What a solemn act! To approach this altar, to participate in its heavenly mysteries, to become a partaker of the glorified body and blood of the Son of God! Surely no one who understands the import of this Sacrament, will dare to approach hastily, thoughtlessly, or on the impulse of the moment. Surely there must be forethought and preparation. Our Church has realized this from the very beginning. She has had, and still has, a special service for those who intend to commune. Her preparatory service precedes her communion service. And we can safely affirm, that no Church has so searching and suitable a preparatory service as the Lutheran Church. Where this service is properly conducted and entered into by pastor and people, it is not an unimportant step in the Way of Salvation.
Our Church, in this particular also, is purely scriptural. Israel of old had seasons of special preparation, previous to special manifestations from God. There was a season of special preparation before the giving of the Law; also before the receiving of the quails and the manna from heaven. There were days of preparation before and in connection with the great annual festivals, as well as in connection with other great national and religious events. Our Lord, Himself, observed a most solemn preparatory service with His disciples before He instituted the Last Supper. He not only spoke very comforting words to them, but He also plainly pointed out to them their sins, e.g., their pride, their jealousy, their quarrels, their coming defection, the fall of Peter and the treachery of Judas. In harmony with all this, Paul directs: "But let a man examine himself, and so let him eat of that bread and drink of that cup."
And it is to aid and assist the communicant in this self-examination that we have our preparatory service. Its great object is to enable the communicant to realize his own sinfulness, to deepen in him true penitence and longing for forgiveness, and also to aid him in appropriating and rejoicing in the full and free forgiveness of Christ. To this end we sing our penitential hymns, plead for Grace to know ourselves, our sinfulness, and the fulness of Christ's Grace, and hear such searching appeals from the pastor as often pain and agonize the heart.
Then follows, on the part of the whole congregation, a united, audible and public confession of sin, of sorrow because of it, of earnest desire for forgiveness, of faith in Christ as the divine Saviour, and of an earnest purpose to hate and avoid all sin in the future. After this public confession in the presence of the pastor and of one another, the same confession is repeated, on bended knees, directly to God. This two-fold confession -- first in the presence of the pastor and of one another, and then directly to God -- is followed by the words of absolution from the pastor.
In pronouncing the absolution the minister uses the following, or words to the same effect: "Almighty God, our heavenly Father, having of His great mercy promised the forgiveness of sins to all those who with hearty repentance and true faith turn unto Him, and having authorized His ministers to declare the same, I pronounce, to all who do truly repent and believe on the Lord Jesus Christ, and are sincerely determined to amend their ways and lead a godly and pious life, the entire forgiveness of all your sins, in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen."
Then follow a few words in which he assures the impenitent and hypocritical that their sins are not forgiven, but will certainly bring upon them the fearful wrath of Almighty God, unless they speedily repent, turn from their sins, and fly to the Lord Jesus Christ for refuge and salvation. This is the closing part of the preparatory service, which is called Confession and Absolution.
Some time ago we were asked, by a minister of another denomination, why Lutherans retained and practiced Romish confession, and forgiveness by the minister. We gave him our formula for Confession and Absolution, and asked him to examine it and point out to us wherein it was Romish or unscriptural. After examination he handed it back, saying: "I cannot say that it is exactly unscriptural. In fact, I can easily see how you can quote Scripture in its defense."
And so we can. In Matt. xvi.19, Jesus says to Peter: "I will give unto thee the keys of the kingdom of heaven: and whatsoever thou shalt bind on earth shalt be bound in heaven; and whatsoever thou shall loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven." In Matt. xviii.18, the Saviour gives the same power in the same words to all the disciples as representatives of the Christian congregation. In John xx.21-23, He says again to the disciples: "As my Father hath sent me, even so send I you, ... whosesoever sins ye remit, they are remitted unto them, and whosesoever sins ye retain, they are retained."
What do these words of Christ mean? They must mean something. They must be of some use. Our Lord certainly does confer some kind of authority or power on His Church, which is His Bride. Does He hereby give into her hand the keys of His kingdom, and authorize her to dispense its treasures? Does she, through her ministry, employ these keys, bring forth heavenly treasures, and distribute and withhold them among the children of men? To the Church's ministers Christ says, Luke x.16; "He that heareth you, heareth Me: and he that despiseth you, despiseth me." One of these ministers, who certainly understood his office and its prerogatives, speaking in the name of all true ministers of Christ, says, 2 Cor. v.20: "Now then we are ambassadors for Christ, as though God did beseech you by us, we pray you in Christ's stead, be ye reconciled to God." If we would see how this ambassador exercised his high authority in an individual case, he tells us in 2 Cor. ii.10: "If I forgave anything, to whom I forgave it for your sakes forgave I it, in the person of Christ."
