Reprinted with permission.]
The Reformation began with a call to reform the practice of repentance in the western church. The ministry of Jesus and his predecessor John started in the same way. John came “preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.” After his arrest, says Mark, “Jesus came preaching… repent and believe the Gospel” (1:14f.).
In both the first and the sixteenth century these calls to repentance were addressed to a people shaped by what we today would call civil religion with “zeal for God,” as St. Paul puts it, “but not enlightened.” That is already one link between us and the renewal of repentance. The American people practice civil religion–perhaps in both church and state–and thus the call of Christian ministry to reform the practice of repentance is also at hand.
This is especially true in view of the events of the past few days of our national history, the Beirut massacre of American marines. As a nation we are involved in more than one undeclared war. Were we to track these events with Luther’s antennae, we would soon notice that it is a time for repentance.
One of Luther’s most surprising treatments of repentance comes in his 1529 treatise “On War Against the Turk.” 1 The Turkish army, numbering hundreds of thousands, was outside the gates of Vienna. Luther’s antennae detected two enemies approaching the Holy Roman Empire. One was Suleiman the Magnificent. The other was God. Two very different enemies called for two very different defenses.
Since the Turk is the rod of the wrath of the Lord our God… the first thing to be
done is to take the rod out of God’s hand, so that the Turk may be found only, in
his own strength, all by himself, and without God’s hand…. This fight must be
begun with repentance and we must reform our lives, or we shall fight in
vain. . .for God is devising evil against us because of our wickedness and is certainly
preparing the Turk against us as he says in Psalm 7, “If a man does not repent, God
will whet his sword; he has bent and strung his bow; he has prepared his deadly weapons.” 2
Luther anticipates that to the experts his military analysis and strategy “will be laughable for they will consider it a simple and common thing which they have long since passed beyond; nevertheless, I have not been willing to omit it for the sake of myself and of sinners like myself, who need both repentance and exhortation to repentance every day.” 3
The last line signals what is central. Repentance? Who needs it? Sinners do. They need both repentance and exhortation to repentance every day. We can return to national need for repentance later in this paper after we have a clearer picture of the meaning of that sentence: “sinners need both repentance and exhortation to repentance every day.” For exposing that meaning I shall work from three Luther documents: The Large Catechism sections on Baptism and Confession (=LC), the corresponding articles from the Smalcald Articles (= SA), and Luther’s Explanations of the 95 Theses (=ET).
The New Testament term for confessing is homologia. It means “saying the same thing.” Thus to confess is to repeat, reiterate, “same-say” what someone else has already said. Fundamentally the stage-set for such same-saying is juridical, the forensic courtroom, where charges, claims, accusations, defenses, testimony, witness, yes, even confessions, are all made. Christian confessing occurs on such a stage-set. Confessing sin and confessing the faith, both of them, are same-saying back to the judge what someone else has first said about us to the court. First the prosecutor. “Your honor, this one is a sinner according to your own law. Here is prima facie evidence.” Confessing sin is the accused concurring in the prosecutor’s statement, “same-saying” it out loud. Then comes the defense attorney who, according to Revelation 12, appears before the bench as a Lamb that was slain and says: “Your honor, this accused is one for whom I died. Guilty indeed. But in my death for just such folks, justice, your justice, has already been done. Proleptically, you might say. Thus the accused is a candidate for acquittal.” Says the judge: “How does the accused now plead?” In answer comes the “confession of faith,” same-saying the defense counsellor’s words: “I Confess that I am just such a one as the Lamb described. I plead the Lamb’s prior testimony. I trust that I am righteous propter Christum. He said I was.”
Today there are critical voices that question the image of this forensic drama as mythology and suited to another age, but not reflecting the sense of reality we have today. For Luther the juridical is not metaphor or image or symbol for something else. It is reality. Our lives must pass muster before the divine bench. Indeed, we are doing that day in and day out long before the final judgment. If you think that at most you are on trial before your human associates day in and day out, then note well that that drama is performed before a human stage flat behind which is the real back wall of the theater. In front of that real wall is the divine bench, the cosmic judge, and your microcosmic drama on this mini-stage is actually being performed on the cosmic stage of the mega-courtroom. Just as there were two enemies confronting the empire at Vienna, so there are two benches in routine daily life before which we practice and argue our own cases. Survival even in the mini-stage before the flats of daily routine life depends on how we make our confessions–both of them, of sin and of faith. That is of course true if and only if we are sinners. But if sinners, then we “need both repentance and the exhortation to repentance every day.
