I am very thankful for my upbringing in the Christian faith. From day one my parents put the name of Jesus into my ear and that word told me that Jesus loved me and died for me. My evangelical Christian upbringing was the beginning of my faith, but I have gone through a lot of stages on my way to becoming a functional Lutheran in 2017, and I have no intention of ever leaving.
I became functionally Lutheran without ever stepping foot into a Lutheran church and without ever knowingly meeting a Lutheran in the flesh. I point to the work of those at Christ Hold Fast and 1517 as instrumental in “handing over the goods,” which led me to where I find myself now. I distinctly recall that I was drinking all that 1517 was pouring for some time--except one last stumbling block that was in my way. The last pin to drop for me was that of confession and absolution.
These two concepts were familiar to my mind only in a Roman Catholic context. These words were too “Catholic-y” and were avoided, certainly not even entertained as a viable topic to discuss, and were put on the same “ignore shelf” in my mind as praying to Mary and the rosary. Confession and Absolution as I know it now was different and foreign to anything that I recall in my Christian faith growing up in American Evangelicalism. Rather than being told that my sins were forgiven, I was given the opportunity to ask for forgiveness and to accept Jesus into my heart after every sermon. I had no sense of a preacher absolving me and telling me that I was forgiven for Christ’s sake. What is known as “the sinner’s prayer,” or an altar call invitation, accepting Jesus into your heart, is an evangelical way of trying to practice confession and absolution. It is “aping” confession and absolution. I do not believe that those who prefer an altar call are doing anything that they believe is wrong. I strongly believe if they ever gave a hearing to what confession and absolution actually was according to scripture, many would rather observe as I have.
One is offering you a choice; the other is giving you a promise
The difference is that an “invitation” in the evangelical sense is offering something to potentially be true for you so long as you accept it and really want it to be true for you. This is where it is so close to absolution, except for one key difference. The invitation of an altar call to accept Jesus is offering something to be true for you so long as you really want it to be true for you. One is offering you a choice; the other is giving you a promise. One is reliant upon your free will of choosing, and the other recognizes that your will is bound not to choose God and therefore relies upon God’s free will of choosing you. One says, “You must choose,” and the other says, “You are chosen.” One sounds like potentially good news, but in reality is bad news when it comes to assurance. The other is good news with assurance in the name of Jesus only. As my mother sang the song “Jesus Loves Me” into my ears each night, it was a word of promise from Jesus. The thought that I would need to decide to let Jesus love me was out of the question. Decision Theology was not on the menu in House Cole. The proclamation of who Jesus was and what he had done for me was. One practice hopes in your words to Jesus, the other hopes in the words of Jesus handed over by a preacher for you.
As my mother sang the song “Jesus Loves Me” into my ears each night, it was a word of promise from Jesus. The thought that I would need to decide to let Jesus love me was out of the question
Actual confession and absolution is proclaiming something to be true and is actually handed over to you in real-time right there as you are receiving it. Not a possibility but a reality. Not according to the sake of your word but for the sake of Christ and his word that “you are forgiven.”
I remember precisely when I was finally convinced and not just dabbling with the concept of confession and absolution. I heard the Thinking Fellows podcast episode about absolution stories with Stephen Paulson and Jim Nestingen recounting times in their life when they experienced handing over the goods, handing over the forgiveness of sins to someone and the resulting impact on the individual who had heard from their lips that they were forgiven. They specifically highlight the need to listen for a fellow sinner confessing, even if they are doing so unwittingly. The podcast discussed having an ear to recognize when a creature/sinner is crying out in their confession of something similar to “God will never forgive me, I am racked with guilt over this, I am too far gone, I am really struggling with this sin” and to hand over absolution to them immediately. To withhold such a beautiful gift of a word from Christ himself from a creature that is crying out for forgiveness, whether they realize it or not is a missed opportunity. I was in tears over the story of how Jim Nestingen absolved the Vietnam Veteran he met on an airplane flight. This man, racked with shame and guilt for decades, had life break in just by Jim handing over the goods to this creature who was unwittingly crying out for forgiveness. I was sold. This was when I realized I was now a member of the Unaffiliated Functional Lutherans.
The UFL is a name that I came up with for many of us who have become Lutheran in every sense outside of ever actually being involved with a Lutheran church. Many of us in the UFL do not have the ability to attend a Lutheran Church, nor has life led us to a Lutheran Church, so here we are. A diaspora without being forced out, a consequence of being Lutheran and becoming Lutheran in an area where there is not a Lutheran presence or where one could not participate as a Lutheran for a myriad of reasons.
After hearing this wonderful news from The Thinking Fellows podcast episode, the repulsion of absolution feeling “too catholic-y” that previously bothered me was gone. I believed it. Whether I wanted it or not, it was game over. Praise God!
For the next few years, I would only experience this receiving absolution via text from friends that God had sent to me in my life and these friends are dear to me. I recall many times weeping on the other end of the call or text because the reality that my sins were forgiven was mine to receive. To hear it be true for me is life-changing every time.
But it would not be until I went to 1517 HWSS 2022 when I heard it corporately from the leader that it hit differently. With flesh and blood before and around me, the “two or more gathered together” meant God was there too. I had recently been practicing absolution to needy friends and parishioners as they would confess sin or guilt to me, but now, not over the phone or in a text, but embodied, the proclamation of forgiveness was voiced to me.
Then, while at that same conference, in a happen chance conversation, it happened. A dear friend heard my cry and absolved me with these words: “By the authority and in the stead of Jesus Christ, Son of God, as your Christian brother, I forgive you of all of your sins in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.” I heaved, and I sobbed. Make no mistake the feelings were there. But it was not how I felt that made this moment real and life-changing for me; but it was the words. Just like in all things with God, it was the words that exploded into me. My cup was running over from the forgiveness that was handed over to me. At that moment, the words of my friend were hitting me, not as if my friend was standing before me, but as if Christ was standing before me, letting me know that for his sake, I was forgiven.
But it was not how I was feeling that made this moment real and life changing for me, but it was the words
This was Christ forgiving me with all his heart, not me asking Christ to accept me with all my heart. That is why absolution has become something so dear to me. For it is the very words of Jesus handed over by one sinner to another sinner, letting them know that they are forgiven all their sins. This forgiveness is most certainly true.
This was Christ forgiving me with all his heart, not me asking Christ to accept me with all my heart
When I have had the opportunity to hear a person created in God’s image crying, pouring out their hearts, wittingly or not, and handing over the goods to them, it has been an amazing thing to experience. This is the most beautiful, wonderful, and my favorite command that Jesus gave to us. As a pastor and as a Christian, I am duty-bound to this word from our Lord Jesus Christ. That when someone confesses their sins in front of me, and it hits my ears, I am excitedly compelled and ordered to hand over the forgiveness of sins. When we forgive sins in Jesus’ name, Jesus forgives them. He promised. For Christ’s sake, this is most certainly true!
“’ As the Father has sent me, even so I am sending you.’ And when he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you withhold forgiveness from any, it is withheld” (John 20:20-23).