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Chemnitz on Penance

April 16, 2008

The following was presented at the Nebraska Lutherans for Confessional Studies in April of 2006.  The paper gives a summary of Martin Chemnitz’s teaching regarding penance as he critiques the Council of Trent.  You can read all of Chemnitz in his Examination of the Council of Trent, Volume 2, pages 580-588.  Happy reading.  Brent W. Kuhlman


Introduction (Ramblings)

Dr. Kenneth F. Korby once recounted a conversation with a LCMS district official who arrogantly proclaimed:  “I make confession to no one!”  To which Dr. Korby replied:  “And so do your people.”  One wonders if this district official’s “no one” included God himself.  I hope not.  Otherwise one wonders if he ever prayed the Our Father, the evening prayer from the Small Catechism, or if he participated in the preparatory rites from page 16 of TLH or page 158 of LW.  Most likely the official’s “no one” meant Korby whose high pastoral care as a doctor of the church included not only teaching Articles XI and XXV of the Augsburg Confession and its Apology as well as the Fifth Chief Part of the Small Catechism but also its evangelical practice.  Instead of being repulsed by the smoke of a hand rolled cigarette from Dr. Korby’s lips (a mortal “sin” these days – of which all must confess to CHP and then promise never to do it again), the official almost certainly smelled the aroma of “Romanizing tendencies” called private confession and absolution.  What horror! 

Noli timere!  The Lord has used Dr. Korby as His instrument to pass on to Walther’s spiritual children what the Scriptures and the Confessions teach about Holy Absolution.  Although his expertise is Wilhelm Löhe, he was no slouch with Chemnitz of whom we study today concerning confession. 

It is Rome who mandates that you must make confession to your priest privately at least once a year.  In addition, as you’re in the presence of your priest you are required to confess all your mortal sins and their extenuating circumstances.  If you’re the “I make confession to no one” type, then there’s no communion and no Christian burial for you.  That’s Lateran IV of 1215.  That’s not Dr. Korby, the Lutheran Confessions, nor Chemnitz.

Permit me one of my short historical flybys for additional context.  Before Lateran IV there was Charlemagne’s court school headmaster Alcuin (735-804).  He pushed confession before a priest because he said it was divine and apostolic.  In the ninth and tenth centuries confession before a priest was urged because its chief virtue was shame. The shame of confession replaced lighter penitential satisfactions.  Some even contended that shame itself made confession a work of satisfaction. Gratian, the twelfth century father of canon law, agreed.  However, he would not take sides in the dispute over whether a contrite sinner had to confess to his priest.  Peter Lombard (1100-1164) was decisive.  You remember from our previous meetings that Lombard exalted contrition (i.e. your contrition, if it’s really contrition, is the moment when you’re forgiven).  However, he determined that is was necessary for salvation to confess to your priest if you’re given the chance.  Thomas Tentler remarks:  “The service Peter Lombard performs for confession is profound.  For in the midst of the theology of contrition, confession to a priest is upheld, if not logically, at least emphatically.”1  

Richard of St. Victor (d. 1173) said that it didn’t matter how contrite you were.  If you didn’t go to confession before going to the Lord’s Supper, you’ve committed a sacrilege.  And then in 1215 Pope Innocent III weighed in.  Canon 21 states:  “[Omnis utriusque sexus] All the faithful of both sexes shall  . . . faithfully confess all their sins at least once a year to their own priest.”  Pope and council had spoken.  By the time of that century’s end most of the scholars agreed that a complete good confession to a priest was necessary, mandated by the Lord, and required for forgiveness. 

In the way of teaching nothing that “departs from the Scriptures or the catholic church,”2 we Lutherans teach the following:  “Concerning confession . . . private absolution should be retained in the churches, although an enumeration of all faults in confession is not necessary.  For this is impossible according to the psalm [19:12]:  ‘But who can detect their errors?’”3  And:  "Confession has not been abolished by the preachers on our side.  For the custom [Gewohnheit] has been retained among us of not administering the sacrament to those who have not previously been examined and absolved . . . Concerning confession, it is taught that no one should be compelled to enumerate sins in detail.  For this is impossible, as the psalm [19:12] says:  ‘But who can detect their errors?’  And Jeremiah [17:9] says:  ‘The human heart is so devious that no one can understand it.’  Miserable human nature is so mired in sins that it cannot see or know them all.  If we were absolved only from those sins that we can enumerate, we would be helped but little.  That is why it is not necessary to compel people to enumerate sins in detail."4
The opposite of all this is Trent. 



From the institution of the sacrament of penance as already explained, the universal Church has always understood that the complete confession of sins was also instituted by the Lord and is by divine law necessary for all who have fallen after baptism;[23] because our Lord Jesus Christ, when about to ascend from earth to heaven, left behind Him priests, His own vicars,[24] as rulers and judges,[25] to whom all the mortal sins into which the faithful of Christ may have fallen should be brought in order that they may, in virtue of the power of the keys, pronounce the sentence of remission or retention of sins. For it is evident that priests could not have exercised this judgment without a knowledge of the matter, nor could they have observed justice in imposing penalties, had the faithful declared their sins in general only and not specifically and one by one.

