November 9, 2010
Text: John 20:19-13
Dear Friends in Christ,
Christ gives to His Church a great and precious gift. It is a gift that I think has been despised over the centuries. In my youth pastors were not confessors - they were counselors. Many pastors actually went and got degrees as counselors. And some claimed such degrees when they had not earned them. There was a very famous case in the Saginaw valley involving St. Michael’s, Richville and a certain Pastor McNutt. And yes, that is his real name. This fad had passed by the time I went to seminary. But we are still assaulted by the forces of Pietism and evangelicalism that both attack this gift of Christ - the gift of Holy Absolution.
In the Lutheran Confessions, both Luther and Melanchthon speak of Absolution sacramentally. Melanchthon uses a simple straight forward structure and calls it a sacrament, along with Baptism and the Lord’s Supper. It is Melanchthon who specifically terms it “Holy Absolution.” This is a radical departure from both Luther and the earlier terminology, wherein it had been termed penance or the sacrament of repentance. Melanchthon does this to show God’s work in the very title, rather than man’s work. And thus we also should prefer Melanchthon’s terminology - Holy Absolution. Luther speaks of only two sacraments. But a careful reading the Large Catechism section on Baptism shows that for Luther the first sacrament is really Baptism inclusive of repentance or Absolution. So Luther is, in essence, saying that Absolution is a Sacrament, but simply not giving it its own number. So the options the confessions give us regarding Absolution are to count it as a Sacrament in its own right, or to count it as a sacrament under the heading of Baptism. Luther indeed correct in noting that Holy Absolution is just the daily drowning of the old Adam. It is the living out of Baptism.
Why did God give this gift to the Church, to be carried out by it’s ministers? So that we would have the constant assurance and comfort that our sins are indeed forgiven. God has given us the authority to loose sins and set men free. We are told by Christ that this is as binding in heaven as it is on earth. So when we hear those precious words, we know that we have exactly what they say - forgiveness of our sins.
The Small Catechism makes a clear distinction between pastoral absolution and lay absolution. In the section on the Office of the Keys, it always prefaces the action with the phrase, when the ministers of God... The catechism does not ascribe the same to lay absolution. But we have understood that lay people are to absolve in an emergency, just as they are to baptize. And certainly all Christians are to assure one another of God’s grace and forgiveness.
So when should sins be confessed to another person, and when should they be confessed to a pastor in private confession? We confess to one another what we have done against that person. It is right to seek their forgiveness. Nor should we treat confession as an apology. We should not say, I’m sorry. We should say, I have sinned against you. On the other hand we go to the pastor as the representative of Christ, a modern day apostle in the sense of an officially authorized messenger. We go to the pastor for Christ’s forgiveness. So we go to our brother for their forgiveness, and to our pastor for Christ’s forgiveness. So there may be times when we confess the same sin twice - to our brother and to our pastor.
In a few weeks we will begin the season of Advent. However, Advent is a strange season. It begins before it begins. The official season is the four Sundays before Christmas. However, really the season begins yet in the old church year, including the last three Sundays. All of these seven Sundays focus on the theme of Christ coming. Advent is a season of penitential preparation. In fact, in the Church, penitence and preparation go together. We prepare by confessing our sins and receiving the Absolution. We prepare by being forgiven. And so today, I commend to you the importance of preparing our hearts in a truly Christ centered, Gospel focused, and God pleasing manner. Our hearts are prepared in Holy Absolution - the declaration that our sins are forgiven, in heaven and on earth.