Tuesday, October 14, 2008

The Lutheran Reformation


Far from the popular perception of an outraged monk inciting riot and rebellion in the church, it was on October 31, 1517 that the Rev. Martin Luther did a rather ordinary thing for a Doctor of Theology. He publicly posted 95 theological propositions or theses challenging the propriety of the church’s system of Indulgences. Luther intended to debate his theses with other church Doctors according to the prescribed format for scholarly disputation.

The Indulgence question, at its core, however, went deep. It was the scab which, when torn away, revealed systemic abuses and errors threatening Christendom’s catholicity. Luther’s theses challenged non-scriptural assumptions about church teaching that many agreed was long overdue. Ultimately at issue in the Lutheran Reformation were the evangelical (gospel) nature of salvation and the catholic character of the church.

Vincent of Lerins defined the church’s catholic character as the faith “believed everywhere, always and by all”. The catholic faith is therefore the universal faith received from the Apostles and practiced in unity to the present. Faith and worship are two sides of the same reality of God’s real presence with his church. If godly reformation were to occur, after centuries of abuse and error accreted under Roman stewardship in the West, then both doctrine and worship were in need of restoration consistent with which was handed on by the apostolic faith.

It is a Lutheran mentality to reject all that is erroneous, harmful, and disparate to the gospel in matters of faith and practice; as well as to retain developed universal practices in support of the evangel and not contrary to the norm of Scripture. Thus Lutherans of the Reformation insisted on retaining the church’s restored liturgical traditions, orders, and ceremonies, especially in what our Lutheran Confessions call the “Mass”. It is in the Mass, i.e., the chief Liturgy of the church, whereby Christians are connected, from Lord’s Day to Lord’s Day, in the substance of the gospel (which is Christ) now and with all generations. This universality of ancient belief and agreed worship over time and place is the essence of the church’s catholic character, from which Rome had diverged by infidelity to Scripture as the norm of faith.

It is in the Liturgy, the church’s common worship, where God in Christ is present with his people, delivering through the gracious means of word and sacrament, Christ’s broken body and shed blood, the substance and source of our New Testament forgiveness and on-going life. Salvation thus understood is not a private (“me and Jesus”) affair. God calls to himself a “royal priesthood”, “a holy nation”. Thus the catholic faith holds that salvation is of Christ with his bride, the church, outside of which there is no salvation.

The ancient maxim, semper reformanda ecclesia est, i.e., “the church is always being reformed”, expresses a vital reality for the on-going life of the Church. The 16th century Lutheran Reformation was not the first movement seeking to return the church to her evangelical and catholic character. As the Spirit of truth calls the church to institutional repentance (i.e., reformation) the Lutheran Church continues in her confessional faith. In every age the church has confronted persons, beliefs, false movements, and heterodox practices that compromise, marginalize, or deny the evangel, given once to the saints. Ironically the early successes of the Lutheran Reformation, in returning, from Roman errors, the pure gospel to the preached word and in the proper administration of the sacraments was also the occasion that emboldened a destructive Protestant spirit taking the church in directions beyond beneficial reformation.

If Rome had corrupted the gospel by a non-scriptural theology that led to works righteousness (exemplified by the Indulgences scheme); then the excesses of the Protestant spirit sought to radically redefine the church and her role in the salvation won by Christ. Where Lutheran Reformers sought to retain the worship handed on in the New Testament church not contrary to Scripture through its 1500 years; Protestants (of various stripes) operated from a different perspective, of literally and figuratively throwing the Babe out with the (baptismal) bath water (as well as the other sacraments).

The catholic imperative of the Lutheran Reformation comprehends Scripture in its natural context of the church’s tradition, i.e., the historic Liturgy or reformed Mass. Thus Scripture can only be rightly comprehended as it is embedded in and is proclaimed by the church’s word and sacrament ministry, drawing unbelievers to repentant faith and Baptism; and believers to the Absolution and the Lord’s Supper. This essential relationship of Word and Liturgy was torn asunder by the Protestant spirit. Protestants discarded worship practices which they could not find spelled out in the New Testament. The Protestant spirit abstracted Scripture from its liturgical moorings, thus losing the incarnation reality of God in Christ really present with his people. By this liturgical deconstruction, Scripture was consigned, in part, to functioning as proof text for the conduct of a now “optional” Liturgy. Finding no detailed description of the Church’s tradition in “Scripture-cum-textbook”, the Protestant spirit found no reason to continue the church’s historic Worship, the Mass, at least in its catholic understanding. Scripture unhinged from its historic liturgical context reduced Protestant worship to a collection of optionally more or less irrelevant forms where the mere symbols of Christianity are on display rather than the heavenly reality of the church’s raison d’être, the real presence of God in Christ in her midst by word and sacrament. “Sola Scriptura”, Luther’s battle cry, was perverted by Protestantism to being the ground of, “every man doing whatever is right in his own eyes” (Deuteronomy 12:8, Judges 17:6 and 21:25) depending on how Scripture is read independent of the community worship life.

Thus blinded, the Protestant spirit fails to comprehend a catholic Baptism from Scripture, especially John 3:5, Ephesians 5:26 and Titus 3:5; and deny its gospel essence.

Re-interpreting the church’s ancient understanding of John 20:21-23 and the Office of the Holy Ministry, the Protestant spirit shook its fist at the universal church, and proclaimed, “I will not receive forgiveness from any man (called pastor), but only from God above.” This rebellion denies the church’s identity as bride of Christ present with her and sharing all gospel authority given Him by the Father (Matthew 20:18-20). To this end our Lord established the Office of the Holy Ministry precisely that a called man stand in the congregation as Christ’s proxy (“in His place and stead”) and declare His gospel forgiveness, without qualification or condition. It was necessary that the Lutherans reform the Holy Absolution (which our Confessions call the “sacrament of Penance”) to right administration and gospel purpose against Rome’s erroneous theology of human works which required contrite souls to perform “satisfactions” already won by Christ alone. The Protestant spirit, on the other hand, altogether denies the sacramental notion that Christ (a Man) comes to us as the very fruit of the cross and resurrection by the means of his word spoken by men in the Liturgy, and called precisely to announce and sacramentally apply in pastoral care Christ’s forgiveness.

As regards the Sacrament of the Altar, the Protestant spirit by one rationale or another, continues to argue over the meaning of “is”: “This is My body” (1 Corinthians 11:23-26); in all cases denying the clear testamentary meaning of our Lord’s words about the bread and wine of His on-going Supper in the church. For the 1500 years prior, the real presence of Christ (fully Human and Divine) in the Sacrament had been the universal and essential expression of the church catholic’s faith and unity.

Both Rome and a Protestant spirit have variously marginalized and compromised this gospel, and the proper role and true meaning of the church’s Liturgy. By Roman errors, the Liturgy became a commercial enterprise trafficking in spiritual matters (Indulgences, satisfactions, sale of Masses, and re-sacrifice of our Lord by the Canon of the Mass). By a Protestant spirit, the opposite extreme was the result, in that, the Mass was denuded of the proclamation of the evangel leading to Baptism and the Sacrament of the Altar as the means by which God in Christ is mercifully present for the forgiveness of sins and sustaining his people by His holiness in the communion of His flesh and blood, through which we approach our heavenly Father in the power of the Holy Spirit.

