"Private confession is a Roman Catholic thing." Not according to Luther. He said, "When I urge you to go to confession, I am simply urging you to be a Christian" (Large Catechism). Thus, private confession and absolution is a very Christian thing. According to the Small Catechism, it ranks among the six most essential parts of the Christian faith. Perhaps because of its disuse, many Lutherans find it difficult to understand the role it might play in our lives. It is good then to look at this special gift of private confession and absolution.
Confession and absolution is found throughout Scriptures. We use these Scriptures frequently in our liturgies. On page 15 of The Lutheran Hymnal (TLH), we say "I said I will confess my sins unto the Lord and thou forgavest the iniquity of my sin" (Psalm 32:5). On page 158 of Lutheran Worship (LW), we say, "If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, He is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness" ( 1 John 1:9). In the Order of the Confessional Service (p. 46, TLH) there are references to "King David, who prayed for a contrite heart; Peter, who wept bitterly; the sinful woman; the prodigal son and others" all of whom confessed and were subsequently absolved of their sin. Scripture repeatedly teaches us of our need to confess our sin so that we might be absolved. David, as one example, committed the sin of adultery and murder. He confessed his sin to Nathan, saying, "I have sinned against the Lord." Nathan pronounced absolution, saying "The LORD also has put away your sin; you shall not die" (2 Samuel 12:13).
When the Book of Concord speaks about confession and absolution, it always means private confession and absolution. The Lutheran fathers regarded this matter so highly that, in some places, they referred to it as a sacrament. Thus the Apology of the Augsburg Confession states, "Therefore Baptism, the Lord's Supper, and Absolution, which is the Sacrament of Repentance, are truly sacraments. For these rites have God's command and the promise of grace, which is peculiar to the New Testament" (Ap. XIII.4). Rather than considering private confession and absolution optional, the Lutheran confessions describe them as essential aspects of the church. The Augsburg Confession states, "(Our churches) teach that private Absolution ought to be retained in the churches, although in confession an enumeration of all sins is not necessary" (AC XI: Of Confession). Also, "Confession in the churches is not abolished among us; for it is not usual to give the body of the Lord, except to them that have been previously examined and absolved" (AC XXV.1-6).
Perhaps the strongest injunction to retain private confession and absolution comes from the Apology of the Augsburg Confession where we read, "For we also retain confession, especially on account of the absolution, as being the Word of God which, by divine authority, the power of the keys pronounces upon the individuals. Therefore it would be wicked to remove private absolution from the Church" (Ap. VI:4-6).
In the Lutheran church, the emphasis on confession and absolution is never placed on confession—listing all the sins one has committed. The emphasis is always on absolution—the forgiveness which Christ Himself won for us by His suffering and death on the cross. In absolution we have a wonderful gift from Christ. By it we can hear with our own ears and know in our hearts that, as our sins have been forgiven here on earth by our pastor, they are just as surely forgiven before our Lord in heaven. The Small Catechism teaches us, "Confession has two parts. One is that we confess our sins and the other, 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."