(Editor’s note. The following was a presentation given by the author at a Wisconsin Synod pastor’s conference and was published in the April 2004 issue. Some materials that were a part of the original presentation have been added back into the article.)
The assignment given me by the conference secretary was to give a “practical” paper, one that endeavors to “benefit the pastor in his everyday ministering, shepherding, administrating, worship, teaching, counseling, evangelizing, preaching, etc.” The addition of the “et cetera” opens wide the Pandoran box for all the parochial and profane pursuits of the particular pastor and would seem the plum assignment… “Whatever!” In the strictest sense of the word, however, the “practice” or praxis of the pastor presents one with a rather limited choice, whose varied faces meld into a glorious unicity, one that my dear friend Rolf Preus summed up neatly. “Programs? The church has a program, confession and absolution.” Therefore I will eschew the liberal license afforded by the “et cetera” and focus on the practice of practices, the praxis summus, the quotidian practice of the Christian of being killed and made alive, of repentance and faith, of confession and absolution, which is the nexus of the pastor and his people in his everyday ministering, shepherding, administrating, worship, teaching, counseling, evangelizing, and preaching.
The praxis of the Christian, be he pastor or layman, is the active side of his habitus, his customary condition. Our condition, always this side of the grave, is simul justus et peccator. The life of the Christian is not one of good or bad, sinful or forgiven, lost now found, but at the same time sinner and saint. His is a never ending battle with the flesh, not to improve and refine and reform it, but to daily put it to death so that the believer may be daily vivified. Thus Dr. Martin Luther of blessed memory appropriately begins his 95 Theses, “When our Lord and Master Jesus Christ said, ‘Repent’ [Matt. 4:17], he willed the entire life of believers to be one of repentance.”1 This is our daily return to Baptism, a reminder of which you have each morning “as soon as you get out of bed” when you, as you are confessionally reminded, “make the sign of the Holy Cross and say ‘God the Father, Son and Holy Spirit, watch over me. Amen.’” 2
As you know, the Reformation was not a Bible movement or an egalitarian revolution restoring the priesthood of all believers or an attack on the Pope and his building program fund drive, but a rediscovery of the Gospel. The touchstone was the sacrament of penance. The hammer wielded by Friar Luther, which shattered the peace of the church, was not his attack on indulgences per se, but it was an attack on the penitential system of Rome and conversely, an institution of an evangelical sacrament of penance. While the first of the 95 Theses presented the dagger, the second thrust it into the belly of the Papal Curia “this word cannot be understood as referring to the sacrament of penance, that is, confession and satisfaction, as administered by the clergy.” 3 Philip Melanchthon in his “Defense of Doctor Luther against the Parisian Opinion” noted that Dr. Luther’s greatest contribution to the church was his “correct teaching and proper use of the sacrament of penance.”4 Lutheran theologian Theodore Klieforth (†1895) states that the Reformation was basically “a restoration of confession and absolution,”5 that is, the practice of private confession and absolution.6 Dr. Luther’s personal judgment, given in the 8th of the so-called “Invocavit Sermons,” is well known,
I will allow no man to take private confession away from me, and I would not give it up for all the treasures in the world, since I know what comfort and strength it has given me. No one knows what it can do for him except one who has struggled often and long with the devil. Yea, the devil would have slain me long ago, if the confession had not sustained me. 7
Dr. Luther reminds the Wittenbergers held under the enthusiastic spell of Karlstadt, “I know [the devil] well, and he knows me well, too. If you had known him, you would not have rejected confession in this way.” 8
The personal judgment of Dr. Luther is also the confession of the Evangelical Lutheran Church, which accords private confession and absolution sacramental status9 along with Holy Baptism and the Lord’s Supper (as well as ordination, properly understood), for all “these rites have the command of God and the promise of grace, which is the essence of the New Testament” (AP XIII 4), for the Absolution “is the voice of God” (AC XXV 3 Latin) spoken “in God’s stead and by God’s command” (AC XXV 4 German). As such “it would be unconscionable (“wicked,” Triglotta) to remove private absolution from the Churches,” (AP XII 100) which de facto happens when we let it fall into “disuse” (AC XI 1 fallen lassen). The Sacrament of Penance forms a hinge or gateway from Baptism to the Lord’s Supper, ever reminding us of our Baptism, ever preparing us and whetting our appetite for the Supper, all which the preaching of the Gospel explains and to which it exhorts.
