On Private Confession and Absolution

Confession has not been abolished in our churches. For it is not customary to administer the body of Christ except to those who have been previously examined and absolved. The people are also most diligently taught concerning faith in the word of absolution, about which there was a great silence before now….Nevertheless, confession is retained among us both because of the great benefits of absolution and because of other advantages for consciences. (Augsburg Confession XXV [Kolb/Wengert 73:1-2; 75:13])

As a consequence of the vows I took to uphold the Scriptures and the proper interpretation of the Scriptures in the Lutheran Confessions, I am (re-)introducing Private Confession and Absolution here in Fisher. Why would I want to do that? Isn’t that just something Roman Catholics do?

Actually, Private Confession and Absolution is far older than the widespread, current practice of Corporate Confession that we have before most services. The current practice is more the result of a degeneration of Private Confession than a practice with good theological reasoning behind it. When fewer and fewer people came to give their confession and receive absolution, a corporate confessional service was held on Saturday or at some other time. I believe there was still an individual absolution, as is done occasionally among us on Ash Wednesday or Maundy Thursday. Eventually, it became what most of our congregations use now, immediately prior to the service.

Let’s start with the Scriptures.

Matthew 16:15-19: He said to them, “But who do you say that I am?” 16Simon Peter replied, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” And Jesus answered him, “Blessed are you, Simon Bar-Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father who is in heaven. And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.”

John 20:19-23: On the evening of that day, the first day of the week, the doors being locked where the disciples were for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them and said to them, “Peace be with you.” When he had said this, he showed them his hands and his side. Then the disciples were glad when they saw the Lord. Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, even so I am sending you.” And when he 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.”

In both of these passages (see also Matthew 18:18), Jesus gives His apostles the responsibility and the obligation to forgive and withhold forgiveness. In the passage from Matthew, where Jesus directly addresses Peter as the representative of the other apostles, He calls them the “keys of the kingdom of heaven.” In the passage from John, Jesus comes to the disciples after His resurrection and gives them the Holy Spirit, and with that Gift, He gives the Keys. So we call the authority to forgive and retain sins the Office of the Keys.

In the Lutheran Confessions, there are multiple passages dealing with Confession and Absolution, but there are some passages that explain explicitly why the early evangelicals (Lutherans) held Private Confession and Absolution in high esteem and tried to restore it to a truly evangelical (focused on the Gospel of forgiveness in Christ) practice.

The Lutheran reformers did not see it as a purely “Roman” practice that should be abandoned, but as a practice obscured by the way that Rome practiced it. For example, in the Smalcald Articles, Luther wrote:

Confession worked like this: Each person had to enumerate all of his or her sins (which is impossible). This was a great torment. Whatever the person had forgotten was forgiven only on the condition that when it was remembered it still had to be confessed. Under these circumstances people could never know whether they had confessed perfectly enough or whether confession would ever end. At the same time, people were directed to their works and told that the more perfectly they confessed and the more ashamed they were and the more they degraded themselves before the priest, the sooner and better they would make satisfaction for their sin. For such humility would certainly earn the grace of God.

Here, too, there was neither faith nor Christ, and the power of the absolution was not explained to them. Rather, their comfort was based on the enumeration of sins and humiliation. It is not possible to recount here what torments, rascality, and idolatry such confession has produced. (Smalcald Articles III, 3 [Kolb/Wengert 315:19-20])

In response to this state of affairs, Luther wrote later in the Smalcald Articles, “Concerning Confession,”

Because absolution or the power of the keys is also a comfort and help against sin and a bad conscience and was instituted by Christ in the gospel, confession, or absolution, should by no means be allowed to fall into disuse in the church–especially for the sake of weak consciences and for the wild young people, so that they may be examined and instructed in Christian teaching….Because private absolution is derived from the office of the keys, we should not neglect it but value it highly, just as all the other offices of the Christian church. (Smalcald Articles III, 8 [Kolb/Wengert 321:1, 2])

Lutherans do not practice Private Confession and Absolution because forgiveness will not be granted without reciting all of one’s sins. Nor do we practice it because we want to make sure you do something to atone for your sin. Nor do we practice it primarily because of the confession. Absolution is the chief thing, and it is because God has given this great gift to the Church, that we want everyone to have access to it.

Private Confession and Absolution can be intimidating. It can be (and is) a fearful thing to confess private sins to someone else. It does not seem safe to be so exposed before your pastor. Yet it is nothing more than being exposed before God. The pastor usually sits sideways behind the railing of the chancel so that his ear is toward you. But do not think of the pastor’s ear as only the pastor’s. In reality, the pastor is bound by his vows to be the ear of God for you. He hears your confession and pronounces absolution as if (or, because) it is really Christ who absolves you through the pastor’s mouth. Further, when the pastor hears your confession, your sins are removed from you. God removes your sins as far as the east is from the west, and the pastor is obligated never to repeat what has been confessed to him.

