Confession and Absolution (pp. 15-16)
Historically, Confession and Absolution were not part of the Sunday service, and were not spoken together by all the people. Even during Martin Luther’s time, there was no public confession and absolution. Private confession of the sins that burdened one’s soul, and personal proclamation and assurance of forgiveness was Luther’s preference. While private confession and absolution can be a powerful experience of God’s grace, the forgiveness of sins in these words is just as valid when spoken publicly.
We begin our confession with a sentence spoken by the Pastor, which is based on Hebrews 10:22. It is an invitation from the Pastor to the congregation indicating that confession is necessary and that there is One who desires to grant us forgiveness. This is followed by two short “versicles.” The first comes from Psalm 124:8, and the second is from Psalm 32:5.
The words of confession themselves are intended to highlight the full seriousness of sin and its effects in our lives. If you have lived in the world for any amount of time, you can easily realize the truth of those first five words: “I, a poor, miserable sinner….” We acknowledge before God that we have not deserved His goodness, mercy, or grace. All we have deserved is punishment and Hell, in this life and the life to come. We speak aloud our sorrow and repentance inspired by the Holy Spirit, and we cast ourselves upon God’s mercy and Jesus’ “holy, innocent, bitter sufferings and death.” Why do Lutherans continue to use these old words, translating them or revising them only slightly? It is exactly because our sinful human tendency is to soften the blows of these harsh words. By continuing to use words very similar to those that have been used for so many generations, we are forced to conform our thoughts to the words, rather than the words to our thoughts. This is indeed what God the Holy Spirit does when He inspires repentance in us: He changes our unrepentant hearts so that we see our sin and confess it.
The Absolution is the first truly Sacramental action in the service. For this, the Pastor faces the congregation. (This is appropriately called the “sacramental” position, since it signifies the movement of grace from God to us.) God takes simple human words and attaches His own forgiveness and grace to them. How is it possible for the Pastor to say, “I forgive you…”? Only because these are not the Pastor’s words, but the words of Jesus Himself. It might even be said that the words of Absolution spoken here are the purpose of Christ’s Church. John 20:19-23 (ESV):
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.” When he had said this, he showed them his hands and his side. … Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, even so I am sending you.” And when he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of anyone, they are forgiven; if you withhold forgiveness from anyone, it is withheld.”
Here also, you may make the sign of the Cross in remembrance of your baptism. It may also help to think of Confession and Absolution as taking place right at the entrance to the church, since we are confessing that we are not truly worthy to enter into the presence of a holy God, and that He has granted us entrance by the precious blood of Jesus.