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August 24, 2008 / vivator

Luther on Sacrament of Penance

It may surprise many of us to know that Luther had a high regard of Sacrament of Penance.  In 1519 he wrote a trilogy on three Sacraments: Penance, Baptism and Lord’s Supper. Just one year later, in 1520, he omitted Sacrament of Penance and accepted only the remaining two.   Most Protestant and “Bible only” churches further reduced the number into zero – i.e. there is no sacrament, Baptism and Lord’ Supper are symbol or ordinance.  Below is some extracts from what Luther wrote:

Forgiveness in the sacrament of penance is of two kinds: forgiveness of the punishment and forgiveness of the guilt. Concerning the first, the forgiveness of the punishment, or satisfaction, enough has been said in the treatise on indulgences which appeared some time ago. It is not very significant and is an immeasurably lesser thing than the forgiveness of guilt, which one might call a godly or heavenly indulgence, one that only God himself can grant from heaven.

The difference between these two types of forgiveness is this: the indulgence, or the forgiveness of punishment, does away with works and efforts of satisfaction that have been imposed and thus reconciles a person outwardly with the Christian Church. But the forgiveness of guilt, the heavenly indulgence, does away with the heart’s fear and timidity before God; it makes the conscience glad and joyful within and reconciles man with God. And this is what true forgiveness of sins really means, that a person’s sins no longer bite him or make him uneasy, but rather that the joyful confidence overcomes him that God has forgiven him his sins forever.

However a person who does not find within himself such a [glad] conscience and rejoice in his heart over God’s grace, cannot be helped by any indulgence even though he were to buy all the letters of indulgence ever issued. For a person can be saved quite apart from any letters of indulgence, by death making satisfaction or paying for his sin. No one can be saved, however, without a joyful conscience and a glad heart toward God (that is, without the forgiveness of guilt). So it would be much better to buy no indulgences at all, than to forget this forgiveness of guilt or omit to practice it first and foremost every day.

For [attaining] such forgiveness of guilt and for calming the heart in the face of its sins, there are various ways and methods. Some think to accomplish this through letters of indulgence. They run to and fro, to Rome or to St. James, buying indulgences here and there. But this is mistaken and all in vain. Things thereby get much worse, for God himself must forgive sins and grant peace to the heart. Some put themselves out with many good works, even too much fasting and straining. Some have ruined their bodies and gone out of their minds, thinking by virtue of their works to do away with their sins and soothe their heart. Both of these types are defective in that they want to do good works before their sins are forgiven, whereas on the contrary, sins must be forgiven before good works can be done. For works do not drive out sin, but the driving out of sin leads to good works. For good works must be done with joyful heart and good conscience toward God, that is, out of the forgiveness of guilt.

Luther, The Sacrament of Penance 1 to 4 (from Luther’s Works Vol. 35)

It is understandable that Luther had negative attitude to indulgences – they were abused in pre-Reformation era that led to Reformation.  The Catechism of the Catholic Church (CCC) # 1430 states: Jesus’ call to conversion and penance, like that of the prophets before him, does not aim first at outward works, ‘sack-cloth and ashes’, fasting and mortification, but at the conversion of the heart, interior conversion.  Without this, such penances remain sterile and false; however, interior conversion urges expression in visible signs, gestures and works of penance [Joel 2:12-13]. 

It follows further that the forgiveness of guilt is not within the province of any human office or authority, be it pope, bishop, priest, or any other. Rather it depends exclusively upon the word of Christ and your own faith. For Christ did not intend to base our comfort, our salvation, our confidence on human words or deeds, but only upon himself, upon his words and deeds. Priests, bishops, and popes are only servants who hold before you the word of Christ, upon which you should depend and rely with firm faith as upon a solid rock.

Luther, The Sacrament of Penance 8 (from Luther’s Works Vol. 35)

Catholics agree that only God and Christ can forgive sins – yet Scripture testifies that Christ gave the authority to forgive sins to the apostles (John 20:21-23), who in turn pass it to their successors.  Keep in mind that in the forgiveness of sins, both priests and sacraments are instruments which our Lord Jesus Christ, the only author and liberal giver of salvation, wills to use in order to efface our sins and give us the grace of justification (cf. CCC # 987).

