We hold that it should be maintained that the matters and ceremonies instituted in the Scriptures, whatever the number, be not neglected. Neither do we believe it to be of any consequence, though, for the purpose of teaching, different people reckon differently, provided they still preserve aright the matters handed down in Scripture. Neither have the ancients reckoned in the same manner (XIII:2).While this statement does not condemn numbering only two sacraments, it does suggest that the number itself is not as important as preserving the doctrines, rites, and ceremonies of Scripture that the word “sacrament” can represent. Moreover, the implication can be drawn that one should not judge or condemn his brother for teaching that there are more than two sacraments. The poignancy of this implication is made even more apparent when one considers that the Apology goes on to illustrate no less than three rites that should properly be called “Sacraments:”
If we call Sacraments rites which have the command of God, and to which the promise of grace has been added, it is easy to decide what are properly Sacraments. [. . .] Therefore Baptism, the Lord's Supper, and Absolution, which is the Sacrament of Repentance, are truly Sacraments.The Apology also discusses other rites which may or may not be properly called “sacraments,” but for now I want to stick to the list at hand. For most people, reading this excerpt for the first time comes as a bit of a shock. Most of us grew up being taught varying interpretations of what a sacrament is; for example, in Confirmation class I was taught that the necessary qualifications for a rite to be considered a sacrament include “institution by Christ” and a “visible element.” The Apology doesn’t get as technical. All that is required per this definition is 1) the command of God and 2) the promise of grace. Within these parameters, Melanchthon identifies three rites which should be unequivocally granted the title of “sacrament:” Holy Baptism, the Holy Supper, and the Sacrament of Repentance.
That last one is perhaps the most shocking part about the excerpt. The Sacrament of Repentance? Like, Confession? Like, Private Confession? Isn’t that something that only the Papists do? Quite to the contrary. In fact, the Small Catechism outlines an entire form of Confession. And if that weren’t enough, the Blessed Reformer calls Repentance the “third Sacrament” in his Large Catechism:
And here you see that Baptism, both in its power and signification, comprehends also the third Sacrament, which has been called repentance, as it is really nothing else than Baptism. For what else is repentance but an earnest attack upon the old man [that his lusts be restrained] and entering upon a new life? Therefore, if you live in repentance, you walk in Baptism, which not only signifies such a new life, but also produces, begins, and exercises it. For therein are given grace, the Spirit, and power to suppress the old man, so that the new man may come forth and become strong” (VI:74-76).In this context, some pastors follow Luther in claiming that Repentance is nothing more than an extension of Baptism, thus validating their two-Sacrament model. As long as the Sacrament of Repentance is maintained, not applying the actual title of “sacrament” to it isn’t inherently wrong (though a subscription to the Lutheran Symbols should be accompanied by an adoption of the terminology employed therein). That being said, is the Sacrament of Repentance actually being maintained? We certainly have public confession and absolution in a form adapted from the Preparatory Rite before the Mass. Is that what the Apology means by the Sacrament of Repentance? That is a good question, and one that I don’t have the time or certainty to answer (I’d really like to hear opinions in the comments though!). What I do know, however, is that the Augustana unequivocally states in Article XI:
Of Confession they teach that Private Absolution ought to be retained in the churches, although in confession an enumeration of all sins is not necessary. For it is impossible according to the Psalm: Who can understand his errors? Ps. 19:12.While the Lutheran Church rightly objected to the Papistic burdening of consciences with an enumeration of every single fault in the confessional, the practice of Private Confession and Absolution was never abolished; to the contrary, Lutherans confess that it “ought to be retained in the churches.” Therefore, if the rite is not observed or retained, it would seem to me that we are not only neglecting the Third Sacrament, but we are also operating under a hypocritical subscription to the Augsburg Confession.
Now I’m not here to point fingers. I’ll admit it: I’ve never made use of Private Confession (because it’s never been offered). This is a horrible burden on my conscience; I feel guilty for not having made use of something that I confess to maintain. What an irony: that which the Lutheran Reformation intended to restore to its place as a gift of forgiveness has for me become a reminder of guilt once again. The Papists would be proud.
I think it is abhorrent that modern Lutherans have abandoned the Sacrament of Repentance in such an unified way. Whether or not the penitential rite before the Divine Service includes sacramental Absolution is really superfluous to the point. Private Confession and Absolution is simply different. I mean, it would be like saying, since Repentance is nothing but Baptism, therefore being Baptized is “good enough.” By this logic, we don’t even need public confession and absolution either, much less private! You can see the foolishness of such lines of reasoning. Each of the Means of Grace provide us with forgiveness, life, and salvation in different ways and in different contexts. Belittling or overlooking one because we have another is abominable.
With the season of Lent approaching, it’s a good time for us to take some time to study and consider the Third Sacrament with greater devotion. Perhaps we can talk to our pastors about the absence of Private Confession and Absolution in our circles. Even if our individual parishes are not ready to officially reinstate this wholly orthodox and Lutheran practice, perhaps our pastors can provide it to our households on a case-by-case basis. There is no easy answer, but one thing’s for certain: something has to change, because the way things are now is simply not Lutheran.