Monday, June 6, 2011

Baptism, Confession and Absolution

There are many Lutherans who lament the loss of individual or private confession and absolution from the life of the Church.  Even where it does exist, it lives more on the fringes than the center of the Church's life or the life of the individual Christian.  Though many have suggested that the demise of confession and absolution has to do with the way see sin, I wonder if it is not also related to how far baptism is from our lives and from our piety.

Confession and absolution are the practical way in which baptism is lived out in the daily life of the Christian.  It does not necessarily stand completely upon its own in this way but flows from baptism and extends the baptismal event into the present moment.  To daily die to sin and rise to the new person you are in baptism is not primarily a mental activity but the practical and concrete domain of confession and absolution.  The call to daily repentance is not a call to prayer but a call to live out this baptismal identity through regular confession and absolution.

I am not speaking of a new law or command here but that which flows naturally from baptism.  Perhaps this is why we Lutherans have trouble explaining what our baptism has to do with our daily life -- other than the mental remembrance that I am baptized.  We talk a great deal about baptism but for most Lutherans baptism remains an event caught in time, it is something that took place but whose consequences and effects are not easily connected to the present moment and to this day and this life.  We have problems seeing the value of or experiencing the gift of confession and absolution because baptism itself is so far from our Christian identity and the practice of our faith.

Strange, isn't it, that we Lutherans tend to be more at home in an evangelism program borrowed from D. James Kennedy or in a stewardship program borrowed from the Baptists or in a "liturgy" and songs that come right out of the latest non-denominational setting than we are in private confession and absolution?  The general confession and absolution (or its declaration of grace) that takes place publicly as the preparation for the Divine Service is a relatively new addition in comparison to the ancient practice of private confession.  Perhaps the strength in numbers gives us the courage to own our sins and express the contrition and sorrow of our Christian heart.  In any case, the place of confession and absolution is far removed from the lives of the ordinary Lutheran -- not at all similar to the situation in the first century or more of the Reformation.

We could suggest that we are afraid of being painted as "Catholic" or that we would go if we needed it but we don't need it, but I wonder if the real problem is more related to baptism and how we understand the living out of our once for the rest of our lives baptismal event.  Where baptism lives strong in our hearts and in our thinking and in our piety, confession and absolution flow naturally forth.

Over the years I have had any number of folks wonder why we might leave out the public confession and absolution on Sunday morning when there is a baptism scheduled for that service.  It is worth reminding that the liturgy of baptism and our remembrance of that baptism as we watch another claimed by water and the Word are itself an event filled with confession and absolution.  Not the same, for sure, but connected.  Then again, as one woman put it to me so long ago, "Why did you omit the confession because of that baptism?  I needed that confession and absolution."  When I pointed out the connection between confession and absolution and baptism, she wondered what "some kid's baptism had to do with her?"  When I offered to schedule private confession and absolution, her reply was, "I don't need it that bad."  Therein lies the problem.  It is not simply a confession and absolution issue but a baptismal one.

15 comments:

Rev. Allen Bergstrazer said...

Once again you ponder a question that I've been mulling for years. How does one bring private confession to the fore after decades of absence. Not only absence but most Lutherans do not know that it was a common practice among us. The story was told to me of a small town near where I live in which a half a century ago the local buisnesses knew when the Lutherans were going to have communion because all of the delinquent bills would get paid-a consequence of the confessional.

Private confession is thoroughly intimidating for those who have never experiened it. I've heard that it is repellent because it is too Catholic, but mostly I think what is off-putting is that it requires that we speak our sins openly to someone else. We'd much rather have the "other" private convession, which is to confess to God in prayer and ask for forgiveness. I've lost count of how many times the response to private confession has been 'I don't need that, I can confess my sins in church, or at home in private, and that's good enough for me.' Yes, we can but that can also lead to a problem that Harold Senkbeil referrs to as 'self medication.' That is, we apply the Gospel to ourselves as needed and in our own way, which usually leads to making excuses for sin. Sin does not get properly identified as sin and so the sinner justifies their actions in private.

christl242 said...

Well, private confession and absolution wasn't common in the Church of Rome either until it was introduced by Irish monks. I see no Scriptural command for it.

Frankly, for the ten plus years I was Catholic I found it turned my view of the nature of baptism upside down, that we should rise daily in the waters of our baptism to live as the new creations we now are in Christ Jesus.

The RC problem is that it is focused on "sins" instead of "sin", which is what causes us to sin to begin with. The RC is weaker on the doctrine of original sin than Lutherans are. It also plays nicely into the RC idea that perfection in this life is possible if we but strive to live the lives of the "saints" that are lifted up before us. Pelagianism, anyone?

