can do in the face of such perfection but fall on our knees in humble repentance. Just look at any appearance of even an angel in the Scriptures, and see how the human being visited responds to holiness. They drop to their knees (something else that I think we have given up and should not have). This is the Law hitting us square between the eyes, and all we can do is respond in the way that Isaiah did. “Woe is me! I am a man of unclean lips…”

    After we have confessed, the service continues with the sweetness of the Gospel. The Lord’s representative, His substitute, the pastor, speaks for Him, and forgives your sins by His command and with His authority. After we have been cleansed of our sins, then we can enter into His presence with thanksgiving usually with the words of the Introit.

    The pastor’s movements in the chancel can reflect this humility as well. When the confession happens, the pastor is outside of the communion rail altogether, preferably on the main floor to be part of the congregation. He kneels for the confession itself, and when he pronounces the absolution he stands inside of the rail to be the voice of God for those sweet words of Gospel. Then, when the Introit is spoken or chanted, the pastor enters into the communion rail for the remainder of the service.

  9. Pastor Mathey wrote in another thread:
    “Am I really supposed to be a pastor? Is it time to stop holding out for a call? Should I move on to do something else with my life…”

    Based on your comments above, I would be delighted if you would remain a pastor, and deeply saddened if you did not. I will certainly pray that a call comes for you.

    Thank you Pastors Mathey and Stout for your excellent insights!

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