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date: 19 August 2017

Penance, Confession, Forgiveness, and Reconciliation in Martin Luther’s Context and Writings

Summary and Keywords

Martin Luther vigorously opposed the traditional sacrament of penance and the theology upon which it was based, arguing that they had no scriptural warrant and that they promoted a troubled conscience, works righteousness, and clerical tyranny. As Luther developed his evangelical soteriology, he dismantled the entire late medieval penitential system, seeking to provide for himself and others what he believed this system lacked: an enduring sense of forgiveness of sin. Luther believed that justification by faith offered this certainty of absolution. Still, despite Luther’s opposition to the sacrament of penance, he was a strong supporter of a reformed version of private confession, arguing that it allowed the consoling promises of the Word to be applied directly to the troubled conscience. Owing to Luther’s support for the practice, Lutherans soon developed an evangelical version of private confession that appeared in the vast majority of Lutheran church ordinances as a mandatory rite. However, there was disagreement among Lutherans as to the theological justification for this new rite, with some arguing that it was a sacrament, while others, including Luther, maintained that it was not. This disagreement contributed to an important debate about private confession in the 1530s, the so-called Nürnberg Absolution Controversy, in which Andreas Osiander sought to make a compelling case for the sacramental status of private confession. Luther was directly involved in this debate, and while he shared Osiander’s enthusiasm for private confession, he disagreed with Osiander’s theology of the power of keys. Luther’s view won out, but Osiander raised important questions about the theological justification for Lutheran private confession as a mandatory rite.

Keywords: Martin Luther, penance, private confession, general confession, absolution, forgiveness, indulgences, power of the keys, Andreas Osiander

Luther’s Opposition to the Sacrament of Penance

Martin Luther had many sharp words for the traditional sacrament of penance. Owing to its emphasis on contrition (i.e., perfect sorrow for sin motivated by the love of God),1 the necessity of making a complete or full confession to one’s priest (i.e., one in which the penitent confessed all mortal sins), the requirement of works of satisfaction or penances, and the clergy’s sole possession of the power of the keys (i.e., the authority to bind and loose sins that Christ entrusted to the Apostle Peter, Matt. 16:17–19, and later to the disciples, Matt. 18:18), he came to believe that it promoted a troubled conscience, works righteousness, and clerical tyranny. He also came to believe that it had no support in scripture and was therefore an especially pernicious example of the Menschenlehre (“man-made doctrine”) that he thought had infiltrated the church. In a number of early treatises, including the Ninety-Five Theses (1517), A Sermon on Indulgence and Grace (1518), A Brief Instruction on How One Should Confess (1519), and Sermon on the Sacrament of Penance (1519), Luther dismantled the traditional sacrament of penance and the theology upon which it rested, insisting that the very notion of penance—that is, that sinners had to render satisfaction for the remaining penalty of sin—was deeply unbiblical. His critique of papal authority, indulgences, and purgatory followed from this opposition to the notion of penance.

In The Babylonian Captivity of the Church (1520) Luther asserted, “The promise of penance … has been transformed into the most oppressive despotism, being used to establish a [clerical] sovereignty that is more than merely temporal.”2 In On Confession: Whether the Pope Has Power To Command It (1521), the Reformer accused the pope of using the sacrament of penance to invade vulnerable lay consciences with his false gospel of human achievement. He castigated the pope as the Antichrist who “breaks open the bridal chamber of Christ and makes all Christian souls into whores.”3

Luther’s own experience of the “dark side” of sacramental confession clearly played an important role in his Reformation breakthroughs. In a “Table Talk” from 1533 he said that he had become “a poor wretch” (ein armer Tropf) as a monk, owing to the burdens of the sacrament of penance.4 His development of justification by faith was motivated, at least in part, by a desire to find a remedy for the struggles of conscience he believed were occasioned by the sacrament and its inability to provide lasting certainty of forgiveness to human conscience, including his own. Through his study of scripture, the Church Fathers (especially Augustine), and certain medieval mystics, Luther came to believe that God neither needed nor expected penance, and that human beings were too sinful to contribute anything to their salvation; instead, God required only faith in the divine promise of forgiveness in Christ as a sheer gift.

Still, it is important to acknowledge that Luther’s evangelical theology was forged in the context of his wrestling with the late medieval penitential system. Even though he came to challenge the very foundations of this system, his alternative, justification by faith, was clearly shaped by his deep engagement with it. In For the Investigating of Truth and the Consoling of Fearful Consciences (1518),5 Luther asserts, “Therefore it is certain that sins are loosed if you believe they have been loosed, because the promise of Christ the Savior is certain.”6 The specific promise in question here is found in Matthew 16:19, where Christ promises Peter that whatever he binds and looses on earth will be bound and loosed in heaven—a key text for the traditional sacrament of penance. Even as Luther rejected this sacrament in its traditional form, his thinking continued to be defined by it, especially by the dominical promise upon which it was based; Luther believed he had discovered a better way of accessing this promise and receiving its blessing of divine forgiveness, faith.

