30 August 2007

The Reformation of Penance

I don't have the reference ready to hand, but Philip Melanchthon somewhere assessed and summarized Dr. Luther's entire contribution as a reformation of the Sacrament of Penance. I've always appreciated that comment, especially with reference to Individual Confession and Holy Absolution, that means of grace and forgiveness which many Lutherans have not prized in the way that Luther and the Lutheran Confessions everywhere do. But, in studying the Smalcald Articles recently, I've gained a better and even broader appreciation for Melanchthon's take on Luther's Reformation. Specifically, I've been struck by Luther's discussion of true Repentance in pointed contrast to "the false penance of the papists." This is in this Third Part of his Smalcald Articles, subsection 3. What Luther there has provided, it seems to me, is really the best and most concise summary of what the Lutheran Reformation was all about.

I'm not going to type out the entire section, since anyone can find it in his or her own edition of the Book of Concord easily enough, but here are some of the more salient points from the beginning and toward the end of Luther's confession concerning Repentance (from the Kolb-Wengert edition of The Book of Concord, Fortress Press 2000, pages 312-318). It seems especially appropriate in light of the Feast of the Beheading of St. John the Baptist, which was celebrated yesterday. It also strikes me as quite apropos to current discussions of preaching.

"The New Testament retains this office of the Law and teaches it, as Paul does and says, in Romans 1: 'The wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all' people. Also Romans 3: 'So that the whole world may be held accountable to God' and 'no human being will be justified in His sight'; and Christ says in John 16: the Holy Spirit 'will convict the world of sin.'

"Now this is the thunderbolt of God, by means of which He destroys both the open sinner and the false saint and allows no one to be right but drives the whole lot of them into terror and despair. This is the hammer of which Jeremiah speaks: 'My word is a hammer that breaks a rock in pieces.' This is not 'active contrition,' a contrived remorse, but 'passive contrition,' true affliction of the heart, suffering, and the pain of death.

"This is really what it means to begin true repentance. Here a person must listen to a judgment such as this: 'You are all of no account - whether you appear publicly to be sinners or saints. You must all become something different from what you are now and act in a different way, no matter who you are now and what you do. You may be as great, wise, powerful, and holy as you could want, but here no one is righteous, etc.

"To this office of the Law, however, the New Testament immediately adds the consoling promise of grace through the Gospel. This we should believe. As Christ says in Mark 1: 'Repent, and believe in the good news.' This is the same as, 'Become and act otherwise, and believe my promise.' Even before Jesus, John the Baptizer was called a preacher of repentance - but for the purpose of the forgiveness of sins. That is, John was to convict them all and turn them into sinners, so that they would know how they stood before God and would recognize themselves as lost people. In this way they were to be prepared for the Lord to receive grace, to await and accept from Him forgiveness of sins. Jesus Himself says in Luke 24: 'You must preach repentance and forgiveness of sins in My name to the whole world.'

"But where the Law exercises such an office alone, without the addition of the Gospel, there is death and hell, and the human creature must despair, like Saul and Judas. As St. Paul says: 'The Law kills through sin.' Moreover, the Gospel does not give consolation and forgiveness in only one way, but rather through the Word, Sacraments, and the like, so that with God there is truly rich redemption from the great prison of sin.

"Now we must compare the false penance of the sophists with true repentance, in order that they both might be better understood.

"It was impossible for them to teach correctly about penance, because they do not recognize what sin really is. Instead they say that the natural powers of humankind have remained whole and uncorrupted; that reason can teach correctly and the will can rightly act according to it; that God surely give His grace if human beings do as much as is in their power, according to human free will.

"From this it must follow that they only do penance for actual sins; such as evil thoughts to which they consent (because evil impulses, lusts, and inclinations were not sin), evil words, and evil works (which the free will could well have avoided).

"They divide such penance into three parts - contrition, confession, and satisfaction - with this comfort and pledge: that the person who is truly contrite, goes to confession, and makes satisfaction by these actions merits forgiveness and pays for sins before God. In this way, they directed the people who come to penance to place confidence in their own works. From this came the phrase that was spoken from the pulpit when they recited the general confession on behalf of the people: 'Spare my life, Lord God, until I do penance and improve my life.' Here there was no Christ. Nothing was mentioned about faith, but instead people hoped to overcome and blot out sin before God with their own works. We also became priests and monks with this intention; we wanted to set ourselves against sin.

"Contrition was handled in this way: Because no one could recall every sin (particularly those committed during an entire year), they resorted to the following loophole. If unknown sins were remembered later, then a person was also to be contrite for them and confess them, etc. Meanwhile, they were commended to God's grace.

"Moreover, since no one knew how great the contrition should be in order for it to suffice before God, this consolation was offered: Whoever could not have contritio (contrition) should have attritio, what I might call a halfway or beginning contrition. For they themselves have not understood either word, and they still know as little about what is being said as I do. Such attritio was then counted as contritio when people went to confession.