Behind this bivocal confessionalism in Luther’s theology, of course, lies his “Eureka” encounter with the bivocality of God. One way he describes it is in a Table Talk selection from the winter of 1542-43: For a long time I went astray and didn’t know what I was doing. To be sure, I was on to something, but I did not know what it really was until I came to the text in Rom 1:17, “He who through faith is righteous shall live.” That text helped me.
There I saw what righteousness Paul was talking about. The word justitia struck out in the text. I connected the abstract notion of righteousness with the concrete phenomenon of being righteous, and finally understood what I had here. I learned to distinguish between the law’s kind of righteousness and that of the gospel My previous reading was marred by but one defect in that I made no distinction between the law and the gospel. I regarded them to be identical and spoke as though there was no difference between Christ and Moses other than their location in time and their relative perfection. But when I found that distinction—that the law is one thing, and the gospel is something else–that was my breakthrough. 4
Confessing sin and confessing faith are same-saying, saying yes to God’s word of law and God’s word of gospel addressed to me.
In the LC the discussion of confession and absolution comes connected to baptism. Here, as in the Small Catechism (=SC), the fourth question about baptism asks about its Zeichen character, what it signals for the future. Baptism puts a signpost on the baptized: This human being is signed up/signed in for a future of “sinking under and coming back up again…slaying the old Adam and resurrecting the new, both of which actions must continue in us our whole life long. Thus a Christian life is nothing else than a daily Baptism, once begun and ever continued….This is the right use of Baptism.” Where this does not happen, “Baptism is not being used but resisted.”
Here you see that Baptism, both by its power and by its signification [ = pointer toward a particular future], comprehends also the third sacrament, formerly called Penance, which is really nothing else than Baptism. What is repentance but an earnest attack on the old man and an entering upon a new life? If you live in repentance, therefore, you are walking in Baptism, which not only announces this new life but also produces, begins, and promotes it. … Therefore Baptism remains forever. … Repentance, therefore, is nothing else than a return and approach to Baptism, to resume and practice what had earlier been begun but abandoned.
I say this to correct the opinion, which has long prevailed among us, that our Baptism is something past which we can no longer use after falling again into sin. We have such a notion because we regard Baptism only in the light of a work performed once for all. Indeed, St. Jerome is responsible for this view, for he wrote, “Repentance is the second plank on which we must swim ashore after the ship founders” in which we embarked when we entered the Christian church. This interpretation deprives Baptism of its value, making it of no further use to us. Therefore the statement is incorrect. The ship does not founder since, as we said, it is God s ordinance and not a work of ours. But it does happen that we slip and fall out of the ship. If anybody does fall out, he should immediately head for the ship and cling to it until he can climb aboard again and sail on as he had done before. 5
These words need no commentary, but do suggest some consequences. The strangeness with which protestantized Lutherans in America generally greet the restoration of confession and absolution as regular parish ministry is undoubtedly linked to a strange notion of what baptism is. Now baptism is strange, but the strange notion of Christians today about it is an estranged notion, estranged from the daily double dipping that baptism signals right at the outset. The whole Christian ball of wax is about death and resurrection, Christ’s first, then ours. Confession and absolution is opus proprium, the real thing, about Christian existence. If Christians perceive it as an alienum opus to their piety-let the reformation begin again: back to basics, baptismal basics.
At the very end of the LC Luther appended to the article on the Lord’s Supper another few paragraphs about confession. The last of those paragraphs begins: “Therefore when I urge you to go to confession, I am simply urging you to be a Christian. If I bring you to the point of being a Christian, I have also brought you to confession. . . [By definition] Christians. . . want to be free from their sins, and happy in their conscience.” 6 Confession is all there in baptism, because what it means to be Christian is all there in baptism. Renewal in baptismal piety is recovering the third sacrament.