The condition of the Christian, his habitus, will form his praxis. All pastoral care recognizes and consists of this. Dr. Luther in his “Brief Exhortation to Confession” writes, “Therefore, when I exhort you to go to confession, I am doing nothing but exhorting you to be a Christian.” 10 For this purpose the church has given us the practice of private confession and absolution, the personal use of the keys by the pastorate, a practice largely lost among us, and sadly so, for the Absolution “is the true voice of the gospel” (AP XII 39).
First, let us begin by noting about what our Confessions are not talking. This is not specifically talking about the public confession and absolution (Offene Schuld) with which most of us begin our services. Indeed it was this practice that helped spell the demise of private confession and absolution.11 Neither are the words “confession” and “absolution” referring to what is called the general enunciation of the Gospel or to the interaction between two Christians, one of whom flees to another for assurance of forgiveness, especially to the one against whom you sinned, the right and privilege of the baptized, although what is said in the above quotes certainly applies, because, for this task, one is indelibly marked in Holy Baptism.
The references are to the public rite of the church when private absolution is consciously and regularly sought from, and then administered by, the one ritely called. In the case of necessity (Not/casu necessitatis) a layman may undertake this task, for example, if there were two men in a boat (TR 67), I suspect a rare occurance. Dr. Luther notes this important distinction in his often misused treatise Concerning the Ministry, “It is one thing to exercise a right publicly; another to use it in time of emergency. Publicly one may not exercise a right without consent of the whole body or of the church. In time of emergency each may use it as he deems best.” 12 This is a rite with Augustana XIV protections and parameters, and for good reason. The confessional is fraught with dangers, the same that apply to public teaching (confidentiality, training, the proper call and responsibility). A layman may not only lack the skills, but does not have the confidence and the protection against pride the call provides. He is also unafforded the protections that accrue to clergyman by the state.
Nor is private confession and absolution what is commonly called “counseling” although much counseling may include and should often end or begin with the rite of confession and absolution. Pastoral counseling, the practical administration of law and Gospel to a specific situation, often will be offering advice and practical tips to solve a problem and in many cases needed pastoral hand holding (verbal only, lads). People seek counseling with the plea “fix my life;” private absolution promises gives new life. A word might be added here about “counseling.” The protections afforded the confessional and which apply to freedom of religious speech do not always apply to “counseling” where liabilities may lie. Our parish’s literature consciously avoids the word “counseling;” rather, it says that our pastor is willing to meet with people and “to help in any way consistent with his pastoral office.” We need to be careful that while being shepherd, Seelsorger, or Beichtvater, that we do not aspire to psychologist or “counselor,” the conditions and qualifications of which are beyond the scope of our call, often beyond our abilities, and outside the protections of privileged communication provided the confessor, but not beyond government regulations and consequent liabilities due justifiably injured parties or litigious malcontents unaware that the synodical pockets aren’t so deep anymore.
What the Confessions speak of is that public and official rite of the church, the Rite of Confession and Absolution, in which a penitent, being assured of complete confidentiality, may privately (not covertly) confess their sinfulness, especially those sins which may burden their conscience, to their ritely called confessor and receive a concrete, personal absolution from him, nay, from Christ - the personal use of the so-called “loosing key.” Remember that the keys have been given to pastors to use. The priesthood, who possesses these keys, has a right to their use, that is, a right to be served by these keys, as its possession is described in the Tractatus. 13 It is this rite of which our Confessions speak and which has fallen into disuse. That this rite that should be restored in the church ought to be obvious to us, but who among us cannot at the same time be oblivious?
