Like other reformers, Luther was very conscious of an error in the Latin bible of his day. Knowledge of the Greek language had recently re-emerged in Europe to a significant degree, and the new scholars had spotted that where the Latin bible said ‘do penance’, the original said ‘repent’. And there was a world of difference between those statements. To ‘do penance’ was to perform certain actions, quite possibly those assigned as a ‘penance’ in Confession. To ‘repent’, however, was to be filled with sorrow for sinfulness, to ‘re-think’ one’s life and be committed to change. The obligation simply to ‘do penance’ opened the way to aberrations in the Christian life such as paying someone else to ‘do penance’ for you or purchasing an ‘Indulgence’ from the church’s stock of ‘good works’ people had already done. Or so Luther thought.
In that context, you might expect that Luther would have a set against Confession itself, but quite the contrary was true. He was admittedly deeply suspicious that the church’s imposition of an obligation to confess was a ploy to give priests control of their people and, yes, on biblical grounds, he did not regard Confession as a sacrament instituted by Christ. But he retained Confession, in what became the Lutheran church, as a valuable practice because, and this is typical Luther, it had been of great value in his own life. In his dark hours, of which he had many, the reassurance of his confessor, the word of forgiveness that he heard there, had got him through. As a young man he had confessed more than regularly, to the point that his confessor had ordered him to stop. And he confessed to his parish priest on the day he died. He was, after all, a sinner.
Realising that you are a sinner was, for Luther, the first step to salvation. Until you realise you’re a sinner and there’s nothing you can do about it, you don’t realise the enormous gift that is on offer from God of being forgiven and redeemed because of Christ; you don’t begin to put your trust in him rather than in yourself. Curiously, Luther was much more in line with Catholic thinking in this regard than he is with some later expressions of Protestantism.
Years ago, I was on an inter-church industrial chaplaincy course. I was a bit of an old hand, theologically and pastorally, by then, but many of the others were young folk just finishing remarkably short courses in various Bible Colleges. They were inclined to see the world as divided between the saved and the unsaved, and inclined to think that their job was to go into factories to ‘save’ the workers, whom they seemed to presume would be unsaved. By the end of the week I was more than a bit jack of that view. So, when we had a concluding session on what all Christians had in common, I cheekily suggested ‘Sin’. It got a laugh, but it wasn’t added to the list on the whiteboard. Luther wasn’t there that day.
At about the same time I was on that course, Catholic bishops and priests were beginning to lament the falling off in the practice of Confession which has since become such a notable feature of western church life. They often ascribed it to a loss of the sense of sin. Back then, I wasn’t so sure. I had my ‘little old ladies’ who came in every week to confess that they ‘may have thought unkindly of their neighbour’. I had my people with ‘shopping lists’ of trivial offences each confession. Had not the Council, or certainly the post-Conciliar experts, taught us that true repentance was a big deal, that it was about ‘metanoia’, a whole re-visioning of the direction of our lives? If people understood what the church had been saying, they wouldn’t be turning up with shopping lists of venial sins, would they? Perhaps the flight from regular confession was actually a catechetical success.
My view was too optimistic, of course. There was a loss of the sense of sin going on. It was not driven by church teaching but by worship of self-esteem, the new view that it was healthy to have a high regard for oneself no matter what. We didn’t sin, we just made ‘bad choices’ or had needs that had to be fulfilled if we were not to be slaves to a morality imposed by someone who didn’t understand us! Yes, the ‘me generation’ is not good at sinfulness.
Anyway, we are in Lent. I don’t say that we should go to Confession, at least not simply that. But Lent is a call to look at how we are living, and it has some useful aids. If I decided to spend 10 minutes a day reading the gospels and couldn’t manage it, what do I devote all my time to? If I was going to deny myself some pleasure and couldn’t do it, what drives really dominate my life choices? If I was going to give some substantial aid to the poor but it turned out to be a pittance, whom do I love besides myself and those who are ‘mine’? So Lent is a time for repentance, for taking stock and for regret at my, let’s use the word, sinfulness. And that repentance should lead to realising my need for grace and the gift of forgiveness, for Christ. And that might mean it’s time to confess, time to make a fresh start.