The hassle over indulgences was the tripwire that put the Wittenberg reformation onto the European map. Just for clarity we need to rehearse a few historical basics. Indulgences did not put forgiveness of sins up for sale. Indulgences were an alternate route, one might even say a pastorally better way, a grace-oriented way, of practicing the final and painful part of the penance sacrament as it had evolved in the medieval church. Here is Luther’s description of the sequence: It was “divided into three parts–contrition, confession, and satisfaction–with the added consolation that a person who properly repents, confesses, and makes satisfaction has merited forgiveness and has paid for his sins before God.” 7Indulgences came in at part three as an alternate form for making satisfaction. Indulgences were another route for balancing out the accounts that my sinful actions had messed up. Normal satisfactions were spelled out in the form of penalties: You hurt someone, so you should be hurt in return with some corresponding punishment. The pastoral task in designating satisfaction/punishments called for skill in “making the punishment fit the crime.” Indulgences were monetary penalties substituted for performance penalties: reasonable and performable.
Luther’s pastoral objection was not that money cannot buy forgiveness. That is true, but he saw the entire third sacrament in all its parts marred by something else. It was promoted under the rubric that the penitent “merits forgiveness and pays for his sins before God.” And what is so bad about that is Christological. In the SA Luther walks through the traditional pastoral practice of each segment (contrition, confession, satisfaction) and comes up with the almost monotonous conclusion over and over: “There was no mention here of Christ or of faith.” 8
In his commentary to the famous thesis sixty-two of the ninety-five he observed: “The Gospel. . .is not very well known to a large part of the church.” 9 In the SA he links that to another theological vacuum in the church’s pastoral leadership: “It was impossible for them to teach correctly about repentance because they did not know what sin really is.” 10 Neither of God’s two words is well known. No wonder confession needs reform. “Ignorance concerning sin and concerning Christ” are inseparable twins. This double ignorance, he complains, is at the bottom of the “thoroughly pagan doctrines” that call for reform.’ 11
Not too long ago Karl Menninger cheered the hearts of many religious folks with his book entitled, Whatever Became of Sin? (New York: Hawthorn, 1973). It was a welcome new breeze in the wishy-washy psycho-sociological, analytical jungle that tended to track bad behavior back to cause-and-effect roots over which the perpetrators of wickedness had little or no control, and therefore could not rightly be held accountable. For a culture sliding toward structural non-accountability, Menninger’s was a protest with biblical groundings. But it was not about sin. It was at best about sins, about destructive behaviors for which human society should rightly hold the culprits accountable. Luther’s critique of scholastic theology on sin would implicate Menninger, too, as well as the moralistic/atomistic notion of sin at the center of American civil religion.
Sin is not something sinners do. It is something sinners are. Their doing is a con-
sequence of their being. To borrow the formula from the Augsburg Confession
(= AC), sinners “.. .are without fear of God, are without trust in God, and are concupiscent.” 12 They are non-listeners to, and consequently not same-sayers of, God’s
word of critical analysis. To be without fear of God is to refuse to confess God’s word
of law as true about oneself. In addition, they are non-listeners, and consequently
non-same-sayers of God’s word of Christic gospel (non-confessors of trusting the promise); and in place of these two mega-missing factors, they are concupiscent, that is,
the directional antenna of their lives is tuned in to some other signal, a signal that has
them signed up and signed on for a very different future than the one God’s gospel
has in mind for them.
Much sixteenth-century scholastic theology (and Menninger too?) got no further
than listing the fruits of sin. It did not probe for (or even become aware of) the root sin. Fruits, of course, are quite accessible; roots, not so easily. And so it is with sin. Root sin “is so deep a corruption of our being that reflective reason cannot understand it. It must be believed because of the revelation in the Scriptures.” 13 Note well, people do not come to confess sin by self-analysis, however carefully done.