Luther’s theology was also shaped by the sacrament of penance in another way. His opposition to indulgences and to a whole host of traditional devotional practices was motivated in large part by his belief that these practices sought to relieve the sinner from being truly sorrowful—truly contrite—for sin, and from bearing divinely imposed suffering along with all the spiritual good it could effect. Luther followed Erasmus, who in the Novum Instrumentum had challenged the traditional interpretation of Matthew 4:17 (“Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near”), which had been taken as a scriptural warrant for the sacrament of penance. Rather than translating the verse as “do penance” (poenitentiam agite) Erasmus rendered it “be penitent,” thus placing the emphasis on inward contrition rather than on external participation in a churchly rite.

Luther had great sympathy for Erasmus’s interpretation of Matthew 4:17. He thought that God required true sorrow for sin from human beings, which was a major cause of his Anfechtungen (“temptations” or “assaults”), for he could never believe that he could achieve this perfect sorrow through his own efforts. The crucial difference between his theology and much—though certainly not all—late medieval theology was that he believed contrition, like salvation itself, was entirely a gift of divine grace.7 But this belief did not diminish the importance that Luther attached to contrition, for he believed that the requirement of perfect sorrow for sin confronted sinners with their spiritual impotence and also exposed the superficiality of much of the popular piety of his day. Luther was a preacher of penitence even as he was a preacher of grace. Theses 1 to 3 of the famous Ninety-Five Theses read as follows:

When our Lord and Master Jesus Christ said, ‘Repent’ [Matt. 4:17], he willed the entire life of believers to be one of repentance.

This word cannot be understood as referring to the sacrament of penance, that is, confession and satisfaction, as administered by the clergy.

Yet it does not mean solely inner repentance; such inner repentance is worthless unless it produces various outward mortifications of the flesh.8

One could say that the Reformation began with a call to true repentance, both inward and outward; in this sense Luther was very much in step with the spirit of penitential reform that was so widespread among the devout in late medieval Christianity.

Luther’s Version of Private Confession

It is important to emphasize that Luther’s experience of confession had not been uniformly negative; he also experienced consolation through the sacrament, especially via Johann von Staupitz, his spiritual mentor.9 This fact helps to explain why, in spite of his opposition to the sacrament of penance, he was actually a strong advocate of private confession. He thought a properly reformed version of the traditional rite provided an extremely effective way of applying the Word and its promises to the individual conscience, and thus of conveying the vitally pro me aspect of the gospel to believers. In 1522, when his colleague Andreas Bodenstein von Karlstadt sought to abolish private confession in Wittenberg, Luther returned from hiding in the Wartburg and declared in a sermon:

I will allow no one to take private confession from me and would not give it in exchange for all the wealth of the world. For I know what consolation and strength it has given me. No one knows what it can give unless he has struggled much and frequently with the devil. I would have been strangled by the devil long ago if confession had not sustained me.10

Luther wanted no one to be forced to confession, but neither would he allow anyone to deny him access to it. “We must have much absolution,” he argued, “so that we may strengthen our fearful consciences and despondent hearts against the devil. Therefore no one should forbid confession.”11 He conceded that those with strong faith had no need of private confession: they could simply receive absolution directly from heaven. But he observed that few, including himself, possessed such unwavering trust in God.

Owing in large part to Luther’s strong support for the practice, Lutherans developed a reformed version of private confession that appeared in nearly every evangelical church order of the 16th century. This new rite was directly influenced by Luther’s prescriptions in his Green Thursday Sermon (1523)12 and his Form for the Mass and Communion (1523).13 Drawing on these sources and others, Luther and his fellow evangelical reformers developed a version of private confession that consisted of the following parts: an examination of faith (i.e., knowledge of the catechism) and outward moral conduct, an acknowledgment of one’s depravity, and a voluntary confession of private sins followed by pastoral counsel and absolution. Gone was the traditional distinction between mortal sins and venial sins. Gone also was the priestly examination of conscience and the concomitant requirement for a full or complete confession. There was no attempt to assess degrees of sorrow for sin, and there was no assigning of penances to reduce time in purgatory, as purgatory itself was rejected,14 along with the entirety of penitential piety, including indulgences. The confessor was no longer a judge in the courtroom of conscience; he was now a servant (Diener) of the Word. In fact, any Christian could act as confessor, because the authority to forgive now resided in the Word, not in a person; the power of the keys belonged to the whole church and not exclusively to its clergy, who simply exercised it on behalf of the community of the baptized.15 For Luther, the crucial corollary of this understanding of authority was that believers could be certain of forgiveness, because the divine promise to forgive was utterly trustworthy; God could not lie.

