16 July 2008

Compel me to Absolve you!

The following is a quote from Luther's Large Catechism "An exhortation to confession" -

28 So we teach what a splendid, precious, and comforting thing Confession is. Furthermore, we strongly urge people not to despise a blessing that in view of our great need is so priceless. Now, if you are a Christian, then you do not need either my pressuring or the pope’s orders, but you will undoubtedly compel yourself to come to Confession and will beg me for a share in it. 29 However, if you want to despise it and proudly continue without Confession, then we must draw the conclusion that you are no Christian and should not enjoy the Sacrament either. For you despise what no Christian should despise. In that way you make it so that you cannot have forgiveness of your sins. This is a sure sign that you also despise the Gospel.
30 To sum it up, we want to have nothing to do with coercion. However, if someone does not listen to or follow our preaching and its warning, we will have nothing to do with him [1 Corinthians 5:11], nor may he have any share in the Gospel. If you were a Christian, then you ought to be happy to run more than a hundred miles to Confession and not let yourself be urged to come. You should rather come and compel us to give you the opportunity. 31 For in this matter the compulsion must be the other way around: we must act under orders, you must come into freedom. We pressure no one, but we let ourselves be pressured, just as we let people compel us to preach to administer the Sacrament.32 When I urge you to go to Confession, I am doing nothing else than urging you to be a Christian. If I have brought you to the point of being a Christian, I have thereby also brought you to Confession. For those who really desire to be true Christians, to be rid of their sins, and to have a cheerful conscience already possess the true hunger and thirst. They reach for the bread, just as Psalm 42:1 says of a hunted deer, burning in the heat with thirst, 33 “As a deer pants for flowing streams, so pants my soul for You, O God.” In other words, as a deer with anxious and trembling eagerness strains toward a fresh, flowing stream, so I yearn anxiously and tremblingly for God’s Word, Absolution, the Sacrament, and so forth. 34 See, that would be teaching right about Confession, and people could be given such a desire and love for it that they would come and run after us for it, more than we would like. Let the papists plague and torment themselves and others who pass up the treasure and exclude themselves from it. 35 Let us, however, lift our hands in praise and thanksgiving to God [1 Timothy 2:8] for having graciously brought us to this our understanding of Confession.

I was compelled, surprisingly so, to absolve some of the children while recently at Higher Things in St. Louis. Of course I had not taken any vestments as I was not serving during any of the services that week thus I had to borrow them and a stole. These children came and asked to receive Holy Absolution. Only two of the seven asked. They had all been "compelled" to come to private confession once during the course of their confirmation training and prior to being confirmed. They had already been examined by me and received into fellowship at the Holy Supper using the rite in LSB "First communion prior to confirmation".

After confession was over for the evening I went with a few brothers to converse about this and other topics over a cool beer. The conversation turned to how one actually "does" confession well, meaning the Father confessor and not the penitent. A very helpful suggestion was holding private confession on Saturday evening and thus, with sermon prepared from text studied during the week, one can provide counsel and exhortation that is not only relevant but new as the penitent may return (hopefully) for confession again and will not hear again the same pat lines or counsel regarding their sin. Well and good.

But with all the preaching on the joy of the absolution and the clean conscience that God's absolution gives to the repentant and contrite sinner, I do not have people banging down the door pressuring me to hear their confession. One brother suggested that I just set a date and time and offer confession rather than an open invitation that if one so desires they can schedule and appointment.

I believe that the Luther quote above puts to rest any notion that confession is "Roman" but rather that the confession of the Lutherans is free, not compelled, brings complete remission of sins and not just a beginning to what must be done for satisfaction. I must confess however, that even as straight forward, even blunt a person as I am, I cringe at the statement,"29 However, if you want to despise it and proudly continue without Confession, then we must draw the conclusion that you are no Christian and should not enjoy the Sacrament either." This statement condemns me as I have yet to find, seek out, a father confessor and thus have not taken advantage of but maybe rather despised such a precious gift of God. The Table would be empty at my church if this were held to be the regulation. What to do? For me I know but for all for whom I am accountable before God?

