Absolution is Great for the Soul

It has been said that “confession is good for the soul.”  If that is the case then I believe “absolution is great for the soul.” In truth, you cannot have one without the other. But it is the absolution that brings great blessing. As the Lutheran confessors wrote, “confession is to be retained for the sake of the absolution (which is its chief and most important part)” (AC XXV, Tappert, 63:13).

In this brief observation I will suggest a way in which pastors can help members receive comfort through individual absolution for sins they know and feel in their hearts.

In the summer of 1992 I was blessed to take a graduate course at Concordia Seminary taught by Kenneth Korby entitled, “Holy Absolution.” He told us the course was originally to be called “Private Confession.” But Norman Nagel, who was chair of the Systematics Department at the time, suggested to call it “Holy Absolution.” (Drs. Korby and Nagel understood that the absolution is the “chief and most important part.”)

Now, on the 30th anniversary of that course, I ask: why not consider thinking of the practice as “absolution” versus “confession”? I especially like the application of this phrase to “Private Absolution” versus the common term, “Private Confession.”  When this is a regular practice, it is after all the absolution that leads one to be a repeat attender. It is also the absolution that invites one to begin attending in the first place.

For example, recently a family member, who is new to Lutheranism in a congregation that emphasizes this practice, asked me how to approach it.  I shared a document with a series of questions for self-reflection on the Ten Commandments that I use to prepare when I go. I also shared in a text message this emphasis on the absolution.  In the spirit of inviting others to consider it, I share it here:

 “For the first few times a person goes to C/A, I now recommend simply using the general confession in LSB (p.292) and then hearing the absolution personally spoken to you. That’s because the practice is “for the sake of the absolution.” As you are comfortable doing so and drawn to it by the prospect of hearing the absolution, then you can enumerate specific sins. If you’re comfortable doing that now, great. But it shouldn’t be something you stress over. Make sense?”

Trusting that “absolution is great for the soul,” I suggest pastors offer this absolution-centered approach to the services we often only call “confession.”  Along with the cherished service of public confession and absolution common in congregations, one could begin occasional congregational use of the public service of individual absolution (Lutheran Service Book, p. 290). Also providing opportunities for private absolution would also be an important goal. The power of the absolution can free people to then confess specific sins that trouble them, allowing the Gospel to bring great comfort. These pastoral care encounters do not take long and the form on p. 292 in Lutheran Service Book is very simple to use.

Finally, if you are a pastor, you may not have a father confessor. If so, please locate one. Taking that initiative is highly recommended because “absolution is good for the soul” of a pastor, too!

Dr. W. Mart Thompson

Dr. W. Mart Thompson
Associate Professor of Practical Theology

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2 responses to “Absolution is Great for the Soul”

  1. Delwyn Xavier Campbell, Sr Avatar
    Delwyn Xavier Campbell, Sr

    This is wonderful, both from the pastoral perspective and from the perspective of the Christian. It is a joy to declare, by the command and in the stead of Jesus Christ, that the sins of my brothers and sisters in the congregation are forgiven by God, and that they can now worship the Lord in the beauty of holiness. While I have no one who is designated as my Father Confessor, I have long enjoyed the relationship that I have with my Circuit Visitors, which includes my receiving the comfort of counsel and, yes, forgiveness, through them. I also draw upon my mentors who helped me to get through seminary and my current call as an LCMS National Missionary. Thank you for letting the Lord use you in writing this article.

  2. Rev. Steven Bielenberg Avatar
    Rev. Steven Bielenberg

    Thank God for Father Confessors and faithful pastors who absolve the troubled souls who come to them. As a seminarian, I worried what I would think of people who would confess their sins to me personally and how that might affect our relationship. What I discovered was that I had a tremendous respect for brothers and sisters who were truly grappling with their sin and honestly giving name to it. What a joy to be able to speak Christ’s absolution to them by name.

    I have had two remarkable Father Confessors, both a bit of a surprise. If anything, I should have sought them out sooner in my ministry. Thanks for a great blog, Mart!

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