Thursday, August 18, 2016

Don't gape toward the heavens. . .

Catching up on my reading, I read a wonderful article from John Pless in Lutheran Quarterly on Confession and Absolution (it is a great journal and you ought to subscribe).  In the article Pless quoted a sermon from Martin Luther based on John 20:19-31, preached on April 23, 1536.
[But if Christ says:] "Do not gape toward heaven when you want remission of sins. Rather, you have it here below. If [you have] a pastor, or a neighbor in the case of need, there is no need to seek the Absolution from above, because this Absolution is spoken on earth is Mine.  Why?  Because I have so instituted it and My resurrection will effect it.  Therefore, no one will accuse you, neither death or the devil nor I Myself, when you have received this Absolution, since it is God's own..."   It is true that God alone forgives sins, [but] how will I get to heaven [to get this forgiveness]?  There is no need.  God to the pastor; in the case of [urgent] need, tell your neighbor to recite the Absolution in the name of Jesus Christ.  Then you have the Word; when they do it, Christ has done it.
 Sadly, we have largely forgotten Luther's counsel.  The Absolution and its ministry by the Pastor has become a forgotten aspect of our common life as Christians and our individual faith.  In the same way we have substituted our private prayers for the consolation of the brethren in which we confess to one another and absolve one another as the "Little Christs" God has called us to be.  There are many reasons for this but the consequence is that we have learned to treasure other gifts of God higher than forgiveness and we have settled for the internal rather than external in our confidence that we are forgiven and restored.

Luther's words are set against a backdrop of medieval practice in which the emphasis was on the sin (and confessing every one of them) over the grace of absolution and in which the burden was placed upon the penitent (the satisfaction or penance).  This had robbed the sacrament of it consolation and of its evangelical basis.  Luther was restoring the needful emphasis upon this sacramental grace as a means of comfort for the stained conscience and hope for the sinner left with only his shame.

It remains Christ's Word and Christ's power.  He has given it to the Church to exercise and the Church has set apart by examination, call, and ordination the minister who will publicly administer this Word.  But it remains the domain of Christ and in this way we are assured that its voice speaks truthfully and we can believe it confidently.

We need to more than the feeling of forgiveness.  We need the objective voice and the testimony of the one who speaks it in Christ's name and with His authority.  John Kleinig is surely correct when he has assessed the modern day need for a clear conscience as both a driving force in our lives and the most urgent need for the health of the soul.  But this clear conscience comes not from our justification of our sins nor our excuses of those sins.  We cannot find peace in the mitigating factors of our daily lives nor in the prevailing mood of culture and its shifting values.  We can find it only in Christ, only in His cross, and only in the Word that bestows what it speaks.  Instead of standing with gaped mouth awaiting a sign from heaven, we need to turn to the place where this grace is accessible.  Instead of depositing our confidence in a sacerdotal character, we believe the Word to be Christ's even when it is spoken by the mouth of the pastor and have confidence in it for this reason.  Instead of making forgiveness a privatized transaction in which we offer something and God gives something, we are called to live out this forgiveness within our homes, families, neighborhoods, workplaces, and communities -- thus extending what comes to us from Christ through the mouth of the pastor to the places where we live and work and enjoy our leisure.

Lutherans do not merely tolerate private confession, we glory in it as a means of grace and the place where the terrified conscience finds peace and the fearful heart finds consolation.  Even the general absolution of Sunday morning should not displace private confession from its chief role and purpose to console the guilty with the mercy of God, to strength the weak conscience with the grace of God, and to repair our distance from God and from each other.  Where private confession is strong and vibrant, the people of God are well equipped to fulfill their baptismal promise and vocation.

5 comments:

Kirk Skeptic said...

there can be no effective revival of auricular confession within the LCMS w/o imposition of the sanctity of the confessional. This would mean excommunicating ministers who abuse the privilege, which means church discipline, which means there will be no effective revival of auricular confession within the LCMS.

William Tighe said...


What? The LCMS does not hold and guard "the seal" of the sacrament?

Unknown said...

The purpose of Confession and Absolution is to obtain Forgiveness. It has always troubled me to think about the person who perishes in a car crash on his way to church, thereby dying before Confession and Absolution. Provided the person was a believing, baptized Christian, would he still go to Paradise or would he suffer everlasting damnation? If it is the former, then I need answers to certain questions which I cannot find in the Lutheran Confessions or other authoritative LCMS sources:*
1. When do we receive the forgiveness of sins?
2. What sins can be forgiven?
3. What sins cannot be forgiven?
(*) There is one quotation from Luther’s Large Catechism that is the exception:
The Large Catechism
Holy Baptism
84] For this reason let every one esteem his Baptism as a daily dress in which he is to walk constantly, that he may ever be found in the faith and its fruits, that he suppress the old man and grow up in the new. 85] For if we would be Christians, we must practise the work whereby we are Christians. 86] But if any one fall away from it, let him again come into it. For just as Christ, the Mercy-seat, does not recede from us or forbid us to come to Him again, even though we sin, so all His treasure and gifts also remain. If, therefore, we have once in Baptism obtained forgiveness of sin, it will remain every day, as long as we live, that is, as long as we carry the old man about our neck.
Peace and Joy!
George A. Marquart


John Flanagan said...

I suppose I for one am troubled by some of the things Luther said during his time. I appreciate his many gifts, but I do not put him on a pedestal as some of my fellow Lutheran friends do. I always confess my sins directly to Jesus. I was raised a Catholic and had trouble accepting the idea of a priest forgiving my sins in the Confessional, sending me on my way with instructions to light a candle, say 10 Hail Mary's, and come back next month. I understand the idea of an ordained servant of God deriving authority to forgive sins....as Jesus said it and it is recorded in the Bible. I thought for a long time the real meaning of these instructions had to do with counseling and aiding in accepting the Grace of God and repenting in faith, trusting in Christ. I can accept an ordained minister helping one to see his or her sin, but the actual forgiveness of sin is from a sincere repentant heart communicating with Jesus directly, not through an intermediary. Some will label me a heretic and not a very good Lutheran for suggesting this idea.

Janis Williams said...

Growing up Southern Baptist, and ever warned of the error of Roman Catholicism and Lutheranism, I was taught to confess directly to Christ. I have no doubt that to do this is to receive from Him Absolution. But the question goes back one step further for the Baptist: If I was forgiven when I accepted (I know, BAD Theology) Jesus, so why should I bother to confess? Except, the Scripture says we should confess our sins (we repeat it every Sunday in the general confession). So the question remained one of Law (obedience) to my Baptist mind.

Now, I know my sins were washed in my Baptism (in the Name of the Trinity, though a Baptist). However, I daily sin much - heck, I effectively sin with each inhalation/exhalation. Scripture also tells us to confess to one another - do you think that type of auricular confession will be revived?

No one enjoys repentance and confession; we, like Adam would rather blame someone else instead of being indicted. (Of course, I suppose there are those who have a mental condition that causes them to enjoy it.) We are as believers aware of our fallen state. We are by the Spirit able to believe that Christ hears us. We can't hear Him (unless you''re Pentecostal/Charismatic) audibly though. We are physical beings with ears. To hear the voice of your pastor announcing the forgiveness of Christ over you is real. Lutherans don't make up stuff for us to do (penance) to 'pay' for what we've done - Christ did that. The disciples (and those they would disciple) were told that the sins of those they remitted would be, and the ones they retained would be. I can't see a way around those instructions/promises from Christ Himself that frees me to never confess to my father confessor.

As to pastors/priests who break the seal of the Sacrament, they have Christ to answer on the Last Day.