A Sinner’s Guide to Confession of Sin

Anyone who has even a surface level knowledge about the medieval reformation knows about Luther’s posting of the 95 theses.  The 16th Century Roman Catholic Church was involved in many practices contrary to the Scriptures and many mark the nailing of the 95 theses on the church door in Wittenburg, Germany as the beginning of the Reformation.   However, many of us know very little about the 95 theses or what they said and some might find it surprising to know that Lutheran pastors and theologians don’t subscribe to the teachings of the 95 theses, but only to the teachings found in the Book of Concord.  When Luther nailed the 95 theses, he was a very young theologian and as he grew in understanding he clarified many of his teachings.  But the very first of the 95 theses addressed what was truly at the heart and center of the reformation and it is certainly applicable today. “When our Lord and Master, Jesus Christ, said ‘Repent’, He called for the entire life of believers to be one of repentance.”

What this first thesis called for was a repentance of the heart, not a doing or action of an individual.  Repentance is not about doing this or doing that so you can obtain forgiveness of sins.  Repentance is a condition of the heart before God.  Furthermore, this first thesis teaches that repentance is not an event in history.  This is again becoming a common idea in Christian churches today.  That is the idea that repentance is something you do when you become a Christian, or something you do only when you’ve slipped up in a bad way.  As if repentance is the emergency button you push only when you’re in trouble, but you’re doing fine otherwise.  No, Luther teaches that repentance is a way of life.  The Christian’s entire life is one of repentance.  It isn’t a condition that we oscillate in and out of as needed; it is a constant state of being.  We don’t move in and out of repentance because the Christian doesn’t move in and out of sin, nor does he move in and out of faith.

As long as you are alive and have flesh and blood, there is never a time that a person can say, “I have no sin.”  Our sinfulness isn’t like a checklist of things you’ve done that day that you can at some point in the day say, “There’s nothing on my checklist.”  Our sinfulness is more like a disease that you’ve been born with.  This disease manifests itself through certain symptoms (specific transgressions against the 10 commandments), but there is nothing you can do to rid yourself of this disease.  No matter who you are or where you are, this disease of sin still clings to you.  So there is always reason to be in a state of repentance for our sinful nature and for specific manifestations of that sinful nature.  Therefore, repentance is not what we do, but rather a state of the heart where our faith in God and our sinful nature collide.  Having been given the gift of faith by God, we despair of our own sinful lives and receive forgiveness from God for the sake of Christ.

In Luther’s Small Catechism, Luther says, “Confession has two parts.  First, that we confess our sins, and second, that we receive absolution, this 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.”  Of course, Luther is not saying here that one can only receive forgiveness through the pastor, as if you can’t pray in bed at night asking God for forgiveness.  But the fact of the matter is, when you lay in your bed at night asking God for forgiveness, how do you know that He does?  The wonderful gift that the Lord has given the church is the gift of absolution.  He gives to us a pastor who speaks in the stead and by the command of Christ to forgive your sins.  God wants you to have absolute certainty that all of your sins are forgiven for the sake of Christ’s death on the cross.

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