The Third Sacrament

Depending on what you’re reading from Luther, you will find him stating at some points that there are two sacraments and sometimes three. The Lutheran reformers wanted to move away from the Catholic definition of the term “sacrament” and bring it more in line with the things God stood behind. That led them to define the sacraments as those rites or acts that can satisfy three requirements: 1. They must be commanded by God. 2. They must confer God’s grace. 3. They must have some physical element.

Baptism and Communion both satisfy all three quite handily. They are both commanded by Christ. They both bring grace, and they both have a physical element to which God’s promise of grace is connected. Every so often though, you’ll find Luther referring to a third sacrament: Absolution. We Lutherans don’t talk about a third sacrament very often, because Luther more or less settled on Baptism and Communion. But, Absolution is also worth considering because of its importance to Christian life.

At first it might not look like Absolution fits the bill. Sure, it has God’s command. John 20 tells us how Jesus appears to the disciples and gives them the “Keys to the Kingdom,” or the authority to pronounce God’s forgiveness to the repentant and God’s condemnation to the unrepentant. Obviously, absolution conveys God’s grace. The physical element is where Luther wavers. When he calls Absolution a sacrament it is because he considers the pastor to be that physical element.

That fits with the doctrine we call the Office of the Keys, we acknowledges that the pastor is the one who administers those keys publicly on behalf of the church. Every Christian is authorized to speak God’s forgiveness on a personal level, but the pastor speaks for the whole congregation. This, it is him you will up at the front and it is his voice you will hear when you have confessed your sins.

In terms of function, Absolution is every bit as important as the two, more usual sacraments. Each has their own purpose and they all work together to build up the Christian through God’s free gift of grace. In terms of order, Absolution is the one we hear first. It is the distilled Gospel message. “On account of Christ, your sins are forgiven.” Thia is what God says to all who confess their sins to Him and Confession is the first and most basic act of faith. It is on Confession and Absolution that the whole rest of Christian life is based, and that includes both Baptism and Communion.

The next time you are in worship or meeting with your pastor privately, consider why God set up the church the way He did. In His wisdom He has ensured every member of the congregation would have someone to tell them specifically that God forgives them. When your pastor speaks those words of Absolution, He speaks with the full backing of God Himself because he has been authorized to do so. The pastor is the physical assurance that God means that message to go right to you and has sent your pastor to convey it personally.

A Public Confession

In the past, I’ve challenged the mindset that the sacraments are really just more of the same thing we get in confession and absolution. If baptism and communion were nothing more than additional vehicles for forgiveness, then they wouldn’t do anything more than what absolution does for us every time we hear God’s words of forgiveness. In truth, the sacraments do a great deal more, which is why confession and absolution can never be a substitute for them.

In a recent conversation, a brother pastor made the point that if anything were to be considered unnecessary, it is the public confession and absolution typically found in Lutheran worship services. That isn’t to say public confession is necessarily bad or useless. The point is more that if you were to compare public confession and the sacraments, it is public confession that is of secondary importance.

Let me explain a bit here. First, a little church history tells us that public confession is actually quite new to the liturgy. It was something that cropped up here and there in Luther’s day, but was not a regular piece of the worship service. Additionally, Luther accepted that public confession could be used, but worried that it would supplant private confession and absolution, which it most certainly has in American Lutheranism. Luther saw the exercise of private confession as being far more effective at helping someone come to grips with the magnitude of the sin in their lives. Private absolution then met that sin with the magnitude of God’s grace and did so in such a way as to make crystal clear that God had forgiven you, specifically and personally. This is something public confession can never quite achieve.

Most other church bodies, at least those who take sin and grace seriously, do not use public confession with any frequency. Private confession, in the Catholic and Orthodox churches, for example, is the norm and that isn’t likely to change. It used to be fairly common, up until 30-40 years ago, that Lutherans were expected to “announce for communion” where they would visit the pastor during the week to announce their intention to communion on Sunday. This visit was meant to attend to the needs of private confession as well, though all of this has largely fallen by the wayside.

