Thursday, December 31, 2009
Tuesday, December 29, 2009
Tuesday, December 15, 2009
How many Sacraments are there?
The short, Lutheran answer is “It depends whom you ask.”
Lutherans have never been dogmatic about a number of sacraments like Roman Catholics are, except that they adamantly deny that there are seven. In some places, the Lutherans say there are two sacraments; in other places, they say three. Baptism and the Lord’s Supper are always included in the list of Lutheran sacraments. Absolution sometimes makes the list.
The word sacrament is the Latin translation of “mystery,” as when St. Paul calls pastors “stewards of the mysteries of God (1 Corinthians 4:1). Scripture never sets forth a definition of “Sacraments;” those definitions always come from theologians.
What is a Sacrament? The Explanation of the Small Catechism (not a part of the Catechism, but a later American addition to help teach the Catechism) says, “A sacrament is a sacred act A. instituted by God, B. in which God Himself has joined His Word of promise to a visible element, C. and by which He offers, gives, and seals the forgiveness of sins earned by Christ.” So the question is, “Does Absolution have a visible element?” The answer: kinda. While the pastor is not an element akin to water, wine, or bread, his placing hands on the head of the penitent, is both visible and tactile, like Baptism and the Lord’s Supper.
What do the Lutheran Confessions say? The Small Catechism sandwiches Confession and Absolution between The Sacrament of Holy Baptism and The Sacrament of the Altar. The Apology of the Augsburg Confession says, “If we call Sacraments ‘rites that have the command of God, and to which the promise ofgrace has been added,’ it is easy to decide what are the true sacraments. For rites instituted by human beings will not be called true sacraments. For human authority cannot promise grace. Therefore, signs set up without God’s command are not sure signs of grace, even though such signs perhaps instruct the unlearned or admonish about something. Therefore, Baptism, the Lord’s Supper, and Absolution (which is the Sacrament of Repentance) are truly Sacraments. For these rites have God’s command and the promise of grace, which is peculiar to the New Testament” (Ap AC, XIII, 3-4).
The point is not to be dogmatic about a number but to receive what God has commanded as a means through which He forgives our sins. To the question, “Does Absolution forgive our sins?” the answer is a clear “Yes!” It is God’s gift, whether it gets included in our human list of Sacraments.
The danger of a question like “How many Sacraments?” is that we use it to prescribe limits. The better question is “How does God forgive my sins?” Then, the answer is easy, “In Holy Baptism, in Holy Absolution, in Holy Communion, and in the preaching of the Word.”
Friday, December 11, 2009
Sunday, December 6, 2009
Wednesday, December 2, 2009
The Confession & Absolution that happens before the Service begins with the Introit is a recent innovation. The first president of the Missouri Synod, C.F.W. Walther encouraged pastors about private Confession, “in an evangelical way, through instruction and exhortation, and through praising it, [to] work toward the goal that it be diligently used in addition to general confession and that, where it is possible and advisable, it be finally reintroduced as the exclusive custom and that it be properly preserved where it exist. By all means he may under no circumstances yield to a congregation which does not want to permit the use of private Confession and Absolution even on the part of individual members, for ‘to remove Absolution from the church’ would certainly be ‘contrary to God.’”
When in the Small Catechism Luther provides a short model for confession, he speaks of how an individual penitent might confess to his pastor one-on-one. Pastor Wilhelm Löhe, who sent the first pastors from Germany to the Wisconsin, Michigan, and Indiana parts of the Missouri Synod, lamented the rise of a service of general Confession, because private Absolution is “the heart of the cure of souls.”
One of the beautiful parts of Lutheran theology is its emphasis on the particularity of the Gospel. Jesus died for the world, yes, but that’s not the Gospel until you know that Jesus died for you. The difference between the general Confession in the Preparatory Rite and the private Confession contained in the Catechism, extolled by Luther, and called a Sacrament by the Augsburg Confession, is particularity.
We don’t have general sins, we have specific sins. We aren’t generally sinners, we’re particularly sinners. So the sweet comfort of forgiveness, the cure for souls, is meant to be applied and received particularly in private Confession. So the Lutheran Confessions declare, “Our people are taught that they should highly prize the Absolution as being God’s voice and pronounced by God’s command” (AC XXV) and “Our churches teach that private Absolution should be retained in the churches” (AC XI).
General confession is like going to a medical seminar, led by a doctor, to address a particular health issue. While you may gain invaluable information from the seminar that you can use to improve your health, there isn’t the face-to-face contact of a visit to a doctor. In a visit to a doctor, the doctor will evaluate your particular health and prescribe a solution to benefit you in particular. General confession delivers forgiveness like a sermon and the rest of the liturgy deliver forgiveness. Private confession delivers forgiveness like a doctor writing a prescription for you. When in private Confession, the pastor puts his hand on your head and speaks the words of Christ “I forgive you,” there’s no mistaking it. This cure is for you.