From which it is clear that all mortal sins of which they have knowledge after a diligent self-examination, must be enumerated by the penitents in confession,[26] even though they are most secret and have been committed only against the two last precepts of the Decalogue;[27] which sins sometimes injure the soul more grievously and are more dangerous than those that are committed openly. Venial sins, on the other hand, by which we are not excluded from the grace of God and into which we fall more frequently,[28] though they may be rightly and profitably and without any presumption declared in confession, as the practice of pious people evinces, may, nevertheless, be omitted without guilt and can be expiated by many other remedies. But since all mortal sins, even those of thought, make men <children of wrath>[29] and enemies of God, it is necessary to seek pardon of all of them from God by an open and humble confession. While therefore the faithful of Christ strive to confess all sins that come to their memory, they no doubt lay all of them before the divine mercy for forgiveness; while those who do otherwise and knowingly conceal certain ones, lay nothing before the divine goodness to be forgiven through the priest; for if one sick be ashamed to make known his wound to the physician, the latter does not remedy what he does not know. It is evident furthermore, that those circumstances that change the species of the sin are also to be explained in confession, for without them the sins themselves are neither integrally set forth by the penitent nor are they known to the judges, and it would be impossible for them to estimate rightly the grievousness of the crimes and to impose the punishment due to the penitents on account of them. Hence it is unreasonable to teach that these circumstances have been devised by idle men, or that one circumstance only is to be confessed, namely, to have sinned against another. It is also malicious to say that confession, commanded to be made in this manner, is impossible, or to call it a torture of consciences; for it is known that in the Church nothing else is required of penitents than that each one, after he has diligently examined himself and searched all the folds and corners of his conscience, confess those sins by which he remembers to have mortally offended his Lord and God; while the other sins of which he has after diligent thought no recollection, are understood to be in a general way included in the same confession; for which sins we confidently say with the Prophet: <From my secret sins cleanse me, O Lord.>[30] But the difficulty of such a confession and the shame of disclosing the sins might indeed appear a burdensome matter, if it were not lightened by so many and so great advantages and consolations, which are most certainly bestowed by absolution upon all who approach this sacrament worthily. Moreover, as regards the manner of confessing secretly to a priest alone, although Christ has not forbidden that one may in expiation for his crimes and for his own humiliation, for an example to others as well as for the edification of the Church thus scandalized, confess his offenses publicly, yet this is not commanded by divine precept; nor would it be very prudent to enjoin by human law that offenses, especially secret ones, should be divulged by a public confession. Wherefore, since secret sacramental confession, which holy Church has used from the beginning and still uses, has always been recommended by the most holy and most ancient Fathers with great and unanimous agreement, the empty calumny of those who do not fear to teach that it is foreign to the divine command, is of human origin and owes its existence to the Fathers assembled in the Lateran Council,[31] is convincingly disproved. For the Church did not through the Lateran Council decree that the faithful of Christ should confess, a thing that she recognized as of divine law and necessary, but that the precept of confession should be complied with by each and all at least once a year when they have attained the age of discretion. Hence this salutary custom of confessing during that sacred and most acceptable period of Lent is now observed in the whole Church to the great benefit of the souls of the faithful, which custom this holy council completely endorses and sanctions as pious and worthy of retention.

23 Luke 5:14; 17:14; I John 1:9. Cf. <infra>, can. 6.
24 Matt. 16:19, John 20:23.
25 Cf. c. 51, D.I de poenit.
26 Cf. <infra>, can. 7.
27 Deut. 5:21.
28 Cf. Sess. VI, can. 23; c. 20, D. III de poenit.
29 Eph. 2:3.
30 Ps, 18:13.
31 Cf. c. 12, X, De poenit., V, 38.

Canon 6. If anyone denies that sacramental confession was instituted by divine law or is necessary to salvation;[78] or says that the manner of confessing secretly to a priest alone, which the Catholic Church has always observed from the beginning and still observes, is at variance with the institution and command of Christ and is a human contrivance, let him be anathema.
Canon 7. If anyone says that in the sacrament of penance it is not required by divine law for the remission of sins to confess each and all mortal sins which are recalled after a due and diligent examination,[79] also secret ones and those that are a violation of the two last commandments of the Decalogue,[80] as also the circumstances that change the nature of a sin, but that this confession is useful only to instruct and console the penitent and in olden times was observed only to impose a canonical satisfaction; or says that they who strive to confess all sins wish to leave nothing to the divine mercy to pardon; or finally, that it is not lawful to confess venial sins, let him be anathema.
Canon 8. If anyone says that the confession of all sins as it is observed in the Church is impossible and is a human tradition to be abolished by pious people;[81] or that each and all of the faithful of Christ of either sex are not bound thereto once a year in accordance with the constitution of the great Lateran Council[82] and that for this reason the faithful of Christ are to be persuaded not to confess during Lent, let him be anathema.

78 <Supra>, chap. 5.
79 <Supra>, chap. 5.
80 Deut. 5:21.
81 <Supra>, chap. 5.
82 Ibid., chap. 5 at the end.

Trent contends that the Lord Jesus Himself has mandated the individual confession of all mortal sins (venials are excluded – no need for absolution for those – sins for which Good Friday doesn’t count – but a smite of the breast or a sprinkle of holy water will suffice) including their circumstances to the priest for their forgiveness and that the church of all times has practiced this.  Deny this as well as Canon 21 of Lateran IV and Trent lays its anathema on you.  Trent knows nothing of today’s postmodern mutual affirmations and mutual admonitions of the ecumaniacs. 


