December 30, 2006

Lutheran Liturgy: Confession and Forgiveness of Sins

Filed under: Random Stuff — Bob Gifford @ 3:28 pm

Just for fun I thought I’d start a series on the Lutheran liturgy, specifically that contained in the Lutheran Book of Worship used by the ELCA and ELCIC. In this first post, I’ll start at the beginning of the liturgy with the Confession and Forgiveness of Sins.

My apologies up front, because I’m doing this from memory (I don’t have a copy of the LBW here at home, and it’s not available on-line). After a few preliminaries, the heart of the confession is the following:

We confess that we are in bondage to sin, and cannot free ourselves. We have sinned against you in thought, word and deed, by what we have done, and by what we have left undone. We have not loved you with our whole heart, we have not loved our neighbors as ourselves. For the sake of your son, have mercy on us. Forgive us, renew us and lead us, so that we may delight in your will and walk in your ways, to the glory of your holy name. Amen.

This is spoken by the entire congregation, including the Pastor. In fact, the Pastor is not standing up front facing the congregation, but is turned around facing the cross along with the rest of us. We are not confessing our sins to the Pastor, but the Pastor is confessing his/her sins along with everyone else to God. As we say it to the cross, we are acknowledging that it is by way of the cross that we even dare to ask for forgiveness. And it is through Christ’s death on the cross that we receive it.

I love this. Sure, it may not be seeker-friendly to those that don’t like to think about their own sinfulness, but this confession is so levelling. By this I mean that everyone of us admits, right up front, that we are sinners and in need of forgiveness. It reminds me of the practice in 12-step programs like Alcoholics Anonymous – when someone speaks, the first thing they say is something like “hi, I’m _____, and I’m an alcoholic”. This strips away any facade the speaker might have that they are any different, any better, than anyone else in the room. Anything they say following this statement is said in the context of the fact of their alchoholism. They can’t preach down, put on airs, or pretend that they’ve licked their addiction to alcohol. No matter who they are, they are still powerless over their addiction.

The confession in the Lutheran liturgy serves the same purpose. Everything that follows during the service is said and done in the context of this confession. We are all sinners (even those officiating at the service), we are all powerless over our sinful condition, and none of us can pretend otherwise. We all need grace.

I often wonder why we say this in the first person plural instead of the first person singular. By saying “we”, it allows a pretense that I’m participating in this confession on the part of those other poor sinners in the congregation even though I personally led a sinless life this week. Instead, notice how more powerful and personal this is:

I confess that I am in bondage to sin and cannot free myself. I have sinned against you in thought, word and deed, by what I have done and by what I have left undone. I have not loved you with my whole heart, I have not love my neighbor as myself. For the sake of your son, have mercy on me. Forgive me, renew me and lead me, so that I may delight in your will and walk in your ways, to the glory of your holy name.

On the other hand, it loses the communal feeling of the original, and after all, we are confessing our sins not just alone but also in community, so the first person plural is appropriate. But I try to keep in mind both the I-ness and the we-ness of the confession as I say it.

This is followed by a declaration from the Pastor (now facing us) to the congregation:

God, who is faithful and just, forgives us all our sins. As a called and ordained minister in the church of Christ, I declare to you the forgiveness of all your sins, in the name of the Father, and the son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

The Pastor doesn’t forgive our sins, she/he declares to us the forgiveness of our sins by God. I have often wondered why this declaration is preceded by the Pastor’s credentials: “as a called and ordained minister in the church of Christ”. If the officiant is not called and ordained, would I be any less forgiven? Does it take an ordained Pastor to tell me, to remind me really, that Christ’s death and resurrection have given me the means of grace? I understand that Pastors are called by God, and that they have gone through a long process of education, discernment and ordination, and for that I’m grateful. But I’ve never been clear on why that needs to be stated at this particular time. Perhaps it’s meant as a further assurance that the promise of forgiveness is true, but I’m forgiven regardless.

And ultimately it’s this forgiveness that allows the liturgy to continue. Having communally and individually admitted that we’re all sinners, and having heard the assurance that we are forgiven, we can then get down to business: praise and thanksgiving.


  1. I’m looking forward to the continuation of this series, Bob — there should definitely be more liturgy blogging in the world. 😉

    In our services, the priest also faces the altar along with the congregation, so we are all confessing together. However, in the classical Roman Mass, as well as (my favorite) the Sarum Use in England, the priest first confessed to the congregation, which prayed for his absolution, then the congregation confessed and received absolution from the priest. Also kind of cool, though different. I think most folks do find it odd to have the priest confessing her/his sins right in front of them, though.

    Regarding the “called and ordained bit” — in the context of the liturgy, the pastor/priest her/himself is pronouncing absolution. It’s tied to the power to “bind and loose” given in the Gospel by Jesus. So yes, the celebrant’s ordination is relevant here. (I prefer “called and ordained servant of the Word”, though.) God is of course always giving us grace, although we have not worked to deserve it, but it is very powerful to experience that absolution directly. Luther was right that we are all able to be our own priests and encounter God directly, but IMO the reconciling factor between Catholic and Protestant theologies is that grace is multiplied over and over when we mediate it for one another, when we are priests for one another. Luther’s option is a safeguard for when we are unjustly kept away from the sacraments. But being our own priests, including in confession, is not the ideal. 🙂

    Blessings for the New Year!