Confessing sin (“believing” that I am a sinner) comes from listening to God’s external word and responding by same-saying it. And which word of God is that? It is the word that non-God-fearers refuse to same-say, God’s word of critical exposure, God’s law. “The chief function or power of the law is to make original sin manifest and show humankind to what utter depths human nature has fallen and how corrupt it has become. So the law must tell us that we neither have nor care for God or that we worship strange gods–something we would not have believed before without the law’s exposing us.” 14 The directional signal of a sinner’s life is an arrow that is incurvatus in se. I come to know that, says Luther, only via ausserliches Wort–being told from the outside.
In his biography of Luther (Road to Reformation, trans.J. W. Doberstein and T. G. Tappert [Philadelphia: Muhlenberg, 1946]) Heinrich Boehmer contrasts the two views of sin in the Reformation controversy as longe a deo esse versus contra deum esse. It is not the case, says Luther, that our hearts are just separated by some distance from God and we need to be brought together again. Rather our hearts are moving in a contrary direction; the space between expands. Augustine is only half right: “Thou hast made us for thyself, and our hearts arc restless till they find their rest in thee.” Our hearts are indeed restless because they are busily at work aiming at “rest” in everything but thee.
The misperception of sin, as a matter of fruits with no attention to the root, or worse still, with the root viewed as intact, leads to the false gospel that we should “produce better fruits.” In scholastic theology the combination of God’s ever-present sacramental grace plus the positive potential ascribed to the human root produces a sinner’s salvation. Christ and faith play no necessary role even though Christ may be mentioned at every turn. But the necessity of his involvement is reduced, and in the worst cases finally reduced to the point where “he died in vain.”
Such a partial view of sin leads to “partial and fragmentary” repentance in the third sacrament. And that always leaves the penitent uncertain. Were there some sinful fruits that didn’t get mentioned and thus are not yet forgiven? Luther frequently gives the pastoral advice: When confessing do not enumerate your sins lest you get conned into doing fruit-analysis instead of root-dialysis. “You dare not come [to confession],” he says, “and say how good or how wicked you are.”[BC, p. 459.] Sin is not quantifiable. Shouldn’t the pastor at least inquire how serious is the penitent’s contrition? “Not necessary,” says Luther. “Take care, therefore, that you do not in any manner trust in your own contrition but completely and alone in that most naked word of your best and most faithful Savior, Jesus Christ.” 15
Luther faults the pastoral practice of his day first of all for urging people to trust their own contrition and not Christ’s word of absolution, and secondly
Because they are so quick to dole out absolutions and to grant participations in the blessings of the church in the same manner, as though everybody everywhere has that faith. They make no inquiry of this in the people they absolve. Therefore it is not as necessary to ask when a person is absolved, “Are you sorry?” as it is to ask, “Do you believe that you can be absolved by me?” 16
Luther sees sacramental confession as the act of confessing original sin, root sin, the sin that shapes my person. Root repentance
does not debate what is sin and what is not sin, but lumps everything together and says, “We are wholly and altogether sinful.” We need not spend our time weighing, distinguishing, differentiating. On this account there is no uncertainty in such repentance, for nothing is left that we might imagine to be good enough to pay for our sin….And so our repentance cannot be false, uncertain, or partial, for a person who confesses that he is altogether sinful embraces all sins in his confession without omitting or forgetting a single one. Nor can our satisfaction be uncertain, for it consists not of the dubious, sinful works which we do but of the sufferings and blood of the innocent Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.” 17
Clearing up misperceptions of sin leads to a clearer grasp of Christ and faith. Sinners are forgiven, but only for Christ’s sake by faith. “Christ and faith” are corollaries. Christ is God’s good word to sinners and faith is the sinner same-saying that word back to God. Luther’s drum-beat for the necessity of Christ’s being de facto present for a sinner to trust was asserted against the widespread notion—also today—that God was by nature gracious. Grace was a generic commodity. Popular piety and much serious theology said, “Of course, God is gracious. That’s his job.” Not so, said Luther. The Son of God on the cross signals that the grace sinners need is anything but some “of course” commodity. Nor is it everywhere available.