In spite of Luther’s support for this reformed version of private confession, he was ambiguous about the sacramental status of the new rite. Throughout The Babylonian Captivity of the Church he had treated confession as a third sacrament, but then reversed himself in the conclusion. He wrote:

… it has seemed proper to restrict the name of sacrament to those promises which have signs attached to them. The remainder, not being bound to signs, are bare promises. Hence there are, strictly speaking, but two sacraments in the church of God–baptism and the bread … The sacrament of penance, which I added to these two, lacks the divinely instituted visible sign, and is, as I have said, nothing but a way and a return to baptism.16

For Luther, private confession was always a kind of pseudo-sacrament, a means of return to the inexhaustible supply of grace one received in baptism. Private confession was salutary, but not sacramental.

The Nürnberg Absolution Controversy

Luther’s equivocation on the sacramental status of private confession had important consequences for the plight of the new practice in the early decades of the German Reformation. While most Lutheran reformers supported the new rite, there was no consensus as to its theological justification. Luther had said in 1520 that penance was not a sacrament, but in the 1530 Apology of the Augsburg Confession, Melanchthon asserted that it was,17 a position held by several other important reformers.18 In keeping with the Augsburg Confession,19 most Lutheran church orders required confession before participation in the Lord’s Supper,20 but, also in keeping with the Augsburg Confession, few referred to it explicitly as a sacrament, even though the Augsburg Confession implied that it was a sacrament.21 Lutheran private confession thus became institutionalized before evangelical theologians had settled on a coherent and unified theological explanation for it. This fact contributed directly to the German Reformation’s most important debate about private confession, the so-called Nürnberg Absolution Controversy, in which Luther played a key role.22 As no other debate of the early Reformation, the Nürnberg conflict revealed both the defining concerns and unresolved problems of Luther’s mature version of evangelical private confession.

The controversy began when Andreas Osiander, a leading preacher in Nürnberg, sought to oppose the practice of general confession and absolution, which he considered an abuse of the power of the keys. He and Johannes Brenz excluded general confession and absolution from the church ordinance they drew up to govern the church life of Nürnberg and its surrounding environs, and this constituted a liturgical innovation in the imperial city. (The 1533 Brandenburg-Nürnberg Church Order became one of the most influential guides for worship and belief in early modern Lutheranism.23) Osiander also preached against general confession on several occasions, despite the Nürnberg city council’s repeated warnings to the contrary.24 (The city council supported both general and private confession, insisting that both had a legitimate role to play in evangelical Christianity.) Osiander was concerned that lay people would not attend private confession if general confession were practiced, because they would think the individual encounter with a pastor redundant. The laity would thus forfeit the great consolation that private absolution offered, and the clergy would lose a crucial opportunity to promote moral discipline. Osiander had good reason to be concerned: all extant sources indicate that Nürnbergers were not going to confession, despite the fact that the church order required it.25

In an attempt to gain further support for its position, the Nürnberg city council wrote to Wittenberg for advice. In a letter dated April 18, 1533, Luther, along with Melanchthon, recommended that the imperial city should retain both forms of absolution because both constituted a valid means of preaching the gospel. The Wittenberg reformers wrote, “The preaching of the holy gospel is also in essence an absolution in which forgiveness of sins is proclaimed to many people in common and publicly or to one person alone, whether in public or in secret.”26 (The Augsburg Confession suggested the same.27) Because there was scriptural precedent for proclaiming the good news to both crowds and individuals, Luther and Melanchthon argued that it was appropriate for evangelical churches to practice both general and private absolution. Even if some who heard general absolution did not receive it in faith, this did not constitute adequate grounds for abolishing it. Absolution of any kind was always dependent upon faith for its efficacy. The Wittenberg reformers asserted that “all absolution, whether general or private, must be understood to require faith to help those who believe in it.”28 Forgiveness in Christ still had to be preached, regardless of whether those who heard it believed it or not.

The Wittenberg reformers shared Osiander’s concern to protect private absolution. As in Nürnberg, the new rite was part of the mandatory preparation for communion in their churches, the only difference being that Wittenbergers actually participated in it.29 In their letter to the Nürnberg city council Luther and Melanchthon displayed a clear preference for private absolution because of the way it allowed for the gospel to be applied to the individual conscience. In fact, the Wittenberg reformers could not conceive of general absolution apart from private absolution. According to them, it was the experience of latter that taught the laity how to receive the former properly: “Very few people would know how to use or receive general absolution if they did not remember … that they should receive general absolution as if it were for each individual and that the actual office and work of the gospel is assuredly to forgive sin by grace.”30 For Luther and Melanchthon, general absolution was valid, but only in relation to private absolution, clearly the more desirable medium of divine forgiveness from their point of view.