Undoubtedly all of us would object to the charge of having removed private absolution from our churches. And rightly so! For I must assume your confessional is open and you have had the privilege of exercising the loosing key, privately and individually, to penitents kneeling before you. “I forgive you your sins in the name of the Father and of the + Son and of the Holy Spirit.”
But perhaps not ritely so, or regularly, habitually. How often does the above happen, a penitent coming for personal absolution? Usually it happens only in extraordinary circumstances. For the vast majority of our members it is not their habitual praxis.
Much can be said about the decline of the confessional. Suspect number one, our favorite whipping boy, is indeed Pietism, where how one felt about one’s sin and how one felt about one’s Savior and how one intended to live was more important than a confession of sin and a no strings attached absolution. “Were you sorry for the right reasons,” thus a confusion of contrition and faith, of law and Gospel. Terrors had to be for the right reason; sheer terror not good enough. Also, the mediation of the confessor was deemed unnecessary, “Beichtstuhl, Satanstuhl, Höllenstuhl” and a hindrance. Let it suffice to say that anything that draws us nearer to Christ will be opposed by the Devil, the world and our flesh.
As the practice of private confession and absolution is not a part of our American Lutheran “consciousness,” seared by rabid and often irrational anti-Romanism, it is considered out of the norm by most, if not nearly all, of our people. Thus, when someone needs this form of the Gospel they are deprived. If terror does drive them to you, they think this is out of the norm. Thus, we need to actively encourage all of the Lord’s sheep to take advantage of the confessional. In a day and age when many seek to be relevant, contemporary and personal - after Baptism and the Sacrament of the Altar - there is nothing more so than this form of the Gospel, one that reaches deep into the heart, soul and conscience of the Christian. Our churches retain the confessional, we confess, “on account of absolution, which is the Word of God that the power of the keys proclaims to individuals by divine authority” (AP XII 99). In view of this, we must agree that it would be unconscionable to remove this from the people and why are we confessionally bound to restore this practice.
The two parts of repentance are contrition and faith effected by preaching and practiced in confession and absolution. The first part, contrition (or repentance in the narrow sense) is not the main part, thus the Lutherans prefer “Private Absolution.” The focus, then, is not on our work but on Christ’s; the emphasis not the enumeration of sins, but on the completeness of forgiveness. The false Roman penance included as a third part, satisfactio. This is why our emphasis must be on the absolution lest the penitent think his absolution is contingent on “doing better.” As Dr. Luther notes, “it is necessary to teach that God forgives our sins without reference to any of our works, on account of Christ.” 14 It is for the comfort and salvation of souls. As Dr. Luther wrote in reference to receiving the blessed Sacrament of the Altar after already being privately absolved. “So what! I want to add the sign of God (the Sacrament) to his Word. To receive God’s word in many ways is so much better.” 15 Again, he writes,
For our God…is not so niggardly that he has left us with only one comfort or strengthening for our conscience, or only one absolution, but we have many absolutions. .. We have this in the gospel “if you forgive men their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you”.. Another comfort in the Lord’s Prayer “Forgive us our trespasses…” A third is baptism… Then we have private confession, when I go and receive a sure absolution as if God himself spoke it… Finally I take to myself the blessed sacrament… Thus you see that confession must not be despised. 16
The biggest misunderstanding about private confession and absolution, it seems to me, is that this rite is reserved for those “special” times when we commit especially “grave” or troubling sins. True enough, but those situations are no different than the normal, or what should be, the normal condition, habitus, of the Christian. This is why the Roman enumeration of sins or the common view of the average Lutheran about private confession and absolution (for those really bad or troubling sins) is so damaging. “Who can discern his faults?” (Ps. 19:12). “There is no one who does good, no, not one” (Rom. 3:12/ Ps. 14:3). This view fails to take into account the magnitude of our guilt. Our problem is not simply that we occasionally steal, slander, commit adultery or murder, but that we always are thieves, slanderers, adulterers and murderers.
