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Friday, May 28, 2010 

Prayer And Spiritual Formation Workshop Part 7

In my report of the Prayer and Spiritual Workshop I attended I said that there were several portions of the workshop that I thought were very good. These sections met with my approval because they were most identifiable the reformation era confessions, historical practices, and finally and most importantly Scripture. The portion of the class that stood head and shoulders above the rest was the section on the practice of private absolution and confession. I remember thinking that if only the rest of the class was good as this section was then maybe the goofy stuffy like suggesting that we emulate the practices of heretics like Julian of Norwich could “sorta” overlooked. Yep, the portion of the class covering the practice of private confession and absolution was that good. Really.

Since I posted part two in this series of posts where I briefly covered what was discussed concerning the practice of private absolution and confession I’ve been contacted by a reader of POTF (who is one heck of a lot smarter than me and a very, very well read individual) who informed me that this section might not be what it seems at first glance. Huh? Let’s take a closer look shall we?

The handout for the class covers the practice of private absolution and confession this way:


There is a quiet reformation going on in many Lutheran congregations. There is a return to the Reformation understanding of repentance, forgiveness, and the Holy Ministry. People are coming individually to their pastor to confess their sins and receive the forgiveness that Jesus died to win for them. Pastors are seeking fellow pastors toserve as father confessors. Some congregations have scheduled hours specifically for private confession. (cf. “Confession Makes a Comeback,” The Wall Street Journal, by Alexandra Alter, September 21, 2007).

Is private confession a Lutheran practice?

Our Augsburg Confession states that "private absolution should be retained and not allowed to fall into disuse." (Article XI) The Apology to the Augsburg Confession calls Holy Absolution the "voice of the Gospel," and states that "we must believe the voice of the one absolving no less than we would believe a voice coming from heaven." Luther included a short liturgy for private confession in the Small Catechism to teach people how to make confession. He also commended the practice highly from his own personal experience. The Lutheran fathers regarded this matter so highly that, in some places, they referred to it as a ‘sacrament.’ Thus the Apology of the Augsburg Confession states, "Therefore Baptism, the Lord's Supper, and Absolution, which is the Sacrament of Repentance, are truly sacraments. For these rites have God's command and the promise of grace, which is peculiar to the New Testament" (Ap. XIII.4).

Confession was known and practiced by the Apostles (James 5:16, 1 John 1:9) and is established on the authority of Jesus Christ to forgive and retain sins which He entrusted to His Church and exercises publicly through the Office of the Holy Ministry (Matthew 16:18-19, 18:15-20, John 20:19-23;I John 1:9; Psalm 51).

Our own Synod’s founding president Dr. Walther, strongly encouraged the practice, along with every leading Lutheran theologian since Luther (e.g. Concordia Theological Quarterly, October 1992, Vol. 56, #4, pp, 241-262, Fort Wayne, Indiana). The 2007 LCMS Convention urged a return to “Individual Confession and Absolution” (urged congregations to “study,” toward “recovering” the practice, to give “guidance to seminarians and pastors,” “encouraged to make greater use of” www.lcms.org/?13009, Res. 2-07a, page 117) and our new “Lutheran Service Book” includes the rite (pp. 292-3, Agenda, p. 41f.).

But isn't private confession a "Roman Catholic" practice?

Roman Catholics retained the practice, but focused it primarily on what the confessor said. The Lutheran reformers did not do away with private confession. Instead, they reformed it so that Christ's free forgiveness was the primary focus. The Lutherans set aside such legalistic practices as forcing the faithful to come to confession, requiring that every sin be confessed in order to be forgiven, and prescribing certain good works to offset the punishments of sin. Thus, the Lutheran reformers never would have imagined a Lutheran congregation without private confession.

What exactly is confession and absolution?

There are two works present. The first work is ours. We confess and tell the truth about ourselves from what God has revealed to us in His law. We say what we have done and what we have failed to do. We confess only those things that are known to us and that particularly trouble us. We need not torture our memories. Remember that God's forgiveness is always complete and perfect, while our confession will always be partial and incomplete.

