Saturday, September 29, 2007

Roundtable 26: Confession

The Lutheran Reformation has its root cause in the confessional. People coming to make their confession to Father Martin Luther began to tell him that they needn't worry any longer about forgiveness, or about what they might, or might not do, because they had purchased an indulgence, and considered it a "get out of hell free" card that assured them of God's grace and mercy in spite of anything they, or their deceased relatives, had done. Whether this was an accurate understanding of what indulgences were meant to be is not the point. The practical consequence of the false teaching of the indulgence peddlers, who at the time were raising money on behalf of the local Roman Catholic Archbishop who was in turn paying Rome off for the exception granted him to hold more than one ecclesial office, and Rome in turn was raising cash to construct St. Peters. In the midst of this deep and profound corruption of the Gospel and the Church, the Biblical gift of absolution and the practice of giving that absolution privately to the individual sinner through the practice of private confession and absolution was being horribly distorted, corrupting the very Gospel itself. And hence, in the Augsburg Confession, in Article XXV, the Lutherans had to defend themselves from the accusation that they had done away with private confession and absolution and make clear that what they rejected were the false and Gospel obscuring practices that had grown up around the practice, like noxious weeds, choking out the beautiful gift of the absolving good news of Christ Jesus. In a tragic irony, today, for the most part, the practice of private confession and absolution has been lost in the Lutheran Church. That's the bad news. The good news? There has been a renaissance of the practice in recent years, with the convention of The Lutheran Church--Missouri Synod last summer (July 2007) adopting a resolution encouraging its use and a return and restoration of this practice in the congregations of the Synod. The voice of Christ Himself, using the voice and mouth of the ministry, is being heard by the sinner in private confession and the personal application of the absolution is a priceless treasure that must be extolled and retained.

13 comments:

Paul T. McCain said...

Here is how the Roman Catholics responded to the Augsburg Confession on this point:

As to confession, we must adhere to the reply and judgement given above in Article XI. For the support which they claim from Chrysostom is false, since they pervert to sacramental and sacerdotal confession what he says concerning public confession, as his words clearly indicate when in the beginning he says: "I do not tell thee to disclose thyself to the public or to accuse thyself before others." Thus Gratian and thus Peter Lombard replied three hundred years ago; and the explanation becomes still more manifest from other pasages of Chrysostom. For in his twenty-ninth sermon he says of the penitent: "In his heart is contrition, in his mouth confession, in his entire work humility. This is perfect and fruitful repentance." Does not this most exactly display the three parts of repentance? So in his tenth homily on Matthew, Chrysostom teaches of a fixed time for confession, and that after the wounds of crimes have been opened they should be healed, penance intervening. But how will crimes lie open if they are not disclosed to the priest by confession? Thus in several passages Chrysostom himself refutes this opinion, which Jerome also overthrows, saying: "If the serpent the devil have secretly bitten any one, and without the knowledge of another have infected him with the poison of sin, if he who has been struck be silent and do not repent, and be unwilling to confess his wound to his brother and instructor, the instructor, who has a tongue wherewith to cure him, will not readily be able to profit him. For if the sick man be ashamed to confess to the physician, the medicine is not adapted to that of which he is ignorant." Let the princes and cities, therefore, believe these authors rather than a single gloss upon a decree questioned and rejected by those who are skilled in divine law. Wherefore, since a full confession is, not to say, necessary for salvation, but becomes the nerve of Christian discipline and the entire obedience, they must be admonished to conform to the orthodox Church. For, according to the testimony of Jerome, this was the heresy of the Montanist, who were condemned over twelve hundred years ago because they were ashamed to confess their sins. It is not becoming, therefore, to adopt the error of the wicked Montanus, but rather the rite of the holy fathers and the entire Church - viz. that each one teach, according to the norm of the orthodox faith, that confession, the chief treasure in the Church, be made in conformity to the rite kept among them also in the Church.

wm cwirla said...

Private absolution is a great gift and blessing in its specificity, wherein an individual penitent can hear the forgivness of sins in view of the specific sins that trouble him most.

I rejoice that our synod has officially recognized the value of this form of absolution and has heeded our Confessions which say we retain private confession for the sake of the absolution and it would be wicked to remove private confession from the churches. As the sainted Kenneth Korby always liked to add, "And it would be equally wicked not to restore it where it has been removed."