The Wittenberg opinion did little to mollify Osiander. At stake for him in this debate was nothing less than the status of private absolution as a third sacrament. According to Osiander, general absolution was an abuse of this status, and therefore it had to be opposed. In a lengthy treatise entitled On the Keys,31 Osiander articulated his argument that, like baptism and the Lord’s Supper, absolution was a divinely instituted means of grace accompanied by a divinely specified sign—in this case, the laying on of hands32—that could be applied only to individuals. Other means of grace, but not absolution, were intended for use with crowds in order to inform people about God’s wrath and mercy. Absolution—or the loosing key—was a sacrament, and for Osiander this meant something very specific.33

According to the Nürnberg preacher, a pastor’s word of forgiveness was valid regardless of the faith or moral condition of the person who received it. As a sacrament, clerical absolution reliably conveyed what it signified, God’s judgment or forgiveness.34 According to Osiander, God did not simply offer grace to the penitent through clerical absolution, as the Nürnberg preacher’s opponents—including Luther—maintained; God actually communicated grace to the individual, quite apart from her preparation or desire to receive it.35 The keys worked ex opere operato.36 The confessor had considerable power in this scheme, and with it, a responsibility to exercise his office properly.37 Osiander therefore concluded that a pastor should pronounce absolution only to those whom God wanted to forgive, and the only way to determine this with certainty was to examine each penitent privately. Those who declared or received absolution in an unworthy manner would be punished by God for their abuse of his sacrament. As Osiander explained, “If the person who is absolved does not have sufficient sorrow or faith, the keys do not for this reason lie or deceive. What is loosed on earth is certainly loosed in heaven. If the absolved person remains without sorrow or faith … he will be damned on account of his hardness and unbelief. But the sin from which he has been released is truly forgiven him.”38 For Osiander, general absolution simply posed too great a risk of abuse of the keys; he was not willing to jeopardize the souls of pastors and penitents by allowing it to continue in Nürnberg.

Throughout his treatise on the keys, Osiander maintained that Luther agreed with his understanding of absolution. The Nürnberg preacher frequently referred to Luther’s treatise, The Keys (1530), to support his own argument. There are passages in Luther’s work that can be read to buttress Osiander’s case, but there are many more that oppose it.39 Throughout Luther’s The Keys, he repeatedly stated that absolution had to be received by faith to be efficacious for the individual. The Wittenberg Reformer explained:

The one who does not accept what the keys give receives, of course, nothing. But the keys do not fail on this account. Many do not believe the gospel, but this does not mean that the gospel fails or lies. A king gives you a castle. If you do not accept it the king has not failed or lied. Rather, you have deceived yourself and the fault is yours. The king certainly gave it.40

Here Luther clearly maintained that the keys gave nothing to the person who lacked faith.41 While he insisted, with Osiander, that the objective working of the keys was in no way dependent on faith, he also taught, against Osiander, that the actual appropriation by an individual Christian of what the keys offer absolutely required faith. As we have seen, Luther had also clearly stated in his letter to the Nürnberg city council—which Osiander had heard read—that faith was essential to reception of absolution, a position he had championed over a decade earlier in his Sermon on the Sacrament of Penance (1519).42

The Nürnberg city council sent a copy of Osiander’s treatise on the keys to the Wittenberg theologians, asking them for their opinion of it.43 On October 8, Luther confirmed in a letter to the council that he and his colleagues had diligently studied the treatise.44 In the same letter, Luther informed the council that he had also written directly to Osiander,45 and that he hoped his letter would help restore peace and unity among the Nürnberg clergy, as he believed all were motivated by noble concerns.46 Luther again expressed his strong support for private absolution, although he maintained that Christians could obtain forgiveness outside of an individual encounter with their pastor.47 (As later became clear, Osiander believed the same, although he thought private absolution provided the surest source of forgiveness for serious sins. Osiander’s central concern was about clergy’s using the keys properly.48) Luther also repeated his support for general absolution and the necessity of faith to receive all forgiveness.49 Such faith was not based on a person’s worthiness; it was simply the way a person accepted or said “Yes” to the offer of forgiveness.50

Luther responded to Osiander’s claim that general absolution constituted an unworthy exercise of the keys by distinguishing between Predigen (“preaching”) and Jurisdiction (“jurisdiction”.51) Luther conceded that evangelical clergy had authority over open or public sins, but not over hidden or secret ones. Pastors could bind the latter only through the preaching of the gospel, in which case the Word, if met with unbelief, effectively retained the sins of the unbeliever (or loosed the sins of the believer). The same preaching could also extend forgiveness to a person separated from the Lord’s Supper because of open sin, provided the person had faith. (Luther argued that such a person should then seek formal reconciliation with the church.52) Luther would not allow any human being, be he pope or evangelical preacher, to enter the inner sanctum (i.e., the conscience) of the individual Christian; here only the Word was to reign. The Word was the primary agent in Luther’s version of private confession: it alone bound or loosed sin and also created the faith necessary to receive the forgiveness it mediated.