The second work is God's. He absolves, or forgives, our sins on account of Jesus' sacrificial suffering and death in our place. God tells the truth about us in Christ, and that is a greater truth than the truth of our sins.

But can't I simply confess my sins before God alone?

Indeed you must, for Jesus teaches His disciples to pray daily for forgiveness in the Lord’s Prayer, and St. John says, "If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us." But the real question is: How is the forgiveness of sins applied to you when you pray to God by yourself? A sinner who is alone and isolated in his or her sin often will not "feel forgiven" and may not be consoled by reading or remembering a passage from the Holy Scriptures. St. Paul wrote that "faith comes by hearing," and so it is for the creating and strengthening of our faith that God has provided for Christ's forgiveness to be spoken into our ears by someone else.

Must I go to my pastor?

That's a Law question. You get to go to your pastor. He is Christ's gift to you (Ephesians 4:11). Nowhere is your pastor more a pastor for you than in private confession and absolution. He is Christ's ear and mouth for you. He is bound by a solemn vow in his ordination never to disclose to anyone what he has heard in confession.

What is the benefit of individual confession and absolution?

Just as a good shepherd tends his flock both as a group and each sheep individually, so a good pastor applies the blood-bought gifts of Christ to his congregation as a whole and to each member individually. In fact, individual absolution is a wonderful way to administer this gift. Here the pastor can apply the forgiveness of Christ to us specifically and personally.

Many a troubled Christian has been greatly blessed by disclosing the awful secret of his or her sin to a pastor only to hear Christ's beautiful word of forgiveness. Individual confession and absolution is also a very potent weapon in the struggle against habitual sins and addictions such as drunkenness, sexual immorality, laziness, greed, gluttony, etc. (cf. Steps 4 & 5 of the Twelve Steps)

How then is individual confession and absolution practiced in a Lutheran congregation?

Private confession is a confidential conversation between a pastor and a penitent. Our Lutheran Service Book Agenda book suggests that private confession take place where people regularly receive the Lord's Supper. A confessional chair may be placed near the altar. Alternatively, a chair or a kneeling bench might be set up in some part of the nave. A short liturgy of confession should be used. (cf. The Lutheran Service Book, pp. 292-3 or Luther's Small Catechism with Explanations, pp. 218-219)

It is helpful to have regular, published hours for private confession. Of course, the pastor will always be ready to hear confession and speak absolution at any time it is needed. Devotional literature should be made available to help people prepare for confession. Particularly helpful are the "penitential psalms" (Psalms 6, 32, 38, 51, 102, 130, 143) and the Small Catechism.

Suggested Reading:

P.H.D. Lang, "Private Confession and Absolution in the Lutheran Church: A Doctrinal, Historical, and Critical Study." Concordia Theological Quarterly (October, 1992) 56(4):241-262. Eric D. Stumpf. "Private Confession: A Call for Restoration in Pastoral Care." Concordia Journal (July, 1993) 19(3):218-233.
Fred. L. Precht. "Confession and Absolution: Sin and Forgiveness" in Lutheran Worship: History and Practice. Concordia Publishing House (1993). pp. 322-386 Wilhelm Loehe. "The Sacrament of Repentance." Translated by Delvin E. Ressel. Una Sancta 10(2):1-11 and 10(3):10-23.

Unlike the rest of the handout, this portion of the workshop quotes both Scripture extensively (and in context!) as well as the confessions of the Lutheran reformation. Also, the bibliography is solidly Lutheran without a goofy mystic who thinks God is a she and Christ is the literal maternal manifestation of the she-god anywhere in sight. The only non-Lutheran sources are found in the introductory paragraph when quoting a Wall Street Journal article and under the benefits of the practice of private confession and absolution where Steps 4 & 5 of the Twelve Steps are referenced. I don’t remember the Twelve Steps being included in any translation of the Lutheran Confessions but then again, as several people have pointed out, I’ve never been to seminary so that one might have slipped by me as I traipse through the casual reading stacked on the library table in my office.

