“Return to the Lord your God, for he is gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love.”
These words from Joel, heard on Ash Wednesday, are a liturgical sentence sung throughout Lent. Lent is a season of repentance, of turning around. It originated as the time in which the candidates for baptism at the Easter Vigil went through rites of election and catechesis. In the first five centuries most candidates for baptism were adults. They were turning from paganism to Christianity. Catechesis was a form of “conversion therapy,” which could last for years but gained intensity in the forty days before Easter. The point of conversion is to be assimilated into the passover of Christ from death to life, to turn from the way of life in this world that is passing away to the new life of the world to come by cultivating the values of the kingdom of God taught by Jesus. Hence, candidates were engaged in the practices of fasting, almsgiving, and prayer we read about in Matthew 6 on Ash Wednesday. As early as the Didache at the end of the first century, members of the congregation were encouraged to fast along with the candidates for baptism.
The point of conversion is to be assimilated into the passover of Christ from death to life, to turn from the way of life in this world that is passing away to the new life of the world to come
The Order of Penitents
What isn’t so well known is that parallel to the order of catechumens was an order of penitents. Those who committed grave sins after their baptism were enrolled as penitents. They were excluded from the eucharistic meal (excommunication) and sat in sackcloth and ashes at the church door asking the faithful to pray for them. Tertullian of Carthage is a witness to this practice at the beginning of the third century in his treatise On Penitence. In the Roman tradition the penitents were prepared during Lent for reconciliation to the eucharistic fellowship on Maundy Thursday. Just as Lent may be construed as a return to the catechumenate for all the faithful, so it may also be construed as a return to penitence. This is signified by the imposition of ashes on Ash Wednesday following the litany of penitence.
This indicates that penance was a close sacramental analog of the rites of Christian initiation. Both are celebrations of metanoia. The rites of public penance ritualized re-initiation into the converting community, a renewed participation in the passover of Christ from death to life. Each ritual process aims at union with Christ experienced in eucharistic communion. Baptism leads to the Lord’s Table, whether that occurs immediately as the climax of the rites of initiation or is delayed for some reason by a period of time. Penance leads to restoration to the fellowship of the Lord’s Table.
Medieval and Reformation Practices
As it happened, the rites of public penance waned by the end of the period of antiquity and was eventually supplanted by forms of private penance that emerged in the monasteries. By the high Middle Ages (at the Fourth Lateran Council in 1215) a requirement was laid on all Christians to make a confession to a priest before receiving Holy Communion. The sacramental order got askew when confession was laid on all who had reached an “age of discretion” even before their first communion. Martin Luther continued to see confession and absolution in relationship to baptism, even as a return to baptism. And the confession he had in mind was individual confession before the pastor, as he provided in his Catechisms.
In the meantime, penitential prayers developed in the medieval Western Mass to be said by the celebrant and servers, at first in the sacristy and later at the foot of the altar. This penitential office was understood as a way of making the ministers worthy to celebrate the mass. It was a kind of purification from sin before coming into the holy presence. That it was intended simply as a rite of purification is indicated by the historic collect for purity in our brief order for confession and forgiveness (“cleanse the thoughts of our hearts by the inspiration of your Holy Spirit, that we may perfectly love you and worthily magnify your holy Name”). Some of the reformers turned this penitential order into a preparation of the entire assembly or congregation for receiving Christ present in word and sacrament. It was not construed as a viable form of the office of the keys, which concerned church discipline.
In historic Lutheran practice Saturday Vespers acquired an order for public confession with individual laying on of hands and absolution. However, communicants registering to receive Holy Communion on the Saturday before the Sunday celebration might be examined concerning their lives and required to participate in the public confession at Vespers.