My question is how have those of you who have instituted private confession and absolution done so in congregations that have never had it and over what period of time did you do so? I have been with this congregation for over six years, starting as vicar and then called and ordained here, have made some, maybe many, liturgical changes and have begun with much younger age communion, but have yet to establish private confession and absolution. Also, how would you answer questions in light of Luther's exhortation and condemnation of those who would not come to confession or take umbrage with his statement that such are not Christians?


Rev. Paul Beisel said...

This is a great topic Bill, and one that we all should be discussing more. I remember hearing that the late Ken Korby set hours for Confession, and sat many, many a day without any takers. I tried this for a while too, but you have to be committed to it. I now make it plainly available by appointment, and teach about it when I can, even to the extent of inviting people in the sermon to come to me for individual confession & absolution. Thus far, few have taken me up on it.

I think to a large extent, it is a generational thing. It is difficult to teach an old dog new tricks (which aren't really new at all). Our hope is with the children. But even this is not going to happen unless we ourselves model it for them. One thing I have considered doing as a house father is inviting members of my family to come with me to my father confessor (those who are communicants, that is), and make it a family event, taking turns with the same pastor. I have not done this yet, but I thought this would be a great way to put it out there in the open as a salutary and ordinary thing to do. Otherwise, our children will learn to fear it as much as we have.

Just a few thoughts, but a helpful start. Thanks for posting.

Pastor Foy said...

Great thoughts especially about the house father and all them to confession together. The old dog new tricks is very much an issue here. ON sunday a lady asked why I couldn't wait until she and few others who are very devoute but old were gone before I did some things like kneel during the creed, make the sign of the cross, and have weekly communion. I said because then the next generation will grow up the same and miss these valuable things. She asked if this meant what they did before was wrong or not as good to which I just say it was maybe not as good as it could be but your former pastor had other issues that were more pressing and now is the time for these.

Pr. H. R. said...

Indeed: great topic.

First off, no one will come to confession if the pastor cannot encourage them with his own experience. If you make confession a regular part of your life and learn how hard it is, how joyous it is, how humbling it is and live in that for a year, then you can start talking it up.

One of the first things I asked my elders for here was a midweek Divine Service. This is as much for me and my family as for the parish. I even told the elders/altar guild that I would set up and take down - I didn't want anybody to balk at it because of extra work. And since it was on top of the parish's normal schedule I didn't feel badly at all about saying that at this service, for simplicity's sake, we would only use the chalice.

I mention this, because I offer Confession for the hour prior to this midweek service. So times for confession are posted right on the church sign and in the bulletin. It's in front of folks' eyes day in and day out. All are invited.

Like Loehe, I often spend that time alone. Fine: I need time to prep for the Divine Service, get a little extra reading done, etc. But I have a couple regulars and every once and a while a new person who takes advantage of this gift.

Meanwhile, I talk it up in Bible class and especially during Lent. For Lent, the "theme" is always a way to get to the Six Chief Parts: Wednesday Vespers we read and pray it. The next Sunday we study it in Bible Class.

This past year on Confession, I simply read excerpts from Luther's Exhortation (including the quote noted here) as the Vespers sermon.

I had one gal come into my office and want to talk about it - she was listening! - she was concerned with just the line mentioned here about despising this gift. It was a good conversation.

So, FWIW, that's how I have proceeded.


Rev. Rick Sawyer said...

Truly, one of the benefits and blessings of a long pastorate is that there are children now growing up who can say, "But we've always heard that the pastor pronounces private absolution!"

We didn't lose that Gift overnight, and it isn't reclaimed - as a free and wonderful thing - overnight, either. So, keep teaching, and leading by example. I second HRC's emphasis on catechetical preaching during Lent.

For myself, I admit to my yearly catechesis much earlier now than when I came. I'll have another 7 year old preparing for the Table again this year. Parents accompany their children to all classes.