A couple of things need to be kept in view of this article:

First, the form of private absolution is not a divinely mandated form but a churchly custom (Gewohnheit). In the Smalcald Articles, Luther rightly notes that private absolution is "derived (herkommen) from the office of the keys" (SA III.VII.1). While it is derivative from the authority of the keys, there is no specific divine mandate to speak to one's pastor in private. This is a good and salutary custom that has developed over long years in the church.

Second, the general or corporate absolution to which we are accustomed in most of our chuches today is not an inferior or lesser form of absolution, but simply another way in which the authority of the keys is exercised.

Luther and Melanchthon had to address this in a controversy with Osiander in 1533 over corporate absolution to which Osiander vehemently objected. Luther writes:

"The preaching of the holy Gospel itself is principally and actually an absolution in which forgiveness of sins is proclaimed in general and in public to many persons, or publicly or privately to one person alone. Therefore absolution may be used in public and in general, and in special cases also in private, just as the sermon may take place publicly or privately, and as one might comfort many people in public or someone individually in private. Even if not all believe [the word of absolution], that is no reason to reject [public] absolution, for each absolution, whether administered publicly or privately, has to be understood as demanding faith and as being an aid to those who believe in it, just as the gospel itself also proclaims forgiveness to all men in the whole world and exempts no one from this universal context. Nevertheless the gospel certainly demands our faith and does not aid those who do not believe it; and yet the universal context of the gospel has to remain [valid]." (LW 50:75)

William Weedon said...

On Gospel as absolution, I just LOVE this passage from Chrysostom:

Suppose someone should be caught in the act of adultery and the foulest crimes and then be thrown into prison. Suppose, next, that judgment was going to be passed against him and that he would be condemned.

Suppose that just at that moment a letter should come from the Emperor setting free from any accounting or examination all those detained in prison. If the prisoner should refuse
to take advantage of the pardon, remain obstinate and choose to be brought to trial, to give an account, and to undergo punishment, he will not be able thereafter to avail himself of the Emperor's favor. For when he made himself accountable to the court, examination, and sentence, he chose of his own accord to deprive himself of the imperial gift.

This is what happened in the case of the Jews. Look how it is. All human nature was taken in the foulest evils. "All have sinned," says Paul. They were locked, as it were, in a prison by the curse of their transgression of the Law. The sentence of the judge was going to be passed against them. A letter from the King came down from heaven. Rather, the King himself came. Without examination, without exacting an account, he set all men free from the chains of their sins.

All, then, who run to Christ are saved by his grace and profit from his gift. Bu those who wish to find justification from the Law will also fall from grace. They will not be able to enjoy the King's loving-kindness because
they are striving to gain salvation by their own efforts; they will draw down on themselves the curse of the Law
because by the works of the Law no flesh will find justification.

Paul T. McCain said...

TL Stout, please send me a private e-mail at boc1580@aol.com I'll be happy to talk to you about the subject of your comment, which is more of a private issue than a comment pertaining to the subject matter of Article XXV of the AC.

I would like to offer you some ideas and some suggestions.

I'm looking forward to hearing from you.

wm cwirla said...

"On Gospel as absolution, I just LOVE this passage from Chrysostom...."

Wow!! Citation please! 24 K gold from the Golden Mouthed. I love how he nails objective justification:

Without examination, without exacting an account, he set all men free from the chains of their sins.

Oh, that is simply too good!

wm cwirla said...

It occurred to me this morning that the magnificent quote from Chrysostom was paralleled precisely by CFW Walther in his Proper Distinction of the Law and the Gospel, the thesis that deals with objective justification. He also says the same thing in his classic Easter sermon wherein Walther calls Christ's resurrection "the world's absolution."

William Weedon said...

I forgot to give the citation? Dang. Apologies. It's from his Discourse Against Judaizing Christians I:6 to end. Now, I think you can find that in that little red set - what is it called? Fathers of the Church? Something like that. I got it from the sem library eons ago and copied it out, thinking exactly as you did: this is EXACTLY what Walther said about objective justification!

David said...

For the first 44 years of my life I was in church traditions which did not have confession and absolution. The Gospel was preached but more like a remote idea rather than something one could actually hold onto.

Praise God He has brought me to a tradition which values this gift. Never before have I had such peace and assurance.

Thank you for the articles on this Fr mccain, cwirla and weedon.

b said...