I suspect that none of us have been so gratified and humbled by our pastoral duties as when we have had the opportunity to personally absolve a penitent, one who came of his own volition to confess. The burden too great to bear, unable to forgive themselves, unable to find comfort in your preaching, yes, even in the Sacrament of the Altar, they need to confess and to hear the very voice of God pronounce absolution. But should we not ask, who should not be so burdened? The aliment of the church is always, and ever will be, that the Gospel is not taken seriously, not only by the laity but also by the clergy. The problem of the Adam of old is the problem of the old Adam today, nothing new under the sun. Contemporary man still seeks the fig leaves of equivocation, excuses and evasions, as father Adam. Dr. Luther in his “Brief Exhortation to Confession” cautions, “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.” 17
The Gospel meets this fate not because we do not know the Gospel or fail to proclaim it (which sadly, does happen all too often in our church today), but, I suspect, because we truly do not know ourselves. The malady of the church is not that we do not know the Gospel but that we do not understand the depth of our sinfulness. The problem is not that people do not know Jesus loves them, but they do not understand his love as mercy. The problem is that sin is viewed as momentary glitches or lapses rather than an abiding condition. The Confessors recognized this in the reluctance of people to come to the confessional, that, although it is not mandated (this is about the absolution after all!), “those who despise private absolution know neither the forgiveness of sins nor the power of the keys” (AP XII 101). The fault, we must all confess, lies first of all with the preacher. Dr. Luther speaks of this contemporary “defect” in the homileticians of his day,
Many now talk only about the forgiveness of sins and say little or nothing about repentance. There neither is forgiveness of sins without repentance nor can forgiveness of sins be understood without repentance. If follows that we preach the forgiveness of sins without repentance that the people imagine that they have already obtained the forgiveness of sins, becoming thereby secure and without compunction of conscience. This would be a greater error and sin than all the errors hitherto prevailing. Surely we need to be concerned lest, as Christ says in Matt. 13[:45] the last state becomes worse than the first. 18
It is the alien work of God that gets short shrift, in other words. The Spirit must terrify with the law to “make room for consolation and vivification, because hearts that do not feel the wrath of God loathe consolation” (AP XII 51). Bonhoeffer notes “The Word of grace cannot be proclaimed and accepted when a person lives in unrecognized and undisclosed sin.”19 Thus the practice of private confession assists the Christian in “owning up to,” facing their sin. Although an enumeration of specific sins is not mandated, the Apology says, “It is beneficial to accustom the inexperienced to enumerate some things in order that they might be taught more easily (AP XI 6).
So, the deeper we plunge, when contrition(“terrors smiting the conscience”) is afflicted on us, to absolute despair, then, as Luther says, we are closest to faith, then, in absolute despair, the Gospel creates the greatest worship of God, faith, that is, to seek from him the forgiveness of sins. Again, much has been said in the church of today about being “personal.” Many a modern tool and method is enlisted for this purpose when our Lord has given us the most personal means, he has given us a pastor to give voice to Christ, to speak the personal absolution which takes the penitent back to his Baptism and points him ahead to the Supper.
Confession is not made to man but to Christ. Likewise it is not man who absolves but Christ. But few understand this. Wherefore one should teach that men make confession to Christ, and Christ absolves through the mouth of the minister, for the minister’s mouth is the mouth of Christ and the minister’s ear is the ear of Christ. It’s to the Word and command that one should pay attention, not to the person. Christ sits there, Christ listens, Christ answers, not a man. 20
As it has been elsewhere observed, it is easy to publicly confess one’s sins, but to privately confess to one’s brother, well, that is a different matter. This is a weakness of the public, common confession; there is safety in numbers. But alone before God in his minister, the conscience trembles and is calmed. This is the essence of God’s working on man, his two chief works, “to terrify and to justify and quicken those who have been terrified” (AP XII). The value of private confession is that we stand before the one whom God has placed in office, who, when he speaks, speaks in the name and in the stead of Christ. In commending the sinful woman our Confessions say, “This is the highest way to worship Christ. Nothing greater could she ascribe to Christ. By seeking the forgiveness of sins from him, she truly acknowledged him as the Messiah” (AP IV 154).