I say public confession isn’t as important, not to downplay the need for God’s grace, and especially the need to hear those words of forgiveness on a regular basis, but rather to emphasize the expansive nature of the sacraments. Jesus’s own words indicate that forgiveness is a part of the Lord’s Supper. The Lord’s Supper goes well above and beyond the basic ideas of grace that come in absolution. Nevertheless, forgiveness is a part of the Supper and forms the root of everything that takes place there. It is further true that communion is not something done privately. It is the community of the faithful, the Body of Christ, gathered together around the table together to receive the body and blood of Christ as one. Communion is necessarily a public act and it is a public act that offers forgiveness. We also know that forgiveness is only received when an individual recognizes he or she is a sinner and wants the free grace God offers. That means every time a Christian shares in the sacrament, he is making a public confession and receiving God’s grace. In effect, the Lord’s Supper does what public confession and absolution are trying to do, but the Supper does even more effectively and with greater results. This, of course, assumes the person receiving communion does so properly, acknowledging his sinfulness and the need for God’s grace.

As such, if the desire of the pastor and congregation is to make clear that God’s forgiveness is for you and that you are a redeemed child of God, public confession will do little to add to this. The sacraments both cover this sort of activity in their own unique ways. The answer instead is to bring back private confession and emphasize the power of God’s grace for the sinner. Looking through the Gospels, Jesus never uses public absolution. He always intentionally seeks out the sinner to give them absolution. It is never in a generalized “God forgives everyone,” sense. It is always in the specific and personal sense, “I forgive you.” This instance further illustrates the extent to which the sacraments are meant to fill the life of the church and of the individual Christian. Let them do the job they were intended to do and the church will be better off for it.

Confession and Fellowship

In the Lutheran 3 Year Lectionary, the Epistle readings for the Easter season are drawn from 1 John. With that in mind, I opted to make 1 John the focus of Sunday morning Bible study to bring some added depth to our understanding of St. John’s text. As is often the case, the very act of leading the discussion brings new insights and is further proof that pastors have as much to gain from fruitful discussion as anyone else does.

In this particular instance, the discussion revolved around the concepts of confession and fellowship. Both of these words feature in the first chapter of St. John’s letter and introduce the reader to what John is going to be dealing with throughout the rest of that letter. Those familiar with the divine service settings from the Lutheran Service Book will likely recognize 1 John 1:8-9 from the confession and absolution, “If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, [God] is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.”

I don’t often dig into the nitty gritty of Biblical languages, but here I think it is worth the effort. The Greek word St. John uses that is translated as “confession” is ὁμολογέω (homologeo). A more literal translation would be something like, “to say the same thing” or “to agree with a statement.” This sort of usage could crop up anywhere. In a recent episode of Jeopardy! with guest host Aaron Rodgers a contestant, referring back to last season’s Green Bay Packers’ play off game, asked, “Who wanted to kick that field goal?” Rodgers confessed that it was a great question. The word did not take on theological connotations until it came into use in Scripture.

Now, when we as Christians say “confession” we typically think of an admission of sins of one form or another. If not this, then we “confess our faith” through one of the Creeds or some other public declaration of what we believe. We confess our faith in the Creeds, there is often the implicit understanding that we do this together as a congregation and that is part of what makes it a confession. This is true, for we are saying the same thing in unison. When it comes to a confession of sins, this becomes a little more difficult. Sure, when we make a public confession, we are saying the words together, and yet, private confession is no less a confession and is no less worthy of forgiveness and grace.

If private confession is truly confession, who are we speaking with? St. John gives us the answer: God has already spoken. God as judge has already declared us sinners. Our only options are to either confess this statement together with Him, or call Him a liar. If we confess our sins, we say what He has already said and we put ourselves in the same group as all of those who have also said they are sinners. We have fellowship with God and one another because we have confessed God’s declaration of our guilt and have received the subsequent declaration of forgiveness.

In this way, the sacraments fall into the same category, for they are also about forgiveness and grace. Jesus does not give the sacraments as possible options for our use. He does not suggest we put them into practice here and there as we have need. Jesus draws on his divine authority and He commands them. They are not optional. Rather, they are a requirement for Christian life. They means and vehicles of God’s grace because the underlying statement He is making is, “You are a sinner and without My grace you will perish.” Coming to the font, coming to the table is a confession of sins and of our faith. We confess that we have sinned against God and one another and that we need His grace. We confess our trust in His promise that He will forgive those sins on account of Christ. The end result of this confession and of God’s forgiveness is that we are bound together in fellowship with God and with one another.

This fellowship is the end goal of the sacraments and of salvation as a whole. To reunite us with Him has been the entire point of God’s saving work. This work continues in the sacraments and it begins by our confession that we truly need those sacraments. We are sinners and we need God’s rich and abundant grace, found in Word, water, bread, and wine. We gather together as the Body of Christ, washed clean by baptismal water, around His table to share in fellowship with Him and with one another because we are all sinners and we have collectively come to the only place forgiveness may be found.

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