Sometimes I am asked why we have the Confession and Absolution(C/A) as part of every divine service (this does not include Martins, Vespers, midweek, etc.). Sometimes the question reflects an attitude of offense: “I haven’t been that bad.” Or indifference: “It doesn’t seem to add much to the service.” Whether it is offense, indifference, or ignorance, it is not a bad question. It forces us to wrestle with why exactly do we include C/A in every service.
I respond that each of us comes to worship with different experiences. Some of us have had a relatively good week; the wife is happy, the kids are okay, and I didn’t even yell at the dog. The implication is that Confession forces me to do something that doesn’t apply to me, at least today. The reality, however, is that no matter how we view how well our week went we have indeed sinned. If not the “big, outward sins” then at the very least, pride in that fact that “I am not THAT bad (this week).” Confession forces us to come to grips with who we really are, “poor sinful humans” who through even one sinful act, through one sinful thought, through one sinful word deserve God’s wrath (James 2:10). Even deeper, even if I cannot identify one actual sin, my sinful self does not want to accept the truth of what I am, a poor sinner before a just and holy God. We join the Pharisee who stated “Thank God I am not like other people” (Luke 18:11). Confession may not be pleasant, but it is necessary. It puts every person at the same level, accused and condemned before God. Unless we have seen ourselves condemned under the Law we cannot hear the Gospel.
The other side of C/A is also critical; that is, the forgiveness of sins achieved because of what Christ has done is not only announced but declared. In speech-act theory this is called “performative speech,” that is, by speaking the words, it accomplishes what it says. When the pastor declares “I forgive you your sins in the name of Jesus Christ,” he is not giving you good information, but the very words are giving what they say, the forgiveness of sins.
This is critical for the person who comes to worship and has been “beaten up by life.” This person is only too familiar with the accusations of the Law, and repeated in the Confession. She may be so overwhelmed by this that she might be tempted to think that “this forgiveness is nice, but it must not be for someone like me.” While we put many faces on exterior, it is often astounding to realize how many people feel this way. We join the Publican unable even to lift our eyes to heaven and mumble, “God be merciful to me, the sinner!” (Luke 18:13). Now the declarative nature of the forgiveness comes to forefront. As the pastor speaks the words God actually forgives the person. This is not information or Bible class material, but words of life, hope, and comfort. God has forgiven your sins — right now!
I encourage people not to rush through either aspect of Confession and Absolution. It is appropriate to take a time of silence to reflect on our sins, to see how horrible we are before God. But even more important to be brought back to life through the Gospel, “your sins are forgiven!” This transform us to move into our hymn(s) of praise so that we can praise God with forgiven, renewed, and restored hearts that truly desire to sing praises to our God.