Confession in Lutheran Church
The Lutheran Church practices “Confession and Absolution” [referred to as the Office of the Keys] with the emphasis on the absolution, which is God’s word of forgiveness. Indeed, Lutherans highly regard Holy Absolution. They, like Roman Catholics, see James 5:16 and John 20:22-23 as biblical evidence for confession. Confession and absolution is done in private to the pastor, called the “confessor” with the person confessing known as the “penitent”. In confession, the penitent makes an act of contrition, as the pastor, acting in persona Christi, announces the formula of absolution. Prior to the confession, the penitent is to review the Ten Commandments to examine his or her conscience. In the Lutheran Church, like the Roman Catholic Church, the pastor is bound by the Seal of the Confessional. Luther’s Small Catechism says “the pastor is pledged not to tell anyone else of sins to him in private confession, for those sins have been removed.” If the Seal is broken, it will result in excommunication. In the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, private confession fell into disuse; at the present time, it is, for example, expected before partaking of the Eucharist for the first time. It is also encouraged to be done frequently in a year (specifically before Easter). In many churches, times are set for the pastor to hear confessions.
In line with Luther’s initial statement in his Large Catechism, some Lutherans speak of only two sacraments, Baptism and the Eucharist, although later in the same work he calls Confession and Absolution “the third sacrament.” The definition of sacrament in the Apology of the Augsburg Confession lists Absolution as one of them. Luther went to confession all his life. Although Lutherans do not consider the other four rites as sacraments, they are still retained and used in the Lutheran church. Philipp Melanchthon speaking about the Confession in the Lutheran Church, claims that “we do not wish to sanction the torture [the tyranny of consciences] of the Summists, which notwithstanding would have been less intolerable if they had added one word concerning faith, which comforts and encourages consciences. Now, concerning this faith, which obtains the remission of sins, there is not a syllable in so great a mass of regulations, glosses, summaries, books of confession. Christ is nowhere read there”.
Martin Luther on Confession
In his 1529 catechisms, Martin Luther praised confession (before a pastor or a fellow Christian) “for the sake of absolution”, the forgiveness of sins bestowed in an audible, concrete way. The Lutheran reformers held that a complete enumeration of sins is impossible and that one’s confidence of forgiveness is not to be based on the sincerity of one’s contrition nor on one’s doing works of satisfaction imposed by the confessor (penance). The Roman Catholic church held confession to be composed of three parts: contritio cordis (“contrition of the heart”), confessio oris (“confession of the mouth”), and satisfactio operis (“satisfaction of deeds”). The Lutheran reformers abolished the “satisfaction of deeds,” holding that confession and absolution consist of only two parts: the confession of the penitent and the absolution spoken by the confessor. Faith or trust in Jesus’ complete active and passive satisfaction is what receives the forgiveness and salvation won by him and imparted to the penitent by the word of absolution.
Form of Confession
Lutheran confession (in the same manner as confession in the Catholic Church) can be done in the church chancel with the penitent kneeling at the altar rail and the pastor sitting in front of them, in the privacy of the pastor’s office, or sometimes in a confessional. The words below, taken from the Lutheran Service Book and used in most confessions, say:
The penitent begins by saying:
Please hear my confession and pronounce forgiveness in order to fulfill God’s will. I, a poor sinner, plead guilty before God of all sins. I have lived as if God did not matter and as if I mattered most. My Lord’s name I have not honored as I should; my worship and prayers have faltered. I have not let His love have its way with me, and so my love for others has failed. There are those whom I have hurt, and those whom I have failed to help. My thoughts and desires have been spoiled with sin. What troubles me particularly is that…
Here, the penitent is to confess whatever they have done against the commandments of God, according to their own place in life. The penitent continues.
I am sorry for all of this and ask for grace. I want to do better.
The pastor continues:
God be merciful to you and strengthen your faith. Do you believe that my forgiveness is God’s forgiveness?
The penitent will say:
The pastor places his hand on the head of the penitent and says the following:
In the stead and by the command of my Lord Jesus Christ I forgive you all your sins in the name of the Father and of the + Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
The pastor dismisses the penitent.
Go in peace.
The penitent responds:
Another suggested form for Confession was outlined by Luther himself in the Small Cathechism of 1529 (Part V. HOW THE UNLEARNED SHOULD BE TAUGHT TO CONFESS):
You speak unto the confessor thus:
Reverend and dear sir, I beseech you to hear my confession, and to pronounce forgiveness to me for God’s sake
I, a poor sinner, confess myself before God guilty of all sins; especially I confess before you that I am a manservant, a maidservant, etc. But, alas, I serve my master unfaithfully; for in this and in that I have not done what they commanded me; I have provoked them, and caused them to curse, have been negligent [in many things] and permitted damage to be done; have also been immodest in words and deeds, have quarreled with my equals, have grumbled and sworn at my mistress, etc. For all this I am sorry, and pray for grace; I want to do better.
