“When I urge you to go to confession, I am doing nothing else than urging you to be a Christian.” (Luther’s Small Catechism with Explanation)
As a child, I had a misguided understanding of what a Christian was. I believed a Christian was sinless—or at the very least, a Christian was able to avoid “big” failures on his or her own.
I was generally a well-behaved kid. I am the firstborn of my siblings and have a desire to please those around me, but that desire did not stem from a heart for service. My identity was wrapped up in the school I attended, my behavior, and my image instead of my baptismal identity. I had and still have an intense desire to look good to others. My obedience did not come from freedom as much as fear of what others would think. My concern was not to serve my neighbor. It was to serve my image of self and regretfully still is at times.
I need to clarify that this skewed view of what a Christian was and being a people pleaser did not come from Lutheran education. It came from a sinful heart that idolized a self-image.
A Need for Christ Exposed
When I was 23, the image of a well-behaved girl who attended Lutheran school was shattered. Three weeks after a one-night stand, I stood in my apartment with a positive pregnancy test. This was not something I could hide. I had to come to terms with the fact that the image of myself and my actions did not align. I was asking the question, How can I be a single mom and a picture of good behavior.
We are Christians because of the work of Christ and the gift of faith. For many of us, that faith began at the baptismal font.
I was arrogant and misguided in thinking I didn’t need Christ. My deep need for Christ was exposed. I could no longer keep up the charade of perfection or near perfection. My sins were or would be known by all. The weeks that followed the positive pregnancy test were racked with anxiety and trying to justify my actions while brainstorming ways to redeem my situation.
Christ Frees You in Forgiveness
A year and some months after my son was born, I was sitting in premarital counseling with my now husband and father of my three other children. The pastor who had baptized and confirmed me had also agreed to officiate our wedding. I was over the moon but also worried about discussions I knew were coming in premarital counseling. I had no idea what I would say to this man of God about my failures.
I don’t remember what was said right before, but I do remember my pastor looking at me and saying, “Katie, you do know that you are forgiven. If you have forgotten, hear this and know you are forgiven.”
That pronouncement of forgiveness changed the trajectory of my life. Hearing that proclamation of forgiveness shifted me from a place of self-justifying and trying to redeem myself to one of forgiven freedom.
The proclamation of forgiveness shifted the service of my vocations from a place of trying to prove myself and redeem myself to living in the freedom I have because of the work of Christ. Self-justifying and attempting to redeem ourselves will leave us exhausted and eventually unable to serve. The tank will become empty. We are lying to ourselves when we try to justify our failures. We can never do enough to redeem ourselves.
The struggle to identify sin, confess it, and hear the proclamation of forgiveness instead of self-justifying, rationalizing, or creating a self-salvation project is constant in the life of a Christian. It has been in mine. Thankfully, we can go to our pastor, confess, and be absolved. We can go to the altar and receive the same forgiveness in the bread and wine, the body and blood. We can stand in church and confess that we are sinners and immediately hear the proclamation that we are forgiven.
Confession and Absolution Brings Peace
Confession gives us a chance to voice our failures to another. While admitting faults is something we may do to another over coffee, it is often intermingled with rationalizations for the failure and followed up with advice instead of absolution. Advice has its place, but it does not have the power of absolution. Advice does not spark the freedom that hearing “You are forgiven” creates in our hearts.
Confession and absolution forces us to look at the gravity of our sin with the healing balm of forgiveness coming immediately after voicing our failures.
We, as Christians, are simultaneously saints and sinners. We constantly need Christ and His unending forgiveness. We need the perpetual habit of repenting, confessing, and hearing “You are forgiven.” We will not cease to fail this side of heaven. At the same time, we receive the unending forgiveness of Christ here and now.
The forgiveness of Christ is a gift in our lives. Confession and absolution removes self-justification and redemption plans. It gives us the freedom we need to serve our neighbors well.
Therefore, I urge you to confess your sins and hear the proclamation of “You are forgiven.”
Catechism quotation: © 1986, 2017 CPH.
Read more about biblical characters’ sins and how God forgave them, and forgives you, in Redeemed: Our Lives as Sinners and Saints.