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.
Sean McCoy May 10, 2012
How would you like to be cited when I use this in our service bulletin?
Jeff gibbs May 10, 2012
Don’t use it too quickly in worship. Use it first for teaching, conversation, growth. And, if it’s true, it belongs to God, and however it is used, no citation is needed or even appropriate. It’s just the good news, which belongs to us all.
Peggy Pedersen May 10, 2012
I think that it rather lessens the resounding and stark statement:”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 need to hear this bold and clear and too many other words at that time may make give it less impact. I understand your point about balance, but Jesus’s “It is finished” outweighs the whole history of human sin. I think in the words that follow the absolution, then the consolation of what Christ has done for us may be further stated along with the comfort of scripture, a Psalm, etc. But I think that the words of the Absolution need to be given as soon after confession as possible, without intervening “preaching”. I say this as one who goes to private confession every week and it is the “For You” and the immediate forgiveness that I need to hear.
Jeffrey Gibbs May 11, 2012
Thanks very much for writing. It’s interesting to me, and it sort of lines up with your point, that in The Lutheran Hymnal, after the congregation confesses, the pastor immediately says, “Upon this your confession, I by virture of my office . . . announced the grace of God to all of you, and in the stead and by the command of my Lord Jesus Christ, I forgive you all your sins . . . .” There is no “Part I” at all, just the absolution proper.
I think that your point especially applies when it comes to private confession/absolution: Get right to the point! If, however, there is going to be a proclamation made, I would like it to match the confession. I have had any number of people tell me that the sort of “enumeration of sins” in the public confession has sort of overwhelmed and dominated for them.
Christopher S. Ahlman May 10, 2012
One possibility may lie in using a responsive Kyrie format common in modern usages of the Entrance Rites of the Western ordo. Usually such a format substitutes for the more descriptive-exhortational paragraph-formed confession of sins. Using the elements/concepts of your paragraph, it might go something like:
A Lord Jesus, you came into the world, pure and free from sin, to keep the Father’s will; Lord, have mercy.
C Lord, have mercy.
A Christ Jesus, you willingly endured the cross on our behalf; Christ, have mercy.
C Christ, have mercy.
A Lord Jesus, you rose again to pardon our offenses; Lord, have mercy.
C Lord, have mercy.
P All who call upon the name of the Lord will be saved.
P 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.
There are many advantages to this format: 1) ancient forms of prayer, along with less ancient (but still very old) uses of tropes and embolisms are preserved, serving as a familiar yet endlessly vital manner of prayer, 2) the petitions can be altered as propers in harmony with the assigned reading for a particular day, 3) a tighter connection is made and realized of the truth that “God’s kindness is meant to lead you to repentance,” 4) both the confession aspects and the absolution aspects overall are less homiletical-address in shape and thus more digestable [similar to the more modern forms of the General Prayer], and more to your point, 5) the Gospel predominates in the context of efficiency, both of which are cardinal liturgical virtues.
Christopher S. Ahlman May 10, 2012
Oh, yeah, and one more thing: they can always be chanted!
Jeff gibbs May 10, 2012
This is really helpful, and from someone (you) that actually knows something liturgically! This is a great example of how the “great tradition” can continue to shape and instruct us, and put good words into our mouths. Thanks for this.
Jaime Nava May 10, 2012
I want to laugh and cry at the same time. Laugh because of the fact that a congregational body, that even has a book with Law and Gospel in the title, can so outweigh the lesser to the greater. I want to cry because it seems a missed opportunity to proclaim more fully the death and resurrection of our Lord.
Here’s something to consider, should we move away from corporate confession absolution towards private confession and absolution instead? This was an interesting idea I recently heard from Dr. Rast and others.
Peggy Pedersen May 10, 2012
I spoke to someone else today who regularly goes for confession. They, too said that they want to hear the absolution immediately after their confession. They said that anyone going to confession already believes the Pastor’s forgiveness is God’s forgiveness, knows the office of the keys is a means of grace, and trusts in Christ’s death on the cross for the forgiveness of their sins. That’s why they are there. If not then these things need to be discussed before the actual rite begins. I would say if anything was to be added, then it could be Christ’s promises to forgive us, i.e. 1 John 1:9, but what we don’t want is something along the lines of the alternate statement of forgiveness as is given in column two after confession in the Divine Service (LSB) but the clear unconditional (without “May”) declarative Absolution. I know we are just laymen, but we are on the receiving side of this and thought our comments might be useful.
