“I tell you, her sins—and they are many—have been forgiven, so she has shown me much love. But a person who is forgiven little shows only little love.” – Luke 7:47
A pastoral colleague recently died and it got me thinking about some of the conversations we’d had. George was quirky and full of wisdom. I remember him passionately telling me that our book of worship had confession and absolution backward. George insisted that the forgiveness of God should first be proclaimed upon the people, and then we should confess our sins. It was something I had never considered, but in time I’ve come to agree with George.
We don’t confess our sins so that God can forgive us. God has already forgiven us and all people through the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. God’s not keeping score any longer. Or, as one of my favorite theologians, Robert Farrar Capon, puts it, “In Jesus’ death and resurrection, the whole test-passing, brownie-point-earning rigmarole of the human race has been canceled for lack of interest on God’s part.” Amen!
So, if we’re already forgiven why do we bother confessing our sins? Because we need to. Forgiveness is about restoration of relationship. God has already cleaned God’s side of the street. Confession is about cleaning ours. Giving voice to our failures matters. Wrapping words around our failures loosens the grip of guilt and shame. Trusting by faith that we’ve already been forgiven gives us the courage to dredge the darkness of our sins into the light of God’s love and grace. God doesn’t need our confession; we do.
Those who don’t believe that they’ve been forgiven or give voice to their failures often wrestle with guilt and shame. And they usually struggle most to forgive others. They nurse grudges. They marinate in hurt and anger, feeling like victims. You probably know someone like that. It might even be you.
While I wasn’t able to attend George’s funeral I understand that, at George’s insistence, they included a time of confession and absolution. But they did it in the right order. They began with these words, words I hope you will hear by faith:
Almighty God, in his mercy, has given his Son to die for us and, for his sake, forgives us all our sins. As a called and ordained minister of the Church of Christ, and by his authority, I therefore declare to you the entire forgiveness of all your sins, in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen
Jeff Marian serves as lead pastor at Prince of Peace Lutheran Church in Burnsville, MN