Chemnitz provides the hard data of Scripture and the ancient fathers regarding the confession of sin(s).  Once you have that in front of you, then you can better critique the claims of Trent.  He begins with the simple and most necessary things to know.  In other words, what exactly do the Scriptures and the holy fathers teach?  Do they say what Trent asserts they say?   

Chemnitz begins by listing various kinds of confession.  First there is the confession of sin “which is made to God alone, by which we acknowledge our sins from our heart before God” (2:591).  Such confession is said with the hope and confidence of forgiveness and amendment of life (2:592).   Superintendent Chemnitz expects you to diligently teach the people under your care “about the necessity and benefit of this kind of confession” (2:592). 

When was the last time you had a serious conversation with your congregation about this?  . . . That’s what I thought.  A lot of talk about the weather and taking two out of three in Austin.  And then there are those magnificent books by Mr. Osteen and Mr. Brown that we just can’t put down.  “Confess my sin to God?  You’ve got to be kidding Reverend!  Don’t you know what that will do to my self-esteem?  I’d rather talk about Mary Magdalene’s red light life and her desperate housewife relationship with Jesus.  I’m feeling better about myself already!”   

Chemnitz would have you apply these Bible passages to yourself and with your congregation.  For example Psalm 32:3, 5: “When I declared not my sin, my body wasted away.  . . .  I acknowledged my sin to Thee . . . I said, ‘I will confess my transgression to the Lord’; then Thou didst forgive the guilt of my sin.’”  Then 1 John 1:8-9:  “If we say we have no sin, His Word is not in us.  If we confess our sins, He is faithful and just, and will forgive our sins.”  Proverbs 28:13 as well:  “He who conceals his transgressions will not prosper, but he who confesses and forsakes them will obtain mercy.”  

Such confession comes about as we are taught to use the Ten Commandments to examine our lives.  There the Lord CAT scans us.  And the results are not good.  Our condition is fatal.  We’re dead meat!  Chemnitz puts it this way:  “In this way also the pride of human nature is shattered, lest it take on the pharisaic persuasion about righteousness, holiness, and innocence” (2:592).

And this kind of confession before God alone can be done either inwardly with the heart or outwardly with the mouth.  He offers Leviticus 16:21 and Daniel 9:3-19 as examples.  Coram Deo the sinner is totally sinner, totally guilty.  No one is righteous!  Not one!  All have sinned and fallen short of God’s glory.  Thus the publican’s confession:  “’God, be merciful to me, a sinner’” (2:592).  And there are Psalms 19, 25, 51, etc. that confess our corrupt nature. 

The fathers also teach this kind of confession.  Chemnitz offers a couple of quotes from Origen (2:592-593).  Then he provides a plethora of hard data from Chrysostom (2:592-594). Regarding Psalm 59 the golden mouthed says:  “’Confess in this life that you may have rest in the life to come’” (2:594).  I give you two more in particular because they go to the heart of Trent’s claim.  First:  “The same man says in a discourse about repentance and confession:  ‘It is not, however, necessary to confess in the presence of witnesses; let only God see you as you confess” (2:594).  Then, “’I ask and plead that you will more frequently confess to the immortal God and that, after having enumerated your faults, you ask for pardon.  I do not lead you into the theater of your fellow servants; I do not compel you to reveal your sins to men.  Tell what is on your conscience before God; reveal yourself; show your wounds to the greatest Physician and ask a remedy of Him’” (2:594). 

Another quote from Chrysostom:  “’It is not necessary to confess in the presence of witnesses.  Let the search for faults be made in thought; let his judgment be without a witness; let God alone hear your confession, who does not reproach you but saves you from sins on account of confession’” (2:617).  Consequently, Chemnitz states:  “The ancients say that sins are to be revealed in confession, to be weighed specifically, very carefully examined, explained, uncovered, enumerated, etc.; they say that sins are loosed through confession and that it is impossible to be saved without confession.  But Chrysostom adds the explanation that these things are to be understood not of outward confession made before men but of inner confession made to God” (2:594).

The second kind of confession is fraternal:  brother to brother, neighbor to neighbor.  The hard data from Scripture is Luke 17:4; James 5:16; Matthew 5:23-24; 6:15; 18:18.  This is practically non-existent in our homes and congregations.  We’re always relentlessly justifying ourselves 24-7-365.  It’s always someone else’s fault:  Adam’s, Satan’s, mother’s (who potty trained me incorrectly), pastor’s (who such a freakin’ #@*^!), sister’s, capitalism’s, big oil’s, the church’s, but never mine!  The truth, however, is just the opposite.  We sin against our neighbor.  Moved by the Lord through His Word we confess the sin and ask for the neighbor’s forgiveness.

Regarding Matthew 18:18 Chemnitz states:  “God promises that He will regard this fraternal reconciliation as valid in heaven” (2:595).  He quotes the church father Theophlact on this passage:  “if, however, you loose him, that is, forgive him when he confesses and asks for it, he will be acquitted also in heaven.  For it is not only the sins the priest looses which are loosed, but also those will be bound or loosed whom we, when we have been wronged, either bind or loose’” (2:595).