In celebrating the festival of the Reformation, it is appropriate that we Lutherans pause and take stock of our identity; recalling the high cost, to those before us, of confessing and seeking Worship in the pure gospel. Today, we increasingly observe congregations of the LCMS “worshipping” by “doing whatever is right in (their) own eyes” (i.e., various Protestant “Contemporary Worship” exercises and experiences) in utter ignorance of the tradition of Liturgy entrusted to the church, and without the agreement or concord of sister congregations. Thus rather than a unity grounded in a common faith and practice we are observing in our midst mere outward unity in being programmatically “Ablaze” for the old pietisms by the new Church Growth methods according to a Protestant (and distinctly Charismatic) spirit.

By the festival of the Reformation we rejoice in our fellowship with sister congregations celebrating the restored gift of the evangel in true catholic unity, vigilant and faithful to repentance. “Reformation” is the churchly expression of corporate repentance according to the ancient maxim, “the church is always being reformed”. In this spirit Lutherans affirm the evangel and the catholic character of the church as we pray for the life of the world and especially for our own church body, the LCMS.

22nd Sunday after Pentecost, 2008
+Pastor Mills

Saturday, June 28, 2008

The New Obedience



Augsburg Confession (AC) article VI (The New Obedience) holds in summary that man’s good works are the product and evidence, not the cause, of his salvation. The article is corollary to the central Christian doctrine of salvation by faith apart from deeds (Rom. 3:28) (art. IV, Justification). These two articles in the AC are mediated by article V concerned with gospel delivery (Office of the Ministry). In short, once priority of the justification horse is established before its sanctification cart; the gospel does not comprehend salvation without works (James 2:24).

The scriptural tension between faith alone and obedience to Word, has long confused Christendom. Focus on faith at the expense of deeds; or on deeds as the touchstone of faith, will in either case pervert the gospel. In the first instance by antinomian antipathy toward the law and the obedience commanded by Christ; and by the second as legalism, pietism, and/or confusing new obedience for demands of old law. In any case reaching an orthodox understanding of “the gospel” continues a cause celeb of sectarian divisions.

To apprehend the gospel’s new obedience without violence to the central doctrine of justification by faith; the gospel must, in every time and place, be rightly confessed. Christendom lacks common agreement of the gospel’s significance. A competent discussion of the new obedience of AC article VI presupposes such an agreement in the gospel, which this paper renders in its catholic comprehension, i.e., what is believed and practiced everywhere, always, by all (Vincent of Lerins) encompassed in the liturgical expressions and assumptions of the Lutheran Symbols.

For many (some “Lutherans” included), “the gospel” is an amorphous truncation, permitting orthodox and sectarian alike to converse while talking past each other (the same is true of other Christian words: “faith”, “grace”, “Word”, and “sacrament”). To paraphrase O. Wilde, W. Churchill, and G.B. Shaw, “Christians are divided by a common language”.

The good news is certainly the forgiveness of sin for Christ’s sake. But If this were all, as many think, the gospel would be mere factoid, an item of information; and once intelligently processed an appropriate response might be: “Thanks God, and so long”. In fact this is a fairly common response to the objective reality of the forgiveness of sin for Christ’s sake. In such frame of mind there would be little reason to darken the doors of the church except as the ravages of sin and guilt might impel to the occasional “booster-shot” of good news. But merely processing the gospel fact in intellectual terms and responding by the “sinner’s prayer” or making “decision(s) for Jesus” have little to do with saving faith. Such limited understanding of “the gospel” wrongly sees “faith” as man’s cooperative activity with God; and abstracts God’s word from the person of Christ (the principle Protestant error).

A serious consequence in separating the word of God from the person of Jesus is an inevitable movement away from right worship (orthodoxy) to a life characterized either by antinomian episodic church attendance; or legalistic frequency (Sunday as “new Sabbath day”). Further such movement tends to worship that is more or less optional in shape and substance oriented in personal preferences.

When the gospel is reduced to being an item of information, the effect is the almost complete exorcism of God’s word from the church; and a concomitant deconstruction of her Liturgy. Essential to the objective gospel of forgiveness is that God’s word has as its natural context the Liturgy of the church. Outside of an orienting liturgical reference, God’s word and gospel cannot be rightly comprehended. In this sense, word and sacrament ministry is constitutive of the church. Far from appreciating the Liturgy as integral to the life of the church, most (and many Lutherans included) regard the Liturgy as just something so called “liturgical church bodies” happen to do. Is it any wonder that the denominations and sects adhere to a peculiar slant of Scripture’s meaning thereby rendering a common gospel understanding impossible?

A result of word of God as mere information is that congregations devolve into loosely associated gatherings without substantive unity. The question of whether to join a particular congregation becomes not so much, whether the gospel is purely preached and the sacraments rightly administered, but an array of other, tertiary, and personal concerns (“how friendly is the congregation?”, “do they conduct optional contemporary and ‘traditional’ Services?”, “is the music uplifting?, “are there children activities? ”).

But the gospel in its catholic understanding is more than informational factoid of sin forgiven for Christ’s sake. Instead the gospel comprehends the Word as power of God (Rom. 1:16; 1 Cor. 1:18) which is spirit and life (Jn. 6:63). By the Word, forgiveness is not obtained in an abstract, disembodied, self-serve way; but delivered as the cleansing, healing, enlivening activity of God in the flesh of Christ for his people gathered by his word and ministered in sacramental presence.

What Lutherans call “means of grace” can never be separate from the objective reality of justification come as the reign of God in Christ with his new Israel. It is in the delivery of gospel word as “means of grace” that we begin to see “works” or “deeds” come into view. They are not yet works of our “doing”; instead the gospel speaks to the “marvelous” (Acts 2:11), “mighty” (Mt. 11:20) works of God in Christ. The première work of God by his word is that of saving faith so that our salvation has nothing to do with our efforts, intellectual or otherwise. By God’s powerful, active, spiritual word of life we are drawn by and to the gospel, i.e., to the person of Jesus and the works of his crucified, resurrected, and ascended flesh. Drawn, Magi like (Mt. 2:2) by the Word, God comes sealing our incorporation into his life by Spirit and Word in Holy Baptism.

At the baptismal font we are brought into Real Presence communion and participation with Jesus’ death and resurrection; and by the binding of God to us in the physical wounds of Jesus, we also die to self and rise to God as new creation in the gift of the Spirit. All this is to say, that the received gospel is of faith which is saving in its relationship with Jesus, the temple and abiding place of God (John 2:19, 21). Jesus’ work is our faith which he alone establishes to make us holy and participatory in his abiding presence with the Father.

There is continuity in faith wrought by gospel word; when we are faithless, Jesus reamains faithful. There is nothing occasional or episodic about the baptized life. Jesus in word/sacrament physically embraces us who are bride in his flesh, making us like himself: holy with access to our heavenly Father oriented to a new obedience.

