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Lutheran Reclamation of the Sacrament of Confession and Absolution

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The following is a paper I wrote for a class I took in my final semester in seminary.  Someone on Facebook recently asked me if they could read it, and I'm more than happy to provide.  

The original date of this is May 23, 2014. The date of this entry, however, would be my official publication date. 

 Lutheran Reclamation of the Sacrament of Confession and Absolution

Spirit in the Church ST-2378

Cary Bass-Deschenes

May 23, 2014

Even though the rite of Confession and Forgiveness is available in the Lutheran Church both individually and corporately, most Lutherans are not even aware of it, and even fewer consider it a sacrament. However, a Lutheran understanding of confession and absolution as a sacrament goes all the way back to Martin Luther, and is delineated as such within the Book of Concord, the collection of all of the 16th century basic documents that provide a Lutheran understanding of theology. Although private confession and absolution was subsumed into a rarely used rite during the Age of Enlightenment, it has nevertheless remained a staple means of grace in the Lutheran church, and re-emerged in the Twentieth Century during a period of renewed excitement in unity and liturgy that sought to unify Lutheran rights with a restoration of what was uniquely Lutheran in the 16th century and a keen eye on how Martin Luther and the early Lutheran fathers worshiped and taught. This essay will look into that history as well as the developed Lutheran understanding of sacrament, provide some explanation of how the rite of Confession and Forgiveness is performed in the world today, and offer insight as to how meaningful the rite is and how it can be, as a sacrament, a way of bringing us into closer communion with other Christian denominations.

Before we can understand where exactly the sacrament of Confession and Absolution stands in today's Lutheran Church, we must first determine what Lutherans mean by the term "sacrament". The traditional Lutheran definition of sacraments come from the Augsburg Confession: "If we define the sacraments as rites, which have the command of God and to which the promise of grace has been added, it is easy to determine what the sacraments are, properly speaking....Therefore, the sacraments are actually baptism, the Lord's Supper, and absolution (the sacrament of repentance.)"1

However, over time, many Lutherans have come to understand a third requirement for the means of grace, that being a visual or physical sign. For example, in its 1991 Explanation of Luther's Catachism, The Lutheran Church Missouri Synod writes,

"a sacrament is a sacred act

A. instituted by God,

B. in which God Himself has joined His Word of promise to a visible element,

C. and by which He offers, gives, and seals the forgiveness of sins earned by Christ."2

While other Lutheran church bodies do not enumerate sacraments as such, they ordinarily view Holy Baptism and Eucharist as universally observed sacraments and make no distinction as to whether there are others or not, often ignoring Confession and Forgiveness as a sacrament altogether.

Martin Luther and Philip Melanchthon, on the other hand, both held a strong conviction in the retention of Confession and Absolution as a sacrament. In the face of a strong opinion among reformers that the sacrament of private confession and absolution be abandoned, Luther wrote in "An Open Letter to Those in Frankfort on the Main, 1533" that he would rather still be under the abuse of the pope than lose the rite of confession and absolution from the church.3 The Augsburg Confession, which is considered by Lutherans universally as the confessional source and basis for all doctrine after scripture and God, reads, "[I]t is taught that private absolution should be retained and not abolished. However, it is not necessary to enumerate all misdeeds and sins, since it is not possible to do so."4 For Philip Melanchthon, the primary author of the Confession, it was so long that the acts were those which mediated grace and contained God's promise and command that they would be a sacrament.5 The rite of Confession and Absolution fell squarely within this category.

Luther and other Lutheran reformers, however, wanted to make it very clear that the rite of private confession should be available to all Christians and not be compulsory for any. There was no requirement for a numeration of sins, specifically because of the impossibility of such a numeration. In 1531, the original short order of confession in the Small Catechism was changed to an order for private confession, and Luther defended this change as well as the use of private confession in the "Open Letter." Confession and absolution was not a requirement for someone to partake in the Lord's Supper. Eucharist and Baptism, however, remained the two major or grounding sacraments for Lutherans. Confession and absolution were often referred to as the "third" sacrament, and relied on the grounding of Baptism in order to be efficacious. The Large Catechism, written in 1528 and revised in 1529, explained this as follows:

Here you see that baptism, both by its power and by its significance, comprehends also the third sacrament, formerly called penance, which is really nothing else than baptism. What is repentance but an earnest attack on the old creature and an entering into a new life? If you live in repentance, therefore you are walking in baptism, which not only announces this new life but also produces, begins, and exercises it. In baptism we are given the grace, Spirit and strength to suppress the old creature so that the new may come forth and be strong.6

