Doubting like Luther, and trying to test like a Berean, this is where I think aloud about Christian belief and practice. It is also where I share resources of interest to other struggling believers.

Baptized and confirmed in the American Lutheran Church, I explored New Age spirituality for a time but have since worshiped the Trinitarian God of Christianity in many different churches, my denominational preference being Lutheran. I believe in salvation by grace through faith in Jesus Christ. My greatest struggle is prayer. My greatest annoyance is legalism and the notion that blind obedience to the Law will bring sanctification. My greatest fear is that I don't believe correctly. Yet, my greatest hope is that as I grow in my understanding of the grace that God extends to me daily, I will grow in my ability to walk in and demonstrate that grace to others.

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

The Sacrament of Penance (Part 1)

The Repentant Peter by El Greco
Last year, in a fit of curiosity and as part of a self-paced Teaching Company course, I purchased a copy of Luther's Works, Volume 35:  Word and Sacrament I.  Distracted by other life events, I hadn't really read much of it until recently.  A few days ago, I started looking at "The Sacrament of Penance," written in 1519.  Wow, what an education for a cradle Lutheran!  I never knew, for example, that Luther considered penance to be a sacrament.  Apparently, he did, although he eventually abandoned the idea in favor of just Baptism and Communion, the two sacraments that are used in the Lutheran Church today.  Frankly, whether or not Luther thought of penance as a sacrament isn't of much concern to me as a layperson.  What he had to say about faith as regards sacrament really hit home and made sense to me.
Everything, then depends on faith, which alone makes the sacraments accomplish that which they signify, and everything that the priest says come true.  For as you believe, so it is done for you.  Without this faith all absolution and all sacraments are in vain and indeed do more harm than good.  There is a common saying among the teachers that goes like this:  Not the sacrament, but the faith that believes the sacrament is what removes sin.  St. Augustine says this:  The sacrament removes sin, not because it takes place, but because it is believed.  For this reason in the sacrament one must studiously discern faith.
But what is this faith?  Is it, as it sounds in the above passage, faith in the actual act of the penitential rite itself?  Or is it something else?  To explore this question, allow me to share my notes from "The Sacrament of Penance" to see how I think Luther answered this question of faith.  The numbers correspond to the paragraph numbers in my copy of "The Sacrament of Penance."  These notes will be posted a few paragraphs at a time, so a final summation of the answer to the question --- What is this faith that Luther is taking about in the above quote? --- will not be available for awhile.  My hope is that you will explore with me until the last posting.

Let's begin, remembering two things:  1) for Luther, the comfort and consolation of the believer is paramount, and 2) a key passage relating to penance is Matthew 16:19:

I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.

1.  SUMMARY.  Two types of forgiveness are contained within the sacrament of penance:  the forgiveness of the punishment (i.e., someone makes amends for a wrong that was committed) and forgiveness of the guilt.  In this particular section, Luther does not elaborate on what he means by forgiveness of the punishment, except to say that he has said enough about it in previous writings and it "is not very significant and is an immeasurably lesser thing than the forgiveness of guilt."  That, Luther says, can only be granted by God.

My thoughts.  The dictionary defines forgiveness as setting aside, or not imparting.  So, according to Luther, the practical, earthly consequences of sin can be set aside, or forgiven, by any believer on earth?  That is the implication of the statement," ...the forgiveness of guilt, which one might call a godly or heavenly indulgence, one that only God himself can grant from heaven."  This makes sense given that, for Luther, every believer possesses the keys of the kingdom (i.e., the authority to grant forgiveness of sin).  Any believer, then, can say to any other believer, "You are forgiven.  Making amends for your sin is not necessary because Christ has already done that."

2.  SUMMARY.  The forgiveness of the punishment (or the making amends for sin) eliminates works, efforts at satisfaction that will reconcile a believer outwardly to the Church.  Forgiveness of guilt eliminates our fear before God.  It makes the conscience joyful.  It reconciles man inwardly with God.  To quote Luther:
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.
My thoughts.  Here, Luther sounds as if no earthly, reconciling action is necessary between the party who was wronged and the party who did the harm.  For example, if I gossiped about a fellow sister in Christ, I wouldn't need to go to her and say, "I'm sorry."  That is not what he means.  Understood in the context of the Catholic sacrament of penance, Luther is saying that no good work needs to be assigned by the priest and completed by the believer in order for forgiveness to be granted.  That type of reconciling action was already completed by Christ.

As I said at the beginning, no summations or conclusions will be offered until I get through the entire essay.  It is 21 paragraphs long, so it could take me awhile.  Check back for more of my notes.  Comment if you wish.  Discussion is welcome.

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