Such little ones receive the Gifts so gladly, and private Absolution is among them. Before confirming and admitting, I say, "I will hear your confession and pronounce absolution." It's not a Law, and the children don't take it that way. I tell them they will hear Jesus, and He Himself will admit them to the Table through my voice. This happens during Holy Week, and after a few decades or so, I do believe people may say, "It's the way we've always done it here."

Rev. Rick Sawyer said...

Dear brother, you ask, "How would you answer questions in light of Luther's exhortation and condemnation of those who would not come to confession or take umbrage with his statement that such are not Christians?"

I believe - as I know all here would agree - we need to be careful when we reinstate this precious Gift that people are not given the impression that they somehow lack forgiveness when receiving only corporately in the Service.

At the same time, I like to urge people that the love I have and express toward all people is not what my children need when they are hurting, shamed, fearful or guilt-ridden. Then they need something more than my saying, generally speaking, that I love all people and hold nothing against anyone.

People understand most of what Luther is urging - only, they understand it outside the context of Confession and Absolution.

They understand it in terms of health. That is, nearly everyone understands that by generally urging us to avoid smoking, the Surgeon General provides a certain conveyance of overall health. Same with advising us to eat right, exercise and get plenty of rest. Providing us vitamins and over the counter drugs is all in the way of providing health which people may appropriate for themselves as needed.

But when a person is hurting particularly . . . When an individual pain becomes distinctive, most understand the benefit of going individually to the doctor to receive individual care. Even if a person resists such a trip and needs to be compelled by others, it's understood: the means to and benefits of good health can be conveyed generally and generically to one and all, but when YOUR body starts to manifest specific pain, specific, personal, individual treatment is called for.

Luther wants us to understand Confession and Absolution as such a personal and invidual Gift, applying God's forgiveness to specific hurts of sinners. As a Physician of the Soul, Luther could hardly understand how anyone would spurn such personal care by and from the Savior.

Certainly, the Gift had been abused. It is also true that we are not mandated to apply it in a particular way. Little confessional boothes are not necessary. Neither is vesting or being before the altar, though where that can be done, it extolls the Gift and gives a certain reassurance to the one receiving.

The point is that God has not only given His Forgiveness to men to speak generally but specifically, not simply to many but to each one as each has need.

I love my two daughters, and I love my parishioners. At times, my girls need to hear, "I love YOU, Jessica," or, "I love YOU, Emily." And there is not a member of my congregation whom God has not commanded me to forgive, should such a one come repenting.

That is the way forgiveness goes, isn't it? It came to David personally through Nathan. It came to Isaiah personally through the angel. Our Lord instructed Peter to forgive his repenting brother seventy times seven.

The Lord's forgiveness certainly comes to us generally, as we hear the Gospel preached and corporate absolution spoken, but Our Lord forgave the woman who was caught in adultery, and He forgave Peter who denied Him three times.

Forgiveness far and wide, generally applied? Sure.

Forgiveness personally, individuall applied? To deny that is to deny that a father has arms for each child personally, or that a doctor has healing to apply to each patient as they come, one at a time.

Luther can't understand how anyone would truncate the Lord's way of serving His people. Because it had been abused, people are often leery of it, even antagonistic to its being reclaimed.

If they could see it as the wonderful Gift it is, more wonderful than getting the personal care of a personal physician, perhaps they'd breathe easier.

It's not that a different forgiveness is being given when absolution is received individually, but that the Lord is serving as Our Great Physician, as He does for sinners throughout the Scriptures. He is speaking with us personally and applying His forgiveness, individually, to each and every hurt, as we have need.

Rev. Eric J Brown said...

I think that to a certain extent Private Confession and Absolution is still extant in my congregation, but just completely deritualized. I am pleased that, by in large, the idea that if one has a guilty conscience one can and ought go "talk" to pastor about it.

I'm in the "bible" belt - and there is a strong anti-Roman Catholic streak here. When discussing C&A, I have pointed out that if anyone does the above, it's basically C&A.

I think solid preaching, both of the law and the Gospel, and also teaching on the power of God's Word to forgive will lead people to Confession and Absolution, even if, due to whatever prejudices they hold away from the established time.