Despite Luther’s repeated interventions, the controversy over absolution continued for several years in Nürnberg and was only finally resolved in the mid-1540s, when the city took decisive action toward requiring private confession, although it continued to allow general confession, much to Osiander’s chagrin.53 Luther entered the debate at least one more time, providing another written recommendation to the city council in 1536 in which he repeated his earlier position about the validity of general absolution and the condition of faith.

While Osiander’s theology of the keys was rejected, largely because it sounded too sacerdotal to evangelical ears, it did raise important and legitimate concerns about Lutheran private confession, especially the concern that Lutherans had yet to provide a plausible theological defense for it as a mandatory practice. Osiander also drew attention to the practical difficulty of attracting people to private confession while general confession was available and was valid.

Luther was in favor of mandatory private confession for communicants, although he wanted the actual confession of secret sins within the new rite to be voluntary. He justified the examination of faith and conduct as being necessary to ensure worthy reception of the Lord’s Supper.54 He could not provide a similarly compelling reason for the second part of the evangelical rite, private confession of sin followed by private clerical absolution. Had Luther believed that absolution was a sacrament, he would have been able to set the new rite on a firmer theological footing. But he thought scripture taught otherwise, and he consistently resisted locating the authority to forgive sin in any human being, cleric or not. This meant that Luther could provide no strictly theological rationale for a Christian to prefer private confession over general confession, or even over confession to a fellow brother or sister in Christ, for all conveyed the same grace. Nevertheless, mandatory private confession did become a prominent feature of evangelical religious life in the early modern period,55 although largely for pastoral and political reasons.

Review of the Literature

The best treatment of the late medieval sacrament of penance remains Tentler’s Sin and Confession on the Eve of the Reformation (1977), which also contains a brief treatment of Luther’s response to the sacrament. There are a number of older and still valuable treatments of Luther’s theology of penance and confession (see Fischer, Roth, Klein, and Bezzel in the bibliography), along several more recent examinations of specific aspects of this theology, especially in the Ninety-Five Theses (see Bagchi, Leppin, and Hamm). There are also recent efforts to commend the early modern Lutheran version of private confession to modern-day Lutherans (see Pless). Rittgers has engaged Luther’s theology of penance and confession most thoroughly of late, setting this theology within several contexts: late medieval penitential theology and practice and its alleged burdensome nature; Luther’s overall evangelical theology, especially his theology of salvation and suffering; other reformers’ theology of penance, confession, and the keys; and the larger social, political, and cultural trends of Luther’s day. Hamm continues to examine important lines of continuity and discontinuity between Luther and his late medieval inheritance with respect to penance, grace, and even indulgences, and there is still more work to be done on these and related topics in Luther’s theology. Perhaps the most important area for future research, though, is the way that Lutheran private confession, which owes it origins largely to Luther himself, influenced the politics and piety of early modern Lutheranism.

Further Reading

Bagchi, David. “Luther’s Ninety-Five Theses and the Contemporary Criticism of Indulgences.” In Promissory Notes on the Treasury of Merits: Indulgences in Late Medieval Europe. Edited by R. N. Swanson, 331–355. Leiden, The Netherlands and Boston: Brill, 2006.Find this resource:

Bayer, Oswald. Promissio: Geschichte der reformatorischen Wende in Luthers Theologie. Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 1971.Find this resource:

Bayer, Oswald. Martin Luther’s Theology: A Contemporary Interpretation. Translated by Thomas H. Trapp. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2008.Find this resource:

Bezzel, Ernst. Frei zum Eingeständis: Geschichte und Praxis der evangelischen Einzelbeichte. Stuttgart: Calwer, 1982. See 11–25.Find this resource:

Fischer, Emil. Zur Geschichte der evangelischen Beichte, vol. I: Die katholische Beichtpraxis bei Beginn der Reformation und Luthers Stellung dazu in den Anfängen seiner Wirksamkeit. Studien zur Geschichte der Theologie und der Kirche 8:2. Leipzig: Dieterich, 1902.Find this resource:

Fischer, Emil. Zur Geschichte der evangelischen Beichte, vol. II: Niedergang und Neubelebung des Beichtinstituts in Wittenberg in den Anfängen der Reformation. Studien zur Geschichte der Theologie und der Kirche 9:4. Leipzig: Dieterich, 1903.Find this resource:

Hamm, Berndt. “Die 95 Thesen—ein reformatorischer Text im Zusammenhang der frühen Busstheologie Martin Luthers.” In Der frühe Luther: Etappen reformatorischer Neuorientierung. Edited by Berndt Hamm, 90–114. Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2010. English translation: “The Ninety-Five Theses: A Reformation Text in the Context of Luther’s Early Theology of Repentance.” In The Early Luther: Stages in a Reformation Reorientation. Edited by Berndt Hamm, translated by Martin J. Lohrmann, 85–109. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2010.Find this resource:

Hamm, Berndt. Ablass und Reformation: Erstaunliche Kohärenzen. Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2016.Find this resource:

