Lutheran Service Book (LSB), the Lutheran Church Missouri Synod’s most recent hymnal, offers five (5) liturgical settings of her chief Service; each is optionally commenced by a preliminary rite designated, “Confession and Absolution”. Each pastorally extends an alternative response to the assembly’s general confession of sin by either; a) an optative-declaration of grace of the objective gospel, or b) an en masse indicative-operative “absolution”. Grace Lutheran employs the “declaration of grace”; but avoids the “absolution” as a faux sacrament beyond the authority of the church, and improper administration by the Pastoral Office. Why does my Pastor respond to the public-general confession of sin at the beginning of the Liturgy with a Declaration of Grace rather than an Absolution? The short answer is, the Declaration of Grace is the traditional and proper gospel response to the assembly’s general confession. Why then did my previous pastors employ an "absolution" to begin the Divine Service?
This question implicitly assumes Lutheran pastors have always employed the “indicative-operative absolution”; for example, The Lutheran Hymnal (TLH) pg. sixteen (16), in commencing the Mass. This is not the case. In fact, a “general absolution” to a “general confession” is an historical novelty, almost entirely exclusive to the latest generation of Lutherans. (The word “almost” in the last sentence is a qualification. While beyond the scope of this catechism, the rebellious practice of the Nurnberg congregation used of a form of Offene Schuld “public confession and absolution” following the sermon by an admonition concerning the Lord’s Supper. The idea of bringing the law to bear in this way following a Lutheran Reformation gospel sermon of release of sin is liturgical incompetence. In 1533 Luther was asked to intercede. Politically hard pressed and extended, Luther’s opine on the Offene Schuld was not his finest hour desiring compromise. TLH's pg. sixteen (16) “absolution” (later continued in LSB), had its debut in 1941, a worship innovation, out of step with prior centuries of Lutheran liturgical practice. One might speculate that in 1941, life-long Lutherans who had never experienced the indicative-operative “absolution” to “corporate confession”, must have inquired: “Were all my previous pastors wrong?” How does the Corporate Confession Rite relate to the Christian Liturgy, the mass of the Lutheran rite? We observe that the Confession Rite itself is not part of the Divine Service proper (beginning with the Invocation and Introit). The Confession Rite is pre-Service, adopted in the Missouri Synod during the latter half of the nineteenth century. When introduced, this Confession Rite utilized what is known as Melanchthon’s Declaration of Grace, a non-sacramental proclamation of the objective gospel appropriate to the visible congregation’s assembly of believers, as well as unrepentant, under-discipline, and occasional unbeliever in attendance. It is this traditionally Declaration of Grace which this pastor announces following the congregation’s “general confession”, and not the novelty of an indiscriminate public “absolution” now alternatively invited by LSB. Why are sacramental (i.e., indicative-operative) words of Absolution improper to the assembly’s general confession? The key is to comprehend the nature of “sacrament”, by which gospel forgiveness is applied (not generally and objectively, by preaching and declaration; but personally and subjectively) to individuals in their particular circumstance. Thus, the Absolution sought by individuals in the context of private confession is not co-ordinate to the pre-Liturgy’s objective gospel proclamation and corporate purpose. In the Liturgy of the Word, God’s law and gospel, are Read and Preached generally, that is, the truth of our universal objective justification (forgiveness of all) for Christ’s sake. This proclamation invites those who hear and believe to advance to personal sacramental reception of the gospel, that is, to Baptism (conversion), to Holy Absolution, and the Lord’s Supper (for the baptized). Thus, the indicative-operative pastoral words of all sacraments are directed to individuals, received subjectively in faith by specific persons in their particular circumstances and spiritual condition. In the case of Baptism, the words of personal application are: “I baptize you [singular]”. Before administering the Holy Absolution to an individual, the pastor must inquire, “Do you [singular] believe that my forgiveness is God’s forgiveness?”, and if the response is affirmative, the Sacrament is applied: “I forgive you [singular]”. And in case of the Lord’s Supper each communicant is served individually by an ordained man, with such words as: “(if name is known), take, eat/drink…this is for you [singular]”.
Are the pre-Service “Confession and Absolution” rites of the LSB taught by Martin Luther from the Lutheran Confessions?
No! In this discussion it is important for discerning that the rite of public-general confession at the beginning of the Lord’s Day Liturgy is not the same confession of sins and Absolution taught in Luther’s Small Catechism as the Fifth Chief Article (LSB p. 362; pp 292, 3). Luther knew the indicative-operative words of Holy Absolution only in the context of the pastor-penitent relation, that is, in the context of private confession. According to Lutheran liturgical commentator, Paul H.D. Lang, the rite of public-general confession prefacing our Liturgies entered Lutheran worship as a post-Reformation phenomena via Calvinist associations, from the Reformed Church. The Reformed (as all Protestantism) eschews the Real Presence/sacramental means of grace understanding of the gospel. Thus, the Reformed altogether did away with an extra-Service Private Confession in the pastor-penitent setting, by transmuting the whole notion of “confession of sin” into the congregation’s worship.