The nature of the Baptized life of faith and new obedience is that our gospel forgiveness, eternal life, and holiness is continually accessible in the person of Jesus as he establishes his presence in lordly prerogative, and not, “everyman doing whatever is right in his own eyes” (Deut. 12:8) as “in those days [when] there was no king in Israel” (Judg. 17:6). The new obedience thus fully anticipates receipt of the gospel in the manner by which he promises to be graciously with his church; i.e., where the Liturgy of the Word calls to faith and to Baptism, bids to reception of Holy Absolution for forgiveness and pastoral care, and invites to the Liturgy of the Lord’s Supper for forgiveness in feeding from his bloody wounds and on-going union as one in his flesh (Gen. 2:23) from Lord’s day to Lord’s day.

Having distinguished the gospel to be more wonderful than a Protestant abstraction; and less confused than Rome’s synergy of faith and deeds; we explore the nature of the new obedience in its gospel context, homiletically informed by a Liturgy of Time, i.e., through Easter and Pentecost themes.

Holy Thursday of the Easter Triduum, John 13:1-17, 31-35; Something New:

During the Passover supper, Jesus pauses to wash his disciples’ feet. Dispatching Judas from their company, our Lord then speaks to the remaining apostles of something new; something in which Judas cannot participate. First Jesus explains that now both he and God are glorified in each other (an unusual statement at this point as St. John identifies Jesus’ glorification with being lifted-up on the cross—see discussion on “time” below) and then says to them, “A new commandment (entolen) I give to you; that you love one another; as I have loved you, that you love one another” (v. 34). What is new? Certainly Jesus’ word is new compared to the Old Testament word, “you shall love your neighbor as yourself” (Lev. 19:18). The implicit suggestion is that Jesus loves us in greater degree than we are capable of loving ourselves. This is true, but by Jesus’ command we come face to face with a new obedience to love as he loves. It sounds as though Jesus is out-doing Moses; intensifying the demands of the law. To the contrary, the newness of Jesus’ command is not an added burden of the law. Jesus’ new commandment is pure gospel; and new in the context of a new thing happening in the background of our text.

Two events are in play to explain Jesus’ singular “new commandment”: the foot washing and the Passover meal being reinterpreted in order to reconstitute Israel (represented by the 12 minus 1 apostles) in the new reality of salvation, the New Testament in the broken body and shed blood of Jesus.

Earlier it was asserted that, “God’s word has as its natural context the Liturgy of the church. Outside of an orienting liturgical reference, God’s word and gospel cannot be rightly comprehended. In this sense, word and sacrament ministry is constitutive of the church.” This is the point of the new commandment and our new obedience: Jesus’ referents are two new foundational things of the New Testament: Holy Baptism and Lord’s Supper, new means of God’s gracious salvation in Christ. By these means, our gospel salvation is participatory in a heavenly communion of Christ’s flesh and blood.

A question of time inserts. Jesus institutes his Supper with the commands, “Take, eat; this is My body which is broken for you; do this in remembrance of Me” and "This cup is the new covenant in My blood. This do as often as you drink it, in remembrance nd “of Me” (1 Cor. 11:24, 25). Since Jesus’ crucifixion does not occur for several more hours, we naturally inquire: when was his body “broken” to be Passover food for this First Supper?

According to the dominical words of the First Supper the apostles received in their mouths precisely what the church catholic has ever since confessed its communicant believers receive in every Lord’s Supper (Mass) thereafter; i.e., the same body Mary held in her hands and that same broken body hung on the cross for the sin of the world. This is to say that, when time and space interfaces with eternity, we may not view events in simplistic linear sequence. Supper, Passion, and Resurrection are a single complex event, each aspect of which looks to and assumes the others. The prominent example of this kind of complex oneness is the Trinity, which from our human vantage is incomprehensible. The church recognizes a simple complexity of the salvation event in celebrating an extended single Liturgy (The Easter Triduum) over the period of Holy Thursday, Good Friday and Easter (vigil and day). The merits of cross and resurrection are the intended application of the church’s Liturgy of the Supper. The church does not travel back 2000 years in her imagination (Pietism’s approach) to participate in the benefits of cross and resurrection. Rather our ascended Lord, powerful eternal Word, in his person is both host and spiritual food in the Supper for new Israel, his church. So also at the First Supper our Lord by his dominical word sacramentally manifested his eternal and then fleshly presence in the bread and wine, all the while also locally present with the apostles. If simultaneous local and sacramental presence, the latter of which assumes a future event (the cross), at the First Supper is beyond our ken, so be it, it is nonetheless, the promise and word of God.

These two new things, Baptism and Lord’s Supper, both at once are established from the cross and by word as work of Christ and the Spirit. At the cross Jesus is baptized (Lk. 12:50) in the propitiating fire of God’s Spirit, utterly consumed a whole burnt offering for sin in his zeal to be the place of God’s dwelling (Ps. 69:9). In our text Jesus points to our associated baptisms by washing the apostles’ feet hinting to the "washing of regeneration" (Titus 3:5) to flow from his torn side on the cross as water, Word, and Spirit for the birthing and life of the church.

These new things Baptism and Supper coming into being and in the background of our text are the content and context of God’s New Testament love. Jesus can command his followers, “love…as I have loved you” which is a new thing in Christ; for the love we extend is not of ourselves; but of God in Christ imparted through reception of means: Word, Baptism, and Supper.

Though salvation and our reception of the God’s love is entirely the work of Christ, it is also apparent that Jesus’ command, to love as he loves, is a “hard saying” (Jn. 6:60, 66) from which many will turn away. Jesus’ new commandment is co-ordinate with his warning in the Sermon on the Mount, “Enter by the narrow gate; for wide is the gate and broad is the way that leads to destruction and there are many who go in by it. Because narrow is the gate and difficult is the way which leads to life, and there are few who find it” (Mt. 7:13, 14). If Jesus’ flesh is dwelling place of God, he is also the gate to the household of God (Jn. 10:9). Jesus’ new commandment to love as he loves requires a new kind of obedience. The new obedience, is that we “enter by the narrow gate” of his work and not by our own efforts or abilities. This narrow entry to God of obedient faith is nowhere else than through Jesus’ crucified flesh as we are washed by the water (Baptism) poured from his side, and receive a cleansing in the blood of the Lamb (Supper), i.e., the new things of the New Testament to make us holy.

Jesus’ crucified flesh as gateway to God is prefigured in the Old Testament Passover meal commanded by God (Ex. 12). The blood of sacrificed Passover lambs was smeared on the household wood lentil and door posts (thereby making the sign of the cross over the house) identifying the entry to the communal meal (of roast lamb) for salvation from the wrath of God’s passing-over angel.

At his Supper, Jesus re-presents and reinterprets the bread and wine, as the same flesh and shed blood which would be nailed and painted on the wood of the cross to precisely and clearly mark the narrow entry into God’s dwelling place. It is through this narrow entrance alone that one participates in the new things of salvation.

Only by our participation and union in Jesus’ torn flesh and shed blood are we able to “do” as he commands, i.e., “that [we] love one another as [he has] loved [us].” Partaking of his Flesh for the forgiveness of sins, we also bear his love in our flesh, united in the only flesh which at one and the same time defeats death; and has fully obeyed the perfect will of God in our place.

