Why do we confess our sins each Sunday? Isn’t it enough to just do it once in a while or at least only when we take communion? And why do we always say the same thing which is so general?
The origin of the confession of sins is found in the Levitical laws (see esp. Leviticus 16). On the Day of Atonement, the priest was to confess all of the Israelites’ sins over the head of a goat and then drive it into the wilderness (hence, the “scapegoat”). Later in Leviticus (26:40ff), God promises to remember His covenant with the people if they confess their sins. Further examples which link together confession and forgiveness occur in Psalm 32 and 38.
Further, John wrote in his first epistle that “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness. If we claim we have not sinned, we make him out to be a liar and his word has no place in our lives” (1 John 1:9-10). And so we confess our sins. It is especially fitting that we confess our sins during this early part of the service, so that we might be purified, a Holy People before God as we ask Him to grant us mercy and forgiveness. In the confession, we recognize that we are but sinners before a Holy God and that we cannot come to Him except by His grace and forgiveness.
Traditionally, the church required that all who take communion must first announce their desire to commune to their pastor, earlier in the week. This often involved a confession of their sins. For centuries this meant private confession (yes, even in the Lutheran church). However, around the 1940’s, a general confession and absolution were included in the liturgy as a result of changes in society making it inconvenient or difficult to announce to the pastor during the week. It has thus remained a part of the Sunday morning service.
In our service, all are encouraged to examine themselves spiritually and silently confess any particular sins. The corporate confession which is spoken together covers most sins, though it is very general and vague. The words of absolution spoken by the pastor absolve each person of all his sins, just as if Christ Himself spoke the words of absolution. This is promised by Christ in Matthew 16:19, after Peter’s great confession of faith.
Even though we confess our sins and receive absolution each Sunday, private confession is still encouraged. It is very “healthy” for us to confess our specific, individual sins and receive a personal absolution. You are therefore encouraged to visit your pastor for a time of confession and absolution. Drop by during office hours or make an appointment. Your confession is sacred and protected; the pastor will not divulge anything confessed to him.