The pastor mediates the absolution, but he also gives advice, sometimes including suggestions for penance and satisfaction. This advice is some of the most beneficial in a complete confession before the pastor. A person may be entangled in such moral conflicts that life becomes almost unbearable. She might have no one in whom she dare to confide. What if she then would realize that her pastor is a shepherd of the souls ready to meet with her in private confession and obligated to keep to himself everything that she has told him! . . .
When it comes to penance it must be said immediately with emphasis that no penance in the world can earn forgiveness of sins for us. We receive forgiveness of sins only for the sake of Jesus Christ, by grace and without anything that we do. If we would earn forgiveness with our penance, we would be lost beyond hope. . . . He must acknowledge that he neither had been as contrite as he should have been nor had done enough to put relationships right with fellow men whom he had insulted in the past and, truth be told, still insults with envious and demeaning thoughts. Nor dare he claim that he has such disgust at sinning as he ought. . . .
Thus penance is not a means for us to make us deserve forgiveness. But what then is it? Penance is one of the fruits of faith. . . . How penance is a fruit of faith is strikingly set forth in the story of Zacchaeus, the tax collector in Jericho known for his greed. He was despised by all the townspeople, but when Jesus came to Jericho He first of all paid a visit to Zacchaeus, who confessed his sinful love of money and was fully forgiven by Jesus. Zacchaeus said, filled with jubilant joy of faith in his Savior, “Lord, I will give half my belongings to the poor, and if I have cheated anyone, I will pay him back four times as much” (Luke 19:8).
That is what penance is! . . . The Spirit and the Word will often drive a person who is penitent to do the penance that God expects from her without her being guided by anyone else. However, every Christian knows that it is not always easy to understand what kind of penance God wants him to do, even if he dearly desires to do His will. This uncertainty can be totally devastating to the peace of the soul. . . .
If you want real cure for your tormented conscience, there is one thing to do: lay everything bare for your pastor, confessing your sins and receiving in the absolution the gift of forgiveness, and also accepting his advice for your spiritual journey. Your father confessor may then ask you, as a sign of your penitence, to agree to do the penance he suggests without your knowing what he is going to ask you to do.
—Bo Giertz, Christ’s Church
Discuss. Clergy (Lutheran), please give concrete examples of penances you have enjoined on penitents. Penitents (Lutheran), please give concrete examples of penance you have enjoined on yourself. Self (Lutheran), please consider concrete as the best of all Rome’s gifts.