Klein, Laurentius. Evangelisch-Lutherische Beichte: Lehre und Praxis. Paderborn: Bonifacius-Druckerei, 1961. See 11–81.Find this resource:

Pless, John. “Confession and Absolution.” Lutheran Quarterly 30.1 (2016): 28–42.Find this resource:

Leppin, Volker. “‘Omnen vitam fidelium penitentiam esse voluit’–Zur Aufnahme mystischer Traditionen in Luthers erster Ablassthese.” Archiv für Reformationsgeschichte/Archive for Reformation History 93 (2002): 7–25.Find this resource:

Rittgers, Ronald K.The Reformation of the Keys: Confession, Conscience, and Authority in Sixteenth-Century Germany. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2004.Find this resource:

Rittgers, Ronald K. “Anxious Penitents and the Appeal of the Reformation: Ozment and the Historiography of Confession.” In Piety and Family in Early Modern Europe: Essays in Honour of Steven Ozment. Edited by Benjamin Kaplan and Marc Forster, 50–69. Aldershot, U.K.: Ashgate, 2005.Find this resource:

Rittgers, Ronald K. “Luther’s Reformation of Private Confession.” Lutheran Quarterly 19.3 (2005): 312–331. Reprinted in The Pastoral Luther: Essays on Luther’s Practical Theology. Edited by Timothy J. Wengert, 211–230. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2009.Find this resource:

Rittgers, Ronqald K. “Private Confession and the ‘Lutheranization’ of Sixteenth-Century Nördlingen.” Sixteenth-Century Journal 36.4 (2005): 1063–1085.Find this resource:

Rittgers, Ronald K. “Embracing the ‘True Relic’ of Christ: Suffering, Penance, and Private Confession in the Thought of Martin Luther.” In The New History of Penance. Edited by Abigail Firey, 377–393. Boston and Leiden, The Netherlands: Brill, 2008.Find this resource:

Rittgers, Ronald K.The Reformation of Suffering: Pastoral Theology and Lay Piety in Late Medieval and Early Modern Germany. Oxford Studies in Historical Theology. Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 2012.Find this resource:

Roth, Eric. Die Privatbeichte und Schlüsselgewalt in der Theologie der Reformatoren. Gütersloh: C. Bertelsmann, 1952.Find this resource:

Rupp, E. Gordon. “Luther’s Ninety-Five Theses and the Theology of the Cross.” In Luther for an Ecumenical Age: Essays in Commemoration of the 450th Anniversary of the Reformation. Edited by Carl S. Meyer, 67–81. St. Louis: Concordia, 1967.Find this resource:

Tentler, T. N.Sin and Confession on the Eve of the Reformation. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1977.Find this resource:


(1.) It should be noted that late medieval penitential theology frequently allowed for attrition, or imperfect sorrow for sin motivated by the fear of punishment, which the confessor’s word of absolution would transform into contrition.

(2.) WA 6:544, 12–13; LW 36:83.

(3.) WA 8:151–152, 6–8.

(4.) WA TR 1:269, 17–19, no. 582 from 1533.

(5.) On the importance of Pro veritate inquirenda et timoratis conscientiis consolandis in Luther’s theology, and especially its emphasis on certainty of forgiveness via faith in the divine promise, see Bayer, Promissio: Geschichte der reformatorischen Wende in Luthers Theologie (Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 1971), 166, 169, 343. For a more recent statement of this argument in English see Bayer, Martin Luther’s Theology: A Contemporary Interpretation, trans. Thomas H. Trapp (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2008), 44–58.

(6.) Pro veritate, WA 1:631, 17–18, Thesis 15 (author’s translation).

(7.) In this, Luther was following his spiritual mentor, Johann von Staupitz, who had similarly taught that God both required contrition and gave it as a gift to those who asked for it.

(8.) WA 1:233, 10–15; LW 31:25.

(9.) Staupitz’s emphasis on divine love and grace as the source of contrition rather than the end of contrition proved quite liberating for the young Luther, who had been led to believe just the opposite by his reading of late medieval nominalists like Gabriel Biel. See David Curtis Steinmetz, Misericordia Dei: The Theology of Johannes von Staupitz in its Late Medieval Setting (Leiden, The Netherlands: Brill, 1968), 101.

(10.) WA 10/III:62, 1–2.

(11.) WA 10/III:62, 9–10.

(12.) Luther assured his listeners in his Green Thursday (i.e., Maundy Thursday) Sermon that they could go to communion without confessing their sins to a priest beforehand, but he also advised them that measures would have to be taken in the future to curb “the evil abuses” that were threatening the worthy reception of the sacrament (WA 12:478a, 1–2). The prospect of lay people participating in the Lord’s Supper without sufficient preparation frightened Luther and his colleagues. The Apostle Paul had promised divine reprisal for such negligence (1 Cor. 11: 26–32); the religious leaders of Wittenberg believed him. Luther’s proposed measures included an interview with a pastor in which each communicant would be asked about the moral condition of his heart, whether he knew what the Lord’s Supper was, and why one should want to partake of it (WA 12:477a, 11–478a, 1; 479a, 5–480a, 1). The confession of sins was still strictly voluntary.