The third kind of confession is before the pastor.  Chemnitz writes:  “Scripture speaks of a certain general confession of sins, in which a sinner confesses not only inwardly before God but also before the ministers of the Word and the sacraments, not indeed that he specifically enumerates each and every sin according to the circumstances, but either professes in general, whether verbally or by an act, that he acknowledges his sins and the wrath of God against sins, or confesses certain other transgressions which weigh on his conscience, and asks that forgiveness be granted him” (2:595). 

The sacrifices for sin instituted by the Lord to be brought to the priest at the Tent of Meeting (Leviticus) are offered as an example.  So too is 2 Samuel 12:13 where King David confesses to adultery and murder without offering any details.  And then of course King David’s words in Psalm 51:5, 9,  “Behold, I was brought forth in iniquity” and “Blot out all my iniquities.”  What do we learn here?  “It is to be noted that David did indeed make this confession before the prophet, according to the superscription of the psalm, but he nevertheless directs the confession to God.  And to this general confession, which is not a total enumeration of the separate sins according to all the accompanying circumstances, Nathan imparts the absolution:  ‘The Lord has put away your sin’’ (2:596).

Chemnitz offers more exa
mples of general confession of sin in this third way.  In Nehemiah 8-9 the people confess their sins as well as their fathers.  They mourn and weep.   Then the Levites repeat the confession, pray for the Lord’s mercy, promise amendment, and give their “Amen” to the covenant.  Chemnitz says that this prayer for mercy “takes the place of the absolution” (2:596).  The woman in Luke 7:37-38 confesses (through gestures and signs) without specific enumeration and wants forgiveness.  The Lord forgives her.  Then he gives the example of the paralytic in Matthew 9 and notes that the “forgive” verb in Matthew 9 is the same in John 20:21.  What does Chemnitz conclude from this?  “Therefore ministers ought not to require those who seek absolution what Christ did not require” (2:596). 

Chemnitz piles on more examples (2:597).  John the Baptizer heard confession while baptizing at the Jordan (Matthew 3:6; Acts 19:4-5).  Acts 19:18 speaks of people confessing sin.  Zacchaeus confessed (Luke 19:8-10).  And the prodigal does too (Luke 15:21).  Chemnitz asserts:  “I have noted down these things in order to show that the custom observed in our churches with respect to confession is in harmony with Scripture, which is content with a general confession and does not demand a specific enumeration” (2:597).

He speaks of a fourth kind of confession:  exomologeesin, the ancient church’s public confession.  For example if you were caught in the sin of adultery or murder, you would be forbidden from the Lord’s Supper.  In addition, you had to confess the sin publicly before the bishop and the congregation.  “There a certain recital of the misdeeds was customary.  For such persons were not received back unless they had declared publicly before the ministers and the church that they acknowledged their transgressions, were sorry about them, sought forgiveness, and promised correction” (2:598).  Such exomologeesin could also be voluntary.  This custom of public confession Chemnitz says is “in harmony with examples of Scripture” (2:599).  These examples are:  the woman in Luke 7:37ff., the sinner at Corinth (1 Corinthians 5:1-5; 2 Corinthians 2:5-11; 7:8-12) and Achan in Joshua 7;18ff. (2:599).  The church fathers speak testify to it as well. 

And then Chemntiz does his own flyby of the shift from public confession to secret confession before a priest.  The shift begins with unusual crimes that the public or congregation didn’t know about.  If the sinner volunteers to confess you know what happens when word gets out.  The gossip and disparagement begins.  The love grows cold.   Origen spoke of this:  “’The person who has fallen steps forward and makes his confession.  Many of those who hear it either reproach or ridicule him, or speak evil of him’” (2:600).  What sinner would volunteer to confess?  Would you?

You want this practice to be edifying instead of destructive.  So what do you do?  The advice was to go to your priest first.  Let him alone hear the confession.  Then he will decide if public confession should be made.  Chemnitz again quotes Origen:  “’Consider to whom you ought to confess your sin; test the physician first.  If he understands and foresees that your weakness is such that it should be brought before the assembly of the whole church and healed, by which perhaps also others could be edified and you yourself easily restored to health, the counsel of this experienced physician must speedily be followed’” (2:601).  “In this way,” Chemnitz explains, “sins which belong to public repentance, when they were not manifest, were first shown privately to the priest; afterward public confession and repentance followed.  From this it is clear that Origen is not, in this passage, speaking about generally confessing each and every sin to the priest” (2:601).  In addition, we note the move to an individual confession with the priest so that he could decide if public confession should follow.

The shift continues.  The baptized’s ardor cools.  Not many voluntarily volunteer for public confession.  Many even refuse.  Consequently, the church reduces the severity of public repentance to the point that it is “almost entirely abolished” (2:601).  So now what?  Here, “confession began to be changed to something private, so that such faults were confessed privately and in secret to the priest, who, although he did not reveal the fault in the sight of the church, nevertheless laid a public penitence on the delinquent, that by the very fact he might in a general way confess and declare before the church that he had committed a grave wrong” (2:601).  Pope Leo I (ca. 390-461),  Sozomen (ca. 400-450) and Augustine bear witness to this (2:601). 

