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.'"