Some of you (at least) may have noticed the statement on the back of the bulletin about a time set aside for Individual/Private Confession and Absolution. That statement has been there for nearly five years, and yet, in that time, I’ve had perhaps two or three people come whom I did not ask to come. There may be a number of reasons why that is true, but let me offer some thoughts about why I think people do not come.
First are the obvious ones: it seems like something only Roman Catholics would do (even though the statement on the bulletin quotes the [Lutheran] Augsburg Confession on why we retain Individual Confession and Absolution). Or, we’ve never done it before (even though the Small Catechism, which every single person used for confirmation instruction, explicitly discusses how to do it [see the Fifth Chief Part]). But those reasons, as powerfully ingrained as they may be, are really only superficial. A Roman Catholic, for example, would never mistake what we do for what they do. It is fundamentally different because of the unconditional nature of the Absolution.
No, from my own experiences as the one confessing, I think there is something more fundamental at work in the reasons why we do not want to confess our sins before the pastor and receive the Absolution he has been commanded by Christ to give (see John 20). We do not want to confess because we do not know what kind of God we will find there before the altar. That is, perhaps, because we do not know what pastors are for. We think of pastors as if they are hearing confession voluntarily, as if they think of it as something good, but optional—much as we think that confessing is good, but optional. But pastors do not hear confession and deliver the Absolution as something optional; they deliver it as the very Word of Jesus Christ, which is never optional. They must deliver that Absolution, or be unfaithful. They are not there as just another “listening ear;” they are not there to dispense good advice; they are not there as counselors, although they may do those things. They are there as the mouths that Jesus has put into this world to deliver the goods from His death and resurrection. Jesus does not consider the delivery of those goods optional! He must give it to you; otherwise you will either remain dead, or you will die. Along with the preaching of the Gospel and the Sacrament of the Altar, Absolution is the Word by which Jesus raises you from the dead.
Which brings us back to what kind of God you have when you come to confess and receive Absolution. You have the God whom you know only in Jesus your Savior. Though your old sinful flesh hates to have its sin exposed, though you think it would be better if no one knows what you’ve done, confession is good because you can no longer deny your sin when you’ve spoken it out loud. To confess it before another person keeps you from deceiving yourself about how good you are. To confess your sin out loud means you are literally out of control. To say your sin loud and clear is to say what God says about you outside of Jesus: I am deaf, blind, dead, and an enemy of God. But then, at the least likely point, when you know yourself to be completely and utterly sin-full, comes the Absolution—not to any and all, but to you: In the stead and by the command of my Lord Jesus Christ, I forgive you all your sins in the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. The risen Christ is in control, and He forgives you. Go in peace. You have nothing to fear; your sin is dead and gone. Hear this word—and live.
*St. Augustine (354-430 AD), Bishop of Hippo in North Africa, said, “For you I am a bishop [overseer]; with you I am a Christian.”