Hearing, Receiving, and Learning the Gospel from Our Father Confessors

This Wednesday (8 November) is the Commemoration of Johannes von Staupitz, Dr. Luther’s own father confessor, and it is appropriate that we should remember him and give thanks for the faithful pastoral care he provided on the cusp of the Reformation. Indeed, Luther credited Father Staupitz with teaching him to know and understand the Gospel and to focus – not on himself, neither on his sins nor on his works – but on Christ Jesus and His gracious work of forgiveness. By way of example, in a letter to Elector John Frederick in March 1545, Luther wrote that Staupitz “has been, first of all, my father in this doctrine and he has given birth to me in Christ.”

Along similar lines, Martin Brecht describes a case in point: “In 1515 after [Luther’s] fearful encounter with the Christ present in the Eisleben procession, Staupitz explained that he had a false picture of Christ in his mind. Precisely in connection with the Mass Staupitz surely instructed him that in one’s intentions one should not worry about perfection, rather in one’s sins one should trust in the forgiveness of Christ. Staupitz taught Luther to look at Christ in a new way, as the suffering One who is one with us. This is precisely why Luther later could claim that Staupitz had begun the new teaching. With him the light had begun to enlighten the darkness” (Martin Luther: His Road to Reformation, 1483-1521, tr. James Schaaf, Fortress Press, p. 79).

It is no accident or coincidence that Dr. Luther began to learn this evangelical focus on Christ and His Gospel in the context of Confession and Absolution, for that is what this means of grace is all about. And by the grace of God, in spite of all the faults that had developed in the Medieval Roman practice of Penance, Father Staupitz directed Luther away from himself – away from his doubts and fears and guilt and shame – to the Lord Jesus, to His Word and gifts and promises of the Gospel. This very sort of paternal/pastoral care, coming to us from outside of us (extra nos), is a tremendous blessing and benefit over against the assaults and accusations of the devil, the world, and our own devious flesh. It is no wonder that Dr. Luther not only continued to avail himself of this gift and blessing of Holy Absolution from his father confessors, but consistently taught and encouraged the practice throughout his ministry – often in the strongest possible way, though not as a law to be kept, but as a gift to be desired, sought, and received.

Although the practice of Individual Confession and Absolution has sadly often languished in the history of the Lutheran Church, the commemoration of Luther’s own father confessor invites us to consider the important significance of this very personal exercise of pastoral care. In any case, it is incumbent upon every Lutheran pastor to make himself available as a father confessor to the members of his congregation, to teach and encourage the practice both clearly and evangelically, and to look for opportunities to exercise the “loosing” or forgiving Key in response to any and all confessions of sin. By the same token, especially because no one should hear confession without also making confession, it is fundamentally important that every Lutheran pastor should have his own “Johannes von Staupitz,” a father confessor who will provide true and genuine pastoral care.

Among the sermons that Dr. Luther preached upon his return from the Wartburg to Wittenberg in 1522, he fervently advocated the evangelical practice of Confession and Absolution. While reiterating the point that no one should be “forced” to go to Confession, Luther went on to say: “Nevertheless I will allow no man to take Private Confession away from me, and I would not give it up for all the treasures in the world, since I know what comfort and strength it has given me. No one knows what it can do for him except one who has struggled often and long with the devil. Yea, the devil would have slain me long ago, if the Confession had not sustained me” (Luther’s Works AE 51, p. 98). God grant that strength and comfort to each of us in our own day.