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On the question of repentance, the Lutheran reformers made a clean, decisive break with the teaching of the Pope, eschewing the Roman Catholic teaching that repentance has three parts (contrition, confession, & satisfaction), preferring instead the clear teaching of Scripture and the confession of the historic Christian church on repentance. In fact, the entire Reformation may be over-simplified into a question of repentance.
“Strictly speaking, repentance consists of two parts. One part is contrition, that is, terrors striking the conscience through the knowledge of sin. The other part is faith, which is born of the Gospel or the Absolution and believes that for Christ’s sake, sins are forgiven” (Augsburg Confession, XII, 3-5).
Two parts. First, contrition, that is, sorrow over one’s sins. This comes from the preaching of the Law and the work of the Holy Spirit (John 16:8). Second, faith, that is trust in Jesus for forgiveness. This comes from the preaching of the Gospel, and is also the work of the Holy Spirit (Jn 15:26).
This is where Rome gets it horribly wrong. By adding a third part to repentance—satisfaction—all the comfort, all the reliance on Jesus’ full satisfaction for sins, is removed. Instead, removal of punishment and appeasement of God’s wrath comes from the works a person does to reverse the effects of his sins. Garbage. There’s no hope in that. With such a papist, false understand of repentance, we would see repentance as a once-and-done thing we do for each sin. Got a sin? Be sorry, confess it, make satisfaction for it; and you’re done. Not Scriptural; not Lutheran.
See how this plays out in a Roman Catholic understanding of confession. Why go to confession? Because you have sins that need to be taken care of. Compare that with a Lutheran understanding of confession. Why go to confession? Because you’re a sinner. Because you have full and complete trust that for Jesus’ sake, all your sin is removed. Because you love to hear the word of Absolution.
Repentance acknowledges your complete sinfulness and your utter inability to free yourself from your sinful condition. And at the same time, repentance relies completely and perfectly on Jesus for forgiveness. That’s why the first of Luther’s 95 Theses was, “When our Lord and Master Jesus Christ said, ‘Repent,’ He willed the whole Christian life to be repentance.” Repentance—sorrow over sin and perfect faith in Jesus for forgiveness—is where a Christian lives. Like the water around a fish, or air around a bird, repentance is your habitat.
True repentance, therefore, comes through the work of the Holy Spirit, through the preaching of the Word of God, properly divided Law and Gospel. Repentance is not your work; it is the work of the Holy Spirit within you. So, happy Pentecost. Thank God that you have received the Holy Spirit, who has worked repentance within you, who keeps you in that repentant faith by gathering you around God’s Word and Sacraments.
“One size does not fit all” is a popular marketing gimmick. And, for the most part, it’s true. How irritating is it to call a company—usually one with whom you do business—only to have the phone answered by a computer, with a “menu” of choices to direct your phone call to the right person (if you ever get to talk to a person at all). You want a more personalized response from your phone company (or your credit card company, your electric company, etc.). You’re not just an account number. Nevertheless, the bigger the company, the more impersonal it becomes.
During the recent recession, in response to the crisis at several investment banks, replete with multi-billion-dollar bailouts from the government, small, local banks tried to disassociate themselves from these behemoth banks. “We’re not like them,” they contended. “We’re in your hometown, and we know you by name.” A personalized approach to banking, was their sales pitch.
When you go to the doctor, you don’t want a general approach to your health. You want a doctor who will pay attention to you, who will consider your symptoms, your history, your family medical history, your lifestyle, your concerns, and more. In short, you want personalized treatment from your doctor. Colleges and private schools sell themselves with lower student-to-teacher ratios, which permit more interaction between the teacher and each student, thereby fostering a more personalized approach to education.
So also pastoral care.
When it comes to pastoral care, you don’t need a general approach. You need a pastor who takes into consideration your whole person, with your individual needs, your life’s situations, your particular circumstances. That’s not to say that the Word of God is relative to your personal needs, but how the Word gets applied to you should be done in as personalized a manner as possible.
This is the goal of private Absolution. When the Lutheran princes stood before Emperor Charles V at the Imperial Diet of Augsburg and declared to him that “our churches teach that private Absolution should be retained in the churches,” they did so because they knew the value of personalized pastoral care (Augsburg Confession, Article XI). It’s one thing to listen to a sermon and to hear the pastor proclaim the Gospel “for you.” It’s an altogether different thing to kneel at the rail and to hear him preach a personal sermon to you immediately after he has given Christ’s forgiveness to you individually. This time of individual confession and absolution, when you have confessed your personal sins, when the pastor, in the stead of Christ, has forgiven you personally, provides a special opportunity for very personalized pastoral care.
After the absolution in Individual Confession and Absolution, the rubrics for the rite specify, “The pastor may speak additional Scripture passages to comfort and strengthen the faith” of those who have confessed their sins and been forgiven (Lutheran Service Book, p. 293). This is a time for the pastor to preach the Gospel to you individually and personally. This is an opportunity for personalized pastoral care like no other.
Private Confession and Absolution is not meant to be a burden. Quite the opposite. It’s meant to be a particular, personal comfort. God loves you personally, individually, so He sends pastors to proclaim the Gospel, His Word of forgiveness to you, both corporately, as a member of the whole Body of Christ, His Church, and individually, as a unique sinner-saint who has a story and a history different from the guy in the pew next to him, who struggles with sins different from those around him, who has unique needs, who isn’t at the exact same place as anyone else in his personal life of faith. So God sends pastors to do highly specialized, personalized pastoral care, not because he needs to hear your individual confession, but because He wants to speak to you individually, privately, personally.
In what other part of your life do you have access to such a personalized gift? Your doctor may see you personally, but you’ll have to make an appointment weeks or months in advance. Your banker might meet with you privately, but he doesn’t have set hours to meet with bank customers personally. But your pastor keeps regular hours (Wednesdays between 6 and 6:45) and is available anytime by appointment to speak these most precious words of Christ to you personally: “I forgive you. Hear these words of Jesus for you.”
Note: HT: to Pr. Rick Stuckwisch for his insight at the CCA Symposium that private absolution is like a personal sermon