Luther on Confession and Absolution

In this excerpt from a sermon on Luke 24:36–47, Luther addresses Confession and Absolution as an ongoing feature of the life of God’s people, one that, cleansed of the false theology of the papacy, has tremendous spiritual benefit.

Here we should also speak about confession, which we retain and praise as something useful and beneficial. Although (properly speaking) it is not a part of repentance, nor is it necessary and commanded, yet it serves the purpose of receiving absolution, which is nothing other than the preaching and proclamation of the forgiveness of sins. Christ here commands that both be preached and heard. However, because it is necessary to retain this preaching in the churches, we should also retain Absolution. There is no other difference between them than that in Absolution the words (which otherwise in the preaching of the Gospel are proclaimed everywhere publicly to everyone together) are especially spoken to one or more who desire it. Christ ordered that this preaching of the forgiveness of sins should go and sound forth everywhere and at all times, not only in general to the whole group but also to individual persons (where there are the sort of people who need it). In next Sunday’s Gospel reading, He says, “Whosesoever sins you forgive, they are forgiven to them” [John 20:23].

For that reason we do not teach confession as the pope’s theologians do, that we must count up our sins (this is the only thing the Papists call “confession”) or that by doing so we obtain forgiveness and become worthy of absolution (as they say, “Because of your contrition and confession, I absolve you from your sins”). Rather, we teach that we should use confession in order to hear the comfort of the Gospel, and thus to awaken and strengthen faith in the forgiveness of sins (which is the true, chief part of repentance). Thus “to confess” does not mean (as it does among the Papists) to make a long list, counting up the sins, but to desire absolution, which is in itself confession enough, that is, that we acknowledge our guilt and confess that we are sinners. Nothing more should be demanded or imposed on us about counting up by name all or some, many or few sins. You yourself could then point out something which especially burdens your conscience, for which you need instruction and advice or special comfort, as is often necessary for young, inexperienced people and also for others.

We praise and retain confession not for its own sake, but because of absolution. This is the golden treasure: that you hear proclaimed to you [individually] the words Christ commanded to be preached in His name to you and to all the world, so that even if you do not hear it in confession, yet you otherwise daily hear the Gospel, which is precisely the word of absolution. Preaching the forgiveness of sins means nothing other than acquitting or absolving from sins. This also happens in Baptism and the Sacrament, which were instituted in order to show us this forgiveness of sins and to make us sure of it. Since being baptized or receiving the Sacrament is also an absolution, in which forgiveness in Christ’s name and at His command is promised and given to each one individually, you should hear this wherever and however often you need it; you should receive and believe it as if you were hearing it from Christ Himself. Since it is not our absolution but Christ’s command and word, it is just as good and powerful as if it were heard from His own mouth.

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Amended from Luther’s Works volume 77, pages 100–101. © 2014 Concordia Publishing House. All rights reserved.

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Dawn Weinstock

Dawn Mirly Weinstock has been with Concordia Publishing House for 25 years and has served as a production editor for professional and academic books for more than 10 years. Her projects have included Luther's Works, Johann Gerhard’s Theological Commonplaces, and the writings of Hermann Sasse, C. F. W. Walther, and many others.

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