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Matthew Lundin

Sin and Grace

The debate over confession in 16th-century Germany.

In the Presbyterian church of my youth, we were admonished each week to confess our sins silently to God. To an impressionable young mind, a minute or so of silence could provoke all sorts of uncomfortable speculations—whether I had committed the unforgivable sin, whether I had confessed all of my sins, why it was I could not focus my attention on God. To me, these were great, lonely pauses, despite the soft coughs and sniffling. Each week, however, the silence was always quickly followed by a warm reassurance of God's free grace and forgiveness. Though I may have been theologically naïve, I knew intuitively, even then, that this proclamation of grace was the main thing—that its validity did not depend on my secret worries.

Like many who grew up Protestant, my experience of confession has been of a general or purely private sort—either a liturgical reading or a silent prayer. Only Catholics, it seemed, were required to confess their sins to a priest. To the best of my memory, I do not recall having heard a Protestant sermon on the passage in Matthew—the traditional proof-text for Catholic confession—in which Jesus entrusts Peter with the "keys to the kingdom of heaven." I may have heard one, but the exotic powers invoked in the verse—"whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven"—were no doubt too subtle and obscure to remain long in my mind.

There was a time, however, when the issue of the "keys" in general—and private confession in particular—aroused great interest among Protestants. In The Reformation of the Keys: Confession, Conscience, and Authority in Sixteenth-Century Germany, Yale University historian Ronald Rittgers tells a fascinating story of how the first generation of Protestants in the German city of Nürnberg struggled to determine exactly what role private confession and absolution should have in their new church orders. Because English-language ...

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