Fifth Sunday of Easter, John 14:1-14; A House United:

Jesus says, “In My Father’s house are many mansions” (v. 2). More precisely there are many “abiding places”. These places are not dormitories, grave like places of slumber or richly appointed retreats in which to idly wile away this life and eternity. In Christ the new obedience calls us to works and deeds oriented by the identity of the Householder and the purposes of his household. Thus like any good works project the church’s efforts are unified and directed. The Householder is the Father whose purposes are accomplished through his Son (v. 10). It is our unity with Jesus by a baptismal-Eucharistic faith which brings us into the loop of Christian good works (v. 12). And so Jesus promises his church, “greater works than [the works that I do] [the believer] will do, because I go to My Father. And whatever you ask in My name, that I will do…If you ask anything in My name I will do it” (vv. 12-14).

Christian prayer from time to time tests Jesus’ promise in order to secure some questionable benefit for self or others. Disappointment is the most probable outcome from prayer grounded in a “theology of glory”. “Christian” nations war against each other and ask Jesus to vanquish the other. In these regards is it important to observe that Jesus’ promise to do anything asked in his name, is not a blank check to spend in the cosmic toy store of man’s will.

The promise is to the church (nascent by the apostles) about to be birthed from his crucified side in the water, the blood, and the Spirit poured out for the life and continuance of his church. Note that Jesus’ death and resurrection is not directly for the salvation of the world, but specifically for the world’s salvation through his church. Axiomatic among the church fathers was, “Outside the church, no one is saved” (Origen); and “You cannot have God as father unless you have the church as mother” (Cyprian, Bishop of Carthage).

The Baptized life is maintained in a unity of the Spirit expressed in the activities of the church; “[continuing] steadfastly in the apostles’ doctrine and fellowship, and in the breaking of [the] bread, and in prayers…Now all who believed where together , and had all things in common…So continuing daily with one accord in the temple, and breaking bread from house to house, they ate their food with gladness and simplicity of heart, praising God and having favor with all the people. And the Lord added to the church daily those who were being saved” (Acts 2:42-47). The Christian faith relationship is not a “me and Jesus” affair so prevalent in the American Protestant mentality; nor a laity distanced from God by an intercessory Roman priest class. Instead the relationship is the priesthood of the baptized (Ex. 19:6, 1 Peter 2:5, 9) in union with Jesus, our High Priest. This priesthood is not a gathering of discordant individuals; it is instead a ministerium which acts and believes in the unity of the Spirit of truth (Jn. 14:17).

St. Luke described the church’s activity (i.e., doctrinal catechesis, Supper, prayers, agape hospitality and meal sharing, and witness by public comportment in the new love) as occurring, “daily with one accord in the temple”. No doubt Herod’s stone temple is a referent here; but more salient is St. John’s Gospel commentary on Jesus’ own reference to the “temple” (Jn. 2:19), “He was speaking of the temple of His body…When He had risen…His disciples remembered that He had said this to them” (Jn. 2:21, 22). It is Jesus, who places his church in the “mansions” of his Father’s house so that the primary referent of the church’s unity and accord must be the “temple” of Jesus’ risen and ascended flesh. And St. Paul confirms the church’s Eucharistic unity which discerns Supper reception as “the Lord’s body” (1 Cor. 11:29). In discerning the character of her new things, Baptism and Supper, the church instantly recognizes that she has a new locus of her continuing and eternal existence, whether in this world or in heaven. The church is not to be found in a geographic “Land”, buildings, church bodies, denominations, synods, or “here and there” with charismatic personalities and preachers; but she is found manifest in the constitutive marks of her existence, i.e., where the word is purely preached and the sacraments rightly administered, and thereby is the Real Presence of God in Christ with his people.

Sixth Sunday of Easter, John 14:15-30; New Obedience as Gospel Reception:

Jesus exhorts his church, “If you love Me, [you will] keep (teresete) My commandments (entolas) (plural)” (v. 15). This is distinct from his command, “to love one another as I have loved you” (Jn. 13:34). In fact, since Christians abide in Jesus and Jesus in us and the Father (v. 20), our love of one another is equated with loving Jesus (Mt. 10:40; 25:40) in whom disciples abide by word, Baptism and Supper. Love of God is essentially a part of abiding and possessing the words of Jesus. Keeping Jesus’ words (logon, v. 23) is so utterly essential to the welfare of his disciples that Jesus promises to send the Spirit of truth to teach, bring to remembrance, and help rightly interpret his word (v. 26).

When Jesus urges his church to “keep [his] commandments” we are compelled to inquire, which are these? In fact, the disciples do not yet know all of Jesus' commands or words as some will be conveyed following his resurrection. We observe that the immediate context of Jesus' repeated urging to keep his commands is the welling sense of dread in the disciples at his imminent departure to the Father. It is in the church’s possessing, keeping, and guarding his words and commands that she has her security, “Peace I leave with you. My peace I give to you” (v. 27). By this gospel assurance we begin to comprehend that Jesus’ commands are not to be taken on a par with the Old Testament law, demanding obedience for the sake of God’s holy ethic and prescribed worship. The commands which Jesus is leaving his church, far from being law-commands, can only be described as gospel-commands which in the possessing and keeping result in God’s service to us in application of his grace, merciful forgiveness, and abiding love for Christ’s sake.

For the sake of clarity, an example of law-command would be, “‘You shall not commit adultery.’ But I say to you that whoever looks at a woman to lust for her has already committed adultery with her in his heart” (Mt. 5:27, 28). But there is something entirely and qualitatively different when Jesus says, “My mother and brothers are those who hear the word of God and do it” (Lk. 8:21). And most “gospel” of all Christ's words are his commands in the background of our text, which are context for his words urging our “love”, to wit, “Take, eat; this is My body…do this…This cup is the new Testament in My blood. This do…” (1 Cor. 11:24, 25).

When speaking of Jesus’ gospel-commands we must consider the mandate that his church “will keep (teresete)” his New Testament commands, in a different light than when considering the Old Testament law as foundation of Sinai’s Covenant.

At Sinai, God “cut a covenant” with the Hebrews, promising to be their God. In making his Covenant the LORD revealed to this people his essential otherness and holiness by delivery of his Ten Words or Commandments. His people became known by a new name, “Israel” which God had bestowed on their father Jacob as a sign of blessing in God’s holiness. By our obedience (or failure) to the revealed ethic of God’s holiness we speak of the law functioning as matrix of curb, mirror, guide. Aspiring to God’s holiness in the “old obedience” profits nothing other than what we are otherwise obligated to keep in view of God’s perfect holiness. Jesus says, “[W]hen you have done all these things which you are commanded, say, ‘We are unprofitable servants. We have done what was our duty to do’” (Lk. 17:10).