The Rite also is a straightjacket for the pastor to keep his comfort on track, which comfort too often can “degenerate” into blessed “assurances,” or even a brushing aside of the gravity of the sin, “that’s ok, don’t feel bad, don’t worry, you are forgiven, God loves you.” To a point true, but to the one who “knows all this” this is not as assuring as the first person indication absolution “in the name and in the stead of Christ Jesus, I forgive you your sin.” The penitent does not need or even want to hear “that’s ok,” but he needs to be absolved. It is also a mistake to think that “confession is good for the soul” in the sense that it will always “make someone feel better” by “getting it all out.” You may, but you may not. The real catharsis is not in the confession, but in the absolution. Here is where the extra nos absolution is so important. We must believe against our feelings. Experience teaches that tears flow much more at the absolution than at the confession. Not always tears of relief or even “joy”, but tears of sorrow, of contrition, of humility that this God whom we have offended, who took our offense and suffered for it, absolves me. I can’t ever recall a situation in the confessional where the words “Smile, Jesus loves you” would bring any comfort. No, they weep, because Jesus absolves them. They weep for in the absolution they hear the “very voice of God” (AC XXV 3).
To reestablish a rite that has long been lost is, in our lifetime, a Sisyphean task. We battle an entrenched conservatism, suspicious brothers, a latent Pietism, and the flesh. But it is a task we are confessionally bound to undertake, planting the seed for future generations of confessors and penitents needing this Sacrament. The first, and always first, task is catechesis. And the first, and always first, objection will be, “we’ve never done this before, an objection, I have written elsewhere, that “ought never to be mocked, only catechized” as it is “the layman’s legitimate defense against the capriciousness of preachers.. especially innovative ones.” 21
Invariably, one must begin by explaining that the Lutheran rite is not the Roman rite, nor new. Unlike the Roman auricular confession, the Lutheran rite is free, for this is the Gospel. In the Lutheran rite there is no need to confess each individual sin, or even individual sins for that matter, but, if we wish, those sins which especially trouble us. The Lutheran church does not demand confession of specific sins. This is why historically Lutheran public and even private confessions of sin speak of our condition of sinfulness and sins in general. Dr. Luther offers suggestions for confession, those attendant to a person’s vocation. But to force a confession of specific sins, publicly or privately, may misdirect the penitent. The penitent may not be guilty of such and be led to smugness. All may be given the impression such sins are worse than others and the emphasis turns from sinfulness to sins, an Arminian emphasis. Such specificity is reserved for the pulpit. At a pastor’s conference once I was directed to confess my sin of “ethnocentrism.”
Obviously, the need and benefit of private confession and absolution must be taught, and taught and taught. I learned that Wilhelm Löhe taught for 17 years before hearing his first confession and in the 20th year he had 24,000. One must continually emphasize that in the Lutheran Church this is a rite of Private Absolution, the preferred title, however, Private Confession and Absolution may be better understood (Christian Worship inexplicably entitles its rite “Private Confession”).
As a part of this catechization one essential element of Private Confession and Absolution must be emphasized. This is “private” confession, not covert, although it may be. That is to say, the penitent does not need to “sneak” into church under the cover of darkness and anonymity for confession. This is what a Christian is and does. However, it is private confession before Christ who hears and absolves, and so this is privileged conversation not to be divulged ever by the confessor. 22 If one is unable to guarantee this then one should not offer private confession and absolution (and ought to look for another job). Here is where the distinction between the confessional and the counseling room must be rigorously maintained.
Undoubtedly, at this point you are thinking of possible “exceptions” to the rule. Indeed, there are exceptions to the rule of confidentiality of pastoral counseling, but none for the confessional. First of all, the pastor must be clear, especially with non-members, that the confessional assumes complete confidentially, his study does not. Yes, the confessional is not that spot where one confesses, but when one confesses, although to maintain the distinction of the “where” is helpful. When you actively, as we ought, try to restore a regular practice of private confession and absolution, these matters should be discussed with your parishioners who may come for private counseling. Are they here for confession or counseling?