Now, of course, all the gifts God showers upon us in creation are free allotments. As Luther says in the SC, “…all this purely out of fatherly, divine goodness and mercy, without any merit or worthiness in me.” They do indeed come sola gratia. But you remember how the catechism paragraph of the first article concludes. All that free grace bestowed in God’s first article of creation forgives nobody. In fact, it works just the opposite. “For all of which it is my duty (schuldig bin) to thank and to praise, to serve and obey him. This is most certainly true.” 18
God’s grace in creation is a grace that obligates, implicates, incriminates and finally litigates against us. Those free gifts work as lex semper accusat just because they are so good and so freely bestowed. The grace in Christ, the grace that liberates sinners, liberates them from the very schuldig dilemma that arises for sinners in generic grace. We could recur here to that Table Talk cited earlier: God’s grace in the old creation is one thing, God’s grace in Christ is something else. In the next section we will examine Luther’s Explanations to the 95 These to get at the Christic quality of grace that forgives in contrast to grace that obligates.
The Reform’s Theological Roots
The ignorance about Christ and faith that accompanies theologies of generic grace ignores the reality of original sin and the biblical declaration that God’s generic response to sinners is deadly. Isaiah’s inaugural vision (chapter 6) is the locus classicus for the lethal consequences of sinners’ generic encounter with God. And that consequence does not arise from God’s harshness or crankiness, but merely from God’s justice, the sine qua non for a moral universe at all. Lex semper accusat was not an invention of the Reformers. They thought they were same-saying the Word of God.
If you want to escape God’s legal (=just) criticism, you need to become a non-sinner. Then you are home free because the law cannot accuse a non-sinner. The sacrament of penance proposes to do just that: to produce a non-sinner. But as we have seen in tracking Luther’s own tracking of its practice in his day, Christ and faith were rendered unnecessary, and in his judgment therefore sinners never were un-sinned by it at all. But how then do Christ and faith produce the desired product, an un-sinned sinner who is accusation-proof?
One answer Luther gives in ET is the answer, “Theology of the Cross.” He borrowed the phrase from 1 Corinthians along with its antithesis, “Theology of Glory.” At the cross God’s Son (=God in person) engages in participatory exchange with sinful humankind. In order to un-sin sinners God’s Christ loads their sin onto his own shoulders and takes the consequences that that entails, viz., the wages of sin is death. But would that not leave the law of sin and death in charge after this alternate victim is dead? Not so. Why? The victim whom the law of sin and death killed was not only a sinner-for-us-all, but also the divine majesty. And so closely were the two natures interwoven in that one person, so intimate was that incarnation, so inextricable that assumption of sinners’ humanity, that the rightful executioners of sinners could not take mortal action against this incriminated one without simultaneously criticizing and executing the divine majesty incarnate there. The upshot was that the otherwise justified executioners of sinners executed their own Lord as well. And to do that is to incriminate themselves as first-commandment breakers.
For any Christ-connected sinner, therefore, the law that criticizes sinners is abrogated. In criticizing Christ to death the law signed its own death warrant. There is now therefore no condemnation for sinners who are in Christ Jesus. Christ is the one place in the world where sinners are immune to lex semper accusat. Thus when sinners take refuge on Christ’s turf, they qualify as non-sinners. But isn’t that all make-believe? Sinners being non-sinners? Isn’t that just a simple contradiction? If it were only a pretend charade, true. But enter promise and faith.
In ET, Luther centers on the word promise as the key to the real transfer of Christ’s merits to sinners. It is not fictitious, a merely heavenly bookkeeping transfer. The locus classicus passages for confession and absolution, Matt 16:19 (“Whatsoever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven”) and John 20:23 (“If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven”) are exegeted by Luther over and over again as Christ’s promising to give his conquest of the law’s criticism to any sinner who receives the sacramental absolution. The promise is in the second clause: They shall be loosed. They are forgiven.
