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.