But in the New Testament in Jesus’ blood, God reveals himself more profoundly, i.e., in his grace and mercy for Christ’s sake. If we are to participate in this covenant by “keeping” Jesus’ commandments we must do so from a gospel orientation. To view the model for obedience of gospel-commands requires a return to pre-Fall Eden. “Then the LORD God took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to tend and keep it” (Gen. 2:15). Adam and helpmate Eve were not farmers. “Tend and keep” (or “serve” and “guard”) is tabernacle/temple liturgical language (see Num. 1:53; 3:7,8; 18:3-7; 31:30). Adam and Eve were called to a priesthood, an order of holy and princely children of God most High. It is in the garden where Adam was most intimately priest of God, icon in God’s “image” and “likeness” (Gen. 1:26) representing him in the creation. In the garden Adam and Eve “kept” communion “in the cool of the day” (Gen. 3:8), i.e., the morning Service abiding with the Word, the pre-Incarnate Christ.

In Christ (second Adam) we have been restored to the station of children and our family vocation of believing priests, ordained at our Baptisms. In this gospel context “keeping the Word” is not an alien occupation, but one in communion with God as a part of the woof and warp of our Christian being. This is not to say we do not grapple with our sin nature; we do, and the law of God’s ethic and holiness condemns us. But by the gospel’s forgiveness for Christ’s sake we keep Jesus’ commands, especially those which are means of grace, very close indeed, that is to say we, “hear the word of God and do it”. According to St John Chrysostom, hearing Jesus’ words in faith is the essence of our loving him and co-ordinate with “keeping” his word (The Father’s of the Church, St. John Chrysostom, Commentary on St. John the Apostle and Evangelist, CUA, Washington. DC, 1959, Homily 75, pp. 306 & 308), i.e., “doing” the word of God and “loving” Jesus is one and the same thing, faithful receptivity of his Divine Service; our new obedience whereby in Christ, “God is all in all” (1 Cor. 15:28).

If Jesus’ words (remata, Jn. 6:63) are “spirit and life” then Christians can do no other than to obey his commands (entolas), for example, the command of Christian confession, “whoever confesses Me before men, him I will also confess before My Father who is in heaven” (Mt. 10:32). Peter, given the option of continuing in the presence of the living God or departing from Jesus with the crowds, gives voice to the believer’s faith imperative of keeping (i.e., continuing to abide) in the word by his confession on behalf of the apostles, “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words (remata) of eternal life. Also we have come to believe and know that You are the Christ, the Son of the living God” (Jn. 6:68, 69). Of Jesus saying, “If you love Me, keep My commandments (entolas)”, Chrysostom expresses the new obedience this way, “In truth, it is not enough merely to have[Jesus’ commandments], but we also need to observe them carefully” (Homily 75, p. 305).

Day of Pentecost, John 7:37-39; Baptismal Origin for the New Obedience:

Jesus stands in the temple on the seventh day of the Feast of Tabernacles. The Feast recalled and re-presented God’s wilderness ingathering of Israel; to tabernacle with them and be their God. Morning and evening God graciously sustained his people by his Divine Service from his altar (Ex. 29:38-46).

In the temple background, associated with the morning Service, was performed the Feast’s water ceremony. Priests lead a celebratory procession from the Altar of Presence down to the Pool of Siloam and with a golden pitcher drew out water. The party returned circling the Altar seven times as the grain offering and lamb sacrifices were being laid on the Altar where God was present by the perpetual fire. The people sang psalms and liturgical songs, as “‘YAH, the LORD, is my strength and song; He also has become my salvation.’ Therefore with joy you will draw water from the wells of salvation” (Isa. 12:2, 3). Two silver funnels were at the Altar. Into one the wine drink offering was poured and into the other the priest with the golden pitcher poured a water libation; thus the living water along with the wine, and the daily sacrifice issued from the Altar as congregation food from the Lord.

The water ceremony in view, Jesus shouts, “If anyone thirsts, let him come to Me and drink. He who believes in Me…out of his heart will flow rivers of living water” (vv. 37, 38). St. John provides the interpretation that the “living water” is reference to the Holy Spirit (v. 39). Chrysostom more particularly understands the “living water” as the “grace” of the Spirit (Homily 51, pp. 36 & 38). By his words Jesus invites all to “thirst” in faith after him and to “drink”, i.e., to partake of his sacrificial work (prefigured in the water ceremony) of forgiveness on the cross through Christian Baptism.

God is the source of all life and wellness in the congregation. As fountainhead of “rivers of living water”, Jesus is laying claim to being that God with his people present by the fire of the Altar. He is also announcing that the Altar of Presence will soon move from the precincts of the temple to the wood of the cross where en-Spirited water and blood will issue from his body, a whole burnt offering for the sin of the world and birth of new Israel.

In the new obedience of “hearing” and “doing” the Word in the Christian Liturgy, the congregation’s Altar is central. The Altar is the platform on which word as Scripture properly rests to be taken up by the Office of Ministry, delivering the words of Jesus in the en-Spirited Pentecost fire of preaching. By the fire of abiding Word in the congregation unbelievers are drawn to faith and Baptism; and the priesthood to their rightful food on the Table at Jesus’ consecratory commands of the First Supper. In this communion of God with his church, Jesus is the on-going giver of his Holy Spirit to hydrate and enliven his church by his righteousness.

The Holy Spirit as “living water” is unceasingly active in welling-up out of believers’ hearts (Homily 51, pp. 36, 38) that they might be the vehicles of God’s love and work in Christ to the world. Affairs and concerns of this world make believers forgetful and so for the sake of holiness we are in unceasing need of hearing Jesus’ words as the “Spirit of truth” instructs (Homily 51, p. 43). The church is holy because her Lord is holy who has given himself to make us so. It is gospel-imperative that his holiness is obtained where his word is purely delivered and his sacraments rightly administered. By word and sacrament, in which Christians are privileged to participate, are accomplished the “marvelous”, “mighty” works of God, i.e., salvation by faith in Christ alone apart from the deeds of the law.

As participants in his saving work, Christ the source of “rivers of living water ” gives us abundant supply. In God’s Old Testament household, it was the prophets on whom the Holy Spirit rested for the delivery of God’s word. Moses was the prophet of Israel. But his burden was exhausting and God called 70 elders to share in the Holy Spirit for prophesying his word. Complaint was made that two men, absent from the anointing ceremony, were also prophesying in the camp. Moses responded, “Oh, that all the LORD’s people were prophets and that the LORD would put His Spirit upon them!” (Num. 11:29). Pentecost is God’s answer to Moses’ prayer. On Pentecost day the gathered people of God (120 persons, 12 [church] x 10 [perfection and power]) received the Spirit of truth to know Jesus’ words aright and to participate in his marvelous works in the continued, out-pouring of the Spirit’s abundant grace.

The picture of Jesus as fountainhead for “rivers of living water” flowing from believers’ hearts draws us to the picture of Eden’s garden, “Now a river went out of Eden to water the garden, and from there it parted and became four riverheads” (Gen. 2:10). The four rivers (Pishon, Gihon, Hiddekel, and Euphrates) flowed out from the place of God’s life giving presence as living water to hydrate the four corners of the world.

The effect of sin is death. When Adam fell and was expelled from the garden’s hydration in the Spirit, so also the world suffered and shared in the withering loss. The church’s new obedience to Jesus’ commands establishes her to mission purpose. To this end she is obedient and faithful in continuing to hear and do her Lord’s post resurrection gospel-commands; “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven” (Jn. 20:22, 23) and “Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them…teaching them to observe all things that I have commanded (entellomai) you” (Mt. 28:19, 20). The church’s participation in God’s salvation, far from suggesting righteousness by our own works; instead is the new obedience which is fruit and evidence of our restoration to priestly and prophetic works in Christ.