There is nothing so precious and grace-filled as the announcement of God's forgiveness before the congregation by our pastors.

Far, far more edifying than the ten Hail Mary's I used to be assigned for my "penance."

Christine

Rev. Allen Bergstrazer said...

Christine, point well taken. It sounds like you've been well catechized. We live as children of God, under the cross, daily dying to sin and rising to Christ. However, there is precidence for private confession and absolution in scripture, the absolution of David by Nathan. David was hiding his sin rather than confessing it, Nathan reveals that God knows and desires to forgive him.

christl242 said...

Hi Pastor,

One of our biggest problems is that afer Confirmation adult Lutherans tend to see the Small Catechism as a "child's" tool. What a tragedy. If more Lutherans would examine themselves using the guidance of the SC for those who wish to receive the Sacrament of the Altar we would have a healthy sense of our need for God's forgiveness.

It is also interesting how badly "Reconciliation", as it is called since Vatican II, has fallen into disuse among the Catholic laity.

Back in my husband's and father's day, both of whom were raised Catholic, there was still enough fear of the fires of purgatory and the drilling of the nuns who taught parochial school to keep the confessional lines long on Saturday night. That is decidedly no longer the case. Many RC parishes now only offer reconciliation by appointment.

IMHO private confession and absolution certainly can have a place in Lutheran spirituality but they should never be obligatory as is the case in the RC. The example of King David is a valid one but generally speaking, over and over the Psalmist urges the sinner to go directly to God with his sin, which will certainly fester if not acknowledged before the Lord.

Another very bad fruit of confession as it is practiced in the RC is the assignment of sins as "venial" or "mortal." Now, no one would argue that stealing a loaf of bread is a serious as murder. But the end result is that in RC theology the Sacrament of the Altar forgives only venial sin and that the truncated Kyrie at mass does not replace private confession.

Scripture tells us that according to the law if we break one commandment we break them all, which would come as a great surprise to most Catholics and which makes the grace of the Gospel the precious gift that it is.

I am very glad to be away from all that Roman sophistry and hear the clear Gospel word of absolution at Divine Service.

Christine

Anonymous said...

Christine is right...The best place
for Confession and Absolution is in
the Divine Service on Sunday. When
a parish member has a troubling
situation concerning confession
he or she will make plans to see the
pastor privately. But the great
majority of parishioners can be
helped in the Divine Service as
mentioned above.

Rev. Allen Bergstrazer said...

Christine, I also agree that private confession should not be made obligatory. My point, and I think Pastor Peter's point is that there seems to be a rather low view of it. Nor was it to put private confession over or above corporate confession and absolution. I also agree that the Cathechism is often treated as dispensible as a high school text book, that once completed it is no longer needed. I'm still learning it after having taught it for 14 years.

Annon #1; would that that were the case. But private confession and absolution 'in a troubling situation' is not a part of the contemporary Lutheran landscape. Rather, the individual in the troubling situation is more likely today to head down to the local Christian bookstore and buy "A Purpose Driven life," because a friend recommends it or some other self-help book and try to solve the problem themselves.

Pastor Peters said...

Confession and absolution within the Divine Service was a recent innovation and one not all that common among early Lutherans; they had a "high view" of it. For too many Lutherans, it does not exist. That is to the loss of those who might benefit; no rule here but great missed opportunity...

Anonymous said...

I suspect the problem lies in the fact that we Lutherans in America, strange as that may sound, do not understand either Baptism or Repentance as they are taught in Scripture.
Beginning with Repentance, two articles (The Smalcald ArticlesPart III, Article III. Of Repentance.,Of the False Repentance of the Papists.40] and The Solid Declaration of the Formula of ConcordII. Free Will, or Human Powers34]) state that “in Christians this repentance continues until death…” The problem is that, because of a mistranslation, these articles state the exact opposite of what the writers intended. The German “währt“ does not mean “continues”, but “stays in effect.“ In other words, the repentance that is spoken of is the one time event which the Apostles proclaimed on Pentecost (Acts 2:38), “Repent, and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ so that your sins may be forgiven; and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.” If we insist on repenting daily, we would also need to be baptized daily, but we know enough not to do that. (The Kolb/Wengert translation handles this better than the others, but still does not convey the full meaning of “währt“) Contrition, or sorrow for our sins is indeed a daily event, but it is not the soul wrenching “rebirth” that results from the μετάνοια taught in Scripture. When the sons and daughters of the gracious Father have received their new mantel and a ring, they need no longer fall down before Him and confess, “I am not worthy …” The Father has made us worthy because of His beloved Son. Indeed, one could argue that when our Lord taught us to ask for forgiveness in His Prayer, this is the forgiveness for the sins we have yet to commit on the same day for which we ask for our daily bread and not to be led into temptation.
Baptism suffers from the absence of the Holy Spirit. We speak of “Water and the Word”, rather than “Water and the Spirit” as our Lord taught us. If you check the regular sections of our Confessions dealing with Baptism, you will hardly find Him. It is only when you get into the sections dealing with infant Baptism that we read of the gift of the Holy Spirit, the work of the Holy Spirit, and the indwelling of the Holy Spirit. As a result there are many in our Church who teach about the Holy Spirit as if He were some substance (like grace in the Roman Church), which can be used up, or leaked out, and which must be refilled or “topped off”. Supposedly the latter happens when we hear the Word of God, receive Holy Communion, and on numerous other occasions, as when we pray, “Fill us with your Holy Spirit.” Our Lord, instead, taught that (John 14:15) “… He will be with you forever” as do innumerable passages of Scripture that deal with the Holy Spirit.
If we taught about Baptism and Repentance properly our people could have the wonderful joy of the children of God, which is the intended consequence of being “filled with the Holy Spirit.”

