Article XI: Of Confession.
1] Of Confession they teach that Private Absolution ought to be retained in the churches, although in confession 2] an enumeration of all sins is not necessary. For it is impossible according to the Psalm: Who can understand his errors? Ps. 19:12.
In our day and age Corporate Confession is far more the norm than the seldom-used Private Confession. Both are highly laudable practices, for one can hardly say no to more proclamation of the Gospel. Still, to our modern sensibilities, going to Private Confession is a daunting task. To tell a pastor your deepest, darkest sins is frightening if only for the fact that verbally admitting your specific guilt is more damning than the general confession. However, there lies the greatest benefit for Private Confession. Not in the psychological, cathartic release that comes with admitting sin. No, the benefit is that the pastor is able to apply the Absolution to the specific sin confessed, as well as deal with the questions of spiritual warfare and welfare that come up with these sins. Sins confessed in Private Confession are typically the deepest, most heinous sins we hold to habitually. They are the sins we are most prone to, the sins we most cling to, and frankly the sins we are most ashamed of.
But this is our comfort: Christ died even for these sins, and God desires us to know that, for Christ’s sake, our sin is forgiven. God counts such faith that trusts Jesus to forgive sins as righteousness. In the rite for Private Confession and Absolution, the penitent also says the words, “I’m sorry for all this and ask for grace. I want to do better.” This is neither idle nor only ideal speech. As a regenerate child of God, with the help of the Holy Spirit, a Christian does (weakly and feebly) cooperate with the Holy Spirit to accomplish good works. The Christian can overcome temptations to sin. It is the task of the pastor, as a called and ordained servant of Christ, to teach the Word of God with precision such that the cancer of sin is identified, the healing salve of the Gospel, the Absolution, applied, and the New Obedience of the Christian described. The Word of God forgives sins and transforms our hearts, and for all of this, Private Confession and Absolution should not only be retained but encouraged.
As to what to admit to in Private Confession, we do not have to list all the sins we have committed but rather those troubling us. We give blanket statements for the rest, as in the Corporate Confession. This is because we do not fully comprehend our sinfulness nor do we recall all the sins that we commit (Psalm 19).
The Confutation agrees with this but puts a rule that one do so at least once a year and that all sins that one remembered must be recounted. The list of sins one had committed comes after self-reflection and tallying of sins.
Regarding the frequency of Private Confession, Melancthon writes:
58] The Eleventh Article, Of Retaining Absolution in the Church, is approved. But they add a correction in reference to confession, namely, that the regulation headed, Omnis Utriusque, be observed, and that both annual confession be made, and, although all sins cannot be enumerated, nevertheless diligence be employed in order that they be recollected, and those which can be recalled, be recounted. Concerning this entire article, we will speak at greater length after a while, when we will explain our entire opinion concerning repentance. 59] It is well known that we have so elucidated and extolled [that we have preached, written, and taught in a, manner so Christian, correct, and pure] the benefit of absolution and the power of the keys that many distressed consciences have derived consolation from our doctrine; after they heard that it is the command of God, nay, rather the very voice of the Gospel, that we should believe the absolution, and regard it as certain that the remission of sins is freely granted us for Christ’s sake; and that we should believe that by this faith we are truly reconciled to God [as though we heard a voice from heaven]. This belief has encouraged many godly minds, and, in the beginning, brought Luther the highest commendation from all good men, since it shows consciences sure and firm consolation; because previously the entire power of absolution [entire necessary doctrine of repentance] had been kept suppressed by doctrines concerning works, since the sophists and monks taught nothing of faith and free remission [but pointed men to their own works, from which nothing but despair enters alarmed consciences].
60] But with respect to the time, certainly most men in our churches use the Sacraments, absolution and the Lord’s Supper, frequently in a year. And those who teach of the worth and fruits of the Sacraments speak in such a manner as to invite the people to use the Sacraments frequently. For concerning this subject there are many things extant written by our theologians in such a manner that the adversaries, if they are good men, will undoubtedly approve and 61] praise them. Excommunication is also pronounced against the openly wicked [those who live in manifest vices, fornication, adultery, etc.] and the despisers of the Sacraments. These things are thus done both according to the Gospel and according to 62] the old canons. But a fixed time is not prescribed, because all are not ready in like manner at the same time. Yea, if all are to come at the same time, they cannot be heard and instructed in order [so diligently]. And the old canons and Fathers do not appoint a fixed time. The canon speaks only thus: If any enter the Church and be found never to commune, let them be admonished that, if they do not commune, they come to repentance. If they commune [if they wish to be regarded as Christians], let them not be expelled; if they fail to do so, let them be excommunicated. Christ [Paul] says, 1 Cor. 11:29, that those who eat unworthily eat judgment to themselves. The pastors, accordingly, do not compel those who are not qualified to use the Sacraments.
