Notes on the Liturgy #4 – Absolution

October 12th, 2008 Post by

(One of the goals of Brothers of John the Steadfast is to train the Brothers in good practice and theology. This article is one in a series that teaches about the liturgy.

These articles were initially intended to be put into bulletins or read during the service to educate the laity on the different parts of the service. They were therefore purposefully made short. Thanks to Pr. Mathey for helping to enhance this reading. Please use the comment section or email us to help us expand the series as appropriate.)

Notes on the Liturgy #4 – Absolution

Last Sunday we looked at Confession. Its counterpart is Absolution. Confession and Absolution is the first completion of what will be a constant flow of Law & Gospel throughout the service. In Confession, God’s Law has shown us our sins, and in response to our repentance we experience the first proclamation of the sweet Gospel in Absolution. The pastor says, “…in the stead and by the command of my Lord Jesus Christ I forgive you all your sins in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.” Absolution is a gift from God that Christians should cherish because it is the Gospel of forgiveness applied to a specific individual even when proclaimed in the corporate setting of the liturgy. Absolution is for all repentant sinners whatever their sin. It is particularly comforting for terrified consciences because when we are absolved we are truly forgiven before God and in His eyes it is as though those sins had never been committed.

In the words of Absolution the minster says, “I forgive” because Christ commanded His disciples saying, “If you forgive anyone his sins, they are forgiven; if you do not forgive them, they are not forgiven. (John 20:22)” The pastor says “I” because Christ said “you.” In fact, most rites of Individual Confession & Absolution pose the question to the penitent: “Do you believe that my forgiveness is God’s forgiveness?” But we must never understand the Word of Absolution as merely a human word. The Lutheran Confessions speak of absolution this way, “…it is not the voice or word of the person speaking it, but it is the Word of God, who forgives sin. For it is spoken in God’s stead and by God’s command (Augsburg Confession xxv).” The confessions go on to say, “Therefore we must believe the voice of the one absolving no less than we would believe a voice from heaven. (Apology of the Augsburg Confession XII). “During the Absolution, the pastor is standing before the Lord’s people as a mouthpiece of God, Himself. The pastor is merely a vocal instrument that the Lord is using to proclaim His forgiveness, grace and mercy to His people. And that man is there with the full authority of the Office of the Keys which is why these words are often included “…I, by virtue of my Office as a called and ordained servant of Christ,…” Those words serve as a further assurance that this poor miserable sinner who dares to stand in as the Lord’s ambassador has the full authority granted to him by God and His Church.

Absolution ends the time of preparation of the service. Having confessed to God and received His forgiveness, we are truly ready to receive His Word and sing His praises. As mentioned last week, Confession/Absolution is available on an individual basis. By oath the pastor is forbidden to reveal those sins confessed to him in the context of private Confession/Absolution.

Notes on the Liturgy —

These notes were originally written in 2001 by Pastor David Oberdieck and have been edited. Thanks for Pr. Mathey for helping to enhance this article.

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  1. Elnathan
    October 12th, 2008 at 20:29 | #1

    Mea Culpa!

    On Oct 4 I jumped the gun and asked the following questions prematurely. Perhaps someone knows the answer?

    “I have two questions:

    I have some old hymnals and have not found the Absolution “Upon this your confession . . . I forgive you all your sins, etc.” in any hymnal but TLH and its successors. When did this Absolution first appear?

    Secondly, do any other churches use a similar full and complete absolution as confessional Lutherans do? I have never heard of a single one,” (but perhaps I am not familiar enough with other absolutions.)

  2. Kaleb
    October 12th, 2008 at 22:21 | #2

    Elnathan, the Episcopal Church also gives absolution in their Mass. It is worded as follows:

    “The Almighty and merciful Lord grant you absolution and
    remission of all your sins, true repentance, amendment of
    life, and the grace and consolation of his Holy Spirit.”

    While the priest doesn’t say “I forgive you” as Lutherans are accustomed to hearing, the Book of Common Prayer gives additional instructions that only make sense if it is a full and complete absolution:

    ‘A deacon or lay person using the preceding form substitutes “us” for “you” and “our” for “your.”‘

    In other words, when a deacon or lay person officiates, instead of giving absolution, he asks God for absolution on behalf of the congregation.

  3. Elnathan
    October 13th, 2008 at 20:24 | #3

    Thanks Kaleb!

    My reaction to the Episcopal “Absolution” may be a bit critical, but I must say that I want to hear the exact words NOT the wish, or hope, or desire that “The Almighty and merciful Lord” forgive me. It may be a fine line for some, but it is not unequivocal as I would wish. And, as you note, it may be clear in the “details” of the BoCP, yet I think the TLH absolution is superior due to its wording of absolute forgiveness.

  4. Pr. M. Mathey
    October 14th, 2008 at 01:35 | #4


    I’m afraid that I don’t have a precise reference for you in terms of the first appearance of the Absolution in TLH because a number of my reference materials are in storage while I sit here in CRM purgatory. However, my feeble little mind seems to recall a very similar (if not exact duplicate) version of this wording in the Luther’s Works volume on the Liturgy. If someone has access to that volume, could you please check that out for me? If I’m remembering it correctly, then it’s been around at least as long as the Reformation, if not longer. I’ll see if I can’t dig up something a little more exact for you.

  5. Elnathan
    October 14th, 2008 at 11:25 | #5

    Pr. M. Mathey

    First, Pastor Mathey, may our good and gracious God remove you soon from the Patmos in which you find yourself.

    Secondly, I have checked vol 53 of LW and found this phrase:

    “Then the father confessor shall say: God be gracious unto thee and strengthen thy faith. Amen.
    And further: Do you believe that my absolution is God’s absolution?
    Answer: Yes, dear sir.
    Then let him [the father confessor] say: As thou believest, so be it done unto thee [Matt. 8:13]. And I, by the command of Jesus Christ our Lord, forgive thee all thy sin in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Ghost. Amen. Go in peace [Luke 7:50; 8:48; Mark 5:34].”

    While this is certainly a strong vibrant absolution is it intended to be used for private confession. I find nothing in this volume of Luther that approximates the absolution following the general absolution of TLH.

  6. Kaleb
    October 15th, 2008 at 23:52 | #6

    Elnathan, I agree with you about the absolution in TLH vs. BCP.

    I don’t know this for sure, but I suspect that the BCP’s wording is a concession to the more “evangelical” elements of the Episcopal Church. At any rate, the absolution they give in private confession certainly doesn’t have this deficiency:

    “Our Lord Jesus Christ, who has left power to his Church to absolve all sinners who truly repent and believe in him, of his great mercy forgive you all your offenses; and by his authority committed to me, I absolve you from all your sins: In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.”

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