(13.) Toward the end of 1523, Luther took formal measures to institute the pre-communion interview he had discussed in his Green Thursday Sermon. According to the reformer’s Form for the Mass and Communion, a priest was to know the names and conduct of those who wanted to receive the Eucharist from him. He was to admit to the Lord’s Supper only those who had given an account of their faith and evidenced adequate understanding of the sacrament (WA 12:215, 18–23). This examination was to take place annually for most people, but only once in a person’s lifetime, or even never, if he possessed sufficient understanding. Luther reasoned that those who were educated and of high social standing were presumably aware of the rudiments of Christian faith (WA 12:215, 29–31). Priests were to exclude only those who were living in open sin and refused to repent. Immediately before participating in the Lord’s Supper, communicants were to stand in front of the congregation to gain its confirmation of their fitness to partake of Christ’s body and blood. Private confession continued to be voluntary and is treated separately in the treatise.

(14.) See Craig Koslofsky, The Reformation of the Dead: Death and Ritual in Early Modern Germany, 1450–1700 (New York: St. Martin’s, 2000), 34–39. Koslofsky demonstrates that Luther did not finally condemn the doctrine of purgatory until 1530, but he also shows that already in the late 1510s and 1520s the reformer had transferred the sufferings of purgatory to this life. In other words, while Luther was slow to reject purgatory, from an early point on he made little use of the doctrine as traditionally conceived.

(15.) For a discussion of how Luther dismantled the sacrament of penance in the late 1510s and early 1520s, see Ronald K. Rittgers, The Reformation of the Keys: Confession, Conscience, and Authority in Sixteenth-Century Germany (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2004), 52–58.

(16.) WA 6:572, 10–34; LW 36:124.

(17.) Melanchthon asserted in Article XII, “We must believe the voice of the one absolving no less than we would believe a voice from heaven. Absolution can properly be called the sacrament of repentance, as even the more learned scholastic theologians say.” BSLK 259, 15–20; Robert Kolb and Timothy J. Wengert, eds., The Book of Concord: The Confessions of the Evangelical Lutheran Church (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2000), 193. (Die Bekenntnisschriften der evangelisch-lutherischen Kirche, the German original of the Book of Concord, published in many editions, is conventionally abbreviated BSLK.) In Article XIII Melanchthon asserted, “Therefore, the sacraments are actually baptism, the Lord’s Supper, and absolution, (the sacrament of repentance). For these rites have the command God and the promise of grace, which is the essence of the New Testament.” BSLK 292, 24–29; Kolb and Wengert, Book of Concord, 219. (English translation in Kolb and Wengert.)

(18.) Brenz held private absolution to be a sacrament, as did most of Osiander’s colleagues in Nürnberg, including Luther’s close associate Wenzeslaus Linck. See Rittgers, Reformation of the Keys, 143, 149.

(19.) With regard to private confession, Melanchthon asserted in Article XI that Lutherans “teach that private absolution should be retained in the churches, although an enumeration of all sins in confession is not necessary. For this is impossible according to the psalm [19:12]: ‘But who can discern their errors?’” BSLK, 66, 1–7; Kolb and Wengert, Book of Concord, 145.

(20.) According to Thomas Tentler, the Lutheran version of private confession appeared in fifty evangelical church orders during the years 1525–1591. See his article “Confession,” in The Oxford Encyclopaedia of the Reformation, ed. Hans J. Hillerbrand (New York: Oxford University Press, 1996), vol. 1, 401.

(21.) The Augsburg Confession treats confession and repentance, articles XI and XII, respectively, right after baptism (IX), the Lord’s Supper (X), and just before a general article on the sacraments (XIII).

(22.) The discussion of the Nürnberg Absolution Controversy below draws on Rittgers, Reformation of the Keys, 139–158; and Rittgers, “Luther’s Reformation of Private Confession,” Lutheran Quarterly 19.3 (2005): 312–331.

(23.) Emil Sehling dubbed the 1533 Brandenburg-Nürnberg Church Order the Stammutter of a whole family of Lutheran church orders; Emil Sehling, ed., Die evangelischen Kirchenordnungen des XVI Jahrhunderts (Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 1961), vol. 11, 125.

(24.) Rittgers, Reformation of the Keys, 145–146, 148–149.

(25.) Rittgers, Reformation of the Keys, 171.

(26.) WA BR 6:454, 6–9. Cf. WA 21:262, 32–263, 8.

