Saturday, October 30, 2010

General Absolution vs Private Absolution

There has long been a conflict going on within Lutheranism regarding the very common general confession and general absolution (as opposed to the simple declaration of grace) and the private confession and absolution so lauded but seldom used.  I understand the concerns and they are easy to describe.  On one hand you have a general setting with people all over the map, so to speak, with respect to their conscience, their confession, and their contrition.  Yet we lump all of them together and seem to say without distinguishing, "I forgive you all."  Some have attempted to shade this a bit by either the use of the declaration of grace which informs the sinner of God's disposition to those who believe on His name and have made contrite confession.  Others have longed for the older and less commonly used caveat at the end of the general absolution.  This reminds the impenitent that their sins are not forgiven and that they remain unforgiven until they repent of their sins.

We could spend a few hours of cyber time tracing the history of the general absolution, when the conditional absolution dropped out, and the usage of the general absolution as opposed to the declaration of grace (in my own personal experience the declaration was more often used on "non-communion" Sundays or the majority of the time and the general absolution was used when the Divine Service was used -- quarterly, then monthly where I grew up).  But I am not going to spend time with that here or now.  Instead I want to focus on the pastoral dimensions of the use of the general absolution.

There are those who are (rightfully) concerned that those who come without repentance are given the impression in the general absolution ("As a called and ordained servant of Christ, and by His authority, I therefore forgive you all your sins in the name of the Father and of the + Son and of the Holy Spirit") they are, well, off the hook.  They do not need to search their hearts to see if they are penitent, the general absolution releases them from all the consequences of their sin -- contrite or not.  It is not that I do not believe this happens.  I do believe that there are those every Sunday who walk away thinking that forgiveness is a relatively easy transaction.  You show up and God forgives you and you can walk out to return to your ways of sin -- guilt free.  BUT I believe that these are very few indeed.  And I do not believe that they would leave feeling any differently simply because a conditional absolution were pronounced or only a declaration of grace spoken.

This is a problem and an issue which requires more than tinkering with the absolution formula in order to repair.  The preaching of the Law and the Pastor's counsel to the individual sinner are perhaps the better place to address these things.  What concerns me more is the idea that the absolution voiced by the Pastor is nothing more than nice words.  I have found more often that people find it hard to believe that the general absolution actually does what it says -- that forgiveness is applied with heavenly consequence as well as earthly one.  This is one reason why I believe it is important for the Lutheran Pastor to be heard saying in unmistakable terms, "I forgive you all your sins in the Name of the Father and of the + Son and of the Holy Spirit."

What I hear from the folks in the pews is that they long for and wait all week to hear these words and then work to believe what these words have said is done as they said.  I find that persistent guilt is more of a problem than people regularly in Church but impenitent over their sins.  I believe that we live in a culture of guilt that we think slides off of us like grease off of teflon but, in truth, sticks like glue to our souls.  We are beaten up by the media telling us that we are fat and ugly and stupid and lazy and helpless... We compare ourselves to size 2 models on the runway or six pack abs, to those in the teens or twenties (our youth oriented culture), and to the exorbitant successes of the few rich and famous.  We are depressed in part because we cannot measure up.  We may not frame this in terms of sin or forgiveness but we carry around a load of guilt and failure.  So it is important that the people in the pew hear that absolution to identify the Church as the place where forgiveness is offered even as it is important that they hear these words as their absolution.

I tend to think that the Church as the place where forgiveness is offered is not high on the scale of things that people associate with the Church.  Perhaps because of the failings of some and the false characterizations of the media, the Church is more often seen as a judgmental place where guilt is heaped on rather than the place where guilt is removed through an absolution powerful enough to do what it says.  I may be wrong.  I so often am.  But I think the general absolution is striking and goes to the heart and core of what the Church was established to be.  I have noticed that when people come (from outside a sacramental tradition) what sticks in their minds are those shocking words of absolution.  They are struck by them because they have not experienced Church as the community of the forgiven or thought about absolution as the sacramental Word that bestows what it promises.  If for this reason alone, I think it is important that we not discard this general absolution but keep it as powerful witness and testimony to what the Church is as well as the Word that does what it promises and bestows the forgiveness of sins.


ErnestO said...

There is such a thing as absolution, and the publican received it.

Anonymous said...

LSB Divine Service, Setting Four: "Almighty God, have mercy upon us, forgive us our sins, and lead us to everlasting life. Amen."

Here the problem is not that I don't believe the absolution, but that I feel that I have not made any confession of sin. It's over before I have a chance to reflect on what I'm saying.