More on General Confession/Absolution

In an earlier post, I expressed my reservations about using the General Absolution for the Preparatory Rite of our Service, and wanted to follow up on that post with a few more thoughts.

First of all, I don’t want to give the impression that I am reluctant to proclaim the Gospel or to forgive sins. But the point that I have been arguing is that we pastors are called to forgive the sins of penitent sinners but to withhold forgiveness from the impenitent “as long as they do not repent” (Small Catechism, 5th Chief Part). As long as everyone in the gathered congregation is a penitent sinner, then I suppose there is no problem. But throw a manifest, impenitent sinner into the mix (which has happened to me) and then what? Or, what happens when you just have a bunch of visitors, unbaptized, etc. show up to church? Do you absolve them too, without any preaching of the Law, without any preparation? This is my dilemma.

Secondly, this is not a rejection of Objective Justification. There is certainly a sense in which we can say to anyone standing on the street that Christ has died for their sins. In Christ, God has indeed forgiven the sins of all men, since He has rendered to His Father a perfect sacrifice for sins. But again, according to our catechism, pastors should not be going around and absolving random strangers of their sins, but only those who are penitent. Manifest and impenitent sinners (i.e. those who willfully continue in their sins) ought to be told that they are under God’s wrath and judgment, and doomed to eternal destruction as long as they continue in their sins without repentance. My argument has been that in the Sermon both the binding key and the loosing key are used in a general way when the Law and the Gospel are proclaimed. Here the congregation is absolved by the proclamation of the Gospel but not without the proclamation of the Law alongside of it.

Thirdly, the Absolution was not added to the Preparatory Rite until very recently in the Church, as I understand it. Originally, the Service began with the Introit and continued from there. Where a General Confession and Absolution were included in the Church Orders, there was always an added threat that those who continue in sins without repentance are not forgiven. Probably the best thing would have just been to leave it out entirely, or, do what TLH did and use a Declaration of Grace for the Preparatory Rite. Not to mention the fact that Walther himself did not favor the General Confession/Absolution but wanted it to be replaced by Private Confession where it was possible. I can find the source on this if it is desired. I think I read it in Moving Frontiers, a collection of writings from early American Lutheranism.

Fourthly, I do, for the record, continue to use the Absolution in the Preparatory Rite. I have not yet addressed these concerns with the congregation members, and do not think it would be wise to make such a change without good reason and some patient teaching. For me, this is simply a matter of a proper exercise of the Office of the Keys. It has nothing to do whatsoever with Objective Justification, or a Pietistic inclination to make sure that people are “really sorry” for their sins before forgiving them. None of this is the motivation. I have simply read the words of the Small Catechism, “…to forgive the sins of penitent sinners, but to withhold forgiveness from the unrepentant, as long as they do not repent,” and asked myself, “Is this being practiced faithfully when the Absolution is spoken to an entire assembly.”

So far, the text.


About Rev. Paul L. Beisel

Graduate of Concordia Theological Seminary, Fort Wayne, IN in 2001 (M Div.) and 2004 (S.T.M.); LC-MS Pastor and Adjunct Instructor for John Wood Community College; Husband of Amy and father of Susan, Elizabeth, Martin, and Theodore.
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4 Responses to More on General Confession/Absolution

  1. Walther did say it should be the exclusive custom, where possible. (That is, that the general confession not be used.)
    The reference is Walther, Pastoral Theology, p. 120 tr. John Drickamyer.

  2. Rev. Paul L. Beisel says:

    Thanks Lincoln for the reference. I knew I had read this somewhere.

  3. Dave Schultz says:

    Don’t you hear the law that is present in the general confession?
    Yeah, maybe they read it over and don’t agree with it… but if we do not ‘take them at their spoken words’ but instead demand some experience of the heart, aren’t we just modern day pietists?

    Honestly, just wondering.
    Dave Schultz

  4. Rev. Paul L. Beisel says:

    Who said anything about demanding “some experience of the heart”? Merely having a confession of sins is not the same as retaining the sins of unrepentant sinners.

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