Chemnitz provides a quote from Leo’s 78th epistle to show the when, how and why of this shift from public to private.  ’Since it is sufficient to indicate the offenses which lie on the consciences to the priests only by means of a secret confession.  For although the fullness of faith which, on account of the fear of God, is not afraid to blush with shame before men appears to be a praiseworthy thing; nevertheless, because not everyone’s sins are of such a nature that they are not apprehensive about making known the things which call for repentance, the objectionable custom had to be abolished, lest many be prevented from using the remedies of repentance, since they were either ashamed or feared to relate their deeds to their enemies, for which they could be ruined by regulations of the laws.  Therefore that confession is sufficient which is first offered to God, then also to the priest, who comes as intercessor for the faults of the penitents, because then at last many could be persuaded to penitence, if the conscience of the one who confesses is not publicly exposed before the ears of the people’ (2:601-602). 

This is quite significant.  From a pope we are informed that “making confession before men are not necessary commands, nor by divine right, but an external discipline which can be changed in the interest of the edification of the church” (2:602).  In fact, the public confession practiced and extolled by such ancients as Tertullian, Cyprian, and Origen is now said to be “objectionable” and should be “abolished!”  In addition, Leo’s not pushing the confession of all mortal sins either.  Instead, “he is speaking about crimes for which, if they became public, they could be ruined by the regulations of the laws, that is, crimes which formally were subject to public confession and penitence” (2:602). 

Then Chemnitz presents some hard data from the Greeks.  Does the Greek church provide proof for or against Trent?  The history here demonstrates the shift from public confession to private confession took place in the East some years (at least 200 years) before Leo in the West.

The Greek church historians Sozomen and Socrates (surnamed Scholasticus; ca. 380-440) relate that “sins should be made known in the presence of the assembled church, as if in a theater” (2:602).  However, Socrates observes that after the Decian persecution (A.D. 250) “the bishops made the addition to the ancient churchly canon about public confession and penitence (for he calls it a supplement to the canon) that a presbyter of good conduct, wise, and able to keep a secret . . . should be appointed . . . that the lapsed might come to him and co
nfess their sins to him.  He should then indicate a punishment in accord with the guilt of each individual” (2:602-603).  What’s new here is that the sinner no longer needs to make their sin public in front of the entire congregation like at the theater.  Instead, the lapsed sinner could confess to the presbyter appointed to hear it.  The sin would not be made public.  However, the lapsed would receive a punishment or public satisfaction.

Please notice another aspect:  “Socrates indicates that some were accustomed to confess not only public and notorious crimes to the priest appointed for penitents, but also other faults committed after Baptism.  Sozomen says:  ‘They confessed what they had committed throughout their life.’  Nevertheless, one does not conclude from this that there was a command obligating all to enumerate each and every transgression” (2:603).  During this time only one presbyter had this duty in Constantinople. 

Socrates relates the account of a noblewoman who confessed to the presbyter assigned for this task.  “And that after this confession, which was not complete nor specific, the presbyter absolved her, laying on her this satisfaction, that she should by fasting and prayers show a work worthy of repentance” (2:603).  This same woman returned to the presbyter for absolution after sinning again (she pulled a Jimmy Swaggert this time).  Chemnitz makes the point that “the need for this kind of confession was not laid on all, for in that case one presbyter would not have sufficed, nor was total enumeration of every individual sin demanded as being necessary by divine right, as it were, for forgiveness, as the confession of the woman who confessed only in part shows.  But while it had been instituted chiefly for public and known lapses, it began, as we have already shown, to be used for confession of other sins” (2:603-604; see also 2:607 where Cyprian is referenced).  Chemnitz concludes from the data, contra Trent, that, “the fact that public confession was changed and abolished shows that it was not judged to be necessary by divine right for remission of sins” (604).

There were more adjustments made as a result of this woman’s having intercourse with a deacon of the church in Constantinople.  Nectarius (d. 397) the bishop of Constantinople who presided at the ecumenical council (381) eliminated the custom that an appointed presbyter would hear private confessions.  In fact, according to the account given by Sozomen, the members of the church in Constantinople could attend the Lord’s Supper “according as his conscience and his conviction enabled him; that is, after this abrogation everyone was admitted to participation in the mysteries according as he knew himself and was able to judge that he could partake of the mysteries with a good conscience and not to judgment” (2:604).  What’s this?  Not going to confession before eating and drinking the Lord’s Body and Blood?  That’s right.  In fact, Sozomen writes that, “’nearly all the bishops followed his [Nectarius’] example’” (2:605).  Consequently, Chemnitz concludes from this that the:  "judgment of the ancient church is sufficient, that confession, no matter how much the usefulness of this discipline is lauded and commended, is not of divine right, nor necessary for the forgiveness of sins.  Otherwise it could and ought not to have been abrogated on account of any disturbances.  Let us sum up, therefore, what we can make of this narrative about Nectarious.  It is wholly true what Sozomen says, that God has commanded to extend pardon to sinners – however to such as repent, and acknowledge and confess their sins. . . . The question, however, is to whom sins must be confessed.  At first, indeed, public confession was in use.  But it has been shown by its abrogation that this is not necessary.  After this, for a time, a confession was practiced which was made to the priest privately or in secret.  That also this is not necessary by divine right for remission of sins, even though it is a useful discipline, the church showed at the time of Nectarius by its abrogation.  Therefore only that confession of sins which is made to God is necessary for the remission of sins by divine right, as Chrysostom, the successor of Nectarius, showed at length and many times," (2:605).