The brief form of confession that the Small Catechism provides is ordered as follows: the acknowledgment of guilt followed by a choice of particular confessions done by a servant and by a master, with an option for those who don't qualify in the previous respects, with the caveat that they not invent sins or egregiously search for them. There is also an option for those who are unaware of particular sins but make a general confession. The confessor asks if the penitent accepts the confessor's forgiveness as God's, whereupon he or she says, "yes", and then the confessor grants absolution.7

Changes that occurred with the influence of the Reformed Church as well as that of Pietism had all but replaced private confession entirely with public confession, in both Europe as well as the United States. According to the "Definite Platform" (1855), a missive published anonymously by S.S. Schmucker and intended to replace the Augsburg Confession, the rite of "private confession was rejected and use of it barred admittance into the General Synod."8 Although the "Definite Platform" was not ultimately adopted by the General Synod, the use of private confession was, in general, not a practice of the Lutheran Church in the United States for the 19th Century and most of the 20th.

With a renewed spirit of inter-Lutheran dialog that was taking place during the 1960s, however, it became evident that as different Lutheran bodies were seeking to share a common set of hymnals, there was a strong desire to hearken back to original Lutheran practices and bring them forward into the 20th Century. In preparation for the upcoming Lutheran Book of Worship, a "subcommittee on penitential rites" was tasked in addition to creating an entire confessional service "perhaps to produce materials for individual confession."9 In that respect, the order of Individual Confession and Forgiveness was included in the Lutheran Book of Worship, finally published in 1979, alongside a Brief Order of Confession, the Corporate Confession and Forgiveness, and special confessions during Holy Week and Compline. These services have been slightly modified and retained in the Evangelical Lutheran Worship book in use by the ELCA.

While public confession still predominates Lutheran Worship, the rite of private confession has not seemed to become commonplace despite its inclusion in the main book of worship. While the majority of Lutheran clergy do not perform the rite of confession and absolution, this is probably less of a lack of knowledge than it is a lack of interested persons. Private confession seems to be a novelty for the average Lutheran, who is generally unaware of the availability of it, despite its placement in the Small Catechism, something every Lutheran child theoretically receives in advance of their confirmation. However, with the growth of worshiper movement in recent years among Catholic, Anglican and Lutheran churches, those that do openly offer it are finding that they have several individuals in their congregations readily and regularly take advantage of it.

The Lutheran Individual Confession and Forgiveness typically takes place within the sanctuary, possibly at the altar rail, although some will perform the rite in their office, or at bedside (of an infirmed person). It may take place in the context of a pastoral counseling session. In moments of pastoral care, when one is crying out for a word of forgiveness, "when pastors fulfill their calling by delivering an unconditioned promise, this sacrament comes back to life much as Luther had envisioned it."10 The pastor may even suggest or recommend it during the course of the session. He or she will don their stole of office and begin the rite.

Pastors find themselves asked from time to time to hear a different type of confession, one which has curiously Lutheran roots, although it has become a secular form of confession. People who engage in Twelve-Step Recovery program arrive at Step 5 with a programmatic instruction to "confess one's wrongs" to God, themselves and another human being, and often times the easiest choice for many to bear all of their wrongs to is an individual who is professionally required to maintain some confidence. And does not charge. And who better than a Lutheran pastor? "In a delightful irony, the Lutheran who helped to found Alcoholics Anonymous made the fifth step in the Twelve-Step program (confession to God, self, and another human being the exact nature of one's wrongs) one of the few places where a person might seek out a pastor for private confession"11

While the spirit of reconciliation behind the Fifth Step Confession is entirely compatible with Individual Confession and Forgiveness, would it be considered a "sacrament" by the traditional Lutheran definition of sacrament? It is done in the name of God, albeit the "generic" God of the Twelve Steps. It therefore can be said in God's name. It contains the promise of grace in that the forgiveness comes in the doing of the act; or at the very least, in the Ninth Step which follows this one. However, both of those are stretching the definition of sacrament beyond that which is reasonably expected, and it would certainly not necessarily be tied to the sacrament Baptism, as the requester may not even be baptized. However, for the baptized believer, it would only be a small matter for the officiant to change a few words and ritualize the confession for it to begin to approach being sacramental.