    Comment by Chris T. — December 30, 2006 @ 5:45 pm

  2. A confession of sins is not a part of the services at the UCC church I have been attending the last few months (except, I am told, at Lent), and it was one thing I really didn’t like about the one and only BCP Episcopal service I ever attended. I understand the value in humility in the face of our own imperfections, but this “bonded in sin” business is so negative and reflects a theology that says by all rights we really aren’t even good enough to be in God’s good graces, except that we are lucky enough to be forgiven anyway. It is not a theology that I endorse or an outlook that resonates with me. I believe we aren’t “lucky” to be forgiven by God; God forgives because that’s just God’s nature, and rather than focusing on the negative, I prefer to be constructively encouraging about our possibilities of listening to God’s voice within us. I would rather focus on, to use a Quaker term, “that of God within us”, rather than emphasize what is wrong with us so much. Anyway, that’s the way I view it.

    Comment by Mystical Seeker — January 2, 2007 @ 10:43 am

  3. But I’ve never been clear on why that needs to be stated at this particular time. Perhaps it’s meant as a further assurance that the promise of forgiveness is true, but I’m forgiven regardless.

    What you’re noting is a rather pointed theological debate about the importance of the Office of the Keys. This is one of the oddities in the LBW that reflects for non Missouri Synod churches a bit of MIssouri Synod thinking. From the LCMS “Cyclopedia”:

    3. The Office of the Keys is spiritual (Mt. 20:25–26; Jn 18:36; 2 Co 10:4; Eph 6:10–17); it includes all spiritual rights, duties, and privileges necessary for the welfare of the ch. on earth, e.g., the conveying of grace to mankind through preaching, administering Baptism and Lord’s Supper, and through mutual conversation and consolation. In particular, the Office of the Keys gives power to forgive and retain sins (loosing and binding), i. e., not merely to announce and to declare to men the remission or retention of sins, but actually to give forgiveness to penitent sinners and to deny forgiveness to impenitent sinners (Jn 20:23; 2 Co 2:10). See also Justification, 6.

    You’ll note that in the ELCA Renewing Worship matierials, the announcement about “called and ordained” has been removed. (I can’t speak for the ELW liturgies – I haven’t seen them yet.)

    Comment by Sousy — January 4, 2007 @ 8:01 am

  4. I beleive confession should be said in every worship service. The fact the most modern liturgal & Evangelical worship is missing this is a scamp.

    Worshiping God other than Father, Son, and Holy Spirit is false worship.

    With the blood atonement on the cross we would die in our sin. The Godhead was gracios enough to work out a plan before the creation of the world to deal with the sin problem. The Fathers election of sinners, the Sons voluntary taking on the consequences of those sinners, and the Holy Spirit calling those sinners.

    I know I am not without sin even as a Christian, how about you?
    1John 1:9,10.

    Comment by Reformed Catholic — January 20, 2007 @ 1:03 pm

  5. […] So on to the liturgy. I think the structure of the liturgy is inspired, divinely so — it’s flow is just…perfect. Last time I wrote about the Confession and Forgiveness of Sins. So now we’ve all admitted we’re sinners and heard that we are all forgiven, so what’s next? God’s kingdom is what’s next. There is only one possible response to God’s forgiveness — singing our praises to God. This is the Hymn of Praise: This is the feast of victory for our God. Alleluia. Worthy is Christ, the Lamb who was slain, whose blood set us free to be people of God. Power and riches and wisdom and strength, and honor and blessing and glory are his. This is the feast of victory for our God. Alleluia. Sing with all the people of God and join in the hymn of all creation: Blessing and honor and glory and might be to God and the Lamb forever Amen. This is the feast of victory for our God, for the Lamb who was slain has begun his reign. Alleluia. Alleluia. […]

    Pingback by I am a Christian Too » Lutheran Liturgy: Hymn of Praise — February 4, 2007 @ 5:58 pm

  6. When we ask the Lord to forgive us for what we have left undone, I cannot help but remember all of God’s children who have been aborted. I am ashamed that the ELCA would give in to the secular world, and keep silent on such an important issue, in an effort to not give offense to anyone. While this is not neccesary for salvation, I would be ashamed to stand before God as President of a congregation or of a synod, having done nothing to save God’s children.
    Proverbs 31:8-9 says, “Speak up for those who cannot speak for themselves, for the rights of all who are destitute. Speak up and judge fairly; defend the rights of the poor and needy.”
    and Proverbs 6:16 says that the Lord find this detestable, hands that shed innocent blood.
    As Christians I ask you to take a responsibility at least within the Church to offer forgivness to those who have had abortion, but also teach that this certainly is not God’s will that a child die for the will of the mother.

    Comment by Matt — May 15, 2007 @ 5:41 am

RSS feed for comments on this post.

Sorry, the comment form is closed at this time.

Powered by WordPress