Anyhoo, one would hope that everyone can see why I thought that this portion of the class was pretty good: the presenter ties the practice solidly to history through both Scripture and the Confessions and even includes contemporary Lutheran sources (as opposed to medieval mystics or laicized priests!) to substantiate the claim that this practice is one that Christians have practiced since the Apostolic age. Or does he? That reader of POTF, the one that I said is a good bit smarter than me, pointed out that there is one name missing from the bibliography of the workshop’s summary of the practice of private absolution and confession; the author who wrote the piece: Pastor William M. Cwirla. Here’s a link to the Pastor Cwirla’s original article.

Notice the similarity between Pastor Cwirla’s credited article and the presenter’s handout? It’s clearly the source document that the presenter must have used to put together the practice of private absolution and confession portion of the handout!

See anything different? The handout does include some extra stuff not found in the original piece. The genuine author of the “What is the benefit of individual confession and absolution” section certainly didn’t think it was necessary to reference the Twelve Steps program. Why do you think that is? It’s because the holy things of God don’t need validation from worldly programs to be good, right, and salutary. The practice of private absolution and confession is a holy thing because our Lord himself instituted the very practice and not because we can find examples of owning up to our mistakes in some program.

But something in that section is missing. The presenter didn’t include the last paragraph of the actual author’s explanation of the benefit of the practice did he? He left off the following:

The most important benefit is that we are given to hear a clear, external, objective, official word from God that applies the saving merit of Jesus’ death to us personally and individually.

Now why anyone would leave the last paragraph off? We can only speculate as to the reason but we might have the smallest of hints when the presenter stated, “I wouldn’t want to debate right and wrong because both are right. I would expect where ever each person is at in the room around this issue because it’s not right or wrong” when a participant declared in no uncertain terms that she would never teach her child to confess his sins to a pastor. So, even though the practice was instituted and commanded by Christ, we’re going to say that rejecting that same practice can be right or acceptable as long as a person is in a different place? I would argue that the last paragraph of the actual author’s piece was not included since the words “clear, external, objective, and official” do not lend themselves favorably to postmodernity’s rejection of the absolutes of right and wrong.

It’s odd really that the presenter went to such lengths to credit Jesuits who fought the reformers, mystics that believed that God is a she-god and that sin was a necessary part of life, laicized Roman Catholic priests who believed that the church grew primarily through healings and exorcisms, and even went so far as to ensure that even an unnamed Russian monk were properly credited in his bibliography but failed to credit the actual author who wrote 95% of what was in his handout. Folks, that’s just a little bit odd wouldn’t ya say? Shouldn’t somebody be doing some, uh, public confession and ask for forgiveness from the actual author: Pastor Cwirla.

Now, as I’ve stated before and as it’s been pointed out numerous times in this series of posts by numerous individuals, I’ve never attended seminary (I’ve been to seminaries, taken classes at seminaries, but never as a MDiv student). Even so, I have to wonder, just a teensie-weensie little bit, if there is some kind of, sort of word for when somebody takes another’s work, uses it as his own while making subtle changes and never crediting the person who wrote it? Gosh I wish I knew if there was a word for that, because there certainly should be. Shouldn’t there?

Maybe that wickedly smart reader who brought this to my attention knows if there’s some fancy thirteen-pfennig word that we could use here…

Prayer And Spiritual Formation Workshop Part 1
Prayer And Spiritual Formation Workshop Part 2
Prayer And Spiritual Formation Workshop Part 3
Prayer And Spiritual Formation Workshop Part 4
Prayer And Spiritual Formation Workshop Part 5
Prayer And Spiritual Formation Workshop Part 6

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Great post. Thanks (both to you and to the unnamed commenter...) for bringing the rest of the story to light. The truth matters, even (especially!) when/as some would prefer to relativize it away, so as to not offend their fellow man.


This is more severe instance of something I've seen fairly often. Take something decidedly UN-Lutheran, and toss in a few buzz words: "our Confessions" "Scripture" "gathered around the Word and the Sacrament" in an attempt to keep Joe Pewsitter from getting too upset.

This is absolutely the worst example of whitewashing the sepulcher that I've seen.