Now you know the context of Chrysostom’s remarks quoted above when he says that it is not necessary to confess before men like in the theater but that it is necessary to confess sin to God.  In addition, Chrysostom says:  “’I do not say that you should confess to your fellow servant.  Let God alone hear you confess.’  Likewise:  ‘Confess to God alone; let no one else know it.’  Therefore Chrysostom wants neither a public nor a private confession in a divine matter to be necessary for salvation” (2:606).

In the West the secret confession was retained.  However, please remember that this flowed from the practice public confession.  In addition, Chemnitz reminds us of another shift, namely, that the “strictness about imposing public penitence for more weighty crimes that had been secretly confessed became obsolete, and thus also the public punishment or satisfaction began to be changed to a private or secret one.  From this there was born in later times the auricular confession of the papalists, which demands as necessary for salvation the enumeration of each and every transgression” (2:606; also 2:609).

We all know what Christians do with their freedom.  They abuse it.5  Nonetheless, Chemnitz lists five reasons why the ancients observed and commended private confession before the priest.  Not divinely mandated but highly beneficial.  Note the high pastoral concern and care (see note #5). 

First, to teach the more unlearned about the true acknowledgment, about the degrees, and about the seriousness of sins, likewise about the true and salutary way of repenting.  Second, for a remedy, namely, in what way particular sins are to be cured and mortified so that they may be guarded against and avoided in the future, and what emendation of life is to be opposed to which particular sins.  Third, for the sake of counsel, so that in doubtful cases the sheep may be instructed from the Word of God by the counsel of the shepherd.  Fourth, for the sake of consolation, namely, when some particular sin burdened and troubled the conscience so that it could not take consolation from the general proclamation, then they counseled that this should be made known to the pastor in order that he might pronounce private absolution.  Fifth, because absolution is not to be imparted except to one who repents, while and impenitent person is to be bound, therefore the priest should know, from some profession of the penitent who seeks absolution whether he ought to be absolved or, indeed, bound (2:607). 

The priest doesn’t have to hear the listing of every sin in the confession to make this decision to absolve or bind.  And then Chemnitz provides numerous quotes or references from the father about the benefits of confession to your priest (2:607-609). 

And what we have learned is that the ancients teach “something vastly different about which papalist confession chiefly contends, namely, that confession to the priest is necessary by divine right for the remission of sins, and indeed in such a way that no sin is remitted which has not been exposed to the priest through confession; likewise that an enumeration of each and every sin together with the attendant circumstances, specifically and individually, is necessary for the remission of sins, and that if one is conc
ealed, even if a person confesses it before God, the absolution is not valid” (2:609).  Rome, then, is “Roman” Catholic whereas the church of the Augsburg Confession remains catholic because she teaches “nothing contrary to Holy Scripture or to the universal, Christian church.”6 

Concerning this Chemnitz remarks that even “some examples of public repentance are observed among us, and indeed we wish we could recall into use certain additional things of this kind from the discipline of the ancient church, which in the papalist church have either fallen down entirely or have been changed into superstitions and abuses” (2:610).  And then he states the reasons why private confession is used in the church of the Augsburg Confession (2:610).  If you’ve ever wondered how to understand the “examined and absolved” of Article XXV (72:2), “examined and heard” of Article XXIV (69:7), the 1523 Formula Missae, and the 1528 Unterricht der Visitatoren, the following reasons gives you some help: 

“Private confession is observed among us in order that absolution may be sought by a general acknowledgment of sin and an indication of penitence.  And since the key, whether for loosing or binding, is not to be used without judgment, our pastors explore the thinking of their hearers in that private conversation, to see, whether they understand the teaching about outward and inward sin, about the wages of sin, about faith in Christ; they are then led to a consideration of their sins; they are examined, whether they are earnestly sorry for their sins, whether they fear the wrath of God and desire to escape it, whether they intend betterment; also they are interrogated if they are believed to hold fast to some certain sins.  There the doctrine is taught, along with the exhortation to betterment; either counsel or consolation is sought in troubles of conscience, and upon such confession absolution is imparted.  These things are certainly the essentials of that confession of which the ancients speak.  Since they are retained and used among us in Christian liberty for edification, without snares to consciences, we are being unjustly accused as though we overthrew, trampled underfoot, and condemned all of antiquity” (2:610).

No wonder private confession and absolution fell into disuse among us!  On the one hand, we misuse our freedom.  On the other hand, what pastor wants to do this hard but high pastoral care.  “Give me a book instead!  Oh, wait a minute.  I’ve got one.  Purpose Driven Life!  And another!  Purpose Driven Church!  Whew!”  The practice is making a comeback however.  By God’s grace we are beginning to listen to our fathers once again.  I recently heard of Immanuel, Eagle setting aside a particular date and time in which the pastor is available for Holy Absolution.  May the name of the Lord be praised!   The congregation where I serve also has times posted.  

But let’s get back to Trent.  Chemnitz has laid the foundation for the council to be critiqued.  And critique Trent he does.  Trent contends that Jesus, under the threat of damnation, instituted a confession that is to be done privately before the priest in which the baptized sinner must confess every mortal sin including their circumstances.  Confession is for the sake of enumeration not for instruction or consolation because Trent makes “all the benefits, comforts, efficacy, and certainty of absolution depend on this total and specific enumeration” (2:611).  This is nothing less than torture!