Yes, the confessional itself may not be a confessional. The true confessional is not a bragging booth. The intention to commit a sin is not a confession, nor is the “come and get me, you can’t touch me” boast of sin a confession. However, confession is assured confidentially, absolute. To grant an exception, first of all, prevents the future penitent from coming. If one wishes such a “confessional” one must first advise the penitent that not all that will be confessed will be kept in confidence, and then you must list what sins will be divulged. You know the consequences of such a confessional. The one who committed such a sin will not confess it and will not receive the only power to console him and which gives him the power to amend that sinful life, and the faith to accept whatever legal consequences may come from such a sin. Such a conditional confessional says that some sins are worse than others and is a denial of the power of the Gospel. As Luther says, this is confession made to Christ, not to us.
Perhaps the seemingly least important, but in reality most important preparation is to provide a written rite for the penitents. To confess before one’s Beichtvater, and especially that which troubles the conscience, that which shames the sinner, is a most difficult, almost impossible task. The words do not flow, the person stumbles, “I don’t know what to say.” In the rite there is structure as the penitent is carefully and Scripturally led in his confession. The rite not only assists the troubled penitent, but the father confessor as well. The tendency to “assure” and not to absolve the penitent is always present in the pastor whose heart goes out to troubled penitent. There will be time for that. Now is the time for authoritative, confident, unconditional absolution. Yes, you have sinned. Yes, I forgive you. NO “mush, mush” can come in here.
Briefly, the Rites
Luther’s Small Catechism. “How One Should Instruct the Plain Layfolk to Make Their Confessions.” This rite enjoys the benefit of being part of our confessional subscription. The American Edition (Volume 53) includes an older version included in the Wittenberg edition of the 1529 Catechism. Kolb-Wengert has the expanded, similar 1531 authoritative edition. This straightforward rite, meant to be memorized owing most certainly to the lack of reading skills of the common Volk of that day, is very brief, too brief. It does not allow time for reflection and contemplation on the words of Scripture. However, it has the strong, in my opinion, sine qua non question, “Do you also believe that my forgiveness is God’s forgiveness?” which is followed by a strong first person and succinct absolution.
The Lutheran Book of Worship. “Individual Confession and Forgiveness.” Personally, I find the outline one of the better of the hymnal versions. It includes appropriate liturgical verses that enable time for reflection (as do LW and CW). The penitent needs time to “warm up” in the confessional. The confession, however, is a bit short, which may be a strength as well. I would by all means drop the final sentence of this conclusion of the confession “I want to do better” which sentiment may be true, but may lead the penitent to believe this is the purpose of the confession. The confidentially of the confessional is rubricly assured.
Lutheran Worship. “Individual Confession and Absolution.” This is the rite I currently use. One weakness I find is that the first of the two confessions is a bit too specific, although it does have the benefit of bringing to mind that which may trouble and plague the penitent. The conclusion of the confession has not only the confession of sin, which you will recognize from TLH, but also the confession of seeking a merciful God.
Christian Worship. “Private Confession.” Like the Small Catechism rite, this one is a bit Spartan. There are two major flaws in this rite (other than the title); the first is the lack of the question “Do you believe that my forgiveness is God’s forgiveness?” This glaring omission forfeits the comfort that this absolution is the very voice of God, the very voice of Christ. This author is ignorant of the hymnal committee’s rationale here. He does know this question is one that some within our circles balk at, “can we say this?” (Yes, John 20:23[i].) The second flaw is the lack, in the absolution, of the Trinitarian Name thus connecting this to our Baptism. In the absolution the phrase “because of the promise of our Savior Jesus, I forgive etc.” is a bit ambiguous. What promise? Perhaps Christ’s command to his disciples to forgive. A straightforward absolution, such as TLH’s page 15 would be a better substitute. Lacking is the rubrical promise of confidentially. That this rite is suggested for use by the laity, and in my understanding of AC XIV unwisely so, may account for these deficiencies.
