November 3, 2007

The Sacrament of Penitence

I was asked last Sunday evening about the beginning of my sermon for Reformation, namely, the so-called Sacrament of Penitence. "You don't really believe it's a sacrament, do you?" said my well-intentioned and sympathetic interrogator.

Well, yes and no. The best way to put it is the way our Confessions put it. If we start with the Explanation to the Small Catechism's definition of "sacrament" in the abstract and work backward, we can lose sight of the gift of holy Absolution, and define it out of the life of the Christian.

The Apology, Article XII states:

The power of the keys administers and offers the Gospel through absolution, which is the true voice of the gospel. In speaking of faith, therefore, we also include absolution since "faith comes from what is heard," as Paul says. Hearing the Gospel and hearing absolution strengthens and consoles the conscience. Because God truly quickens through the Word, the keys truly forgive sin before him, according to the statement, "He who hears you, hears me." Therefore we must believe the voice of the one absolving no less than we would believe a voice coming from heaven. Absolution may properly be called a sacrament of penitence, as even the more learned of the scholastics say.
And then in the Large Catechism on Baptism, Luther says:
These two parts, being dipped under the water and emerging from it, indicate the power and effect of Baptism, which is simply the slaying of the old Adam and the resurrection of the new man, 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.... Here you see that Baptism, both by its power and by its signification, 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?
So, with Luther I urge you--as I urge myself--to go to confession. Whether you call it a sacrament or not, I will not quibble. And for heaven's sake let's not return to the papistic horrors of doing penance. Only don't fall into the opposite ditch and neglect the gift offered to you in Absolution. There God gives you His grace and goodness, as we hear the very voice of heaven coming through the unworthy lips of the Pastor.

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