Rev. Peter E. Mills
Presented, June 28, 2008
Second Annual Conference on the Augsburg Confession
At Gethsemane Lutheran Church, Marion, Ohio

Thursday, May 1, 2008

Public Confession


Lutheran Service Book (LSB), the Lutheran Church Missouri Synod’s most recent hymnal, offers five (5) settings of the chief Sunday and festival Service. Each setting is optionally commenced by a preliminary rite designated, “Confession and Absolution”. And each of these rites pastorally extends alternative responses to the assembly’s general confession of sin by either; a) an optative-declaration of grace of the objective gospel, or b) an en masse indicative-operative “absolution”.

Grace Lutheran congregation employs the former Declaration of Grace; but assiduously avoids the so called “absolution” as a faux sacrament beyond the authority of the church and an improper administration by the Pastoral Office in her midst.

Why does my Pastor respond to the public-general confession of sin at the beginning of the Communion Liturgy with a Declaration of Grace rather than an absolution?

The short answer is that the Declaration of Grace is the traditional and proper gospel response to the assembly’s general confession (“tradition” in the narrow sense denotes what is handed-on in the life of the church catholic, essentially in and by her Liturgy).

Why then did my previous pastors employ an "absolution" beginning the Divine Service with Communion?

Implicitly this question assumes that Lutheran pastors have always employed the “indicative-operative absolution”, for example The Lutheran Hymnal (TLH) page sixteen (16), in commencing the Mass. This is not the case. In fact a “generalized absolution” is an historical novelty almost entirely exclusive to the latest generation of Lutherans. (The word “almost” in the last sentence is intended as a qualification. While beyond the scope of this catechism, a parochial and rebellious practice of the Nurnberg congregation was its use of a form of Offene Schuld “public confession and absolution” following the sermon and admonition concerning the Lord’s Supper. The idea of bringing the law to bear in this way following a Reformation gospel sermon of release is at best liturgical incompetence. In 1533 Luther was asked to intercede. Politically hard pressed and extended, Luther’s opinions on Offene Schuld were not his finest hour for their vacillation, lack of clarity, and desire for compromise).

TLH's page sixteen (16) “absolution” (continued in LSB), had its debut with that hymnal’s publication in 1941 as a worship innovation and was immediately out of step with prior centuries of Lutheran liturgical practice. One might speculate that in 1941, life-long Lutherans who had never before experienced the indicative-operative “absolution” to their corporate confession, must have inquired: “Were all my previous pastors wrong?”

How does the Corporate Confession Rite relate to the Liturgy?

First, we observe that the Confession Rite itself is not a part of the Divine Service proper (which begins with Invocation and Introit). The Confession Rite, rather, is a pre-Service rite, adopted in the Missouri Synod during the latter half of the nineteenth century. When introduced, this Confession Rite utilized what is known as the Melancthonian Declaration of Grace, a general, non-sacramental proclamation of the objective gospel appropriate to the congregation’s assemblage of believers as well as any unrepentant, under-discipline, and occasional unbeliever attending the Liturgy. Accordingly, it is this traditionally Lutheran gospel Declaration of Grace which this pastor announces in response to the congregation’s “general confession”, and not the novelty of an indiscriminate public “absolution” invited now in the LSB as an alternative response.

Why are sacramental (i.e., indicative-operative) words of Absolution improper to the assembly’s general confession commencing the Divine Service?

The key is to comprehend the nature of “sacrament”, by which the gospel’s forgiveness is applied (not generally and objectively as by preaching and declaration; but personally and subjectively) to individuals in their particular circumstance. Thus the Absolution sought by individuals in the context of private confession is not co-ordinate to the pre-Liturgy’s objective gospel proclamation and corporate purpose.

In the Liturgy of the Word, God’s law and gospel are read and preached generally, that is, to the truth of our universal objective justification (forgiveness) for Christ’s sake. This general proclamation invites all who hear and believe “from faith to faith” to advance to personal sacramental reception of the gospel, that is, to Baptism (for those converted), and to Holy Absolution, and the Lord’s Supper (for the baptized). Thus, the indicative-operative pastoral words of all sacraments are directed to individuals and received subjectively in faith by specific persons in their particular circumstances and spiritual condition.

In the case of Baptism, the words of personal application are: “I baptize you [singular]”. Before administering the Holy Absolution to an individual, the pastor must inquire, “Do you [singular] believe that my forgiveness is God’s forgiveness?”, and if the response is affirmative, the Sacrament is applied: “I forgive you [singular]”. And in case of the Lord’s Supper each communicant is served individually by the ordained man in the Holy Ministry, with such words as: “Mary (if name is known), take, eat/drink…this is for you [singular]”.

Are the pre-Service “Confession and Absolution” rites of the LSB anywhere taught by Martin Luther in his Small Catechism or otherwise from the Lutheran Confessions?

No! In this discussion it is important to discern that the rite of public-general confession at the beginning of our communion Liturgies is not the same confession of sins and Absolution taught in Luther’s Small Catechism as the Fifth Chief Article (LSB p. 362; pp 292, 3). Luther knew the indicative-operative words of Holy Absolution only in the context of the pastor-penitent relation, that is, in private confession.

According to Lutheran liturgical commentator, Rev. Paul H.D. Lang, the rite of public-general confession prefacing our current Liturgies entered Lutheran worship as a post-Reformation phenomena via Calvinist associations, that is, from the Reformed Church. The Reformed (as with all Protestantism) eschew a Real Presence/means of grace gospel understanding of the church’s sacraments. Thus, the Reformed altogether did away with an extra-Service private confession in the pastor-penitent setting by transmuting the whole notion of “confession of sin” out of the private venue and into the congregation’s corporate worship. This radical change involved theological sleight of hand; morphing Rome’s “priesthood” into a corruption of Luther’s “priesthood of all believers” to effect a pastor-less “me and Jesus absolution”. Of course since the Reformed (and Protestants in general) do not understand a pastor’s ordination in the Lutheran sense, that the pastor’s forgiveness is God’s forgiveness in his place and stead, any “absolution” from a pastor would be superfluous and not administered, in any form. This minimalist view of the Pastoral Office supports the peculiarly Protestant notion expressed by the pietistic bromide, “everyone a [his own absolving] minister”.

In contrast to a Reformed inspired corporate general confession, Luther’s Small Catechism (Fifth Chief Article) only teaches a confession of sins which seeks sacramental Absolution dispensed in the context of private, that is, individual confession of sins. In the Fifth Chief Article, Luther taught how Christians should privately confess their sins before their pastor. Sadly, Synod editors removed this teaching from the 1943 edition of Luther’s Small Catechism thereby creating no little confusion about the nature of our Lutheran confession and Absolution practice. This omission has since been remedied. Luther’s teaching on how to privately confess before one’s pastor has been restored (LSB pp. 292, 3; also see this blog’s immediate prior post). Unfortunately the last generation of Lutherans missed this teaching so that many now hold a greater identification with sectarian Protestantism’s teachings on confession of sins than with their Lutheran fathers in the faith with the result that in the Lutheran communion an entire sacrament of the church has all but been obliterated. This of course is tragic for a church body which understands that the marks of the true church are where the gospel is purely preached and the sacraments (presumably all of them) are rightly administered.