"And if it happened that some said they could not repent or be sorrowful for their sins (as might happen in fornication or revenge, etc.), they were asked whether they at least wished or really desired to have contrition. If they said 'yes' (because who would say 'no,' except the devil himself?), it was considered to be contrition, and their sins were forgiven on the basis of such a good work. Here they pointed to the example fo St. Bernard.

"Here we see how blind reason gropes around in the things of God and seeks comfort in its own works, according to its own darkened opinions. It cannot consider Christ or faith. If we look at this now in the light, then such contrition is a contrived and imaginary idea. It comes from one's own powers, without faith, without knowledge of Christ. In this state, a poor sinner who reflected on this lust or revenge would at times have more likely laughed than cried - except for those truly struck down by the Law or falsely plagued by the devil with a sorrowful spirit. Otherwise, such contrition was purely hypocrisy and did not kill the desire to sin. They had to be contrite, but would rather have sinned more - had it been without consequences. . . .

"Now, there were a few who did not consider themselves guilty of any actual sins of thought, word, and deeds - such as myself and others like me, who wanted to be monks and priests in monasteries and foundations. We resisted evil thoughts with fasting, keeping vigils, praying, holding Masses, using rough clothing and beds, etc. With earnestness and intensity we desired to be holy. Still, while we slept, the hereditary, inborn evil was at work according to its nature (as St. Augustine and St. Jerome, along with others, confess). However, each one held that some of the others were so holy, as we taught, that they were without sin and full of good works. On this basis, we transferred and sold our good works to others, as exceeding what we needed to get into heaven. This is really true, and there are seals, letters, and copies available to prove it.

"Such people did not need repentance. For why did they need to be contrite since they had not consented to evil thoughts? What did they need to confess, since they had avoided evil words? For what did they need to make satisfaction, since their deeds were guiltless to the point that they could sell their excess righteousness to other poor sinners? At the time of Christ the Pharisees and scribes were such saints, too.

"At this point, the fiery angel St. John, the preacher of true repentance, comes and destroys both sides with a single thunderclap, saying, 'Repent!' The one side thinks: 'But we have already done penance.' The other thinks: 'We do not need repentance.' John says, 'All of you together repent! You here are false penitents; those over there are false saints. You all need the forgiveness of sins because you all still do not know what true sin is, let alone that you ought to repent of it or avoid it. Not one of you is any good. You are full of unbelief, stupidity, and ignorance regarding God and His will. For God is present over there, in the One from whose fullness we all must receive grace upon grace and without whom no human being can be justified before God. Therefore, if you want to repent, then repent in the right way. Your penance does not do it. And you hypocrites, who think you do not need repentance, you brood of vipers, who assured you that you will escape the wrath to come, etc.'

"St. Paul also preaches this way in Romans 3 and says, 'No one has understanding; no one is righteous; no one seeks God; no one shows kindness, not even one; all have turned aside and become worthless.' And in Acts 17: 'Now God commands all people everywhere to repent.' He says, 'all people' - no single human being is excluded. This repentance teaches us to recognize sin: namely, that we are all lost, neither hide nor hair of us is good, and we must become absolutely new and different people.

"This repentance is not fragmentary or paltry - like the kind that does penance for actual sins - nor is it uncertain like that kind. It does not debate over what is a sin or what is not a sin. Instead, it simply lumps everything together and says, 'Everything is pure sin with us. What would we want to spend so much time investigating, dissecting, or distinguishing?' Therefore, here as well, contrition is not uncertain, because there remains nothing that we might consider a 'good' with which to pay for sin. Rather, there is plain, certain despair concerning all that we are, think, say, or do, etc.

"Similarly, such confession also cannot be false, uncertain, or fragmentary. All who confess that everything is pure sin with them embrace all sins, allow no exceptions, and do not forget a single one. Thus, satisfaction can never be uncertain either. For it consists not in our uncertain, sinful works but rather in the suffering and blood of the innocent 'Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world.'"


haughty said...

What evidence suggests to you that many Lutherans don't prize "the means of grace and forgiveness ...in the way that Luther and the Lutheran Confessions do"?

Isn't that setting Luther or the Confessionals up as idols. Luther like Paul would call himself chief of sinners. We are to be imitators of Christ not of Luther. Eph 4:31-5:1

The same Holy Spirit which convicted Luther of his abject sinfulness also holds the mirror to our face and we see ourselves as vile sinners in need of a savior, daily and always.

I do agree most people don't think of themselves as really bad sinners. I haven't kill anyone. I don't steal or do drugs. Yet we are no different then the meanest criminal. We delude ourselves by saying "At my church only the pure sweet gospel of Jesus is preached". But we use that gospel as a way to despise our brothers ( sheep and shepherds alike). Isn't that SOP for the conventions. Theologians tearing one another apart for the sake of the gospel. Christ is not honored. Christ is not lifted up. I pray that we , all of us fall on our faces and repent of the the wounds we afflict on the body of Christ.