Adding the above litany prayer is fine as is adding part of one of the penitential Psalms but that really is still part of the confession (conclusion plea for mercy and forgiveness) not part of the Absolution.
Peggy Pedersen May 11, 2012
We may be talking past each other here. I am speaking of private confession. I actually have never seen pg. 290 Corporate Confession and Absolution used in our services, only the shorter ones at the beginning of the Divine Services.
Andrew Bartelt May 12, 2012
As one who appreciates the balance and symmetry of Hebrew poetry, I like what you are proposing: nice balance, also in length, though I didn’t count the syllables. Maybe an antiphonal use by which the parts are matched would be powerful.
BUT, I think the imbalance might actually suggest a different power: this is not about quantity but quality. Talk about sins can, and should, I suppose, go on and on. The list and consequences are endless. It has taken thousands of years to accumulate all the sin(s) of the world, and the Lamb of God took them away in a few hours, or three days or even in his entire lifetime, if you include the whole person and work of our Savior. But that’s adding up length again. No matter how many or great our sins, they are gone in a word, by the Word made flesh.
As one who regularly uses too many words, I respect the power of direct, terse speech-act: clear and to the point, and short!
Jeff Gibbs May 12, 2012
Yes–more than one way to look at it. I only know that I need to hear as much of Jesus as possible, and that I usually don’t feel like I hear enough.
Damian Snyder May 15, 2012
Drs. Gibbs and Bartelt,
I believe both points of view are well-taken. I treasure the absolution that is pronounced by God’s Called and Ordained servants, but I also seek to teach the people under my care another kind of balance. That is, Confession and Absolution, be it public or private, bestow upon the Children of God the same forgiveness that they already possess by virtue of their God-given baptismal faith in the work and person of Jesus Christ on their behalf . We, in fact, received the ultimate absolution from the cross in the single Word tetelesti…it is finished! I am concerned that for some of our people Confession and Absolution and even Communion become a sine qua non for their faith. From here it seems not too far a trek to both becoming acts that are efficacious ex opera operata.
I recall reading that to avoid making the mistake of thinking that one must go through Confession and Absolution in order to receive Holy Communion, Luther would, from time to time, “skip” participation in C/A. This was, of course, to stress that being a baptized child of God he already possess the complete remission of sins and eternal life.
Jeff Gibbs May 15, 2012
Thanks for writing, friend; always good to hear from you.
I know we often say it just as you did: “…the same forgiveness that they already possess…” And I agree with what you’re trying to say–it’s a done deal, the reconcilation has happened, we are justified now freely, by grace, through faith in Christ.
On the other hand, I’m not sure the NT ever actually says, “You are already forgiven, even before you have sinned.” It has much more “experiential” or “existential” way of talking–as in the Lord’s Prayer. You don’t need forgiveness until you sin–and then you ask, and for Jesus’ sake, the forgiveness is given. Again, I’m just suggesting a common way of speaking. And it is surely out of the “completed already” of our life in Christ that we can, with confidence, approach the throne of grace.
peter kelm May 15, 2012
Marvelous! But as good as the content of your post was – and it was very good indeed – much more telling to me was your lengthy and italicized disclaimer identifying yourself as one who loves LSB. Perhaps that shouldn’t matter.
Jeff Gibbs May 15, 2012
Thanks for your encouragement. And I appreciate your comment about “what shouldn’t matter.” On the other hand, I have become so pessimistic about the ability of Americans (including me) to actually receive communication on a blog or facebook or whatever that I think it is actually a duty of the writer consciously to go WAY out of his way to say what he means to say . . . and also what he doesn’t mean to say. So-that’s what I was deliberately trying to do. Since I am an American, and most of the people who would read my little post will be Americans as well. It is, you see, an election year–a time when fair-mindedness and truthfulness seem in shorter supply than they normally are.
Damian Snyder May 15, 2012
I share your pessimism, but my is even more generalized to include face to face conversations.
I agree with your assessment of the manner in which the NT speaks. However, my struggles begin with the “what does this mean?”
