By: Rick Serina
This is the second in a monthly series of articles requested by the New Jersey District President which commemorate anniversaries of particular writings or events in the life of Martin Luther. They are intended to introduce the historical background and theological content and implications of those writings or events, as well as raise questions about how they might pertain to consciously Lutheran parish ministry in twenty-first-century America. The purpose is not to provide answers to these difficult questions, but to provoke reflection, personally or jointly, on how Luther’s life and thought relates to the challenges facing us.
If there were a “white-hot” center to Martin Luther’s Reformation, it would have to be his understanding of penance. The famous Ninety-Five Theses began with a statement about penance: “When our Lord and Master Jesus Christ said, ‘Repent’ (Mt 4:17), he willed the entire life of believers to be one of repentance.” He then followed it by distinguishing between the sacrament of penance—what we call confession and absolution—and the internal repentance by which we acknowledge ourselves to be sinners. St. Jerome’s translation of repentance in Latin was poenitentiam agite (to “make” or “do” penance) and this gave rise to the notion that repentance meant going through a procession of penance. Luther, though, took the Greek word metanoia to mean a literal, internal conversion, where the sinner reflected upon his sins and turned to God in faith, seeking salvation. The entire medieval penitential system Luther opposed in October 1517, including the sale of indulgences, derived from this understanding of penance as a process one “did” rather than as a repentance from sin that led to the embrace of the gospel in faith.
When he published his theses in 1517, however, Luther hadn’t quite developed the clear understanding of justification by faith we have come to expect from him. That can be seen more clearly in his August 1519 sermon “On the Sacrament of Penance.” These sermons were not necessarily preached (though they may have been prior to publication), but they were “circular” sermons printed and distributed widely in the vernacular German for people with lesser theological knowledge to read and understand—not to mention those who didn’t know Latin. In this particular sermon, Luther took aim at the medieval understanding of the sacrament of penance, which was divided into three distinct parts: contrition, confession, and satisfaction. Contrition was the motivation for going to confession, and that could either be legitimate contrition (a legitimate sorrow for one’s sin out of love for God) or attrition (driven only to confess out of fear of punishment). Confession proper was the act of auricular confession, mandated once a year by the Fourth Lateran Council (1215) and requiring the precise enumeration of all sins committed that required forgiveness. Satisfaction then entailed specific acts prescribed by the confessor to the penitent, upon completion of which those sins enumerated in confession were absolved.
The entire structure of the penitential system raised one obvious question: How do I know my sins are forgiven? One could go through all the steps, yet still wonder whether there was true contrition or simply attrition, whether all sins needing absolution were accurately enumerated, and whether acts of satisfaction had been completed sufficiently. Many scholars—even Luther himself—have argued that this created a torture of consciences, but this may be a little overstated. Records show that medieval confessors tried their best to care for penitents and took great pains to provide them pastoral direction, and that resources were published for the training of confessors and for their use in the sacrament of penance. Nevertheless, there remained a degree of uncertainty, and that uncertainty owed to a misunderstanding of justification by faith and how absolution should provide the forgiveness one receives in faith.
In response to this, Luther’s sermon delineated three different parts of penance (not the two we are accustomed to from later confessional writings). The first was the Word of absolution, where the priest speaks the word of forgiveness to the penitent confessing his sins: Ego te absolvo—“I forgive you.” The second part related to the faith of the penitent receiving the absolution. We are most familiar with this from the Lutheran confessions, but it was something medieval penance simply did not include because medieval theologians operated with a different functional definition of faith, more like cognitive assent than genuine trust in the promises of Christ, as Luther taught it according to St. Paul. The peace and forgiveness that followed faith in the absolution rounded out the three parts of penance for Luther. This means just what it sounds like: rather than a sense of uncertainty, the penitent believer walks away from the sacrament of penance confident that his sins are forgiven because of Christ and that peace with God has been restored. The famous Tübingen Luther scholar Oswald Bayer has made the well-accepted point that with this new 1519 understanding, Luther had come to his “Reformation breakthrough”: he realized that salvation could not be attained through works of the law, but solely by faith in the Word proclaimed, and he came to this realization nowhere more clearly than in the sacrament of penance. When the priest pronounced absolution, the penitent could receive it in certainty and confidence, knowing that what is spoken there on earth is reflected in heaven before God.
But this argument doesn’t necessarily address the problem we face today. We aren’t reforming a misleading view of penance, absolution, and faith; we are dealing with a more daunting challenge: What happens to absolution when the people receiving absolution don’t believe they need it? To put it differently, how do we communicate the need for and benefits of absolution in a culture that doesn’t legitimately believe in personal sin? In the Middle Ages and in the days of the early Reformation, even if the case is overstated, the people genuinely feared death, punishment for sin, and an eternal hell as the fate that awaited them apart from the mercy of Christ. But what does it make of our absolutions when, in fact, those conditions no longer exist? Nothing in our culture, nothing in American Christianity, nothing in the daily lives of our parishioners speaks of sin as it was traditionally understood. At most, we hear of sin as social ills (and which social ills all depends upon whether you vote red or blue). But personal culpability for sins one has committed, by commission or omission, by things we have done or not done? That is a tough sell. It also leaves us with a pastoral predicament as Lutherans: How should we catechize our people in sin so that they might understand and embrace the absolution offered in response to their confessions? While penance provided Luther an opportunity to teach about justification by faith, it now requires us to address a different topic altogether: the nature, consequence, and need for forgiveness of sins. How we do that may be one of the most pressing issues of our pastoral ministries.