A master or mistress may say thus:
In particular I confess before you that I have not faithfully trained my children, domestics, and wife [family] for God’s glory. I have cursed, set a bad example by rude words and deeds, have done my neighbor harm and spoken evil of him, have overcharged and given false ware and short measure.
And whatever else he has done against God’s command and his station, etc. But if any one does not find himself burdened with such or greater sins, he should not trouble himself or search for or invent other sins, and thereby make confession a torture, but mention one or two that he knows. Thus:
In particular I confess that I once cursed; again, I once used improper words, I have once neglected this or that, etc.
Let this suffice. But if you know of none at all (which, however, is scarcely possible), then mention none in particular, but receive the forgiveness upon the general confession which you make before God to the confessor.
Then shall the confessor say:
God be merciful to thee and strengthen thy faith! Amen.
Dost thou believe that my forgiveness is God’s forgiveness?
Yes, dear sir.
Then let him say:
As thou believest, so be it done unto thee. And by the command of our Lord Jesus Christ I forgive thee thy sins, in the name of the Father and of the + Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen. Depart in peace.
But those who have great burdens upon their consciences, or are distressed and tempted, the confessor will know how to comfort and to encourage to faith with more passages of Scripture. This is to be merely a general form of confession for the unlearned.
- An explanation of The Small CatechismArchived 2009-10-07 at the Wayback Machine
- “Archived copy”(PDF). Archived from the original(PDF) on 2010-02-04. Retrieved 2010-02-02. Retrieved 2010-02-02.
- Apology of the Augsburg Confession, article 24, paragraph 1. Retrieved 2010-02-02.
- The Defense of the Augsburg Confession; Article XI: Of Confession. Retrieved 2010-02-02.
- An example of a church that has a set time for confessions[permanent dead link]. Retrieved 2010-02-02.
- Augsburg Confession, Article XII: Of Repentance
- Luther’s Large Catechism IV, 1: “We have now finished the three chief parts of the common Christian doctrine. Besides these we have yet to speak of our two Sacraments instituted by Christ, of which also every Christian ought to have at least an ordinary, brief instruction, because without them there can be no Christian; although, alas! hitherto no instruction concerning them has been given” (emphasis added; cf. Theodore G. Tappert, trans. and ed., The Book of Concord: The Confessions of the Evangelical Lutheran Church, (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1959), 733).
- John 20:23, and Engelder, T.E.W.Popular Symbolics. St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 1934. pp. 112-3, Part XXVI “The Ministry”, paragraph 156.
- Luther’s Large Catechism IV, 74-75: “And here you see that Baptism, both in its power and signification, comprehends also the third Sacrament, which has been called repentance, as it is really nothing else than Baptism” (emphasis added; cf. Theodore G. Tappert, trans. and ed., The Book of Concord: The Confessions of the Evangelical Lutheran Church, (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1959), 751).
- The Apology of the Augsburg Confession XIII, 3, 4: “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. For humanly instituted rites are not sacraments, properly speaking, because human beings do not have the authority to promise grace. Therefore signs instituted without the command of God are not sure signs of grace, even though they perhaps serve to teach or admonish the common folk. Therefore, the sacraments are actually baptism, the Lord’s Supper, and absolution (the sacrament of repentance)” (cf. Tappert, 211).
- “Article XIII. (VII): Of the Number and Use of the Sacraments”. bookofconcord.org. 2011. Retrieved 8 October 2011.
- “Defense of the Augsburg Confession”. Book of Concord. Retrieved 2013-11-02.
- John 20:23; Matthew 16:19; 18:18
- Augsburg Confession XI with reference to Psalm 19:12
- “Christian Cyclopedia”.
Rejected … are those who teach that forgiveness of sin is not obtained through faith but through the satisfactions made by man.
- “Christian Cyclopedia”.
The acts of the penitent himself, namely contrition, confession, and satisfaction, constitute, as it were, the matter of this sacrament.
- Large Catechism VI, 15
- Bente, Gerhard Friedrich and William Herman Theodore Dau. Concordia Triglotta The Symbolical Books of the Evangelical Lutheran Church, German-Latin-English. St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 1921. pp. 555-556.
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