The Lutheran Difference: Confession and Absolution

One easy way of riling Lutherans (well, some of them, anyway) is to whisper the word katolisch at them. That’s “Catholic” in German. Given the rather antagonistic relationship between those two branches of Christendom, it’s easy to understand why we Lutherans aren’t always keen on being identified as Roman Catholic. Personally, I think that’s a little silly. Theologically speaking, Lutherans are closest to Roman Catholics. I like to say that Lutherans are “diet Catholics.” All the God, half the guilt. But I digress…

At any rate, the katolisch charge can come up in surprising ways. For example, in my first parish, I once brought the youth of that church to my home congregation in Columbia Heights, Minnesota. As part of our visit, we attended worship. The youth and some of the chaperones were very surprised when, during the middle of the service, we pulled out small padded benches so we could kneel. One of the chaperones asked me afterwards, “Isn’t that a Catholic thing?” And I had to explain that, if you meant “catholic-with-a-small-c-meaning-universal,” then yes, it absolutely is. But Lutherans tend to get a little wary if we see something we think is too big-C Catholic.

Which is a shame, because it’s robbed us of a very powerful spiritual experience, namely that of confession and absolution.

576px-confessional_in_basilica_of_st-_mary_in_lezajskWhen you hear the word “confession,” you usually think of the Roman Catholic variety: a special booth in the sanctuary that the priest sits in during specific hours to listen to secrets whispered to him through a lattice. And that’s understandable since the Catholics are kind of known for that sort of thing. Whenever confession is portrayed on TV, it’s always in a Catholic church, usually in the confessional, and so on and so forth. For many Lutherans, it comes as a great surprise that we have a robust belief in private confession and absolution as well. It’s even considered one of the six chief parts of Luther’s Small Catechism. But again, because of the katolisch stigma, we don’t advertise it and we rarely take advantage of it.

In many ways, Lutheran confession and absolution is similar to that of Catholic confession. It’s done in private, between the penitent (the person doing the confessing) and the confessor (the pastor hearing the confession). The penitent does list off the sins he or she has committed to the pastor. And whatever is said in confession is considered strictly confidential, to the point that Lutheran pastors take a vow when we are ordained that we may never divulge what’s said to us in confession.

All that said, there are several key distinctions (I think) between the Lutheran and Catholic varieties.

First of all, there’s the nomenclature. For Lutherans, it’s never just “confession.” We refer to it as “confession and absolution.” That second part has to come on the heels of the first. And the reason why is because the absolution, the forgiveness that the penitent finds, is really the main event. That’s what it’s all about. It’s all about receiving the forgiveness that is ours through Christ, having that grace of God announced to us and being told that yes, what Jesus did on the cross deals with my specific sins. I suspect that my Roman Catholic friends might be upset at my saying that, but it’s part of what sets us apart.

Second, to the Lutherans, there is no such thing as “penance.” The pastor does not hand out any sort of temporal consequences for sins (like praying the rosary or Lord’s Prayer so many times or anything along those lines). We assume that if someone is making use of confession and absolution, they are repentant and just need to be assured of God’s grace.

Third, there is no requirement within the Lutheran church to enumerate all the sins that were committed since the last trip to the confessional. Instead, we see private confession and absolution as a way of receiving specific forgiveness for specific sins. For example, let’s say that I’ve committed a sin (not too much of a stretch of the imagination, believe me!). And this particular sin is weighing heavily on my conscience. It’s gnawing at me night and day. Even though I’ve heard my pastor tell me that my sins are forgiven, that God loves me and Christ died for me and all that, I still hear this little voice in the back of my head saying, “Yeah, but what about that sin?” Private confession and absolution is a way for me to be told that yes, God forgives that specific sin. It’s a salve for wounded consciences to deal with guilt and sin that just won’t let go.

And fourth, Lutherans for the most part don’t consider confession and absolution to be a sacrament. If you remember from a few weeks ago, three things have to be present for an act to be considered a sacrament. First, God has to command it. Second, God promises that our sins are forgiven when we do it. And third, there’s a physical object that’s used. As far as I can tell, we have the first two but we’re missing the last. Now again, there are some Lutheran theologians and pastors who try to argue that it is a sacrament, but I don’t really buy their arguments.

Two final notes about this subject: in spite of the fact that there isn’t much personal confessional and absolution, that doesn’t mean we don’t see any confession and absolution. Many Lutheran worship services (at least in my corner of Lutheran land) sees it quite often as a part of our worship services. In many Lutheran worship services, we have a form of general confession and absolution, where the congregation confesses together that we are all sinful and in need of forgiveness, and the pastor then forgives their sins in a general sort of way. I suspect that this happens because we don’t see more private confession and absolution.

And really, that’s a shame. This is my last point. Private confession and absolution is a wonderful thing and I can say that as someone who has experienced it from both sides of the rite.

When I was in college, studying to eventually become a pastor, a bunch of us pre-seminary students went on an overnight retreat where a local pastor talked to us about…something. I don’t remember what, exactly, but I do remember that at the end of his talk, he informed us that he was going to go into the sanctuary of the church we were staying in and he would wait there for so long. If any of us wanted to take the opportunity for private confession and absolution, he’d be there.

Well, there were some sins that were bothering me pretty badly. I won’t go into details, but they were weighing heavily on my conscience. So I went up to the sanctuary and, nervous as all get-out, I confessed them to this pastor. And he assured me that those specific sins were forgiven and gone.

You have to understand, these particular sins had been needling me for weeks and months. I had heard people tell me in a general sort of way that all of my sins were forgiven, but somehow, the guilt of those sins just wouldn’t let me go. Until that evening. Hearing that those specific sins were forgiven was all it took for me to feel free of them. It was wonderfully freeing.

And since I’ve become a pastor, I’ve had the opportunity to do private confession and absolution once or twice. Not nearly as often as I’d like. It’s a shame that the katolisch stigma is attached so firmly to this. It’s a wonderful blessing that God has given His Church. More people should take advantage of it.

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  1. The katolisch stigma is such a loss for evangelical Christianity. The first aspect that comes to my mind is art–so many Protestant churches only echo Genesis 1:1 (and the earth was formless and void) and secular auditoriums. But even the whole issue with ‘saints’–we need to remember Christians of the past, just to get ourselves out of contemporary errors and chronological snobbery….
    I’ve actually thought about confession a lot recently. I’m not the sort of person who shares things causally, but there are some things that I really should talk with someone about and the structure would make it easier.

    • I clicked over to comment something similar.

      The fact that Lutherans can be little-c catholic without being big-C Catholic gives all of us the right to claim those traditions as our own in some way, at least those of us who choose to see ourselves as part of the ever-changing Christian tradition. Otherwise, the Roman Catholics could say, “You see all that cool ritual confessing and all that ancient liturgy and whatnot on TV? You think it’s cool because you secretly wish you were Catholic, and we’re better than you.” But because Lutherans proactively own the same traditional structures, we can answer those Catholics by saying, “No, that belongs to little-c catholic church tradition that I share as much as you. My church doesn’t do that anymore, but it’s part of our blood and we could do it again if we thought it would be beneficial for our time.”

  2. This was the only thing thus far I didn’t know anything about. Good to understand the Lutheran perspective on “confession and absolution.” Thank you.

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