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The Absolution

Ever wonder why we Lutherans use the form of worship we do?
In this series we examine the depth and meaning of the various elements of our worship service, beginning with the history of Christian worship itself.

When Isaiah saw the Lord in a vision, sitting exalted upon His throne, he was afraid that his life was over. After all, how could he, a poor sinner, ever come before the holy and righteous God? Ordinarily, sinners cannot have fellowship with the Almighty, for what fellowship does light have with darkness?

Isaiah’s life was spared because the Lord Himself came and cleansed him of his sin. “Then one of the seraphim flew to me, carrying a glowing coal in his hand, which he had taken from the altar with tongs. He touched my mouth with the coal and said, ‘Look, this has touched your lips, so your guilt is taken away, and your sin is forgiven.’” (Isaiah 6:6-7 Evangelical Heritage Version, c 2019, Northwestern Publishing House)

When we come to God’s house on Sunday morning, we approach Him as poor sinners. We confess that, like Isaiah, we would not be able to stand before Him, except that He has come to us and cleansed us of our sin, too. This cleansing is made clear in the words of the absolution , before we start on the other parts of the service. The pastor will usually say something like, “Almighty God, our heavenly Father, has had mercy on us and has given His only Son to die for us, and for His sake forgives us all our sins.” Or this: “Upon this your confession, I, as a called servant of the Word, announce the grace of God unto all of you, and in the place and by the command of my Lord Jesus Christ I forgive you all your sins.” Assured of our forgiveness, we are ready to worship in God’s presence: to hear His Word, pray, praise, and give thanks.

You may notice that your pastor faces the altar when he speaks the confession of sins. This is because we confess our sins to God. When he gives the absolution, however, he turns to face the congregation. This is because now he is speaking “in the place and by the command” of the Lord Jesus. It is just as the Small Catechism explains it, “A Christian congregation with its called servant of Christ uses the Keys in accordance with Christ’s command by forgiving those who repent of their sin and are willing to amend. . . . I believe that, when this is done, it is as valid and certain, in heaven also, as if Christ, our dear Lord, dealt with us himself.” The basis for this explanation is in Matthew 18:18: “Amen I tell you: Whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.” (EHV) Thus when the pastor or service leader announces to you the forgiveness of your sins, it is just as valid as if Jesus were there doing it.

In the Sunday service the absolution is usually spoken rather than sung, but there are a number of Lutheran hymns which express this same declaration of forgiveness. The hymn “Jesus Sinners Doth Receive” includes this verse:

“Now my conscience is at peace,
From the Law I stand aquitted;
Christ hath purchased my release
And my every sin remitted.
Naught remains my soul to grieve—
Jesus sinners doth receive.” (TLH 324:7)

The congregational confession of sins and the absolution following that confession is a relatively new development in Lutheran liturgies, appearing in the second half of the 19th century. Yet it is a meaningful way to introduce the service and prepare our hearts for what is to come.

David Schaller is a professor at Immanuel Lutheran College in Eau Claire, Wisconsin.