[But if Christ says:] "Do not gape toward heaven when you want remission of sins. Rather, you have it here below. If [you have] a pastor, or a neighbor in the case of need, there is no need to seek the Absolution from above, because this Absolution is spoken on earth is Mine. Why? Because I have so instituted it and My resurrection will effect it. Therefore, no one will accuse you, neither death or the devil nor I Myself, when you have received this Absolution, since it is God's own..." It is true that God alone forgives sins, [but] how will I get to heaven [to get this forgiveness]? There is no need. God to the pastor; in the case of [urgent] need, tell your neighbor to recite the Absolution in the name of Jesus Christ. Then you have the Word; when they do it, Christ has done it.Sadly, we have largely forgotten Luther's counsel. The Absolution and its ministry by the Pastor has become a forgotten aspect of our common life as Christians and our individual faith. In the same way we have substituted our private prayers for the consolation of the brethren in which we confess to one another and absolve one another as the "Little Christs" God has called us to be. There are many reasons for this but the consequence is that we have learned to treasure other gifts of God higher than forgiveness and we have settled for the internal rather than external in our confidence that we are forgiven and restored.
Luther's words are set against a backdrop of medieval practice in which the emphasis was on the sin (and confessing every one of them) over the grace of absolution and in which the burden was placed upon the penitent (the satisfaction or penance). This had robbed the sacrament of it consolation and of its evangelical basis. Luther was restoring the needful emphasis upon this sacramental grace as a means of comfort for the stained conscience and hope for the sinner left with only his shame.
It remains Christ's Word and Christ's power. He has given it to the Church to exercise and the Church has set apart by examination, call, and ordination the minister who will publicly administer this Word. But it remains the domain of Christ and in this way we are assured that its voice speaks truthfully and we can believe it confidently.
We need to more than the feeling of forgiveness. We need the objective voice and the testimony of the one who speaks it in Christ's name and with His authority. John Kleinig is surely correct when he has assessed the modern day need for a clear conscience as both a driving force in our lives and the most urgent need for the health of the soul. But this clear conscience comes not from our justification of our sins nor our excuses of those sins. We cannot find peace in the mitigating factors of our daily lives nor in the prevailing mood of culture and its shifting values. We can find it only in Christ, only in His cross, and only in the Word that bestows what it speaks. Instead of standing with gaped mouth awaiting a sign from heaven, we need to turn to the place where this grace is accessible. Instead of depositing our confidence in a sacerdotal character, we believe the Word to be Christ's even when it is spoken by the mouth of the pastor and have confidence in it for this reason. Instead of making forgiveness a privatized transaction in which we offer something and God gives something, we are called to live out this forgiveness within our homes, families, neighborhoods, workplaces, and communities -- thus extending what comes to us from Christ through the mouth of the pastor to the places where we live and work and enjoy our leisure.
Lutherans do not merely tolerate private confession, we glory in it as a means of grace and the place where the terrified conscience finds peace and the fearful heart finds consolation. Even the general absolution of Sunday morning should not displace private confession from its chief role and purpose to console the guilty with the mercy of God, to strength the weak conscience with the grace of God, and to repair our distance from God and from each other. Where private confession is strong and vibrant, the people of God are well equipped to fulfill their baptismal promise and vocation.