(27.) In the article on repentance (XII), the Augsburg Confession calls upon truly penitent Christians to believe in the forgiveness offered through the “gospel or absolution” (ex evangelio seu absolutione). It should be noted that the German version has “the gospel and absolution” (das Evangelium und Absolution); BSLK, 67, 5. See also Gunter Zimmermann, Prediger der Freiheit: Andreas Osiander und der Nürnberger Rat 1522–1548 (Mannheimer Historische Forschungen 15; Mannheim: Palatium, 1999), 310.

(28.) WA BR 6:454, 13–15.

(29.) See Rittgers, Reformation of the Keys, 184–185.

(30.) WA BR 6:455, 30–34.

(31.) Gerhard Muller and Gottfried Seebass, eds., Andreas Osiander d.A., Gesamtausgabe, vol. 5 (Gütersloh: Gütersloher Verlagshaus & Gerd Mohn, 1983), 412–491.

(32.) Ibid., 489, 26–30.

(33.) Osiander defined a sacrament as “a transaction (handel)in which God’s promises and truth are by divine command presented to an individual, accepted and personally appropriated (in busem gesteckht), so that the person is consecrated, sanctified, and received into the kingdom of God and eternal life.” Ibid., 485, 1–4. He argued that both Luther in the Babylonian Captivity and Melanchthon in the Apologia for the Augsburg Confession had clearly stated that absolution was a sacrament. Ibid., 482, 29–483, 2. As we have seen, Luther equivocated on this issue in the Babylonian Captivity, at first calling absolution a sacrament and then concluding that, strictly speaking, it was not. Melanchthon was clearer on the issue, but not all Lutherans accorded the same authority to his Apologia as they did to the Augsburg Confession itself, which was less precise.

(34.) When comparing private absolution to the real presence of Christ in the elements of the Lord’s Supper, Osiander asserted, “Thus also in absolution the word spoken with the laying on of hands is not a sign of the loosing but the loosing itself. For as truly as the servant speaks to and touches the confessant physically, so God himself truly speaks to and touches him with his Word and Holy Spirit in and with the absolution and laying on of hands …” Ibid., 489, 26–30.

(35.) For a discussion of the connection between Osiander’s soteriology (according to which Christ’s divine nature was infused into believers) and his theology of the keys, see Dietrich Stollberg, “Osiander und der Nürnberger Absolutionsstreit: Ein Beitrag zur Geschichte der Praktischen Theologie,” Lutherische Blätter 17.85 (July 17, 1965): 153, 165–166.

(36.) On this point see Gottfried Martens, “‘Ein uberaus grosser unterschiedt’: Der Kampf des Andreas Osiander gegen die Praxis der allgemeinen Absolution in Nürnberg,” in Festhalten am Bekenntnis der Hoffnung: Festgabe für Professor Dr. Reinhard Slenczka zum 70. Geburtstag, eds. Christian Herrmann and Eberhard Hahn (Erlangen: Martin-Luther-Verlag, 2001), 159.

(37.) Osiander advised confessors to respond in the following way to confessants who had doubts about their worthiness to receive absolution: “You do not need to worry about whether or not I should speak and pronounce God’s mercy to you. You need only hear and believe the word of absolution that you are truly forgiven in heaven. For it has been commanded to me—not you—to determine whether I should absolve you or not.” Müller and Seebass, Andreas Osiander, vol. 5, 465, 35–466, 2.

(38.) Ibid., 448, 30–449, 2.

(39.) For further discussion, see Rittgers, “Luther’s Reformation of Private Confession.”

(40.) WA 30/II:499, 1–8; LW 40:367.

(41.) Osiander also cited this excerpt from Luther’s treatise in his own work, but failed to see how it undercut his argument; Müller and Seebass, Andreas Osiander, vol. 5, 449, 10–14.

(42.) In the Sermon on the Sacrament of Penance (1519), Luther insisted that faith was essential for the reception of forgiveness, and even made faith one of the three constitutive elements of his version of confession, along with grace and absolution; WA 2:715, 21–39.

(43.) WA BR 6:520, 65–71.

(44.) WA BR 6:527, 12. Luther also confirmed in a letter to Osiander that he had read the Nürnberg preacher’s treatise on the keys; WA BR 6:531, 1–3.

(45.) WA BR 5:530–532.

(46.) WA BR 6:528, 14–17.

(47.) WA BR 6:528, 18–49.

(48.) Rittgers, Reformation of the Keys, 160–163. See also Martens, “‘Ein uberaus grosser unterschiedt’,”157.

(49.) WA BR 6:528, 50–529, 68.

(50.) WA BR 6:529, 79–84.

(51.) WA BR 6:529, 69–73.

(52.) WA BR 6:529, 69–79.

(53.) Rittgers, Reformation of the Keys, 170–192.

(54.) It should be noted that Luther allowed confessants whose knowledge of the catechism and conduct of life were already known to their confessor to forgo the examination of faith and conduct.

(55.) Klein, Evangelish-Lutherisch Beichte, 174.