The Evangelic Lutheran Worship book is the current predominate liturgical book in the Evangelical Lutheran Church of American, and some other smaller Lutheran Church bodies. The Corporate Confession and Forgiveness12 is designed as a stand alone worship service, typically meant for the final days of Lent, but also potentially as a regularly scheduled day of the congregation. It may be a specially scheduled service of reconciliation within the church community after a particularly divisive or contentious period, after the church has acknowledged its part in some wrong in the community, or during times of lament, either within the community or for sadness in the world. Like other Lutheran services it may be easily modified to suit the time and congregation's needs. The liturgy of the Corporate Confession and Forgiveness contains a Gathering, a section on the Word which might or might not include preaching, the Confession which has seven different parts (for self-centered living, for longing to have what is not ours, for misuse of human relationships, etc.), Then follows the Forgiveness, during which individuals can come forth for the laying on of hands, whereupon the presider says the words of forgiveness. The remainder of the service follows a normal Service of the Word, with peace exchanged, prayers, and a sending.

The Individual Confession and Forgiveness13 is considerably shorter. The pastor invokes the Triune God, and then says, "You have come to make confession before God. You are free to confess before me, a pastor in the church of Christ, sins of which you are aware and which trouble you." The penitent responds, "Merciful God, I confess that I have sinned in thought word and deed, by what I have done and by what I have left undone." At this point the penitent may list specific sins which are weighing on him or her. After which, the penitent says, "I repent of all my sins, known and unknown. I am truly sorry, and I pray for forgiveness. I firmly intend to amend my life, and to seek help in mending what is broken. I ask for strength to turn from sin and to serve you in newness of life." The rubrics of the ELW suggest at this point that the pastor may engage the penitent in conversation, provide advice, counsel, warning and/or comfort from scripture. Psalms 51 or 103 could also be read.

Grace is what follows. The pastor places his or her hands on the penitents head and speaks the words of forgiveness, first saying, "Cling to this promise: the word of forgiveness I speak to you comes from God." He or she then forgives the penitent in one form or another in the name of the Triune God. After this, the peace is shared and the rite is complete.

So how is this, as a means of delivering release from the sins that one encumbers, different than pastoral care and counseling, which many would opine have the same effect? Whereas pastoral care may provide relief from suffering and offer spiritual guidance, even an understanding of God's grace as a settled fact, it is often lacking is both rite and symbolism. The pastor may provide sacred elements during the course of pastoral care, they may pray, there may be some candles lighted. He or she may even be wearing their stole of office. However, the fact that it is not designated as a separate standalone sacramental or penitential rite can reduce it to simply a pastoral counseling session with some nice bells and whistles.

People desire to know that their faith is real. They have a longing to understand not only a compassionate person of the cloth is there on their journey with them, but that also God hears their repentance. There is something within the soul that is calling out for that word of forgiveness, that verbum Dei, that connects with them in on physical, emotional and spiritual levels. Having a solemn penitential rite uplifts the sinner when they are sad, relieves the sorry state of mind and embraces them unequivocally in the arms of God and the church. It "brings about faith and strengthens this faith in the battle of the afflicted conscience."14

The Lutheran Rite of Confession and Forgiveness has a place to be a powerful sign of grace from God, and indeed rightfully finds a place among the Holy Sacraments in the Lutheran Church. While not many Lutheran pastors openly offer the rite, citing a preference for the Public Confession as if supersedes or improves upon the meaning of other rites, those that do offer it, while they do not usually have more than a two or three petitioners, find it a deeply moving experience from their own perspective.

As to the non-doctrinal but commonly held Lutheran assumption that in order for something to be a sacrament it requires a physical or visual element of God's grace, what could be more physical than the great bodily release of burden that occurs when one firmly understands that God has forgiven their sin wholly and unconditionally and the tears of joy knowing that one is free from the power of the devil? What else can it be but visual to walk through the world with one's sight hindered by the oppression and gloom brought on by guilt of one's failures, and then to have that removed by virtue of the Lord's command spoken on the tongue of God's ordained servant, and be brought into clarity and focus, able the good in everything around them? If there be a third, non-traditional requirement for understanding of this all important event, let it be fulfilled.

Our brothers and sisters in the Roman Catholic Church have understood and accepted the Sacrament of Penance as such for a long time. The longstanding Lutheran animosity toward the Roman observance of Penance are largely the result of concerns that are generally no longer relevant. The abuses that proliferated during the middle ages largely disappeared with the Catholic Reformation, and many of the practices that Lutherans considered works-righteousness have been generally reduced in significance to the sacrament as a means of saving grace.

