Teaching the Catechism: Confession

September 29, 2023 Phil Rigdon

What is Confession? Confession has two parts. First, that we confess our sins, and second, that we receive absolution, that is, forgiveness from the pastor as from God Himself, not doubting, but firmly believing that by it our sins are forgiven before God in heaven.

Beyond Feeling Sorry

Help students to understand that confessing our sins is more than merely feeling sorry for them or even apologizing. There are people all over the world who are not Christians and yet carry enormous burdens of shame for their sins as they understand them. Such a person may even ask for forgiveness from what he conceives of as “God.” This person may also intend to do better, and even make amends to those she has offended. Nevertheless, while the one, true God hears their words, the Almighty does not listen, for they are not confessing to God through faith in Jesus Christ. Furthermore, while God desires to forgive the sins of all, He only does so through faith in Jesus Christ which He creates through the work of the Holy Spirit in the Gospel. In other words, there is no forgiveness to be had through sorrow, intent, or making amends. God forgives for the sake of the perfect life, innocent death, and the victorious resurrection of Jesus Christ. 

Absolution Clings to Christ Alone

Christian absolution clings to Christ alone. This seems sufficiently clear and simple on its face. We know that we are not justified before God by works of the law or our own merits. However, the next time you seek absolution from God, ask yourself on what you are relying for God to be willing to forgive you. If there is anything else in my heart but Christ and His works for me, I court danger. I must set aside such thoughts as, “I am pretty good most of the time,” “I’ve been a Christian for many years,” “I was angry when I committed that sin,” “the other guy started the fight,” or other such notions. Perhaps less apparent is a hope of forgiveness based on God’s merciful, benevolent heart. Yes, God is merciful and benevolent. Yet, there is no forgiveness in God’s goodness without the fruit of that goodness—the atoning work of His Son.

What Should We Confess?

What sins should we confess? Before God we should plead guilty of all sins, even those we are not aware of, as we do in the Lord’s prayer; but before the pastor we should confess only those sins which we know and feel in our hearts.

Explain to students that whenever we sin, no matter what the sin is, we sin against God first and foremost. This is true even if we have sinned against another human, and perhaps hurt that person deeply. In this case, our sin hurt and offended two parties, God and the neighbor we sinned against. For example, if I love and trust money more than God in my heart and in my behavior, I have sinned against God by making money my idol. At the same time, I have set a poor example to those around me. If a parent fails to take his or her children to church, such a parent has sinned against the children but first and foremost against God.

This relates directly to what I wrote above regarding unbelievers. Those who don’t trust in Christ for salvation, upon sinning against other people, may zealously seek the forgiveness of those whom they have offended and indeed obtain it! Nevertheless, because they have not sought forgiveness from God for Jesus’ sake, they remain condemned. Even Christians fall into the trap of concerning themselves more with obtaining forgiveness from those they have offended than having forgiveness from God. This inversion of priorities is a form of idolatry. In idolatry, yes, we long for forgiveness from the One who can cast our souls into hell, but our real concern is making peace with our family and friends. 

Evaluate Your Heart

Which are these? Consider your place in life according to the Ten Commandments: Are you a father, mother, son, daughter, wife, or worker? Have you been disobedient, unfaithful, or lazy? Have you been hot-tempered, rude, quarrelsome? Have you hurt someone by your words or deeds? Have you stolen, been negligent, wasted anything, or done any harm?

If one reflects honestly upon these questions, what conclusion could he draw than that he is a wretched sinner! Indeed, we commit the sins listed above and do so in thought, word, and deed. Such a reflection could not but produce a contrite heart. Nevertheless, even such an unpleasantly complete reflection is for our good. When I realize my sorry state, understanding that I have nothing to stand on for forgiveness, I conclude rightly that I can but throw myself on God’s mercy in Jesus Christ. When I do, I find deep mercy, grace upon grace for the sake of Jesus Christ, my Lord and Savior. Our heavenly Father is pleased to forgive.

At Peace with God

This forgiveness brings with it peace and reconciliation with God. Standing firmly in a right relationship with God, I can endeavor to establish peace and reconciliation with those I have offended in sin. This may include making restitution as best we can. Sometimes establishing peace and reconciliation is not possible. The Lord calls us to make every effort for our part. Nevertheless, even if the other person will not reciprocate, we remain at peace with the Lord. We are free to work for peace with others in the sense that God’s forgiveness does not depend on other human beings but instead on the redeeming work of the Son, Jesus Christ, and the faith-creating ministry of the Holy Spirit. 


Quotes from Luther's Small Catechism with Explanation © 1986, 2017 CPH. All rights reserved.

Continue learning about Confession and Absolution in Luther’s catechisms. 

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