Notice the connection here to Holy Communion. It is assumed that Christians will either use Confession or the Lord’s Supper. Preferably both.
On the topic of how many sins to confess Melancthon writes:
63] Concerning the enumeration of sins in confession, men are taught in such a way as not to ensnare their consciences. Although it is of advantage to accustom inexperienced men to enumerate some things [which worry them], in order that they may be the more readily taught, yet we are now discussing what is necessary according to divine Law. Therefore, the adversaries ought not to cite for us the regulation Omnis Utriusque, which is not unknown to us, but they ought to show from the divine Law that an enumeration of sins is necessary for obtaining their remission. 64] The entire Church, throughout all Europe, knows what sort of snares this point of the regulation, which commands that all sins be confessed, has cast upon consciences. Neither has the text by itself as much disadvantage as was afterwards added by the Summists, who collect the circumstances of the sins. What labyrinths were there! How great a torture for the best minds! For the licentious and profane were in no way moved by these instruments of terror. 65] Afterwards, what tragedies [what jealousy and hatred] did the questions concerning one’s own priest excite among the pastors and brethren [monks of various orders], who then were by no means brethren when they were warring concerning jurisdiction of confessions! [For all brotherliness, all friendship, ceased, when the question was concerning authority and confessor’s fees.] We, therefore, believe that, according to divine Law, the enumeration of sins is not necessary. This also is pleasing to Panormitanus and very many other learned jurisconsults. Nor do we wish to impose necessity upon the consciences of our people by the regulation Omnis Utriusque, of which we judge, just as of other human traditions, that they are not acts of worship necessary for justification. And this regulation commands an impossible matter, that we should confess all sins. It is evident, however, that most sins we neither remember nor understand [nor do we indeed even see the greatest sins], according to Ps. 19:13: Who can understand his errors?
66] If the pastors are good men, they will know how far it is of advantage to examine [the young and otherwise] inexperienced persons; but we do not wish to sanction the torture [the tyranny of consciences] of the Summists, which notwithstanding would have been less intolerable if they had added one word concerning faith, which comforts and encourages consciences. Now, concerning this faith, which obtains the remission of sins, there is not a syllable in so great a mass of regulations, glosses, summaries, books of confession. Christ is nowhere read there. [Nobody will there read a word by which he could learn to know Christ, or what Christ is.] Only the lists of sins are read [to the end of gathering and accumulating sins; and this would be of some value if they understood those sins which God regards as such]. And the greater part is occupied with sins against human traditions, 67] and this is most vain. This doctrine has forced to despair many, godly minds, which were not able to find rest, because they believed that by divine Law an enumeration was necessary, and yet they experienced that it was impossible. But other faults of no less moment inhere in the doctrine of the adversaries concerning repentance, which we will now recount.
The reformers concern here is the comfort of consciences. As you can see from the Apology much distress was caused by demanding that all sins that one remembered be confessed. This certainly plagued Luther who would even go so far as to make up sins to confess. This is because one does not assess their own sinfulness properly, either manufacturing sins where there are none or by not confessing actual sin, thinking it not to be so. To forestall this, the Reformers want only those sins that plague the conscience to be confessed specifically, and not to rake the person confessing over the coals, thinking they have not confessed everything. For everything else, we have the general confession, and the Absolution covers both known and unknown sins. Mind you, this does not mean we do not call people to repentance over sins that they do not recognize; rather, we do not torture consciences who are truly penitent of sin, both known and unknown.
1 From depths of woe I cry to Thee,
In trial and tribulation;
Bend down Thy gracious ear to me,
Lord, hear my supplication.
If Thou rememb’rest ev’ry sin,
Who then could heaven ever win
Or stand before Thy presence?
2 Thy love and grace alone avail
To blot out my transgression;
The best and holiest deeds must fail
To break sin’s dread oppression.
Before Thee none can boasting stand,
But all must fear Thy strict demand
And live alone by mercy.
3 Therefore my hope is in the Lord
And not in mine own merit;
It rests upon His faithful Word
To them of contrite spirit
That He is merciful and just;
This is my comfort and my trust.
His help I wait with patience.
4 And though it tarry through the night
And till the morning waken,
My heart shall never doubt His might
Nor count itself forsaken.
O Israel, trust in God your Lord.
Born of the Spirit and the Word,
Now wait for His appearing.
5 Though great our sins, yet greater still
Is God’s abundant favor;
His hand of mercy never will
Abandon us, nor waver.
Our shepherd good and true is He,
Who will at last His Israel free
From all their sin and sorrow.