Even though the Roman Church defines seven sacraments, the the number and ordering of sacraments was a relatively late addition to the Roman Catholic Church; and not conclusively defined until the Council of Trent.15 Eucharist and Baptism are the major sacraments and all of the others are grounded in those two. The Communio Sanctorum German Catholic-Lutheran dialog of 2000 posits that as a way of coming together in consensus as to a sacramental understanding. Indeed, and the Lutheran Church of the 21st Century is not so far off when we are able to avoid the language of "number and order" of sacraments and accept that there are continuously newer understanding of what constitutes the way and means of grace, the command and promise from God, and the visible or physical sign of that grace.

When we look back to the early church fathers, we see that Augustine's concept of sacrament is "of an all-encompassing general concept of Christian signs of an invisible reality."16 This was an understanding of sacrament that lived on until the middle ages, and may be used as a basis of solidifying up the sacramentality of Lutheran Confession and Forgiveness.

It is evident that Confession and Forgiveness have a salvific function in the soul of the Christian. Lutherans do not view Individual Confession and Forgiveness as a necessary requirement of salvation, however, it does provide a visible means of the dual purpose of conveying the solid word of God's grace and satisfying the need of the sinner to be reconciled to God, to his or her fellow Christian, and to himself or herself. Now that the Lutheran Church has made it available for use in its liturgy, our leaders would do justice to our members by making it more widely understood through education, and available clearly in church bulletins, signs and on pastors' business cards.


Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. Evangelical Lutheran Worship. Pew ed. Minneapolis, MN: Augsberg Fortress, 2006.

Klän, Werner. "The 'Third Sacrament': Confession and Repentance in the Confessions of the Lutheran church." Logia: A Journal of Lutheran Theology 20, no. 3 (Holy Trinity, 2011): 5-12.

Lang, P.H.D. "Private Confession and Absolution in the Lutheran Church: A Doctrinal, Historical and Critical Study." Concordia Theological Quarterly 56, no. 4 (October 1992): 241-62.

Communio Sanctorum: Official German Catholic-Lutheran Dialogue, Unitas: Collegeville, MN, 2004, 27

Eric D. Stumpf, "Private Confession: A Call for Restoration in Pastoral Care", Concordia Journal, July 1993, 223.

Lutheran Church Missouri Synod, An Explanation of Luther's Small Catechism, St. Louis, Missouri:Concordia, 1991, 101.

Beverley Anne Nitschke, The Third Sacrament? Confession and Forgiveness in the Lutheran Book of Worship, PhD dissertation, University of Notre Dame, 1988.

1Augsburg Confession, XIII.

2Lutheran Church Missouri Synod, An Explanation of Luther's Small Catechism, St. Louis, Missouri:Concordia, 1991, 101.

3P.H.D. Lang, "Private Confession and Absolution in the Lutheran Church: A Doctrinal, Historical and Critical Study", Concordia Theological Quarterly 56, no. 4 (October 1992): 242.

4Augsburg Confession, VII.

5Werner Klän, "The 'Third Sacrament': Confession and Repentance in the Confessions of the Lutheran Church", Logia, 20, no. 3 (Holy Trinity, 2011): 10.

6The Large Catechism, "Concerning Baptism", ¶74

7The Small Catechism, "Holy Baptism", Fourth Section, ¶21-29

8Eric D. Stumpf, "Private Confession: A Call for Restoration in Pastoral Care", Concordia Journal, July 1993, 223.

9Beverley Anne Nitschke, The Third Sacrament? Confession and Forgiveness in the Lutheran Book of Worship, PhD dissertation, University of Notre Dame, 1988.

10Wengert, 128

11Wengert, 128

12Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, Evangelical Lutheran Worship., Pew ed. (Minneapolis, MN: Augsberg Fortress, 2006), 238-42

13Ibid, 243-4

14Klän, 6

15Communio Sanctorum: Official German Catholic-Lutheran Dialogue, (Unitas: Collegeville, MN, 2004), 27


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Confession and Forgiveness are two different things and you need to understand both things. The rush essay teaches us about it and they motivate us to forgive others.


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This page contains a single entry by Cary Bass-Deschenes published on March 24, 2015 5:34 PM.

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