Prayer And Spiritual Formation Workshop Part 7
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:
PRIVATE CONFESSION & FORGIVENESS
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.
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