It follows in addition that in the sacrament of penance and forgiveness of guilt a pope or bishop does nothing more than the lowliest priest. Indeed where there is no priest, each individual Christian-even a woman or child-does as much. For any Christian can say to you, “God forgives you your sins, in the name,” etc., and if you can accept that word with a confident faith, as though God were saying it to you, then in that same faith you are surely absolved.

Luther, The Sacrament of Penance 9 (from Luther’s Works Vol. 35)

Here Luther went too far by declaring anybody, even woman and child can perform sacrament of penance.  Christ gave the authority to forgive and to retain sin to His disciples (minus Thomas and of course, Judas).  Note that Luther did believe in the forgiveness of sins through priests in the Sacrament of Penance.

Therefore if you believe the word of the priest when he absolves you (that is, when he looses you in the name of Christ and in the power of his words, saying, “I absolve you from your sins”), then your sins are assuredly absolved also before God, before all angels and all creatures-not for your sake, or for the priest’s sake, but for the sake of the very Word of Christ, who cannot be lying to you when he says, “Whatever you loose … shall be loosed.” Should you, however, not believe that your sins are truly forgiven and removed, then you are a heathen, acting toward your Lord Christ like one who is an unbeliever and not a Christian; and this is the most serious sin of all against God. Besides you had better not go to the priest if you will not believe his absolution; you will be doing yourself great harm by your disbelief. By such disbelief you make your God to be a liar when, through his priest, he says to you, “You are loosed from your sins,” and you retort, “I don’t believe it,” or, “I doubt it.” As if you were more certain in your opinion than God is in his words, whereas you should be letting personal opinions go, and with unshakeable faith giving place to the word of God spoken through the priest. For if you doubt whether your absolution is approved of God and whether you are rid of your sins, that is the same as saying, “Christ has not spoken the truth, and I do not know whether he approves his own words, when he says to Peter, ‘Whatever you loose … shall be loosed.'” O God, spare everybody from such diabolical disbelief.

A number of people have been teaching us that we should, and must necessarily, be uncertain about absolution, and doubt whether we have been restored to [the state of] grace and our sins forgiven-on the grounds that we do not know whether our contrition has been adequate or whether sufficient satisfaction has been made for our sins. And because this is not known, the priest cannot at once assign appropriate penance. Be on guard against these misleading and un-Christian gossips. The priest is necessarily uncertain as to your contrition and faith, but this is not what matters. To him it is enough that you make confession and seek an absolution. He is supposed to give it to you and is obligated to do so. What will come of it, however, he should leave to God and to your faith. You should not be debating in the first place whether or not your contrition is sufficient. Rather you should be assured of this, that after all your efforts your contrition is not sufficient. This is why you must cast yourself upon the grace of God, hear his sufficiently sure word in the sacrament, accept it in free and joyful faith, and never doubt that you have come to grace-not by your own merits or contrition but by his gracious and divine mercy, which promises, offers, and grants you full and free forgiveness of sins in order that in the face of all the assaults [anfechtung] of sin, conscience, and the devil, you thus learn to glory and trust not in yourself or your own actions, but in the grace and mercy of your dear Father in heaven. After that be contrite all the more and render satisfaction as well as you can. Only, let this simple faith in the unmerited forgiveness promised in the words of Christ go before and remain in command of the situation.

Luther, The Sacrament of Penance 10 & 12 (from Luther’s Works Vol. 35)



Leave a Comment
  1. timglass / Aug 25 2008 1:23 pm

    I sure do appreciate your work here.
    Thank you.


  2. Jurgen / Dec 20 2008 12:42 pm

    Luther had a Protestant mind and a Catholic heart. A pity we don’t have more people like that today! It is also a great pity that most Protestants don’t take note of his views on the Eucharist and Confession. He defended his view on the Eucharist against many radical reformers who saw it only as a symbol, and continues to do so today. If the Protestant church could rediscover again the power of Confession it would be a great day for the Church! Jurgen

    • George / Feb 26 2013 2:21 pm

      He was originally a Roman Catholic priest.

  3. Tom / Mar 4 2009 12:55 pm

    Don’t High Anglicans or Catholic Anglicans still have confession?

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