Rev. Paul Beisel said...

Martin Chemnitz has a great section in his Enchiridon: Ministry, Word, and Sacraments on Absolution. I think he is very much in line with Luther in his Large Catechism. Private Confession is an individual use of the loosing key, just as excommunication is an individual application of the binding key. But we use the loosing key in a general way whenever we preach the Gospel or administer the Sacraments. Chemnitz says that for those who, even after hearing the Gospel think that God has another verdict for them than the one they have just heard in the Gospel should by all means seek out the comfort of individual absolution. And those who are not convicted by the general preaching of the Law, need to have the binding key applied to them individually. It's all in his book that I mentioned.

Susan said...

As a layman, I know how important it was for me that the pastor had set hours to hear confession. That way I didn't feel like I was bothering him or taking him away from something more important. (Now, he'd be upset to know that I felt that way, but sometimes that's how it is with sinners.)

Rev. Rick Stuckwisch said...

I'm grateful for the good points and good questions in this post, and for the very helpful comments that have been offered in response. I gladly say "Amen" to these contributions.

At Emmaus, I began setting hours for confession (once a month on a Saturday evening for two hours, from 5:00 until 7:00 p.m.) about a year after I was ordained. At the same time, I was very deliberate about finding an establishing a father confessor for myself, and letting the people know that I also rely upon this means of grace.

I've always made it very clear that Individual Confession is freely offered to be freely received in faith. The people have taken me at my word, and that has alleviated any objections. I've been offering the opportunity for over a decade now, so it is understood to be the regular norm, even though many of the members do not come regularly (and there are a fair percentage who never have).

In all these years, there have only been a handful of times when no one came. The typical evening for a long, long time would bring three or four penitents in the course of the two hours. I used the time in between to read and study, whether in preparation for preaching or for Bible class. It has never been wasted time.

In previous years, there have been some Saturday evenings when I would see as many as a dozen penitents. Those nights stood out as unusual at first, but they have gradually become the new norm. In fact, for the past five months in a row, I have had non-stop penitents from the time I begin until after 7:00 p.m. On one evening, I believe there were as many as two dozen penitents, and I was hearing confession steadily from 5:00 until 7:45 p.m. There are various factors involved, but I think these developments reflect the sort of pastoral relationship that emerges over the long haul, especially when there is a steady practice in place.

I know that I have become a better father confessor with practice, and with the benefit of receiving pastoral care from my own father confessor. There's no shortcut to such things, but the same sort of growth into maturity that occurs in almost any other aspect of life. One simply has to stick with it, and learn and grow with time and experience: both in going to confession, and in hearing confession. I'll be forever grateful to my field-work pastor, the Reverend Peter Ledic, who held regular hours for confession and thereby enabled me to "discover" this all-but-forgotten treasure. He embodied in the life and practice of the Church, the very things I was learning in my studies at the seminary.

Although Individual Confession and Absolution is freely offered to be freely received, I believe it is incumbent upon a pastor to make himself available for this means of grace, to teach and encourage the people concerning it. At the same time, no pastor should hear confession without going to confession and receiving the Holy Absolution from his own pastor. My conclusion is that a pastor needs to make this practice a matter of discipline for himself, with some measure of regularity; not only for his own sake, but for the sake of the people entrusted to his pastoral care.

I should say that I have found it very helpful to provide pastoral counsel in the context of confession from the next day's Holy Gospel, as Brother Foy has described in his post. This anchors that pastoral care in the objective Word of the Gospel and in the regular life of the Church. It also gives a particularity and nuance to pastoral counsel, which prevents generic "advice" and lends itself to solid Law-Gospel preaching and catechesis. Following the good example of my own father confessor, I prefer to provide that pastoral counsel prior to the Holy Absolution, rather than after it (as the LSB rubrics indicate). Whatever I may say after speaking the Absolution will be an affirmation of the forgiveness fully granted and an evangelical invitation to receive the Sacrament of the Altar. I don't want anyone leaving with anything other than the Gospel ringing in their ears and in their hearts.