This change involved a theological sleight of hand; morphing Rome’s “priesthood” into corruption of Luther’s “priesthood of all believers of the Baptized” to effect a pastor-less “me and Jesus absolution” in the Liturgy. Of course, since the Reformed (and Protestants in general), do not understand ordination in the Lutheran sense, that the pastor’s forgiveness is God’s forgiveness in his place and stead, so that any “pastoral absolution” is superfluous. This minimalist view of the Pastoral Office supports a peculiarly Protestant notion expressed by the bromide, “everyone [i.e., his own absolving] minister”. In contrast to a Reformed corporate general confession, Luther’s Small Catechism (Fifth Chief Article) teaches only confession of sins which seeks sacramental Absolution dispensed in the context of private, that is, individual confession of sins. In the Fifth Chief Article, Luther taught how Christians should privately confess their sins before their pastor.
Sadly, Synod editors removed this teaching from the 1943 edition of Luther’s Small Catechism, creating no little confusion about the nature of Lutheran confession and Absolution practice. This omission has since been remedied. Luther’s teaching on how to privately confess before one’s pastor has been restored (LSB pp. 292, 3). Unfortunately, the last generation of Lutherans missed this teaching so that many now hold a greater identification with sectarian Protestantism’s teachings on confession of sins than with our Lutheran fathers. The result has been that in the Lutheran communion an entire sacrament of the church has all but been obliterated. This of course is tragic for a church body which understands that the marks of the true church are where the gospel is purely preached and the sacraments (presumably all of them) rightly administered. If our Lutheran Confessions do not teach a public confession and a corporate “absolution”; how did these enter the Lutheran Church and continue in her official hymnals? Early in the life of the Missouri Synod, public-general confession was accepted as part of Lutheran worship (over warnings from churchmen seeing the danger to the faith). Theoretically the Reformed novelty of public-general confession was never intended to replace private confession of sins, but to stand as a human institution in support of the church’s sacrament of Holy Absolution administered in private confession. After-all the Apology to the Augsburg Confession speaks of the sacrament of Holy Absolution in this way, “we also keep confession, especially because of absolution, which is the word of God that the power of the keys proclaims to individuals by divine authority” (Ap. Art. XII, para. 99, pg. 197 Tappert edition). If public-general confession is permissible in “support” of private confession and Absolution; is it also permissible to employ a corporate “absolution” in the historic public Liturgy? Absolutely not! Prior to 1941, Lutheran pastors extended a gospel Declaration of Grace as the only response to general confession, as follows: “Almighty God, our heavenly Father, hath had mercy upon us and hath given His only Son to die for us and for His sake forgiveth us all our sins. To them that believe on His name He giveth power to become the sons of God and hath promised them His Holy Spirit. He that believeth and is baptized shall be saved. Grant this, Lord, unto us all.” [Evangelical Lutheran Hymn-Book (1927), and Liturgy and Agenda (1916 & 1921)] Note well: this language DOES NOT employ sacramental verbiage, (“...I forgive you [singular] your [singular] sins...”), properly reserved only in individual application (Small Catechism, Art. V, para. 28, pg. 554 [Latin, “...remitto tibi [singular] tua [singular] peccata...” English, pg. 555] Concordia Triglotta edition). Prior to 1941 Missouri Synod pastors properly announced the pre-Service gospel of forgiveness in the manner appropriate to a congregation’s corporate confession at the public worship, that is, by a Declaration of Grace (“...for His sake forgives us [plural] all our [plural] sins...”) conveying the gospel’s objective justification. But today, in LSB it is retained an optional alternative to an inappropriate operative “absolution”. The error of the 1941 TLH (continued in LSB) was, it cobbled a sacramental “indicative-operative” private Absolution with a Protestant public-general confession that never existed in Christian communions. The irony is: all that was required to turn sacramental Lutherans into aping Protestants was a trick of grammar. By changing Luther’s singular pronouns (in the Latin/German) into English plurals, there is no change sound. Nevertheless, between “you” [singular] and “you” [plural], there is all the difference in the world. The former is sacramentally normative and authorized in its private/individual context; while “you all” is incongruent novelty. By what authority of Word comprehended in the church’s historic Liturgy does the Pastoral Office continue to “sacramentally” administer an en masse corporate “absolution”? None! Such an indiscriminate, unsolicited “indicative-absolution”, if the words are believed, would effect the evil result of absolving, the impious, the impenitent, those under-discipline, and unbelievers. In order to obviate such an unintended evil, it is necessary to imply a condition to the “absolution”, i.e., that it is only operative and indicative to penitent and conscience examined believers—all others thus “absolved” must continue in their sins. Obviously such a conditional “absolution” corrupts the assurance of the gospel promises and undermines the integrity of the Holy Ministry which proclaims and applies them in the congregation. A pastor is no more authorized to administer an indiscriminate-conditional “absolution” than he would be to Baptize by hosing down a room full of people in the Triune Name; or to send the Holy Communion among the pews.
All attempts at en masse “sacramental” applications are beyond a pastor’s right and authority (the gospel en masse is why Christ commanded preaching and teaching); indeed, such faux sacramental attempts abrogate the Pastor’s raison d’être. Pastors are called, first and last, to fidelity in stewardship of the mysteries (word and sacraments); and when right administration is at issue, their call is to discernment and vigilance in the things handed-on for all time, everywhere, and for all.