Evangelical Lutheran Hymnary. “The Service of Private Confession and Absolution.” Leave it to our laconic Norwegian brothers to have the best title, best rubrical explanation of this practice, except for the omission of the guarantee of confidentially, but the shortest rite, a confession and absolution, period, making it, in my opinion, not useful at all. It is designed, it seems, as a rite for admission to the Supper (a laudable aim), but thus excludes it for general use. It does not have a rubricly directed place for the penitent to confess that which especially troubles him. ELH’s “Service of Corporate Confession and Absolution” overcomes some of these issues and can easily be adapted for private use. The latter rite may be used in services in penitential times to accustom parishioners to the practice of receiving a personal absolution at the communion rail.
Culto Cristiano. “Orden Para la Confesión Privada.” Those of you who also do work in Spanish are probably aware of, if don’t already use Culto Cristiano. This rite is also quite Spartan, lacking liturgical verse which is helpful in setting the stage for the confession, but it has a very strong confession of sins and absolution. It is rubricly deficient in that it lacks the assurance of confidentiality and a place for the penitent to confess that which troubles him.
To assure the penitent that this is an official rite of the Church, the pastor will be vested as he would be for any other official service of the Church, Holy Baptism, the Divine Service and so forth. Cassock and surplice and stole, purple, designing the penitential nature of this service is preferred.
To indicate this is a service and to distinguish it from the personal counseling, which may occur before or after this rite, this rite is best done in the church, usually and preferably at the communion rail where the penitent and confessor both may kneel, out of ear shot, but not necessarily out of view. There is no stigma attached to private confession, as was mentioned before, this is private, not covert, confession. Certainly the request for secrecy will be granted, but the penitent will be gently encouraged to come to the church, for this humble confession before God is the very nature of the Christian.
The confessor will greet the penitent but will eschew chitchat. This is not the time for it and only makes the confession more difficult for the penitent; they are here for another purpose. A printed rite must be provided and placed at the place where the penitent will kneel. At the beginning of your rite there should be a written rubric assuring the penitent of the absolute confidentiality of the confessional.
The confessor, according to the rubrics, will kneel through the confession next to the penitent. There is no eye contact at this point. For the absolution the confessor will enter the chancel, laying his hand on the head of the penitent and, looking directly at him or her, will confidently announce the absolution.
Regardless of which rite you use, make it clear than once the absolution or final prayer or blessing is finished that the Rite is concluded and the penitent may depart from sanctuary. This prevents the invariable, awkward small talk, which the polite and/or the boisterous make, which is incongruous with what just happened.
Just Do It
First of all, find a Beichtvater of your own to whom you may make confession. When you discover the benefit, you will be eager to share this great blessing. Whether under the current structure our circuit pastors or district presidents feel they are able to maintain the confessional seal or not is unknown to me, however a true bishop ought. I am not confident of that, so it would be best to ask. What would happen if a pastor were to confess a private sin, that, if it were public, would no longer render him “blameless”? Anecdotal evidence in this regard suggests an uneven practice.
Catechization, of course, must not only be given, but given regularly, and most certainly in youth and adult catechesis. This catechesis, in the Lutheran church, ends in confession and absolution, “for it is not usual to give the body of the Lord, except to them that have been previously examined and absolved” (AC XXV 2). Your catechization will not only center on the great value this practice has, but also how you go about it. Take your people through the rite. This takes away the uncertainty of “what do I do?”
A schedule must be given and maintained. Certainly you will note that “Private Confession and Absolution is always available upon request.” But set times are vital to show this is a set rite of the church. Currently my practice is to offer it in the penitential times of the church, prior to Advent, Lenten and the Good Friday Services. Most importantly, learn from Löhe; be ready to absolve no one, but rejoice that you have been called to an office in which you have the opportunity in this Sacrament to bring peace in Christ.
