Here is another guest article on the proposed revisions to the Catechism:
Critical scholars doubt that Luther wrote the Office of the Keys. No such doubt exists for Confession; yet, this part remains unknown and unused by Lutherans. In a way, the stakes are highest for this part of the committee’s work. I’m delighted by the work they’ve done.
The questions are largely unchanged from the 1991 An Explanation, but the new “central thought” which prefaces them is excellent. The first question sets this unused gift of Individual Confession in contrast to the many common substitutes our world has invented. I like having the Keys (with Jn 20:22–23) come before Confession, though admittedly this obscures Luther’s flow from Baptism IV (indicates daily repentance) to Confession (here’s what that looks like, most concretely). The rest of the “Central Thought” bridges that gap well. My only quibble is that Luther’s powerful statement, “When I urge you to Confession, I’m simply urging you to be a Christian” (LC, Brief Exhortation 32), gets bumped lower.
The Scriptural support passages now appear in order of importance (rather than canonical). Though they are rearranged in places, it still seems that some passages only generally apply to the points they support. I do not see this as a deficiency (either in the materials or in our doctrine!); rather, it demonstrates the overarching point that ought to be made: Repentance is the ordinary Christian life; Individual Confession and Absolution stands in the midst of it, every bit as “ordinary.” This is simply the most concrete and concentrated form of this every-day repentance. The Scriptures never command it as such; they everywhere exhort Christians to confess their sins and, likewise, announce, urge, and extoll the absolution, or Gospel. Luther was confident these will lead Christians to seek out their pastor to “hear my confession and pronounce forgiveness in order to fulfill God’s will.”
The newly written answers are rich and reflect the language of the Catechism’s own questions and answers excellently. The following comments are offered largely as a strengthening of what is proposed:
316: This has clearly taken Luther’s comment to heart, connecting general confession before God with the Fifth Petition. In fact, it seems to view this confession exclusively in the realm of “our prayers.” The Missouri Synod also practices a public General Confession in our orders of Divine Service. (Admittedly, this beloved practice plays a bit loose with the catechism’s distinction between “general before God” and “particular before pastor”). It may be helpful, therefore, to include mention of General Confession as another example of “pleading guilty of all sins,” though none in particular.
318: Beside the many fears, excuses, and substitutes contributing to the tragic decline of Individual Confession, there is also the myth that it is an emergency measure only for gross, “mountain top” sins. It has often been implied that this part of the catechism will probably (even hopefully!) never be needed, but it’s here if you ever do “something really bad.” Christ’s Absolution will always be able to handle the “really bad” (i.e., “when we are deeply troubled by our sin and its consequences in our lives”); but the text of the Catechism, wisely, never leaps to the extraordinary. Luther says plainly, this concrete form of repentance (i.e., being a Christian) is precisely for everyday sins like laziness, quarreling, or indecent words—”ordinary” sins. I’d like to see this answer brought in line better with Luther and with its own “Central Thought.”As proposed, it could well perpetuate the “extreme cases only” myth and worse, be taken to exclude a penitent’s confession that they are cold and indifferent to the sins they are confessing and their consequences.
319: The question now adds, “what is the second part of confession before the pastor?” (Compare with the 1991 An Explanation, Q 265). The proposed revision’s change illustrates a key difference between Confession before the pastor and before God in prayer: the Absolution is not heard in one’s prayers. The one who has faith in the Lord’s mercy goes home justified, no doubt (Lk 18:9–14); but such faith comes by hearing (Rom 10:17). Contrition and Confession do not trigger forgiveness or create faith. The Word of the Gospel does these things. That is why the Lord gives the keys and the absolution as His first order of business alive out of the tomb (Jn 20); that is why Christians come running to this fifth Chief Part. The proposed revision is wonderfully and subtly crafted to reveal this and urge the Christian to seek their pastor out while diffusing two common errors: pitting general confession against individual, and pitting objective justification against subjective. (Consider how appropriate the new Scripture passage 2 Corinthians 5:18 is!)
321: I would love to assuage the reluctant penitent’s chief fear with the firm, “Yes” your confession is confidential, as the proposed revision does; but it’s simply not true. The penitent can’t be sure and certain their pastor will not be wicked and repeat their sins—not with the sort of certainty this chief part concerns, namely, the certainty of the absolution. The language of human “assurances” from the 1991 An Explanation (cf. Q 267) might be recovered. A pastor is expected to be above reproach (1 Tm 3:1–2, also omitted in the revision). If he is godly, he will have his own confessor, will believe that the Lord puts sin away “as far as east from west,” will fear sin, temptation, and hell, and will know that the man who digs another’s sins up again ought to bear them himself. If he is wicked, he will at least know that breaching his ordination vow is grounds for removal. These all should be taught and may “assure” a penitent, but none of it is a guarantee. There is always a risk with sinners. The confidence to steel a Christian for making confession can’t be placed in their pastor, but in the absolution—and it alone. God’s promise never fails. Being right with Him is greater than any of the blessings of merciful privacy which Individual Confession to your pastor offers. Jesus’ words can’t be undone: My grace is sufficient for you—sufficient even if your pastor is wicked and blabs, which he might. I will not fear what man may do to me (Ps 56:10–13).
322: We retain Confession for the sake of the Absolution. The emphasis falls there, as it should. Confession has benefits of its own also, and I’d like to see the proposed revision devote a bit more to these. Individual Confession, as the Lutheran Church retains it, is mercifully private—a “safe place” if ever there is one (see above…). The proposed revision notes also that the sins “are no longer carried alone.” Perhaps something more could help to distinguish this service from the “ventings,” “confidings,” “personal testimonials,” and many other deficient substitutes our world is already using—none of which end in the Absolution we prize. The particular benefit of Confession is telling the truth. We need to stop being silent (Ps 32:3, 5) both because we cannot “carry it alone” (proposed) and because we refuse to believe it is really true until we are forced to hear it coming out of our own mouths. Rom 3 (quoting Ps 51) puts the declaration of God’s truth into our mouths—over against our sin and lies. Christians justify God in His own Words (the Law) when they confess their sin. Such is the victory (νικήσεις, Rom 3:4b) the Holy Spirit wins in us when He brings the penitent to confess. The Lord desires truth in the inward being (Ps 51:6)—even the truth of our iniquity—and is praised by that confession. No wonder the Scriptures use as a synonym for confession of sin, “giving glory to God” (Jo 7:19; Jer 13:16). He then has a Word of sheer grace for us: He justifies us by His Word of absolution on account of Christ.
I thank God that this proposed revision exhibits intentional effort to recover this “voice of the Gospel, so salutary in every way” (Ap XII, 2), which has lain silent for so long in our churches. There is no hint of the attitude that often plagues this chief part: “the important thing to know about Confession is that you don’t have to do it, and probably never will.” I would love to see the committee strengthen their work even further to accord with the “Central Thought” they’ve tried to express: Individual Confession and Absolution is as ordinary for Christians as daily repentance itself (since it is nothing other than an exercise of it) and the absolution is worth any risk, sufficient to calm any fear.
(Hey you, reader: grab your confessor by the ear—be a Christian!)
Rev. Sean Daenzer
Peace Lutheran Church, Barney, ND, and
Trinity Lutheran Church, Great Bend, ND