If our Lutheran Confessions do not teach of a public confession and a corporate “absolution”; how did these enter the Lutheran Church and continue in her official hymnals?

Early in the life of the Missouri Synod, public-general confession was accepted as part of Lutheran worship (acceded to over warnings from elder churchmen of the danger posed to our faith). Theoretically this Reformed novelty of public-general confession was never intended to replace private confession of sins, but was instead to stand as a human institution in support of the church’s sacrament of Holy Absolution administered in the context of private confession. After all the Apology to the Augsburg Confession speaks of the sacrament of Holy Absolution in this way, “we also keep confession, especially because of absolution, which is the word of God that the power of the keys proclaims to individuals by divine authority” (Ap. Art. XII, para. 99, pg. 197 Tappert edition).

If public-general confession is permissible in “support” of private confession and Absolution; is it also permissible to employ a corporate “absolution” in the historic public Liturgy?

Absolutely not! Prior to 1941 Lutheran pastor’s extended to the assembly a gospel Declaration of Grace as the only response to the general confession commencing the Sunday/festival Liturgy. The declaration was as follows:

“Almighty God, our heavenly Father, hath had mercy upon us and hath given His only Son to die for us and for His sake forgiveth us all our sins. To them that believe on His name He giveth power to become the sons of God and hath promised them His Holy Spirit. He that believeth and is baptized shall be saved. Grant this, Lord, unto us all.” [Evangelical Lutheran Hymn-Book (1927), and Liturgy and Agenda (1916 & 1921)]

Note well; this traditional language DOES NOT employ sacramental verbiage, (“...I forgive you [singular] your [singular] sins...”), properly reserved only as Absolution in individual application (Small Catechism, Art. V, para. 28, pg. 554 [Latin, “...remitto tibi [singular] tua [singular] peccata...” English, pg. 555] Concordia Triglotta edition).

Prior to 1941 Missouri Synod Lutheran pastors universally and properly announced the pre-Service gospel of forgiveness in the manner appropriate to a congregation’s corporate confession at the public worship, that is, by a Declaration of Grace (“...for His sake forgiveth us [plural] all our [plural] sins...”) conveying the gospel’s message of objective justification. But today in LSB it is retained merely as a pastor optional alternative.

The error of the 1941 TLH (continued in LSB) was that it “creatively” cobbled Lutheran sacramental “indicative-operative” language from the Holy Absolution with a Protestant public-general confession to produce a faux absolution that had not otherwise existed in any Christian communion. The end irony is: all that was required to turn sacramental Lutherans into aping American Protestants was a trick of grammar. By changing Luther’s singular pronouns (in the Latin/German) into English plurals, there is no change in the English sounds. Nevertheless, between “you” [singular] and “you” [plural], there is all the difference in the world. The former is sacramentally normative and authorized in its private/individual context; while “you all” is incongruent novelty.

By what authority of Word comprehended in the church’s historic Liturgy does the Pastoral Office continue to “sacramentally” administer an en masse corporate “absolution”?

None! Such an indiscriminate, unsolicited “absolution”, if the words are believed, would necessarily effect the evil result of absolving, the impious, the impenitent and those under-discipline, and unbelievers. In order to obviate such an unintended, faithless evil it would be necessary to imply a condition to such corporate “absolution”, i.e., that it is only operative and indicative to penitent and conscience examined believers—and all others thus “absolved” must continue in their sins. Obviously such an implicitly conditional “absolution” is corruptive of the assurance of God’s gospel promises and undermining of the Holy Ministry which proclaims and applies them in the congregation.

A pastor is no more authorized to administer an indiscriminate-conditional “absolution” than he would be to Baptize by hosing down a room full of people in the triune Name; or to send the communion “plate” to be passed around the pews from one person to another. All attempts at en masse “sacramental” applications are beyond a pastor’s right and authority (the gospel en masse is why Christ commanded preaching and teaching, and the church appoints evangelists); indeed, such faux sacrament attempts are an abrogation of the pastor’s raison d’être in the proper, traditional, and discriminate application of the gospel in the congregation. Pastors are called, first and last, to fidelity in stewardship of the mysteries (sacraments) of God; and when right administration is at issue, they are called to vigilance and discernment in things handed on in the church for all time, everywhere, and for all.

Thursday, April 17, 2008

Private Confession and Absolution


Penitent: Reverend Father, please hear my confession.

Why do I address my pastor as Rev. Fr.?

The title “Reverend” suggests a person worthy of reverence. This is not the case with your pastor of himself or with any sinful man. But your pastor is ordained into Christ’s Office to speak God’s word at His command and in his stead or place (and both God and his word are worthy of reverence). Your pastor is called “Reverend” on account of Christ and the Office of the word into which he is ordained and not in his own right.

The appellation “Father” is of ancient and catholic custom in the church, whether in the Orthodox, the Roman, the Anglican, or the Lutheran communions. As Elisha called Elijah “father” (2 Kings 2:12), so Melanchthon references Luther in his funeral sermon. More specifically “Father” is descriptive of your relation toward your pastor. As Christ’s minister of word and sacrament in the congregation, the Pastor is your spiritual father and responsible to God as such. The Pastoral Office continues the church’s Apostolic Office which is Christ’s Office by which he is present with his people in word and sacrament. St. Paul refers to himself as “father” begetting the congregation of Corinth “through the gospel” (1 Cor. 4:15) (cf. Philemon v. 10). Such is the power of the Word (cf. parable of the Sower, Mt. 13) which the Pastor is called to preach and to teach. The Pastor of a congregation is also obligated in the fatherly responsibility of protecting the congregation by preserving the church’s orthodox doctrine against all external heresy. Thus pastors are traditionally called “Father”.

Does Jesus forbid calling pastors, “father” (Mt. 23:8-10)?

Christians must not read Scripture in wooden application as sectarian Fundamentalists, divorcing God’s word from its theological orientation and liturgical context. A wooden application of the above text would logically require that we not call our earthly fathers, “father” (but see Col. 3:21); or our teachers, “teacher” (yet see Jn. 3:10). Jesus calls Abraham, “father” (Lk. 16:24). If Jesus intended to enjoin ecclesiastical titles then similarly “Pastor”, “Reverend”, “Elder”, and “Bishop” would offend. Surely we have one who is Pastor or Shepherd, who is Christ; we have only one Bishop of our souls, Jesus. And only one is Reverend, the Lord. The key, as noted above, is that unworthy men who are called into the Office of the Holy Ministry act exclusively in the place and stead of Christ. It is the Office which dominates the man who does not act in any way in his own authority, but by the command of Christ. Thus understood the Holy Ministry, does not admit to calling any earthly man in his own right, “Pastor”, “Father”, “Teacher”, or “Bishop”; rather such men fill and exercise precisely these heavenly functions which wholly belong to God alone, most especially the forgiveness of sins. The context of Mt. 23:8-10 against which Jesus inveighed was the personal and independent authority claimed by the scribes and Pharisees who sat in Moses’ seat from which they denied Jesus, of whom Moses prophesied.