For various reasons Trent’s teaching regarding confession cannot be tolerated.  Chemnitz offers the following (2:611-613).  Christ Himself does not mandate this kind of confession and there are no examples of such a complete confession in the Scriptures.  It has no promise in God’s Word.  It turns the Gospel into the Law because forgiveness is conditional – based upon your complete confession.  The complete confession is a work that replaces God’s gift of grace.  It leads you to be in doubt concerning forgiveness because you can never know for sure if you’ve confessed completely.  Consequently, faith in Christ gets buried.  What Trent demands, simply put, is impossible. Who can do this (Psalm 19:12; Jeremiah 17:9)?  No one!  In addition, antiquity and the teaching of the catholic church teaches no such thing.  Remember the example of Bishop Nectarius, the words of Chrysostom and Gratian? 

Even the scholastics are hard pressed to prove what Trent dogmatically states.  Various biblical passages such as Genesis 3:9; 4:9; Matthew 3:5-6; 8:4; 16:19; 1 John 1:9 and James 5:16 are offered by them.  The best proof text Scotus can provide is John 20.  However, Chemnitz retorts: 

But he notices that this is not strong enough; therefore he takes the saying of James:  ‘Confess your sins to one another,’ ect.  Yet he says:  ‘Nor does it seem to me that James either gave this as a command or that he promulgated a command of Christ.’  Seeing, therefore, that his argument lacks true and strong testimonies of Scripture, he finally concludes that Christ promulgated the command of confession to the apostles, and to the church through the apostles, without any Scripture.  But Jerome says:  ‘Whatever has no authority from the canonical Scriptures is as easily scorned as approved’ (2:613). 

The canonist Panormitanus (Nicholas de Tudeschi) does not maintain that the enumeration of all sins is divinely mandated (2:613).7  Neither does Gratian.

So Trent runs with John 20.  And with this text Trent contends that Jesus made the priests trial judges so that they can pronounce the proper judgment, either binding or loosing.  In order to be able to do his judging correctly all sins must be confessed to the priest.  In addition, the sins have to be explained with some detail and the priest as a judge imposes the appropriate penalties.8 

However, the Lord Jesus mandated that repentance and forgiveness be preached in His name (Luke 24:47).  And the proclamation of forgiveness is done freely and it is given freely for Christ’s sake to those who believe in Him (Romans 3:22-28; 5:1-11; Acts 10:43).  The priest is not a trial judge but a Gospel man.  He is a steward not the owner.  And this ministry of the Gospel “has the command to announce and impart the benefit of Another, namely Christ, for the remission of sins to such as labor and are heavy laden and seek to be revived” (2:615).  He speaks absolution by Christ’s command (Luke 24; John 20; Matthew 16; 18) and in Christ’s place9

Consequently, Chemnitz teaches that:  “Now whoever seeks absolution sets two before himself:  First, God Himself as the one from who he seeks and asks remission of sins; therefore he pours out his whole heart before Him.  Then he also sets before himself the minister, whose voice or ministry God uses as that of an ambassador or messenger or agent for imparting and sealing the absolution.  Therefore when I have made known my fault to God, there is no need for a scrupulous enumeration before the minister, who is only the dispenser of Another’s benefits” (2:615). 

But should the pastor know a little bit about what’s going on?  Sure.  Imagine if a murderer showed up in your study and told you he needed to talk with you about what he had done.  That would, humanly speaking, st
retch you to the limit.  You’d better know what you’re doing.    But keep in mind the keys are not to be used according to his will, but the Lord’s.  Thus there is the proper distinction between the Law and the Gospel.  Chemnitz writes:  "For in the general preaching of repentance and remission of sins, sins are remitted by the power of God to many who repent and accept the promise by faith, even though the minister knows nothing either of their sins or of their repentance or of their faith.  But the matter stands otherwise with respect to imparting private absolution.  For if I were to absolve someone concerning whom I did not know at all whether he had first been instructed from the Word of God about sin, repentance, faith in Christ, the grace of God and the forgiveness of sins, I would not be rightly administering the power of remitting sins.  Likewise, if I did not know whether someone was penitent or believed, or if I knew that he was impenitent and unbelieving, and would nevertheless pronounce to him a sentence of remission, I would not be acting rightly.  Therefore such judgment and knowledge is required that the minister knows that the person who seeks absolution knows the doctrine, acknowledges his sins, repents and believes in Christ," (2:615-616).

Does this mean you need to hear every sin in detail?  No.  See Matthew 9:2; Luke 7:48 where Christ does not require it.  John the Baptizer, Jesus, and the apostles were satisfied with a general confession, repentance and faith. 

“But the person who comes can deceive you Reverend!”  He certainly can.  Just like when someone requests to be baptized.  This is why “those who seek absolution are to be reminded that they are here dealing not with a man but with God Himself, in whose sight these things are being done” (2:616).  Holy Absolution, just like the sermon, Holy Baptism, and Holy Communion is the coram Deo point.  There you’re squared up with Him! 

But you dear pastors are to remember that you are nothing but the “ambassadors and . . . dispensers of Another’s benefits” (2:616).  You’re nothing.  Jesus is everything.  You are not commanded to investigate the nooks and crannies of the heart.  You are commanded by the Lord to forgiven those that repent and believe the Gospel.  After all, Chrysostom reminds us that confession “’is the place for healing, not judgment; giving, not punishments but remission of sins’” (2:617).  The absolution is “the voice of the Gospel” (2:617) and it can be rejected or abused.