I'd appreciate your comments on the pastor saying "I absolve you ..."; I have recently exited the road to Geneva and am now on the road to Wittenberg (though very very slowly). When my wife and I hear the Pastor say that he forgives us our sins, we both cringe and think to ourselves, "who can forgive sins but God alone?". Thanks.

Mike Baker said...

I'll answer this one:

LCMS FAQ: "Pastors do indeed have the authority (as those called by God through the church) to speak God's word of forgiveness to repentant sinners in the stead and name of Christ (see, e.g., Matt. 16:18; 18:15-19; John 20:22-23)."**

Here is the passage from John 20:

"And when he [Christ] had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, "Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you withhold forgiveness from any, it is withheld."

Lutheran absolution references the source of the forgiveness:

"Do you believe that my forgiveness is God's forgiveness?"

...and...

"Upon this your confession, I, by virtue of my office as a called and ordained servant of the Word, announce the grace of God to all of you, and in the stead and by the command of my Lord Jesus Christ I forgive you all your sins."

[**My source for the FAQ quote is:
http://www.lcms.org/pages/internal.asp?NavID=2696 ]

[Another good answer to this question can be found here: http://www.lcms.org/pages/internal.asp?NavID=3826 ]

Mike Baker said...

I'll answer this one:

LCMS FAQ: "Pastors do indeed have the authority (as those called by God through the church) to speak God's word of forgiveness to repentant sinners in the stead and name of Christ (see, e.g., Matt. 16:18; 18:15-19; John 20:22-23)."**

Here is the passage from John 20:

"And when he [Christ] had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, "Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you withhold forgiveness from any, it is withheld."

Lutheran absolution references the source of the forgiveness:

"Do you believe that my forgiveness is God's forgiveness?"

...and...

"Upon this your confession, I, by virtue of my office as a called and ordained servant of the Word, announce the grace of God to all of you, and in the stead and by the command of my Lord Jesus Christ I forgive you all your sins."

[**My source for the FAQ quote is:
http://www.lcms.org/pages/internal.asp?NavID=2696 ]

[Another good answer to this question can be found here: http://www.lcms.org/pages/internal.asp?NavID=3826 ]

Rev. Matthew Thompson said...

I realize that this is a late post, but what does it means in paragraph 12 when it says, "And the Gloss (Of Repentance, Distinct.V, Cap. Consideret) admits that Confession is of human right only. Nevertheless, because of the great benefit of Absolution, and because it is otherwise useful to the conscience, Confession is retained among us."?

Doesn't the Catechism teach that Christ instituted Confession in John 20? How can Confession be of human right only?

Frank Sonnek said...

b:

"When my wife and I hear the Pastor say that he forgives us our sins, we both cringe and think to ourselves, "who can forgive sins but God alone?". Thanks."

It´s about (at least) 3 things that are all about reassuring timid sinners, that, yes, it is right and sure to trust that what Jesus did is for them personally:

1) Office: Judges say "by the power invested in my by the state of ---- I (!) sentence you to ----". Even if that Judge turns out to be a scoundrel, the judgement is still valid. certainty! When that same judge grounds her kid for missed homework, or utters judgement contrary to her charge, she speaks outside of the authority of her office. But within her office...

2) A God who wont rest His case: Like a good teacher has various illustrations of the same truth, God gives you the gospel in the preached word, the general absolution, the private confession and absolution, the body and blood of Jesus, the water of baptism. the conversation of the saints, etc etc etc... until you cry "uncle!" and say "wow! I will hold God to His Word. His forgiveness covers ME."

3)THE proper work of the Church: Interesting that no one finds it odd for individual christians or pastors to say "I condemn the sin of ----" , but to do the same with forgiveness.... and yet this IS THE mission of the church. Jesus did not come to condemn the word but to seek and save that which was lost.

Question for ya: What WOULD the practice look like for the church´s charge in carrying out the "whosoever sins you forgive they are forgiven" if you created a church from scratch. How would you actualize that charge??

4) you are so right. ONLY God can forgive sins! That is exactly why they wanted to stone Jesus. He claimed that power (and so claimed to be God). He then was given all authority on heaven and earth and gave that power to forgive sins to his church. He expects His church to vigorously exercise that power dontcha think? Pastors are publicly set aside to hold an office that speaks for the church publicly. What a blessing!