Why doesn’t my Fr. Confessor first greet me?

The single minded nature of penitential confession of sins precludes the Confessor from saying anything which might detract from that purpose. Private confession is neither a social nor a counseling discussion. A penitent comes to private confession as a poor, that is, humble, broken, contrite sinner, without excuse for his sins, seeking God’s forgiveness. Because confessors do not possess the apostolic gift of discerning spirits, anything the Confessor would say at this point could be coercive or cause the penitent to misunderstand the occasion. Certainly, announcing the peace of God would be premature at the beginning of the confession. The penitent must be permitted to first agree with God’s word about his sorry condition. In the parable of The Prodigal Son, that father runs to greet the prodigal, as Christ has with you by sending ordained ministers of the gospel, but we note that the father did not at first say anything to the returning child. Rather it is the prodigal son who first speaks his confession (Lk. 15:20, 21).

Confessor: Proceed.

Is there more to this “proceed” than merely to continue talking?

Yes, much more. The Penitent in coming to private confession makes a request without any prompting by the Confessor. That request expresses the Penitent’s desire that the Confessor listen to what the Penitent has to say by way of confession, that is, according to what God’s word says of him. By responding with the consent, “proceed”, the Confessor solemnly agrees on behalf of Christ to silently and attentively hear the confession to the end that sin be forgiven. The Confessor is agreeing to listen to confession. If it appears that the Penitent is seeking to excuse his sin, or is confessing the wrongs of others thus compounding his sin, or is rather in need of other pastoral conversation, then the Confessor may inquire of the Penitent so that their mutual purpose might be clarified and the Penitent pastorally attended. “Proceed”, also contains the promise that the confession is to God alone and not to a man. The Confessor is but God’s agent for listening and speaking, and thus confession is a private matter between Christ and penitent. This understanding of confidentiality is known as the “seal of confession” so that the Confessor is bound to forget and/or never speak of what he has heard of the penitent’s confession. “Proceed” is a clear indication that the Penitent is free and without impediment to be honest toward God so that no cause for deceit exists in a truthful confession and that the full joy of salvation might be experienced by the Penitent in the hearing of the Absolution.

Penitent: I am a poor sinner and confess before God that I am guilty of all sins; especially in the station God has placed me as (husband/wife, father/mother, child, employer/employee, Christian brother/sister, etc.).

My sins which especially burden me are:
(failed to)

I am sorry for all my sins.
I am without excuse.
I pray for Grace.
I want to do better.

What does it mean to be a “poor” sinner?

Jesus calls the “poor in spirit”, “blessed”, “for theirs is the kingdom of heaven” (Mt. 5:3). A penitent who is “poor” comes to God, not looking to the quality of his sorrow but instead to the graciousness of the forgiveness which God extends in Christ. Again the parable of “The Prodigal Son” is instructive. When the Prodigal returned to his father for forgiveness and entry into his father’s house, he was not coming in “poverty of spirit”. The Prodigal was not yet so humble and broken by his treachery and sorry condition that he did not come without an offer. He offered to come back as a servant and to work in his father’s estate. In the mind of the Prodigal he still had sufficient “wealth” or self-merit to induce his father’s reception on his own terms, as a servant. Thus the Prodigal was not truly seeking reconciliation, but a detente. But in our heavenly Father’s kingdom there are only sons and daughters in Christ. If you wish to be assured that your faith saves, then look to Christ, not your “faith.” Christ is the sinner’s only wealth; if we claim anything more, then we do not have Christ. This is what it means to be a “poor” sinner.

What does it mean that “I am guilty of all sins”?

This confession is meant in three ways: 1) The significance of the First Commandment is that, “we should fear, love and trust in God above all things.” In this single Commandment is the entire will of God toward men. It is manifest that in every moment of our life we fail in just this one Commandment. 2) Christians observe that it is a rare day when they are not in breach of all Ten Commandments (see Martin Luther's Small Catechism: "What does this mean?" for each Commandment). 3) When we confess our sins to God, we enter into Christ’s death through daily remembrance of our Baptism. The church confesses one Baptism and one Lord by which we come to God with all brothers and sisters in Christ. St. Paul describes Christians as, “bearing with one another and forgiving one another, if anyone has a complaint against another; even as Christ forgave you, so you also must do” (Col. 3:13). To forgive as Christ forgives suggests that as we abide in Christ and he in us we are our "brother's keeper" and so identify with our sinful brother as Christ, by his Baptism, identified himself and thus are “guilty of all sins.”

Is a general confession of sin (not mentioning specific sins) appropriate to private confession?

Confessors are not able to discern individual spirits (as St. Peter, Acts 5:3 & 9). Dr. Luther admitted the possibility that someone might not know of any sins. He says, “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” (Small Catechism VI). We are not to burden or torture ourselves to locate every sin. This is not even possible. Because of our sinful blindness many sins are secret to us and some are graciously hidden. We should not invent sins which do not exist as though private confession were a requirement or that we are to meet some imagined expectation of our Fr. Confessor. On the other hand, we should not make light of repentance and the holy Absolution which it seeks. Repentance which humbly seeks forgiveness possesses an attitude which agrees with Scripture. Confession is spoken (Ps. 32:3) and it is specific (Pss. 32:5, 51:3) precisely because we come to God in all humility. Sin is shameful and embarrassing; nevertheless all sin will be made manifest either publically at the Last Judgement or in the privacy of Christ’s pastoral care by the sacraments of Baptism, of holy Absolution in the context of the private confession, and of the Lord's Supper.

Confessor: God be merciful to you and strengthen your faith. Do you believe that my forgiveness is God’s forgiveness?

Must I believe that my Fr. Confessor forgives me?

Yes, in two respects, first, that it is the Fr. Confessor who gives this forgiveness in the place, stead, Name, and command of Christ (Jn. 20: 22, 23) and, second; we are saved by grace through faith (Eph. 2:8); therefore we are to “repent and believe in the gospel” (Mk. 1:15). Holy Absolution is the pure gospel of Christ.

Penitent: (response)


Confessor: As you believe, so be it done unto you. By the command of our Lord Jesus Christ, I forgive you all of your sins, in the name of the Father and of the + Son and of the Holy Ghost. Go in peace.

Will the Fr. Confessor speak further with me?

Salvation is of the church. Private confession is the church’s rite. In this rite, Christ’s Office of the Keys are exercised through the sacrament of the holy Absolution (Mt. 16:19, Jn. 20: 22, 23). The Office of the Keys is the ordinary means by which Christ extends his pastoral care for souls who are “poor in spirit”. The discernment which is given to pastors concerning souls is that which the Holy Ghost gives in ordination to rightly apply God’s law and gospel in his church. Accordingly, the Fr. Confessor will speak such additional words of Scripture as are needed to comfort and strengthen faith according to the individual’s circumstance (Isa. 40:1 & 2).

Penitent: Amen.