For example, the person who dies on the way to confession…are they lost? Certainly not! So they were forgiven before they “officially” asked for it.
Or the 1 John 1:9 text…”if we confess our sins…He …will forgive us our sins.” So, does this mean I am not forgiven if I don’t confess every sin? Certainly not! But if I am only forgiven once I ask, then I am either lost because I cannot know all of my sin or I am paralyzed because all I can do from sun up to sunset is search for my sin, confess and then search some more.
These kinds of questions are what I find myself confronted with in parish life. Thus my particular approach.
As always, I eagerly await your words of wisdom.
Jeff gibbs May 16, 2012
I think this topic illustrates the wisdom of Jack Preus’ little book, “Just Words.” If we limit ourselves to the language of “forgiveness,” then we can get twisted around. One ends up having to explain Scriptural statements like 1 John 1:9.
But what about this? I am already born of God, through baptism. I am alive in Christ. I have been reconciled to God, and incorporated into the Church, Christ’s body. Now, part of the on-going life of faith is my regular (indeed, constant!) need to be forgiven. But if I “die on the way to confession,” it doesn’t mean I’m not alive in Christ. I’ve been adopted; I’ve been born again. On-going and repeated forgiveness is simply God’s gift to me that keep me alive.
Damian Snyder May 16, 2012
As I said…words of wisdom!
Thanks so much. So easy to loose the forest for the trees.
Carol Geisler May 16, 2012
Here some other thoughts on this discussion. We certainly don’t have to fear dying before we confess. Our Good Shepherd holds us firmly in His hand (John 10:28). But it seems as if repentance, confession, and forgiveness are something like breathing for Christians. Sin is tricky and dangerous stuff and since we persist in carrying it around all the time its danger must be continually addressed. We are warned about the “deceitfulness of sin” that can lure us into a false sense of security that could ultimately lead us to fall away (Hebrews 3:12-13).The first of Luther’s 95 theses is a wake up call, “When our Lord and Master Jesus Christ said, ‘Repent!’ [Matthew 4:17], he willed the entire life of believers to be one of repentance.”
The Apology (Article IV) says this, “Likewise, the faith about which we are speaking exists in repentance, that is, it is conceived in the terrors of the conscience that experiences the wrath of God against our sin and seeks forgiveness of sins and deliverance from sin. In such terrors and other afflictions, this faith ought to grow and be strengthened. Therefore, it cannot exist in those who live according to the flesh, who take pleasure in their lusts, and who succumb to them.”
I think the above thought is helpful, that “faith exists in repentance.” Each of us is at the same time saint and sinner, and the same Lord Jesus who holds us in His hand, having brought us from “death to life” (John 5:24), taught us, “Pray then like this . . . forgive us our debts” (Matthew 6:9, 12).
Jeff gibbs May 16, 2012
Very helpful comments-thanks! One image for sin (which is not, as far as I know, a strictly biblical one) is that all sin is poisonous. So, it’s both stupid and dangerous to ask, “how much poison can I take, and not be harmed or die.”
On the other hand, the presence of sin in our lives does not, in itself, at all indicate that we are out of the Good Shepherd’s hand! It just means that Jesus hasn’t come back yet.
David Knefelkamp May 18, 2012
Again, another thought would be to think of a chiastic relationship. The Description of Sin in Confession seems to be the driving focus of our expression of guilt. Namely, we confess our sins can relate to describing or listing sins. (Not to say we have to list all our sins or we even could.)
When we hear the Words “Your Are Forgiven” or Absolution proper, they bring comfort. The Absolution proper balances out the Description of Sin. I only offer this, because so often when I read the Psalms there is great weight placed on Confession by description and the Hope is in some cases very short yet so comforting.
I also very much liked Dr Bartelt’s point of qualitative verse quantitative. This has really been a treat to think about for this morning.
Jeff gibbs May 21, 2012
Thanks for writing. As I said to Andy Bartelt, there’s clearly more than one way to skin this cat. I am, however, at heart a simple guy and I want to hear the story of Jesus, by whose authority a pastor absolves and without whose authority a pastor has nothing to say. More Jesus–better. Less Jesus–not so much.
Now, of course, someone will read this (not you) and say, “You can’t have more or less Jesus.” And I will say, “I know what you mean–but I still want more of the story, as fully and beautifully as possible.”