And boo! for using someone else's work without credit. How rude!

I approached this with some trepidation, because it sure seems to place the presenter or anyone else who put together this material in a deucedly awkward position. It was hard to believe that this was done shamelessly. So I tried to figure out what the best construction might be...

First I thought, well, *maybe* Pr. Cwirla gave permission for this article to be used... and altered... and the lack of credit is a simple typo or accident. A quick query, and the answer is, no, Pr. Cwirla was not aware of his work being used in this way.

Then I thought, well, *maybe* the presenter didn't put it together at all, and he had a team of other people working on it who stuck it in without his knowledge. But that seemed unlikely, and it just shifts the "why?" question onto other people.

Then I thought, well, *maybe* the presenter just wasn't aware that it's very, very bad form to copy someone else's work for your presentation, make it appear (intentionally or not) that you had actually done the work, not ask permission from the author, not give the author credit, and (at the end of the handout) even tell the general public that all of the material in this handout is free for public use, as though you have the right to do that with someone else's work. But then I thought... SURELY even a middle schooler knows that's a no-no?

Then I thought, well, *maybe* the presenter naively thought that everything found on the internet is fair game. But then, the link to the original Cwirla article contains a nice reference at the bottom that says something like "Used with permission from the author" and includes a link. And given the extensive effort to give credit to all those other sources and mystics, why leave this one glaringly missing?

I'm out of ideas for positive construction. What am I missing? If you're using an entire article written by another pastor and you're doing all that detailed credit-giving elsewhere, WHY not simply ask permission to use it (and then give written credit)? Unless it was thought that permission might not be granted? I give up.

I do think that this is a public problem, because it is clear that there are those people who will recognize Pr. Cwirla's writing, and may now be wondering if he's given his personal blessing to the workshop that used his material in the midst of all that other stuff.

It is a 7th Commandment issue; the author of the handout needs to follow Luther's advice to improve and protect his (Pastor Cwirla) neighbor's(intellectual)property and business. The sooner the author attributes and writes good things about Pastor Cwirla's excellent research in his handout, the better his prayer and spiritual formation workshop lectures will be blest and received.

On the other hand, Matthew 18 has been violated if the author has not been contacted regarding this issue. Has this been done by each and every one of the critics? I suspect that there is a whole lot of sin going around that needs to be confronted. "He that is without sin, cast the first stone..."

We've been over this before. Matthew 18 is about a person sinning against you personally. If I have a problem with something (say) Barack Obama is doing in office, I don't ring him up on the phone. If he's acting publicly, I can discuss, and disagree with, what he's doing publicly. When Peter was acting contrary to the Gospel publicly, Paul called him out on it publicly (Galatians 2). Likewise, Luther posted the Theses and other materials referencing the pope. He didn't have a private audience with the pope first. That would result in nothing but hush-hush.

I understood that the presenter was in fact being contacted. He doesn't need to be contacted by every single person who has a problem with what he did. Can you imagine if you wrote a letter to every single individual in the country who you believed to be acting wrongly? It wouldn't even be kind to the presenter to inundate him like that. Matthew 18 is frequently invoked just to try to pin at least a little bit of blame on whistle-blowers.

WOW! Just WOW! Plagiarism is a pretty serious offense. I hope the presenter will correct this offense and give due credit to Pr. Cwirla in his written materials.

Did any of you desktop heretic hunters contact the author to try to do the right thing and confront him for plagiarism? It is always easier to cast stones from a distance with a holier than thou attitude.

So, Matthew 18 ends up being trashed because old Marty was sometimes inconsistent in applying it himself - even thought he wrote a section in one of his Catechisms explaining why it should be followed. The fact is that a lot of historians believe that the Reformation would have been a whole lot more successful if old Marty had followed what he wrote down in the Catechism. Some people just never learn.

While I usually ignore troll-ish commenting that flings out broad accusations in an attempt to derail discussions and run them into the ditch, I couldn't let this one pass.

"The fact is that a lot of historians believe that the Reformation would have been a whole lot more successful if old Marty had followed what he wrote down in the Catechism."