Confession and absolution are really only an extension of your baptism. In the Large Catechism, Luther writes,

[W]hen we become Christians, the old creature daily decreases until finally destroyed. This is what it means truly to plunge into baptism and daily to come forth again….Here you see that baptism, both by its power and by its signification, 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. (Large Catechism IV [Kolb/Wengert 465-466:71-75])

“Thus a Christian life is nothing else than a daily baptism, begun once and continuing ever after.” (Kolb/Wengert 465:65)

Of confession, Luther writes,

So if there is a heart that feels its sin and desires comfort, it has here a sure refuge where it finds and hears God’s Word because through a human being God looses and absolves from sin….We urge you, however, to confess and express your needs, not for the purpose of performing a work but to hear what God wants to say to you. The Word or absolution, I say, is what you should concentrate on, magnifying and cherishing it as a great and wonderful treasure to be accepted with all praise and gratitude. …

Thus we teach what a wonderful, precious, comforting thing confession is, and we urge that such a precious blessing should not be despised, especially when we consider our great need. If you are a Christian, you need neither my compulsion nor the pope’s command at any point, but you will force yourself to go and ask me that you may share in it. However, if you despise it and proudly stay away from confession, then we must come to the conclusion that you are not a Christian and that you also ought not receive the sacrament [of the Altar]. For you despise what no Christian ought to despise, and you show thereby that you can have no forgiveness of sin. …

If you are a Christian, you should be glad to run more than a hundred miles for confession, not under compulsion but rather coming and compelling us to offer it. For here the compulsion must be reversed; we are the ones who must come under the command and you must come in freedom. We compel no one, but allow ourselves to be compelled, just as we are compelled to preach and administer the sacrament.

Therefore, when I exhort you to go to confession, I am doing nothing but exhorting you to be a Christian….For those who really want to be upright Christians and free from their sins, and who want to have a joyful conscience, truly hunger and thirst already. (Large Catechism, “A Brief Exhortation to Confession” [Kolb/Wengert 478-479:14, 22, 28, 30, 32])

So if you are burdened by a specific sin, compel me to give you the forgiveness of Christ. It is my burden and my joy to give you Christ’s absolution, just as it is to give you His Body and Blood and His Word in the sermon.

You may find the the rite for “Individual Confession and Absolution” in the new Lutheran Service Book on p. 292-293. If you have any further questions, you may comment here or talk to me in person.

Pastor Timothy Winterstein


15 responses to “On Private Confession and Absolution

  • Daryn Holdsworth

    Who holds the office of the keys?

  • prwinterstein

    The Church.

    Pr. Winterstein

  • Daryn Holdsworth

    Ordained clergy or all the baptized?

  • prwinterstein

    Yes. That’s the Church.

    What are you really asking?

    Pr. Winterstein

  • Daryn Holdsworth

    I’m sorry to have been unclear. The church is of course made up of all Christians, ordained clergy included. I am asking you if any Christian may extend Christ’s absolution or if that obligation is reserved for ordained clergy.

  • Daryn Holdsworth

    I am asking you this question regarding the Office of the Keys because, in preparing a sermon on Matthew 16, your article came up in a web search–I would not have asked, had you not written, “If you have any further questions, you may comment here or talk to me in person.” I may or may not agree with your answer; even so, I would appriciate a thoughtful response. I will keep my comments to myself.

  • prwinterstein

    The only reason I wanted to know why you were asking is so that I wouldn’t say a bunch of irrelevant stuff and miss your point.

    Here’s the way I see it: there’s no need to play the congregation against the pastor. The pastor has his (public) role to play regarding absolution; that is, he’s put there in that place as the very specific called and ordained servant in order to do that very thing: absolve people of their sins. It’s comforting and certain because of such a call and ordination, i.e., Jesus has put this man here to do this.

    The people have their (private) role to play regarding absolution; that is, they have specific relationships (vocations) in which they forgive each other’s sins.

    The pastor can’t be in the many positions in which God has put those people, nor are the people called to do publicly what the pastor does. No competition or rivalry.

    What did they teach at LSTC?

    Pr. Winterstein

  • Daryn Holdsworth

    So, you would say that, in thier vocation, each Christian offers Christ’s absolution to those they forgive.

  • prwinterstein

    Yes. Actually, for Christians, I’m not sure that there is any other kind of forgiveness they can offer.

    Pr. Winterstein

  • Daryn Holdsworth

    Thank you for your time and thoughtfulness.

  • RB

    Who sits in the chair of Moses?

  • RB

    >> Who sits in the chair of Moses?

    >I don’t know what you mean.

    I’m sorry you must be self educated.
    Here you go

  • John G. Anderson

    Thanks for this article. I am an ELCA Pastor, and I share your view. One of the things I seem to recall from reading the Confessions in the past is Luther’s expectation that Pastors are compelled to hear confession without imposing conditions–such as contrition–but rather faith in Christ’s word of forgiveness. I seem to recall also that the pastor is not permitted to withhold absolution, or make it conditional–but is bound to speak the word, but I can’t seem to find the reference in the confessional documents regarding the duty of the pastor to grant absolution. I am correct in my recollection, and do you know what the reference would be regarding the duty to grant absolution without condition? Thanks,

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