The Solid Declaration of the Formula of Concord
VI. The Third Use of the Law 17] But when man is born anew by the Spirit of God, and liberated from the Law, that is, freed from this driver, and is led by the Spirit of Christ, he lives according to the immutable will of God comprised in the Law (presumably in the sense of “Torah”, not the “Decalogue” as the Apology asserts. GAM), and so far as he is born anew, does everything from a free, cheerful spirit; and these are called not properly works of the Law, but works and fruits of the Spirit, or as St. Paul names it, the law of the mind and the Law of Christ.”

But private confession, which Scripture does not mention, and which did not become wide spread for the first 500 years of the faith, although a good thing is not critical to our life in Christ.

Peace and Joy!
George A. Marquart

Terry Maher said...

Luther once wrote that if we really understood what Confession is we would run 100 miles to do it.

Nobody shows up at the parsonage out of breath these days.

I agree with both sides. I remember at my parent's funerals, both RC, and both after I was Lutheran, how weird it seemed to hear "May almighty God have mercy on us, forgive us our sins, and bring us to life everlasting".

Back then I was not the placid irenic sort I am now, and I remember telling my pastor I couldn't wait to get home and here a real absolution, "Upon this your confession ... in the stead and by the command of my Lord Jesus Christ I forgive you all your sins" and that it was all I could so to keep from shouting You great ape, it's not MAY, you're supposed to be telling them he HAS had mercy on us and HAS forgiven our sins.

Whether done at the beginning of Divine Service as in the West or before the Service of the Word as in the East, what a wonderful part of the Divine Service, and not a competitor at all to private confession.

Anonymous said...

I suspect the problem lies in the fact that we Lutherans in America, strange as that may sound, do not understand either Baptism or Repentance as they are taught in Scripture.
Beginning with Repentance, two articles (The Smalcald ArticlesPart III, Article III. Of Repentance.,Of the False Repentance of the Papists.40] and The Solid Declaration of the Formula of ConcordII. Free Will, or Human Powers34]) state that “in Christians this repentance continues until death…” The problem is that, because of a mistranslation, these articles state the exact opposite of what the writers intended. The German “währt“ does not mean “continues”, but “stays in effect.“ In other words, the repentance that is spoken of is the one time event which the Apostles proclaimed on Pentecost (Acts 2:38), “Repent, and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ so that your sins may be forgiven; and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.” If we insist on repenting daily, we would also need to be baptized daily, but we know enough not to do that. (The Kolb/Wengert translation handles this better than the others, but still does not convey the full meaning of “währt“) Contrition, or sorrow for our sins is indeed a daily event, but it is not the soul wrenching “rebirth” that results from the μετάνοια taught in Scripture. When the sons and daughters of the gracious Father have received their new mantel and a ring, they need no longer fall down before Him and confess, “I am not worthy …” The Father has made us worthy because of His beloved Son. Indeed, one could argue that when our Lord taught us to ask for forgiveness in His Prayer, this is the forgiveness for the sins we have yet to commit on the same day for which we ask for our daily bread and not to be led into temptation.
Baptism suffers from the absence of the Holy Spirit. We speak of “Water and the Word”, rather than “Water and the Spirit” as our Lord taught us. If you check the regular sections of our Confessions dealing with Baptism, you will hardly find Him. It is only when you get into the sections dealing with infant Baptism that we read of the gift of the Holy Spirit, the work of the Holy Spirit, and the indwelling of the Holy Spirit. As a result there are many in our Church who teach about the Holy Spirit as if He were some substance (like grace in the Roman Church), which can be used up, or leaked out, and which must be refilled or “topped off”. Supposedly the latter happens when we hear the Word of God, receive Holy Communion, and on numerous other occasions, as when we pray, “Fill us with your Holy Spirit.” Our Lord, instead, taught that (John 14:15) “… He will be with you forever” as do innumerable passages of Scripture that deal with the Holy Spirit.
If we taught about Baptism and Repentance properly our people could have the wonderful joy of the children of God, which is the intended consequence of being “filled with the Holy Spirit.”

