'Many people might find it presumptuous, not to say blasphemous, for a human being to speak for God. And yet that’s what a pastor claims to be doing when, in the context of the rite of confession and absolution, she or he declares that a person’s sins are forgiven in the name of the Triune God.'
Nowadays when someone says, ‘Trust me,’ most people are immediately on their guard. In a scandal-ridden age, people are quick not to trust. This wasn’t always so. When the Pew Research Center’s National Election Study ‘began asking about trust in government in 1958, about three-quarters of Americans trusted the federal government to do the right thing almost always or most of the time.’ Imagine that kind of trust in one’s leaders. It might be difficult. Unsurprisingly, ‘since 2007 the shares saying they can trust the government always or most of the time has not surpassed thirty percent,’ and in mid-2022 only 21 percent of Americans could say so.[i]
Anecdotally, one can say that this is also true of business, the media, the church, higher education, etc. People simply don’t find the leaders or spokespersons of these institutions believable anymore. One does not need to think very hard to discover the reasons why.
When we find no one else trustworthy, we also experience a decline in our ability to trust even when trust is merited; we lose our capacity to take someone at their word and to act accordingly. And this is a huge problem for our societies and for our relationships. Each lie erodes the reservoir of our collective trust a little further. Each lie told affects the entire human family and not just one or two people. Conversely, when we tell truth, the truth about God and the truth about people, the amount of trust in the world increases.
Telling the truth always includes the simple facts, but it goes beyond the simple facts. There are situations when the truth can be used to hurt someone else, and it would be better not to speak what one knows to be true. If you want to know more about this, I suggest reading Martin Luther’s Large Catechism on the Eighth Commandment, ‘You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor.’[ii] But some of you will know the Small Catechism, where Luther explains the Eighth Commandment thusly:
We should fear and love God that we may not deceitfully belie, betray, slander, or defame our neighbor, but defend him, [think and] speak well of him, and put the best construction on everything. [iii]
Why this little sociological and catechetical meditation on trust? Last week we heard of the faith of the Canaanite woman that despite everything she might receive God’s mercy from the Lord Jesus. We heard how saying ‘I believe’ is not simply mental assent to an asserted fact, but a staking of one’s very soul on that in which one believes. And without this ability to trust and be trustworthy, one cannot be in relationship with God.
There is a specific place in our church’s worship where a pastor asks for unreserved trust. It is not something you hear every Sunday. In fact, it is not in our public worship services, but it is in our worship book. And if you’ll turn to page 196 in the front section of the green Lutheran Book of Worship in front of you, I’ll show you what I’m talking about.
If you’re at the hymn Praise the Lord, Rise Up Rejoicing, you’re in the wrong place. You need to be in the front section where the page numbers are on the bottom of the page.
‘Individual Confession and Forgiveness.’ How many of you knew that Lutherans had individual confession? Some of you. Luther never wanted to get rid of individual confession. He wanted to reform it. He wanted it not to be a rule to follow, but something of which a faithful Christian would make regular use for the benefit of the soul. But it has fallen out of practice among most Lutherans. And why not? Who wants to go tell one’s secrets to an authority figure, a representative of an institution?
But I digress. And I’m not going to go through the service word-for-word. The part I want to focus on is on page 197, where the pastor faces the penitent and says these words,
Do you believe that the word of forgiveness I speak to you comes from God himself?
And the penitent is to say, Yes, I believe.
Now that is an incredible exchange. Many people might find it presumptuous, not to say blasphemous, for a human being to speak for God. And yet that’s what a pastor claims to be doing when, in the context of the rite of confession and absolution, she or he declares that a person’s sins are forgiven in the name of the Triune God.
Note that the pastor’s own trustworthiness is not necessarily what is at stake here. I hope that I, with most pastors, are trustworthy, but in the liturgy here it says, Do you believe that the word of forgiveness I speak to you comes from God himself? Even if a pastor would be found out later to be an apostate or a hypocrite, one could still trust that pastor’s previously given word of absolution, because it was not the pastor’s word but God’s word.
Here in this liturgy of individual confession and forgiveness we have a direct link to what Jesus says to Peter in the Gospel reading: ‘I will give you the keys to the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.’ The keys to the kingdom of heaven are the words by which the Church proclaims both humanity’s bondage to sin and God’s merciful desire to forgive through the Lord Jesus Christ. In giving Peter and by extension the Church the words both to bind and loose people’s sins, Jesus entrusts the Church with the Gospel.
Why is the rite of individual confession and forgiveness so underutilized in the Lutheran Church? Perhaps it is the notion of privacy which I mentioned a short time ago. But perhaps it is also the notion that private confession is something that we left behind in the 16th century, that we can have God’s forgiveness without a priest if we know it in our heart. But while it is true that we can know of God’s forgiveness through the simple preaching of the Gospel, and that we are given a sure sign of God’s forgiveness in the Holy Eucharist, Martin Luther wanted to preserve private confession as a means of strengthening faith when people’s consciences were attacked.
is why he said in the catechism that Christians need not confess every sin
before the pastor, but only those of which they were aware and which troubled
He knew that there would be times when a person needed to hear the words directly
addressed to them that are entrusted to the Church by the Lord Jesus: ‘I
forgive you your sins.’ It is as true in the 21st century as it is was
in the 16th.
Of course, maybe one reason that individual confession and absolution is not really in use among us is that we generally have forgotten the antiquated notion that we are sinners in need of forgiveness. That’s part of the pastor’s job as well, to ‘bind’ sins as well, to judiciously tell the truth about people in general as well as each person in particular. I don’t even need to know you well to know you are a sinner and your need of repentance, and I don’t have to know you well to proclaim God’s forgiveness to you.
Jesus bequeathed the keys to Peter and the office of the keys, the binding and loosing of sins, the preaching of repentance and the declaring of absolution, continues to this day in the church. Because of this, when you have confessed your sins and I say to you, ‘Your sins are forgiven in God’s name,’ you can trust me that what the Church has loosed God has loosed as well. Because of what Jesus has done, the Messiah, the Son of the living God, we can trust in God’s word to us and live in joyful relationship with him now and forever. Amen
[i] Pew Research Center, ‘Public Trust in Government: 1958-2022:’ https://www.pewresearch.org/politics/2022/06/06/public-trust-in-government-1958-2022/