Where Did Confession and Absolution Come From?

ist2_514311_absolution“During the Absolution the pastor says, “Upon this your confession, I, by virtue of my office, as a called and ordained servant of the Word, announce the grace of God unto all of you, and in the stead and by the command of my Lord Jesus Christ I forgive you all your sins in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.”

Where did this originally come from? Since Christ alone forgives, how did this come to be a part of the Lutheran Service?”

Great question.

The confession and repentance of sins resulting in absolution has been around since Adam and Eve. Adam and Eve sinned. Rather than confessing their sins, they hid from God and then placed blame on anyone except themselves. God cast them out of the garden with both curses and promises of redemption. Then we hear throughout all of the Scriptures as people sinned and rebelled against God, and then people would confess their sins, repent (turn from their sins), and God would rescue them. See the book of Judges for a ton of that going on. Or see the book of Jonah as an example of God’s goodness and mercy, that he sends Jonah to proclaim God’s mercy and the people repent and are forgiven.

When it comes to confession and absolution specifically, we hear Jesus talk in Matthew 18 about how to deal with a brother sinning against you.

15 “If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault, between you and him alone. If he listens to you, you have gained your brother. 16 But if he does not listen, take one or two others along with you, that every charge may be established by the evidence of two or three witnesses. 17 If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church. And if he refuses to listen even to the church, let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector. 18 Truly, I say to you, whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven. 19 Again I say to you, if two of you agree on earth about anything they ask, it will be done for them by my Father in heaven. 20 For where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I among them.”

Jesus tells them that their forgiveness reflects God’s forgiveness. If a person is repentant, their sins are to be forgiven. If they are not, their sin is to be held against them.

We also have John 20, after the resurrection, when Jesus breathes his Spirit onto the disciples with a similar command of binding and loosing.

19 On the evening of that day, the first day of the week, the doors being locked where the disciples were for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them and said to them, “Peace be with you.” 20 When he had said this, he showed them his hands and his side. Then the disciples were glad when they saw the Lord. 21 Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, even so I am sending you.” 22 And when he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit. 23 If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you withhold forgiveness from any, it is withheld.”

Anyone can forgive anyone. When a child comes to a mother and confesses that he stole the last cookie that his mother told him not to take, she can look into his eyes and say, “I forgive you and so does Jesus.”

When we’re in the context of a worship service, the pastor, as the called minister of God’s Word, is the means through which people hear that holy absolution. Here’s a great summary provided by Pastor Mark Surburg:

We call absolution, Holy Absolution, because it is God’s gift which He carries out in our midst. When we receive forgiveness from the pastor in Holy Absolution, it is in fact God who is forgiving us. We hear the pastor speak for God as he says “I forgive you all your sins in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.”

The pastor speaks for God and says “I forgive you all your sins.” In the Christian life we forgive a person for the wrongs they have done against us. However, this is not what is happening in Holy Absolution. Instead, in Holy Absolution the pastor speaks for God and serves as the means through which God forgives us. The pastor is not able to do this because of who he is as an individual (because of his personal holiness or qualities). Instead, he is able to do this because he has been placed in the Office of the Holy Ministry through ordination. God has given the Office of the Holy Ministry to the Church in order to administer His Means of Grace, which include Holy Absolution. The words of Holy Absolution call attention to this fact when the pastor refers to himself as “a called and ordained servant of Christ” and when the pastor says that he forgives “by His authority.” As the Augsburg Confession states: “For it is not the voice or word of the person speaking it, but it is the Word of God, who forgives sin. For it is spoken in God’s stead and by God’s command” (XXV.3).

Holy Absolution – The Gospel in its “purest” form

Holy Absolution can be described as “the Gospel in its purest form.” The Gospel tells us that Jesus Christ died on the cross and rose from the dead in order to win us forgiveness. The Gospel is about forgiveness, and in Holy Absolution we hear God speak to us in the first person singular and say to us “I forgive you all your sins.” This is the unique and special character of Holy Absolution. We hear God speak directly to us and forgive us of our sins.

When I first attended a Lutheran church I was offended by the man in the dress saying that HE forgives my sins. Who’s this guy? What gives him the authority? Well, God’s Word gives him the authority. We don’t teach that a person alone in their room crying out, “God forgive me” doesn’t get his prayer through to God because he didn’t go to the pastor. No, instead, we have additional comfort and peace that the God of creation uses mere men to speak that forgiveness to His people. If we immediately feel surprised by that, then we should equally be surprised that God entered mere flesh (Christ) to carry out his will. We should be surprised that God uses mere men to apply water and God’s Word to people to bring them into God’s kingdom. We should be surprised that God uses mere bread and wine with his word to relay his forgiveness to us in a way that gives us peace and comfort knowing that our sins are forgiven.

Going to the pastor privately with the things that weigh on our hearts and minds to hear God’s forgiveness has been around since the institution of the Church by God. When you look at church history we see private confession and absolution very early on. We also see when there was an abuse of this “If you don’t come to confession X number of times and say EVERYTHING you’ve done wrong it’s a problem!” What was gospel and promise was turned into law and condemnation. When we talk about confession and absolution, we’re talking about a beautiful gift that we can take advantage of to clear our conscience (not as a license to sin, but as a place to find peace when we have sinned).

Often times, in corporate confession and absolution it can be easy to forget what we’re saying or to think that what we’re saying is just a participation with all of those OTHER people who really have sins to confess. We might get into such a rhythm that we just say those words, think something magical has happened and get back to our sinful life. No, that’s not the point. The point is to confess that we are sinners. To speak the truth, that we have sinned against God, and then we can come together in this body redeemed by Christ and sustained by the Holy Spirit to hear God’s Word that His forgiveness is sure. When we confess that we’re sinful and unclean he is sure to forgive us (1 John 1:9).

5 This is the message we have heard from him and proclaim to you, that God is light, and in him is no darkness at all. 6 If we say we have fellowship with him while we walk in darkness, we lie and do not practice the truth. 7 But if we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus his Son cleanses us from all sin. 8 If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. 9 If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness. 10 If we say we have not sinned, we make him a liar, and his word is not in us.

So the idea of confession and absolution comes straight from Scripture. God has always worked through means to relay his word and gifts. In Confession and Absolution a mere human is called and ordained to stand in Christ’s place to be the means through which people can hear those words of peace, “I forgive you…not because of me, but because you have confessed your sins and God forgives you.”

I hope that helps. If you have other questions, please let me know. If you want to dig deeper into this topic, let me know that too!