The Solid Declaration of the Formula of Concord
VI. The Third Use of the Law 17] But when man is born anew by the Spirit of God, and liberated from the Law, that is, freed from this driver, and is led by the Spirit of Christ, he lives according to the immutable will of God comprised in the Law (presumably in the sense of “Torah”, not the “Decalogue” as the Apology asserts. GAM), and so far as he is born anew, does everything from a free, cheerful spirit; and these are called not properly works of the Law, but works and fruits of the Spirit, or as St. Paul names it, the law of the mind and the Law of Christ.”

But private confession, which Scripture does not mention, and which did not become wide spread for the first 500 years of the faith, although a good thing is not critical to our life in Christ.

Peace and Joy!
George A. Marquart

Anonymous said...

Pastor Bergstrazer originally asked how one brings private confession to the fore after decades of absence. For me, I would like to see my pastor have regularly scheduled hours when he will be in the church and available to hear confessions, preferably on Saturdays. That, more than anything else, would make it visible and would convince me that the pastor is serious about it.

This would take a commitment on his part, because on many days he would probably have no visitors. I would really like him to hear my confession. But it's hard enough going to confession without asking for a special appointment, which I feel a little guilty about doing because I know my pastor is so busy. And I really don't want to have to be fretting about the whole thing between the time I make the appointment and the time of the actual confession (a week from next Thursday?). My sins, though probably not terribly spectacular from a worldly point of view, are deeply embarrassing to me, and if I think about the process of confession too much I'm going to freak out. I'd really like just to be able to walk in off the street and do it. So I probably won't go to confession unless it's fairly easy to do. (Yes, I know, that's probably a sin I need to confess, but I still feel that way.)

Rev. Allen Bergstrazer said...

Anon #3, Thanks for your thoughts, they're actually quite helpful. Making an appointment with the pastor (especially if there is a secretary involved) can also give one the impression that they're signalling everyone that they have a problem of some sort. In rural areas, just parking your car in front of the church at certain times of the day (when you should be at work, or out in the field etc.) can cause the tongues to wag. So just having a standard day and time could be very helpful. As for confession itself, no one is going to speak openly of their sin and then hear a pastor gasp and say 'what did you do that for?' No scolding is allowed. Nor is a pastor going to hear a confession and say 'what are you bothering me with this for?' Dismissiveness is not a part of private confession either.

Grace and peace to you.

Anonymous said...

Pastor Bergstrazer,

Thank for your comments and your concern. I hadn't thought about the issue with parking the car at church and having people talk. I suppose that could really be a concern, although it isn't with me. Nor am I worried about what the pastor might say to me. I am also not worried that some sin might not be forgiven. I'd just like confession to be part of my devotional routine, but right now I hesitate to impose on my pastor on a regular basis, even if it's just once or twice a year. But it keeps preying on my mind that I should do it, so we'll see.

Alynn said...

I had the opportunity to go to Private Confession with a pastor at the place where I volunteer after he instituted scheduled times to hear confessions. As painful and scary as it was to walk into the chapel and speak what was weighing on my heart, it was such a relief to feel the touch of his hands on my head and hear the words of absolution being spoken.

While my parish pastor does use the general order for confession and absolution in the litugy on Sunday mornings, he does not publicly offer Private Confession and is not really comfortable with it at all. He will provide Private Confession and Absolution if asked, but will not openly suggest it or offer it.

Even though I know that the words of absolution on Sunday morning are equally valid to those spoken during a time of private confession and absolution, I need to hear those words 1:1 at times. Unfortunately, the pastor who provided the time of private confession will likely be leaving for another call soon and I will lose the only opportunity I really have to receive private absolution from a trusted pastor who openly offers it and sees it as a privilege to be able to provide.

>>it's hard enough going to confession without asking for a special appointment, which I feel a little guilty about doing because I know my pastor is so busy.<< I have repeatedly chosen to not request counselling or other pastoral care because of how busy my pastor's schedule is, even when I have been ready to walk away from my faith and God for good. In that same vein, even if I had known that my pastor did offer private confession and was unaware of his discomfort, I still would not have made an appointment with him because of how full I know his days are.

Alynn said...

I guess my previous post brings up a question: What does one do if they desire Private Confession but their pastor does not offer it or they are unable to go to him for whatever reason?