Letting the Gospel Predominate . . . In the Absolution
I freely admit that the title of this reflection is something of a tautology, bordering even on the nonsensical. What is the absolution that a pastor (or a Christian in private) pronounces other than the Gospel itself? Yes, and indeed, and amen. What has given rise to this reflection, however, is a noteworthy imbalance between the first part of the Confession and the first part of the Absolution according to the form of most of the “Confession and Absolution” rites I have known in my life as a Lutheran. I offer these observations because the Church lives and thrives through the Gospel, and there may be a specific opportunity for the Gospel to predominate more fully than it has. Let me illustrate, using as an example the Confession and Absolution from Lutheran Service Book, Divine Service 1 (p.151). (Let me also say this to my readers who don’t know me: I am gladly a member of a congregation that uses LSB, and I think it is a very wonderful and solid Lutheran hymnal. I love the Lutheran Service Book. This reflection is not a criticism of LSB. The imbalance that I am about to describe did not originate with LSB.)
Both the Confession of Sins and the Absolution are, properly speaking, composed of two parts. The Confession consists of (1) a description /admission of sin, followed by (2) a direct plea for mercy, forgiveness, renewal, etc. The Absolution also consists of two sections: (1) a description (or proclamation) of what God has done in Jesus, followed by (2) the act of absolution itself. The simple diagram below summarizes well enough.
One may disagree, of course, with the way I have tried to lay out the conceptual logic of the clauses and phrases. What is striking and immediately obvious, however, is how Part 1 of the Confession outweighs Part 1 of the Absolution. There is no corresponding lengthy proclamation of Christ (Absolution, Part I) that matches up with the detailed and entirely appropriate and correct admission of sin (Confession, Part I). Just in terms of numbers of words, Part 1 of the Confession (sixty words) is almost three times as long as Part I of the Absolution (twenty-two words).
I don’t know why this is the case; perhaps there isn’t a reason. I am certainly not trying to link the efficacy of absolution with a certain rhetoric or length. There is, however, a relatively obvious analogy to the preaching of sermons. On the one hand, the efficacy of the preached word is not ultimately tied to a particular kind of human eloquence. On the other hand, we all know and admit (I think) that one should be clear, biblically faithful, textually specific, and appropriately vigorous in how one preaches the good news of Christ in a sermon. The analogy, I would suggest, fits in this case. There may be an opportunity for reflection and responsible liturgical creativity. If the Confession is going to lay out and articulate the problem, then it seems truly good, right, and salutary to articulate the solution, that is, Christ. I quickly set my own hand to the task of broadening and lengthening the proclamation of Christ that introduces the Absolution proper, and here’s what I came up with:
“In the mercy of God, Jesus Christ came into the world, pure and free from sin. In every thought, word, and deed, he loved and served the Father—and he loved you and all people as himself. He left no good deed undone; he perfectly kept the Father’s will. With his whole heart, Jesus willingly suffered the punishment of the cross in your place. Raised from the dead, Jesus lives forever with the authority to forgive every sin. When he comes again in glory, all who call upon the name of the Lord will be saved. As a called and ordained servant of Christ, therefore, and by his authority, I forgive you all your sins in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.”
I make no particular claim to eloquence of expression, and I have no doubt that this sample could be much improved. I did try to do two things. First, I matched the language of the gospel proclamation with the language of the admission of sins. And second, I expanded the gospel proclamation in a more fully creedal fashion, to declare the essential Gospel truths both of the resurrection and the return of Jesus. The good news proclaims not just that Jesus died for our sins. The good news announces that Jesus rose from death, and, risen, he offers repentance and forgiveness of sins to all the nations (Luke 24:47). The good news declares that Jesus will come again, to bring full and final and cosmic salvation and restoration on the Day known only to the Father (Mark 13:32).
If there is, as I have tried to show, something of an imbalance where there ought not to be, what should be done about it? I’m not quite sure. I am no fan of a “book of Judges” approach to liturgical forms, where everyone does what is right in his own eyes. Perhaps the servants who are entrusted with the task of offering to the church worship materials that are doctrinally sound and health-giving might at least consider some ways to expand the proclamation of Christ on Sunday mornings. I genuinely don’t know what to suggest.
I do know this. If Satan cannot take the Gospel away from us, he will do his best to limit our proclamation of Christ, to truncate it or to make it less than it could be. Again, the Gospel is the Gospel wherever it is proclaimed. But it is also the Church’s task to teach all that Christ has commanded us to hold fast (τηρεῖν, Matt 28:20). And what Christ has commanded us to hold fast more than anything else is the story, the message of what he has done, is doing, and will do for us and for the world.