The forms of absolution in Lutheran orders have been prayers for forgiveness, a declaration of grace, or a proclamation of forgiveness to those who sincerely repent of their sins. It is not a sacramental absolution such as we find in the order for individual confession or public confession in which the pastors lays hands on the head of the penitent and forgives sin “by the command and in the stead of my Lord Jesus Christ.” The so-called absolution in the brief orders is a global declaration rather than a personal loosing of sin. Moreover, in the orders in former worship books, such as the Common Service Book (1917) and Service Book and Hymnal (1958), the proclamation “As a Minister of the Church of Christ, and by his authority, I therefore declare unto you who do truly repent and believe in him, the entire forgiveness of all your sins…,” is followed by:
On the other hand, by the same authority, I declare unto the impenitent and unbelieving, that so long as they continue in their impenitence, God hath not forgiven their sins, and will assuredly visit their iniquities upon them, if they turn not from their evil ways, and come to true repentance and faith in Christ, ere the day of grace be ended.” (Common Service Book, p. 242-3; Service Book and Hymnal, p. 252)
Thus, there was a global proclamation of no forgiveness where there is no repentance as well as a global proclamation of forgiveness where there is repentance.
These proclamations of the word of God as both gospel and law may have their effect in comforting repentant sinners who have truly confessed their sins and admonishing impenitent sinners who have not. But the brief orders do not provide the ritual means of facilitating the return of the sinners to God, or specifically ritualizing a Christian’s dying and rising with Christ, which Martin Luther taught is the significance of baptism.
Recovering Individual Confession and Forgiveness
Luther appealed to Romans 6:3-5. What is put to death in baptism for St. Paul is our old sinful nature that is captive to sin. Sin is a power that rules over us. It is the power of pride and unbelief and self-centeredness that takes us captive, and from which we cannot free ourselves on our own. The reason for the image of death and resurrection is that our old sinful nature needs to be destroyed if a new, free self is to emerge, and we can’t do it just by will power. In the same way we also need a means of dealing with the possible return of the old Adam, the old self. The old Adam in us is supposed to be drowned in the waters of baptism, but that old Adam is a mighty good swimmer and doesn’t give up easily. That’s why Luther said that the real issue in baptism is not the momentary, one-time rite, but the ongoing Christian life. The water of baptism signifies, he said, the daily drowning of sin and evil lusts, through sorrow for sin and repentance, so that every day the new Adam, the new self, will emerge that will live with God forever in righteousness and purity. Because sin is ever trying to get us back in its power, and often succeeds, we need, as Luther never tired of reiterating, confession and absolution. In his Catechisms he taught that confession and absolution is a return to baptism (by which he meant individual confession to the pastor; he did not provide “brief orders” in his orders of mass).
The problem of sin after baptism concerned many of the church fathers. This was especially a concern in the Messsalian Controversy in the late fourth century. The Messalians were advocates of a strict asceticism that allowed one to devote one’s life to prayer in order to resist the devil. The opponents of the Messalians held that demons are chased away by baptism and not by prayer. However, the way the main Church dealt with post-baptismal sin was through penance, what Jerome called “the second plank” of grace extended to those who fell from baptismal grace.
Penance is related to baptism. As I indicated, the ancient church saw the development of an order of penitents that paralleled the order of catechumens, as already attested by Tertullian. Augustine encouraged a life of penitence as a way of living out baptism. For Luther, too, the life of baptism is a penitential life. Ascetical disciplines such as fasting and almsgiving are ways of enacting repentance by putting down the desires of old Adam. The penitential season of Lent emphasizes these disciplines as a way of training us for what ought to be a constant in the Christian life style. When we are brought to recognize that we off track and are not demonstrating in our life in this world the life of the world to come (the values of the kingdom of God), we are driven to confess that lapse and to be helped back on track through Holy Absolution.
We no longer have an order of penitents to join, but we have individual confession and forgiveness. Our pastors need to reclaim this means of grace and make it available to their congregations. We can point to the order of individual confession and forgiveness in Luther’s Small Catechism. Pastors should first read Luther’s exhortation to confession to the Large Catechism. Then, since the practice has fallen out of use in our churches, pastors should take themselves to a confessor before they try to serve as a confessor to their people.
Confessions are never challenged. And after absolution they are never remembered.
One more thing: individual confession is not a form of pastoral counseling. It is a ministry of the word of God. It is an opportunity to apply appropriate scripture texts to the penitent’s situation and to pronounce forgiveness as coming from God himself. Confessions are never challenged. And after absolution they are never remembered. The confession made will never be discussed in conversation, even and especially with the one who made the confession.