What Luther Says to this Confessional Age

Article by   October 2014
We live in a confessional age. Not in the good sense of, say, the Westminster Confession or of principled Presbyterianism. Rather, the grim cult of counterfeit authenticity seems to mean that every scoundrel and charlatan can find absolution for their sins simply by declaring them in public. We have come to expect this from Hollywood stars and politicians but it has started to make inroads into a Christianity which has been subject to the corrosive effects of sentimental emotivism and had its tastes shaped by an age which loves to excuse its excesses. Putting on a hang-dog expression and clearing your throat with a 'I broke this and that commandment' are now apparently the only preparation needed before opining on anything as a moral authority.  Even those of more personal integrity are scarcely immune to this plague of humble self-promotion. Some pastors seem to think that the pulpit (or the plexiglass lectern) is transubstantiated every Sunday into Oprah's couch.

Frankly, the Bible gives little basis for the kind of baring of the soul which has become so popular. Paul is very thin on details when he talks about his own sins. The examples of sermons in the Bible contain little parading of personal peccadilloes. The failings of the preacher when referenced are merely of the order of brief bridges to discussion of issues which transcend the particularities of the preacher's own existence.  

Yet, interestingly enough, confession lay at the heart of Luther's own personal Reformation Christian life. But it was not the confession of the self-obsessed exhibitionists of our social media age. It was the private confession of one Christian to another. Our confessional age is an age where the baring of souls is seen as an act which makes the confessor vulnerable or 'authentic' and thus serves ironically to enhance their authority or invulnerability. That might sound strange, but who in this present age can criticize the person who has told the world that they suffered abuse as a child or has wrestled with some addiction for many years?   The canons of taste offer immediate, and sometimes total, protection.

Luther's notion of confession was somewhat different. It took place in two contexts. First, there was the confession which was embodied in the liturgical structure of the worship service. The minister would read the law, pray a prayer of general confession and then offer words of absolution. Many Reformed and Presbyterian believers can recognize something of their own liturgies in this. Indeed, only recently one member of my congregation commented on how the confession of sin and the words of forgiveness were something which had proved vital to him over the years.

Yet Luther also considered personal, private one-on-one confession was also valuable. Now, Luther would not make such confession compulsory for Christians because he did not think it right to make such into a new law. But he did regard it as extremely helpful.  Here is what he said in a sermon preached on March 16, 1522:
I will allow no man to take private confession away from me, and I would not give it up for all the treasures in the world, since I know what comfort and strength it has given me. No one knows what it can do for him except one who has struggled often and long with the devil. Yea, the devil would have slain me long ago, if the confession had not sustained me. For there are many doubtful matters which a man cannot resolve or find the answer to by himself, and so he takes his brother aside and tells him his trouble....we must have many absolutions, so that we may strengthen our timid consciences and despairing hearts against the devil and against God. Therefore, no man shall forbid the confession nor keep or draw any one away from it. And if any one is wrestling with his sins and wants to be rid of them and desires a sure word on the matter, let him go and confess to another in secret, and accept what he says to him as if God himself had spoken it through the mouth of this person. (Luther's Works 51, 99)
Here we see the power of private confession: it is the context in which that powerful confrontational and objective Word from outside can be specifically applied to the individual.  The purpose of confession is not for the one confessing to bare his soul and become more authentic. It is to allow the one hearing the confession to press the words of the gospel promise on the penitent and thus free them from the torments that their own sins brought in their wake.

This brings to the fore in miniature that which permeates the Reformation as a whole. We often think of the Reformation as placing the individual Christian in a new place of importance. The institutional church gives way to a believing community. The hierarchical priesthood gives way to the general priesthood of all believers. Today that shift can be read through the later lenses of conversionist pietism, Finneyite revivalism, and even the kind of prosperity teaching with which Americans are so familiar. Yet Luther's revolution was not so much a shift from the institutional church to the individual as it was a shift from the objectivity of the sacraments to the objectivity of the Word that needed then to be grasped by the individual by faith. In other words, it was not the needs of the individual which set the terms of the revolution but the theological status of the Word. Thus, confession is not about the one confessing. Yes, the specifics of the confession were important; but more important was the great, objective declaration that all sins had been covered by the blood of Christ. The purpose of individual confession was to provide a special reminder to particularly acute and scrupulous consciences of the great, general truth of the Gospel.

Oprah style confessions, now so popular among Christians, are what Luther would have regarded as a form of human righteousness and thus, as Luther would have thought, filthy rags before a Holy God.  Making ourselves feel better or (worse) more authentic than others by baring the darkest parts of our lives in a public context is inappropriate for a variety of reasons.  But telling a close and trusted confidant of our personal struggles with sin and being pointed to Christ can, on occasion, be a most valuable exercise. 
Dr. Carl Trueman is the Paul Woolley Professor of Church History at Westminster Theological Seminary and the pastor of Cornerstone Orthodox Presbyterian Church in Ambler, PA. See his forthcoming book, Luther on the Christian Life: Cross and Freedom (Crossway, February 2015)
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