Several folks have dropped off bulletins from other Lutheran congregations and as I looked them over I have noticed a marked trend in the way we confess our sins. For Lutherans confession and absolution are a usual preparation to the Divine Service. Though forms for confession are appointed in all Lutheran service books, this is one area in which many Pastors are tempted to be "creative."
In those bulletins in which a "creative" form of confession was used, what was confessed was more a lack of good than the presence of evil. In one the congregants confessed that they had "not lived up to their full potential." Well, duh. You don't have to believe in sin at all to confess this. In another, "we have not done all that is good in Your sight..." Again, duh. It is a little like the kid bringing home the report card and confessing, "I am sorry I got a B+. I am sorry. Next time I will do better..."
These things are not confession. When all we can confess is that we are not as good as we could be, the Law has not had its way with us and our hearts have yet to be convicted by the Holy Spirit. Sin is not a lacking in us. The sin we confess is the evil that we have said, thought and done. This evil is the evil that is not only evil in God's eyes but evil in our own eyes. We are not like politicians who apologize to anyone who might have been offended by their words. We are the ones, under the guidance of the Spirit, who lament the evil within us, that has escaped our hearts and come out through our mouths and given form in our actions. It is not that God might see these as sinful -- we see them as sinful.
We confess that we are by nature sinful and unclean. We confess that we are sinners (not victims). We confess the evil that we have thought, said, and done. We confess the good that we should have done but we left undone. We confess that we are miserable sinners -- victims not of the influence of others but of the evil within our own hearts and minds. And we are helpless -- helpless to free ourselves, repair what is wrong within us, make up for our sins, or restore ourselves before God, before our neighbors, or even before the mirror in which we see ourselves.
To confess anything less is to make a mockery of the cross and the sacrifice Christ was required to make. He did not die for our lack of good. He was incarnate, lived, suffered, died and rose to redeem sinners who were marked with evil, burdened by guilt, imprisoned by death, and unable to free themselves. What we forget is that when we diminish sin, we also diminish the power of grace and the gracious gift of God that is ours in Jesus Christ. We turn Him from Savior into role model of how we too might live a better life.
I do not believe that these creative Pastors are consciously trying to minimize the reality of sin or the gift of God come to us through suffering and death. I think that we have gotten used to speaking the language of the world when it comes to the way we deal with sin and evil. What we need to do is stick with the language of the Church and Scripture.
A very long time ago we confessed... Mea culpa... Mea culpa... Mea maxima culpa... My fault, My own fault, My own most grevous fault. Later we confessed we were poor miserable sinners. We did this not because it was easy to say or because there was any glory in it. We said this because it was true -- truth apparent to us only through the guidance of the Spirit working in our broken hearts and lives. And to this confession of evil, of sin, of guilt, and of responsibility comes the Father to apply the healing balm of the cross and clothe us in the righteousness of Christ where finally we are clean.
Paul and Luther knew this sin... they confessed it clearly... I am a worm and no man... We are beggars this is true... If we would stand in their line, we must first learn to see as they did the evil within our hearts, lament it under the guidance of the Spirit, confess it in blunt words, and hear the joyful and liberating words of our Savior... Ego te absolvo... I forgive you... Amen.