Chemnitz presents the data.  The data reveals that private or secret confession flows out of public confession.  Consequently, “the daughter cannot be before or older than the mother” (2:617).  Lateran IV in 1215 marked the first time in the history of the church that the baptized were commanded (under the threat of damnation) to make confession of all mortal sins to the priest before communing.  Prior to Lateran IV confession’s necessity was debated.  Gratian pulled a Fox News Network:  “I report.  You decide.”  Lombard decided it was necessary.  However, “even they,” Chemnitz reports, “did not yet argue about the enumeration of each and every fault with all the circumstances as being necessary for forgiveness” (2:618).

The district official who spoke to Dr. Korby made his decision too:  “I make confession to no one!”  Did he know his Small Catechism?  There we confess what’s so plain and so simple based on the Scriptures.  What is Confession?  There are two parts to it.  First, that we confess our sins.  Which ones do we confess?  Before God, plead guilty of them all, even the ones you don’t know, just like you do in Fifth Petition.  But before the pastor you’re free to confess only those sins that you know and feel in your heart. 

Noli timere!  Listen again to our father Chemnitz: 

With respect to the time when absolution should be sought by means of confession, the men on our side teach that no certain time should be prescribed, because not all are prepared at one and the same time; neither can those who confess be heard and instructed if all run to confession at the same time.  But the doctrine concerning the worth and benefit of absolution and of the Lord’s Supper must be taught in such a way from the Word of God that men are invited to more frequent use.  They are not, however, to be compelled by commands to use the sacraments when they are not prepared for it (2:618).

1 Thomas N. Tentler, Sin and Confession on the Eve of the Reformation, 21.
2 The Augsburg Confession, “Conclusion of Part One,” in The Book of Concord:  Confessions of the Evangelical
     Lutheran Church, Kolb-Wengert, (Minneapolis:  Augsburg Fortress, 2000), 59:1.  
3 The Augsburg Confession, Article XI “Concerning Confession,” 45:1-2.  The German text uses the specific Latin
     term privata absolutio.  The reformers did not throw out the baby with the bathwater.  We retain confession
     because of the absolution.  The Lord has mandated that.  Please note the following from another portion of the
     AC:  “Dann es sei nicht des gegenwärtigen Menschen Stimme oder Wort, sondern Gottes Wort, der die Sunde
     vergibt.  Dann sie wird an Gottes Statt und aus Gottes befehl gesprochen” Ibid., Article XXV, 72:3-4.
4 The Augsburg Confession, Article XXV, “Concerning Confession,” 72:1, 7-74:10.
5 Set free from the pope’s coercion and torture Dr. Luther laments the state of affairs in the churches who now
     know what confession is and the great comfort of the absolution:  “Unfortunately, people have learned it only too
     well; they do whatever they please and take advantage of their freedom, acting as if they should or need not go
     to confession anymore.  For a person quickly understands whatever gives us an advantage and grasps with
     uncommon ease whatever in the gospel is mild and gentle.  But such pigs, as I have said, should not have the
     gospel or any part of it.  Instead, they ought to remain under the pope and submit to being driven and tormented
     to confess, fast, ect., more than ever before” (Large Catechism, “A Brief Exhortation to Confession,” 476:5). 
     Compare also Dr. Luther’s Preface to the Small Catechism, 350:21-27, especially these words:  “Therefore
     pastors and preachers, take note!  Our office has now become a completely different one than it was under the
     pope.  It has now become serious and salutary.  Thus, it now involves much toil and work, many dangers and
     attacks, and in addition little reward or gratitude in the world.” 
6 The Augsburg Confession, “Disputed Articles, Listing the Abuses That Have Been Corrected,” 60.  See also
     “Conclusion,” 104:5. 
7 Compare the Apology, Article XI, 187:8.
8 Werner Elert alerts us to the early juridicalization of confession and absolution in the church.  “The system [of
     penitential stages], however, had another intention . . . The whole arrangement operated also as a threat of
     punishment . . . In the West . . . penitential discipline developed one-sidely into a penal procedure . . . An
     indisputable proof of this is to be found in the concept of the ‘healing punishment’ (poena medicinalis) which
     has been retained its place in Roman canon law to this day . . . At least it was in the West that the bishop came
     to be known best as a judge who inflicted punishments in the secular manner,” Eucharist and Church
     Fellowship, (St. Louis: CPH, 1966), 97-98.  Note then how forgiveness, reconciliation, and healing get hooked
     with justice, punishment and rule.  With this come gradations or levels.  When bishops became judges and
     rulers, then the priests want to act like the bishops.  Then comes the argument of sole jurisdiction.  Forgiveness
     given from one Christian to the other gets diminished until the mandate to confess to your priest is given in 1215
     by Lateran IV.  And in all this a reader of Chemnitz asks:  Is the priest acting in the way of the Law or the
     Gospel?  And if it’s the Law, which one is it?  God’s, the emperor’s, or the bishop’s who acts in the emperor’s
     place or in vice papa?    
9 ”When they offer the Word of Christ or the sacraments, they offer them in stead and place [vice et loco] of Christ,”
     Apology, Article VII and VIII, 178:28.

From → Papers

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