Yesterday’s and today’s posts are a summary of some of the core elements of an introduction to a forthcoming book on confession and absolution from Lutheran Press by Pastor Holger Sonntag, where he claims “in studying his modifications of the sacrament of penance one can see how Luther’s ‘reformation breakthrough’ unfolds”, and demonstrates the same. All quotes are from Pastor Sonntag unless otherwise noted, and all citations are taken directly from the introduction, and have not been checked by me. I realize the connections between this and “theology like a child” may not be readily apparent to all readers.
Other important notes and factors involved here, prevalent in Luther’s day:
- “an enumeration of all known mortal sins committed since the last confession” was required (for the 2nd work)
- “’secret’ sinners, that is those in mortal sin whose state is known only to God and themselves, ought to refrain from taking communion lest they commit another mortal sin.” (S. Th. III, qu. 80, 6)
- “the performance of some sort of temporal punishment for the sins of the penitent which had been imposed by the priest”, depended on the gravity of the sin committed (for the 3rd work)
- priests would be guilty of mortal sin for offering communion, for example, to persons known to have not received the sacrament of penance – including the fulfillment of the imposed works of satisfaction.
- “the ‘quest for a gracious God’ led to the inclusion of a petition for long life into the common prayer for forgiveness (publica absolutio) that was read by the priest after the sermon” (to do one’s part “to shorten the stay of one’s agony in purgatory”)
- concupiscence, or wrongful desire, was not understood as sin but only as an inclination to sin (CCC, para. 404-405, 1734-1736) – it was considered to be in the same category as things like disease, death, and weakness of character – these remaining “consequences” of original sin (“penalties” in Thomas: S. Th. III, qu. 69, 3) were all seen as helpful for training in godliness (for all 3 works: contrition, confession and satisfaction)
- while standard works of satisfaction given by priests merited in themselves remission for punishment, works done to gain an indulgence merited this remission due to the “treasure of the church” (a bank of good works) administered by popes and bishops (S. Th. Suppl. III, qu. 25, 2, see also the 1343 bull Unigenitus Filius Dei by pope Clement VI). Indulgences made works of satisfaction “easier”
- by becoming a Lutheran one was automatically excommunicated
- the excommunicated could not be absolved by his priest, but needed to wait until the competent authorities had lifted it, at which time works of satisfaction could commence
- excommunication, unlike acts of penance, is not an expiatory punishment, but is “medicinal”, meaning that it is not meant to be, in part, a “payment of reparations to self, neighbor, and God by doing good deeds.” It was not normally done by mere priests, and was not just a withholding of communion from the impenitent, but a severing of all communion between him and the church (to bring him to his senses) – though starting in 1418 (Council of Constance) a person could associate with the excommunicated again
Who or what will finally save me in the last judgment? Based on the information above, it does not seem unfair to say that for Rome, “faith in the divine mercy” means not the free forgiveness of all sins for Christ’s sake, but “God’s gracious acceptance of man’s works of virtue to blot out man’s sins” (Sonntag, summing up Chemnitz, Examen, 438). Really, is the perfect love required in contrition and the following acts of penance possible for a person even after the word of absolution? As Pastor Sonntag writes, “love seeking to fulfill the demands of the church, not trust in the gospel of Christ, was the common denominator of all such contributions of the sinner “ and “[the] human contribution to confession rendered its practice perpetually uncertain both as to the ultimate effectiveness of the works prescribed by the church’s human authority (“How can I be certain that these particular works will do the job, given that none of this is found in God’s Word?”) and the quality of their performance (“How can I be certain that I was in the right state of mind when doing what is required of me, have I given an accurate description of the circumstances of all my (mortal) sins, so that the priest’s evaluation would be accurate?”)”. As Chemnitz argued following the Council of Trent (which did not condemn or even discourage the practices above, save the excesses on indulgence sales), “because the relation between faith and God’s certain word of promise was denied, faith, understood as assent to doctrines taught by the church, needed to be made valid by man’s uncertain love” (Sonntag, summing up Chemnitz, cf. Examen, 181, 190-192)
And for consciences like Luther’s – which were particularly attuned to both the teachings/requirements of God’s Law and those of the Church – this could only mean the necessary emergence of the doctrinal distinctions of the Lutheran Reformation- for the knowledge of the grace of God in Christ obliterates categories that obscure it. As Pastor Sonntag sums things up: “one realizes that Luther became the ‘Lutheran’ and Reformer of the church he was in the context of his wrestling with the traditional sacrament of penance in light of God’s biblical Word.”
In sum: “God… wants his free – that is, free for man, but costly for Christ – gifts to be received simply by faith in the gospel.”