First of all, produce a source for your "a lot of historians."

Secondly, since your historians seem to think the Reformation wasn't as successful as it could have been, I'd like to know what they think success is. The Reformation only turned the existing church catholic on its head and changed the course of history in all of Western Europe, neve rmind all that rot about restoring the Gospel.

Thirdly: you seem to be intimating that because "old Marty" didn't perfectly apply Matthew 18, we supporters of what Frank is saying in this series are someone using that fact to "justify" doing the same.

Seriously? You've got to be kidding.

EC: That "lot of historians" are Roman Catholics who think that Luther was a jerk and that Lutheranism is bunk. Surprise, surprise! Off to read some Ignatius of Loyola, now...

Anon: I knew that the presenter was being contacted. No need to have dozens of people ringing him up. Look, I know you're upset that Mr. Presenter publicly embarrassed himself and that other people dared to notice, but that's just it: he embarrassed HIMSELF. I say this as someone who has done a lot of blogging, and written articles, studies, etc: If you can't handle public criticism of your work, then don't make your work (or other people's) public. Being a Christian is no excuse for whining at the existence of public criticism of things that a person is actually guilty of.

Incidentally, did anyone else notice that when whichever Anon. called it a "7th Commandment issue," they did not actually name anything that the presenter did as sin? They just used the commandment to talk about all the nice things the presenter can constructively do to say nice things about the real author and to make his presentation better received. ALL of the real blame was assigned to those who noticed the problem. Nice!

“Did any of you desktop heretic hunters contact the author to try to do the right thing and confront him for plagiarism? It is always easier to cast stones from a distance with a holier than thou attitude. ”

Anonymous #3, first things first, did you post your desktop critique without bothering to contact me first or do you feel that Matthew 18 only applies to people who write publicly using their real names and not those who post behind the cowardice of anonymity? Why don’t you tell folks where you are so we can compare the distance of your “holier than thou attitude.”

FYI, the author has been contacted but thanks for assuming that such had not occurred. Not very good with best construction on things are ya?

There was no desktop heretic hunt on my part as I actually attended the workshop. Have you attended the workshop? If you have, then maybe you would like to make obvious the benefits of reintroducing Roman Catholic monastic practices and the mysticism of the desert fathers and folks like Julian of Norwich to those of us who fail to see an upside to returning to pre-reformation practices so clearly condemned by the Lutheran reformers.

Finally, do you believe the Reformation was or was not sucessful? If not, why not? Which historian do you think got it right in their analysis the Reformation “would have been a whole lot more successful” if Dr. Luther had done things differently. Also, I’m guessing that “old Marty” wasn’t your favorite reformer was he?

There already are Catholic, Pentecostal, Charismatic and non-denominational doctrines and practices. Why try to bring all that into the Lutheran Church? That's what the Reformation was all about; Fighting against all the heresies where you have to add something to Christ and Him crucified for the forgiveness of sin. Why don't people just go join the church of their choosing rather than try to bring mystical, emergent, and the newest "new age" culturally relevant thought into the Lutheran Church.
Claudia Kuiper

To swing a little back around to the topic, before getting distracted by a "heresy hunter" accusation about a post that was not really related to false teaching, but at best sloppy practice...

I don't claim to know the "why" here. I don't know what was in the presenter's head with this. I wouldn't mind knowing, but that may never happen. But even if it was just a case of a little "oops," there are at least two very real public ramifications.

First, Frank reported (let's assume he's telling the truth on this) that the presenter claimed to not know too much about the Lutheran Confessions. Including a piece in your workshop that appears to be written by you, that comes from a strong and detailed confessional understanding, will lead everyone at the workshop to believe that the whole workshop was the product of a mind strongly and continually informed by the Lutheran Confessions. That would seem to be somewhat misleading.

And second, there are apparently people out there who are capable of recognizing Pr. Cwirla's work, even uncredited, and may ask themselves whether he's given his blessing to this workshop by allowing his article to stand side by side with all the others. If, say, he doesn't want this to be the case, then no amount of after-the-fact credit-giving really matters. That's a reputation thing.

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