Jn 9:4 As long as it is day, we must do the work of him who sent me. Night is coming, when no one can work. 5

Rev. Rick Stuckwisch said...

Perhaps my comment was misunderstood. It was not aimed as a criticism at anyone in particular. I was reflecting upon the fact, which any number of others have noted over the past several generations, and which anyone can observe for himself (or herself) in the present day, that Lutherans by and large have not made a regular practice of going to Individual Confesion and Absolution. Thanks be to God that it has gained some ground in the life of the Church in recent years, yet it still remains the case that many lifelong Lutherans go to their graves without ever going to their pastor for confession and absolution.

I have no desire to make an idol of Dr. Luther, nor of any man. However, the Fifth Chief Part is not Luther's invention, but Christ's gift. It is a means of grace and forgiveness, and we prize it best by availing ourselves of it.

I apologize for my lack of clarity, and I thank you for your comments. May the Lord bring each and all of us daily to repentance, and sustain us always by His grace.

Rev. Rick Stuckwisch said...

Just a couple further thoughts, for the sake of greater clarity.

It is true that all of us need to be called, daily, to repentance. That includes pastors, such as myself, even though pastors, in particular, are required by their office to preach repentance unto others, unto faith in the forgiveness of sins.

I am grateful for brothers who have been helpful to me in the past, in remembering that, even when I must speak the Law of God to others, when I must speak the truth in love, whether it be in the context of synodical politics, within my family, or in my vocation as a called and ordained servant of the Word, it remains the case that I, too, must repent and be returned to God in Christ.

I hope it has been clear, for example, in my comments on the recent LCMS Convention, that I do not regard anyone as "righteous" in their own works and efforts; nor do I regard those with whom I disagree as my "enemies," but as fellow sinners, redeemed by Christ and cleansed by water and His Word.

To the topic of Individual Confession and Absolution, I should have noted previously that Lutherans treasure and confess this gift of Christ primarily for the sake of the Gospel, the forgiveness of sins. It is true that regular self-examination, such as the Small Catechism teaches, does assist us in knowing our sin and our need for a Savior. But the emphasis in Confession and Absolution is mostly upon the Word of Absolution, the external voice of the Gospel, by which we are forgiven before God in heaven. Luther's admonition to confession in the Large Catechism is quite good on this point, which stands in striking contrast to the teaching and practice of the Roman Church in his day.

Finally, on the matter of following and imitating our fathers in Christ, it is true that we always fix our eyes on Jesus, the Author and Perfecter of our faith. There is salvation in no one else, nor is there any other man, in heaven or on earth, who is without sin. However, the Holy Scriptures do instruct us to hear and heed and follow the example of our fathers in Christ, our pastors and teachers in the faith.

St. Paul says, by way of one example, "Be imitators of me, just as I also am of Christ" (2 Cor. 11:1). And the Epistle to the Hebrews, as we heard this past Sunday, admonishes: "Remember those who led you, who spoke the Word of God to you; and considering the result of their conduct, imitate their faith" (Heb. 13:7).

We honor Dr. Luther, and we give careful attention to his teaching and example, not as though he were perfect or without fault (he was not), but because he taught the Word of God faithfully and well, by the grace of God, and the Lord has served His Church through that teaching and confession of the faith. With respect to the Lutheran Confessions, we follow them and make them our own, because they are faithful and true expositions of the Word of God. In fact, Lutheran pastors swear to this practice, for this reason, in their ordination vows, which are solemnly made in the presence of the Holy Triune God and His Church.

That is true, also, in the case of what the Lutheran Confessions have to say and teach concerning the practice of Confession and Holy Absolution. And, again, most importantly, the goal of this teaching and practice is not the work of man, but the grace of God in Christ, the forgiveness of sins by His precious Gospel.

haughty said...

My apologies for coming across so harsh. I grieve when I see my shepherds bickering. You received the sorrow I feel for a church body, at war with itself, used by God to breath the grace of God ( salvation - by the means of grace ) into the lives of us poor sinners who where lost without food or a shepherd.

As you can tell I have come from outside the Lutheran church. While I admire and have great respect for Herr Doktor Luther and the teachings God worked thru him to point us to the cross, I am dismayed at the fighting and worry about the flock scattering.

Many of the new Lutherans have come into Lutheranism and just want to know "Is this grace for real and will it last?"

Friendly debate is one thing but consigning whole congregations to "on the path to Hell" seems a bit ... overboard. I greatly respect your willingness to disagree with other pastors over church polity and doctrine with mercy and grace.

Rev. Rick Stuckwisch said...

No need for apologies, but thank you for your follow-up comments, and for your kind words. You didn't come across too strongly the first time, but I appreciate your further remarks very much.

The Lord be with you, bless you and keep you in His grace, mercy and peace, for Jesus' sake.