In Article XXV of the Augsburg Confession, one of the documents that identifies us as Lutherans, it says:
Confession in the churches is not abolished among us… 2The people are very carefully taught about faith in the Absolution. Before, there was profound silence about faith. 3[But] our people are taught that they should highly prize the Absolution as being God’s voice and pronounced by God’s command.
Elsewhere in the Lutheran Confessions the absolution, or forgiveness, that is spoken by the pastor in the Divine Service or in private absolution is called the very voice of the Gospel itself. This means that when the pastor says, “In the stead and by command of my Lord Jesus Christ, I forgive you,” you are at that exact moment receiving forgiveness for your sins.
But by now I’ve already said a bad word, at least according to some Lutherans. Say the word, “confession,” and all sorts of images pop up. Images of confessional doors and awkwardness, the ideas of penance and obligation. It may surprise you that the Lutheran confessions do not abolish the practice of confession, but instead embrace it. But what we embrace is not the confession part, the part that we do, but the part God does – He forgives. It is for that reason we retain confession, for the sake of receiving absolution. We turn to the Fifth Chief Part of the Small Catechism, Confession and Absolution.
What is Confession?
Part of what makes our Lutheran minds cringe at the very word is that for such a long time the universal church had fallen out of Biblical practice. It was taught that confession had three parts: contrition, confession, and satisfaction. All three were works that man does. You become sorrowful over your sin, you confess it, and then you make amends for it. By adopting that practice the Church moved away from the teaching of Christ and robbed faithful Christians of the Gospel.
Instead of beginning and ending the process with the works of man, the Lutheran reformers sought to return the Church to the Biblical model of confession and absolution, which has only two parts: confession and absolution. That’s exactly what we learn in the Catechism. “What is Confession? Confession has two parts. First, that we confess our sins, and second, that we receive absolution, that is, forgiveness.” That’s it. No forced guilt, no obligation to go at least once a year, no works of satisfaction. In fact, if we wanted to be real technical: both parts are worked by God. Sorrow over sin comes through the preaching of God’s Law and absolution is through the death of Christ and is applied by Him through the mouth of the pastor.
But, let’s step back and put things straight. The order goes confession then absolution, just like Law, then Gospel. What sins should we confess? Before God, everything. We should plead guilty of all sins, even those we aren’t aware of. We actually do that in the Lord’s Prayer, too. In Psalm 19 King David confesses that no one can discern all his errors or hidden faults. We also admit with him that we were conceived and born in iniquity. Before God we should always plead guilty, but before our neighbor we should only confess those sins which we have committed against him. Jesus advocates that in Matthew 5, “So if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go. First be reconciled to your brother, and then come and offer your gift.”
These forms of confession we do fairly frequently. We confess in church often, confessing that we have sinned in things we do and things we don’t do. We usually ask forgiveness from those we offend and usually receive it. Now the one the scares us – confessing before a pastor. This is called private confession. We still have this because sometimes there are certain sins that weigh down heavy on your soul. We confess them in church, we maybe confess them to our neighbor, but they just stick in our heads and cause us endless grief. These are the sins that you can confess before the pastor and receive forgiveness for that specific sin. If you have a sin that is particularly bothering you, you can confess it to a pastor and be forgiven. In confession a pastor’s ear is a grave where the sin that is confessed dies and is buried. And then we rise to new life in Christ.
What is Absolution?
The second part of confession is absolution, forgiveness. Jesus sets this model, for example, in Matthew 11 when He says, “Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest.” “Come to me,” is the confession part, the part that we do. We are brought to repentance through the preaching of the Law. We realize that we sin in thought, word, and deed, and that we cannot save ourselves. Jesus urges us to come to Him, to confess our sins, and He gives restful forgiveness. Jesus also said, “Repent and believe in the gospel.” Two parts. We spoke this verse in the liturgy, “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.”
We confess our sins, and then we receive forgiveness. We learn in the Catechism how we should regard the forgiveness we hear in church. We should receive it from the pastor, “as from God Himself, not doubting, but firmly believing that by it our sins are forgiven before God in heaven.” When we confess our sins and receive absolution, we can know that a great burden is now lifted. The millstone of sin around our necks is lifted each and every time we hear those words, “In the stead and by the command of my Lord, Jesus Christ, I forgive you your sins.” By those words we can know where we stand before our heavenly Father. We are forgiven because of Christ and cleansed from all unrighteousness.
How can we be sure of this? It’s not because pastors are especially awesome and holy men who are closer to God and can say things like this. No, it’s because Christ has given the gift of forgiveness to the Church. This is what is called the Office of the Keys. In Matthew 16, in Matthew 18, in John 20, and in the Great Commission (Matthew 28), Jesus gives the church the authority to bind and loose sins. He says if we forgive anyone their sins they are forgiven, and if we do not forgive them, they are not forgiven. It’s called the Office of the Keys because forgiving sin is like opening heaven to believers in Christ while not forgiving the sins of those who do not repent is like closing the gates to them.
This is an authority that we all have as Christians. Christ gave the authority to forgive sins to the Church, but He also instituted the pastoral office. The pastoral office is a position distinct from the priesthood of all believers. It was instituted by Christ so that we may obtain the gift of faith and receive the forgiveness of sins. For that purpose Jesus called, and still calls, men to preach His Word, to teach it, to administer the sacraments and forgive sins in His name. That way we can be confident that when the pastor says, “I forgive you,” it’s not just the man saying these things, but it is Christ Himself who has called him to speak those words to us.
What is confession? Confession has two parts: first that we confess our sins, and second, that we receive forgiveness. This forgiveness comes freely as a gift flowing from Christ’s death on the cross as payment for our sins. We do not abolish confession, because to do so would be to silence the voice of the Gospel for poor sinners like us. Instead, we embrace it. We cherish absolution, that is, the forgiveness of our sin, knowing that through those words we receive it as from our Lord Himself.
 Paul Timothy McCain, ed., Concordia: The Lutheran Confessions (St. Louis, MO: Concordia Publishing House, 2005), 50.
 Lutheran Service Book, 326.
 The Holy Bible: English Standard Version (Wheaton: Standard Bible Society, 2001. Ps. 19:12
 Matt. 5:23-24.
 Mt. 11:28.
 Mk. 1:15.
 1 Jn. 1:9.
 Lutheran Service Book, pg. 326.