If now we take these passages together, we must admit that in their plain literal sense; they do teach that Christ, the Head of the Church, has in some sense committed to His Church the power to remit and retain sins, and that this power is exercised in the Church through its ministry.
In what sense then has a minister power to remit sin? Certainly not by any inherent virtue of his own, nor by any power originating in his own person. In this sense only God can forgive sin, as all sin is committed against Him. But God can delegate that power to another, and permit him to use it in His name. And this is all the power any human being can have in this matter. It would indeed be blasphemy for any man to claim that he had power in himself to forgive sins. If he can have any power at all, it must be Christ's power. He can only use it as a deputy, as an ambassador, or as an agent. And this is exactly what the Word teaches. The minister is Christ's ambassador. He beseeches and speaks in Christ's stead, as though God were speaking by him. Paul forgave the penitent Corinthian, not in his own name or by his own authority, but "in the person of Christ."
When part of our country was in rebellion, the government sent deputies to those who had renounced their allegiance, empowered to confer pardon, and reinstate as citizens, all who accepted the government's terms of pardon. These agents had no power in themselves, but they were authorized to carry the pardoning power of the government, and to those who accepted it from them, it was as valid as though each one had received a special proclamation of pardon from the government. Just so does the pastor, as Christ's ambassador, offer and bestow Christ's forgiveness to the penitent and believing sinner. He offers this pardon only on the terms laid down by Christ. The means through which he conveys this pardon is God's Word. This Word, preaching repentance and remission of sins, when spoken by the minister, is just as effective as when it fell from the lips of Christ or His inspired apostles. Whenever he preaches God's Word he does nothing else than declare Christ's absolution. It is the Word of God, that still remits and retains, that binds and looses.
The pastor can only declare that Word, but the Word itself does effectually work forgiveness to him that rightly receives it. Not only can the minister carry this Word of God, this key of the kingdom, this power of God unto salvation, and apply it, but any disciple of Christ can do so. Dr. Krauth beautifully says: "The whole pastoral work is indeed but an extension of the Lutheran idea of Confession and Absolution." And Dr. Walther says: "The whole Gospel is nothing but a proclamation of the forgiveness of sins, or a publication of the same Word to all men on earth, which God Himself confirms in heaven." Dr. Seiss somewhere says: "Every time a believer in Christ sits down beside a troubled and penitent one, and speaks to such an one Christ's precious promises and assurances of forgiveness, he carries out the Lutheran or scriptural idea of absolution."
And even the minister of another denomination, above referred to, acknowledged to the writer, that when he found one of his parishioners of whom he was convinced that she was a true penitent, despondent on account of her sins, he unhesitatingly said to her, "Your sins are forgiven by Christ."
We had intended to still say something about the public confession of Israel at Mizpeh, 1 Sam. v.6, and of the multitudes who went out to John the Baptist, Matt. viii.6; also of the private Confession and Absolution of David and Nathan, 2 Sam. xii.13. But each one can examine these cases for himself. Enough has been said to assure us that our Church, in this matter also, is grounded on the eternal Word of God, and that she did wisely when, after repudiating the blasphemous practices of the Romish confessional, she yet retained an evangelical Confession and Absolution.
When we therefore hear the declaration of absolution from God's Word, let us believe it, "even as if it were a voice sounding from heaven."
And therefore the Augsburg Confession, Art. XXV, says that "On account of the very great benefit of Absolution, as well as for other uses to the conscience, Confession is retained among us."
Such evangelical Confession and Absolution establishes and maintains the true relation that should exist between an evangelical pastor and the members of his flock. Instead of a mere preacher, a platform orator, he becomes a true spiritual guide, a curate for the cure of souls. He encourages his members to reveal to him their weaknesses, their besetting sins, their doubts and spiritual conflicts, in order that he may instruct, direct, comfort and strengthen them with the all-sufficient and powerful Word of God.
And thus, wherever he finds true penitence and faith, however weak, he carries out the divine commission which directs him: "Comfort ye, comfort ye my people, saith the Lord, speak ye comfortably to -- i.e. speak ye to the heart of -- Jerusalem, and cry unto her that her warfare is accomplished, that her iniquity is pardoned; for she hath received of the Lord's hand double for all her sins" Is.40, I, 2.
"How beauteous are their feet,
"How charming is their voice!