How Lutherans Worship – 6: Excursus: More on Confession and Absolution

There are some who think about things like the historic liturgy who get stuck on the “historic” aspect. Some have been heard, from time-to-time posit that the Preparation (consisting of Confession and Absolution, How Lutherans Worship -3) has been grafted onto the historic liturgy, and thus can be omitted altogether from the celebration of the Divine Service. Some modern hymnals have even tried to “restore” the liturgy by removing the Preparation rite to separate pages from the Divine Service proper. I will admit that such statements at one time swayed me. And that caused me to believe that the corporate Confession and Absolution as we see it in the Preparation was of less value. It is true that most properly the historic liturgy begins with the Introit. And it is true that the rubrics do legitimately allow the omission of the Preparation at certain times, like when Holy Baptism is celebrated at the beginning of the Service. Yet I no longer support that the Preparation should be omitted from the regular celebration of the Divine Service.

Historic background.

It is inaccurate to maintain that Martin Luther predicated worthy participation in the Lord’s Supper upon confession and absolution. What Luther did expect is that the anyone coming to Holy Communion should examine his or her doctrine and life. For this he gave us Christian Questions With Their Answers (Small Catechism, CPH 1986, pgs 40-44, 2005 Edition). The reality is that the practice of examining one’s doctrine and life as preparation for participation came to be equated with the statement from The Apology of the Augsburg Confession “The Sacrament is offered to those who wish to use it, after they have been examined and absolved” (Apology XXIV [XII]:1). Examination of one’s own doctrine and life was replaced by confession. Confession and absolution became the benchmark for worthy participation.

Historically, confession and absolution had been most commonly handled on an individual basis in a private setting. Yet even Luther’s day a corporate setting had developed whereby those who desired Holy Communion but had no specific or troubling sin that would drive them to individual confession could attend a service of confession and absolution on the Friday before the Divine Service. This corporate service was not intended to replace private/individual confession and absolution, but in most places, and over time, it did just that. In the past century we have lost our understanding of, and use of, the Service of Corporate Confession as a preamble and preparation for the Lord’s Supper. In its place it has become generally accepted that Confession and Absolution takes place before the Divine Service. I believe that this change has been accompanied by a pervasive loss of understanding and appreciation for blessing and benefit of private/individual confession and absolution – but this belongs to a different discussion.

Considerations for our day.

There is value in the corporate confession and absolution of the Preparation that causes me to not generally omit it. The liturgy of the Preparation puts Christ and the need for his work of salvation at the center of the worshiper’s contemplation right at the beginning of the Service. Not only is the doctrine and reality of original sin given voice, but the actual sin of the individual, the sins of commission and omission, are recognized and brought forward before God in repentance. The text leads the worshiper, for a time, into the darkness that is not only our common human condition, but individually our suit of filthy rags. It then leads us to recognize and call upon Jesus as our only “cure” for the sin that sickens us and would otherwise leave us a spiritual corpse.

Then, in the Absolution, the pastor clearly stands as the administrator of the Office of the Keys. By these words, whether spoken upon the individual or corporately, he actually forgives sin by the command and in the stead of Jesus Christ. The grace of God that called us to himself in Baptism is announced. And Luther’s words hold true, so that whether individually or corporately we receive forgiveness from the pastor as from God himself.

I will lament with you, and the Church, the loss of individual confession and absolution, and I certainly want to see our people regain and value this practice. I will also lament the loss of the practice of announcing one’s intention to attend the Lord’s Supper and I would think it a blessing for pastor and congregation to have such a practice restored. I would think it a blessing beyond measure that a congregation would participate in a service of confession and absolution on a Friday evening before the Divine Service. The reality is that we are not to this point in most of our Lutheran parishes. While we continue to teach and learn to that end, we take comfort in what the Preparation imparts to our celebration of the Divine Service.

With that, let us move on to our discussion of the Service of the Word.

Previous post: On the Liturgy–some different perspectives

Next: How Lutherans Worship – 7: Service of the Word — The Introit

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