But the promise needs to be heard by the penitent, so Luther formulates Thesis 7 in this way: “God remits guilt to no one unless at the same time he humbles him in all things and makes him submissive to his vicar, the priest.” 19 The participatory exchange (our sins onto Christ and Christ’s righteousness imparted to us) comes when we are not listening to our uncertain anguished conscience, but to
the judgment of another [human being], not at all on account of the prelate himself or his power, but on account of the word of Christ who cannot lie when he says: “Whatever you loose on earth.” For faith born of this word will bring peace of conscience, for it is according to this word that the priest shall loose. Whoever seeks peace in another way, for example, inwardly through experience certainly seems to tempt God and desires to have peace in fact, rather than in faith. For you will have peace only as long as you believe in the word of that one who promised, “Whatever you loose, etc.” Christ is our peace, but only through faith.” 20
So how does faith figure in? Why “only through faith?” Why sola fide? Faith trusts the promise. Trusting the promise makes the promised item my possession. Christum habere is Luther’s fuller definition for faith. To Thesis 37 he says:
It is impossible for one to be a Christian unless he possesses Christ. If he possess Christ, he possesses at the same time all the benefits of Christ….
Righteousness, Strength, patience, humility, even all the merits of Christ are his through the unity of the Spirit by faith in him. All his sins are no longer his; but through that same unity with Christ everything is swallowed up in him. And this is the confidence that Christians have and our real joy of conscience that by means of faith our sins become no longer ours but Christ’s. . .(and) all the righteousness of Christ becomes ours.
Indeed, this most pleasant participation in the benefits of Christ and joyful change of life do not take place except by faith. 21
Faith is the mechanism for the transfer: my sin to Christ, Christ’s righteousness to me. Luther imagines a confessional case where the priest mucked things up badly and the parishioner too was
not sufficiently penitent or else did not think that he was, and yet believed with absolute confidence that he was absolved by the one who does the pardoning….That man’s very faith causes him to be truly pardoned, for he believes in him who said: “Whatsoever, etc.” (Matt 16:19).
Why is that so? “Faith in Christ always justifies….You receive as much as you believe.” 22
Luther’s reform of sacramental penance was a reform in pastoral care; better said, a reform in pastoral kerygma. The teaching accompanying the sacrament, teaching about sin, Christ, and faith, makes all the difference.
Sin is not acts of human cussedness. Luther would smile, but disagree, at the whimsical word one hears among Christians today: “Original sin is the one Christian doctrine that is empirically verifiable.” Not so. That all of me–all these fabulous gifts–are incurvatus in se, that admission, that confession, comes only via response to the Word of God. It is not empirically verifiable. It comes by same-saying what God’s Word of law says about and to me. Note well, this is not “total depravity” (= everything I am is no good). Luther’s word is Verderbung, being ruined. My creaturely gifts are just that, fantastic gifts. What is total and sinful about them is that the person graced by them is living a life-line in the wrong direction, a ruinous direction: without fear of God, without trust in God, and with concupiscence. As the AC says: this is what sin really is; and even now it damns and brings eternal death on those not born again through Baptism and the Holy Spirit “ 23
Christ is the only adequate resource for coping with sin. The theology of the cross articulates the good news by highlighting “the merits of Christ” as the effective resource to un-sin sinners. For his own day Luther said:
Ever since the scholastic theology…began, the theology of the cross has been abrogated, and everything has been completely turned upside-down.
A theology of glory calls evil good, and good evil. Theology of the cross calls the thing what it actually is. 24
Faith is not believing things to be true to which normally you would say “’tain’t so.” Faith is fiducia (trusting), yes, but it is true or false fiducia depending on the object that is being trusted. In the reform of penance Luther sought to move people away from trusting contrition to trusting Christ, or, more precisely, Christ’s promise. And the benefit coming from trusting Christ’s promise is that Christ’s benefits become the sinner’s possessions in the process. A favored axiom for Luther was: “Glaubstu, hastu; glaubstu nicht, hastu nicht.” 25Faith is the transfer mechanism for this happy change.
How to apply these insights, how to move from this heritage to minister to our own American context is not at all clear to me, and it is surely not an easy task. But it is a gift from Luther to us on his birthday—one for us to unwrap and share “for sinners like ourselves who need both repentance and exhortation to repentance every day.”
Edward H. Schroeder