“Away then with all those prophets who say to the people of Christ, ‘Peace, peace,’ and there is no peace!” 23 §
The Reverend John W. Berg is pastor of Hope Evangelical-Lutheran Church in Fremont, California.
1 Luther’s Works, the American Edition (AE) Volume 31, CPH/Fortress, 1957, p. 25.
2 Small Catechism “The Morning Blessing”
3 AE Volume 31, p. 25.
4 WA 8:311. As quoted in Lutheran Worship: History and Practice, Confession and Absolution, Fred Precht p. 334
5 Ibid. p. 373 fn.
6 Note that when the words “confession” and “absolution” are used in Reformation era literature it is most often in reference to the public rite of private confession and absolution.
7 AE, Volume 51, the final of the so-called “Invocavit Sermons, actually preached on Reminiscere Sunday, the octave of Invocavit, if you will. p. 98.
8 Ibid. p. 100.
9 See SC III VIII 1, AP XIII 4. The origin of the definition of a sacrament that includes “an earthly element” is unknown to this author. One knowledgeable friend thinks its origin is in Rationalism, which says that Biblical sacraments developed or sought to imitate or supplant pagan “sacraments.” Dr. Herman Sasse rightly warns against discussing the Sacraments under a general heading, rather than discussing each in its own realm.
10 Book of Concord p. 479. In the original German the sentence has a chiastic structure, “To Confession, I exhort, I exhort to be a Christian.” Luther’s Bekenntnisschriften was included in the 1529 revision of the LC but later omitted from the Jena edition of his works, thus being robbed of its “confessional status” although not for its content, which is. My thanks to Reverend Gerhard Maag for this and many other insights on this subject
11 Already in 1533 the practice of the Offene Schuld, which was held after the sermon, came under question by Brenz and Osainder for the reason that it suggested that the sermon was not a giving out of the absolution. Luther’s opinion, signed onto by Bugenhagen, Melanchthon, Jonas, and Cruciger was the Offene Schuld could remind them to believe the Gospel preached and at the same time urged that the practice of private confession and absolution be maintained. There is still debate as to the possible misunderstandings of and thus the value of the public absolution.
12 AE Volume 40, “Concerning the Ministry” p. 34.
13 “These words [1 Peter 2:9] apply to the true church, which, since it alone possesses the priesthood, certainly has the right of choosing and ordaining ministers.” TR 69.
14 AE Vol 40, “Instructions for the Visitors of Parish Pastors” p. 280.
15 AE Volume 53, p. 118.
16 AE Volume 51 p. 99.
17 The Book of Concord, p. 479.
18 AE Vol 40 “Instructions for the Visitors of Parish Pastors” p. 274.
19 The source of this quote is unknown to this author. From a presentation given by Rev. Harold Senkbiel on the subject.
20 AE Volume 54 p. 394.
21 The Motley Magpie Volume I:3, p. 3.
22 “Doctor, if a parish minister absolves a woman who has killed her infant child and afterward the matter becomes public through others, should the parish minister, when asked, offer testimony in this case before a judge?”
“By no means! For the forum of conscience is to be distinguished from the forum of the civil government. The woman didn’t confess anything to me, she confessed to Christ. But if Christ keeps it hidden, I should conceal it and simply deny that I heard anything.”
“Doctor, what if that woman said that she had been absolved by you and wished to be set free for the reason that Christ had discharged her. Therefore, she would say, the judges can’t decide anything against her.”
“I repeat that civil matters must be distinguished from ecclesiastical. If I were summoned to appear in this case I would deny it again, for I’m not the person who should speak, testify, etc., in the political forum but in the forum of conscience. Therefore I would says, ‘I, Martin Luther, don’t know anything at all about whether she was absolved. Christ knows, for he’s the one with whom she spoke, to whom she confided something or didn’t, who (as he certainly knows) absolved her or didn’t. I know nothing about it because I don’t hear confession; it’s Christ who does.” AE Vol 54, p. 395.
23 The 92nd Thesis on the Disputation on the Power and Efficacy of Indulgences.