Here is a paper I will be presenting next month at our circuit Winkel, which is a warm-up for a set of papers I will be delivering next Fall at the NID Fall Pastors Conference on the topic of: “Conscience, The Bound Will, Preaching, and The Care-taking of Souls.”
Smalcald Articles Part III, Articles 1-4: Conscience, The Bound Will, Preaching, and The Care-taking of Souls
1 The first four articles of the third part of the Smalcald Articles are Sin, Law, Repentance, and Gospel but all of them center on the matter of conscience. As Luther writes, “The Pope and his [the papal] government do not care much about these. For with them conscience is nothing, but money, [glory] honors, power are [to them] everything.” (Trig. 477, intro) What Luther was about is God’s power in repentance, not the secondary matter of human power, and consequently he was concerned about a new kind of pastoring.
2 To begin though we must tend to preaching. The Lutheran cause was identified with improving preaching. This preaching addressed actual people who were suffering, so they could be ministered to and cared for in their concrete circumstances in daily life. We call this the care, or care-taking of souls (Seelsorge). In sum, what God is doing in repentance is freeing men’s consciences which are bound to their misunderstanding and ignorance about Christ so they can be of some earthly good. Such pastoral care marks a sea change in the way conscience was understood during the middle ages, and has commonly been understood following the Enlightenment.
3 Then and now conscience was and is generally understood morally. That is, as an innate sense of right and wrong. A moral compass placed deep within us, perhaps even as the last bit of divinity (imago dei) left in our nature after the Fall, which enables us, if not in whole then in part, to love God, keep His commands, establish some goodwill with God and refrain from doing anything to hurt our chances of getting into heaven.
4 Luther however had a deeper sense of conscience. His understanding of conscience returns to the Bible and stems from the pregnant Biblical expression about what it means to know someone. As we read in Genesis 4:1: “Now Adam knew his wife…” And, again in Exodus 2:25: “God knew their condition.” And, finally in St. John’s Gospel: “Jesus answered, ‘You know neither me nor my Father; if you knew me, you would know my Father also.” (8:19)
5 The conscience for Lutherans means a knowing or rather, being known. That is, as St. Paul writes to the Galatians: “Formerly, when you did not know God, you were enslaved to beings that by nature are not gods. Now, however, that you have come to know God, or rather to be known by God…” The conscience is your sense of self in relation to God, neighbors and all creation. It is one’s standing, a sense of being in a place, being located. Therefore, depending on what is happening and where you are your conscience can either bind or free you.
6 How does one then get a good conscience in life, especially when it comes to God? If by the law, we measure ourselves (casuistry) by an external demand, and find ourselves with either more to do or something to celebrate. More than that, we are shown that we don’t care about God or that we worship false gods. But, if by the Gospel, Jesus Christ, then it would come surprisingly like a man plowing his field who one day strikes a treasure … for contrary to all human understanding the Gospel offers counsel and help against sin, death, and devil through Baptism, the Lord’s Supper and the absolution declared by God’s preachers
7 When conscience is bound by Law, what results is what Luther described as the evolution of, “The False Penance of the Papists,” (Trig. 481)[Here we will find the same matters as to why Lutherans retained the practice of private confession and preach a true contrition effected finally by absolution itself. That is, confession and repentance is the place not of penance, but absolution, and only by this declared forgiveness are consciences consoled. (Trig. 49.4,5) Latin, AC XII.)]
8 The papal party argued that sin after baptism is a problem. Penance was a “second plank” after the proverbial shipwreck of sin, a second life vest, because even though sin in its original form is wiped away entirely and completely by baptism, by definition, sin’s tinder, (fomes) was said to remain, and actually lights into fire from time to time. People actually sin after baptism. What to do? God provides a means of measuring the sin by the law and paying for the penalty through the sacrament of Penance.
9 Since this legalized form of repentance had a tendency to grow and change depending on who was handling (or mishandling) it pastoral practice identified three basic parts: contrition, confession and satisfaction.
10 Contrition is feeling bad about something you’ve done. But two problems resulted from this understanding. (Trig. 481.12) Even the best can’t recall every sin, so a loophole had to be found in the system. That is, you could feel bad well after the fact of sinning, whenever it came back to mind (Trig. 481.15), and the priest could generally commend you to God’s grace to cover unknown sin.
11 But a second problem that arose pertained to both priest and penitent. How bad do you have to feel before it is sufficient for God? And how does a priest or the penitent know? When do you as a priest confidently say to the penitent, “That’s enough,” especially when you get to those times when someone is expressing contrition, but you know they don’t mean it. Does that count?
12 So another loophole was made. You ought to feel contrite according to a real love for God, but if you can’t manage that, then at least feel Attrition ? feeling bad for no other reason than you know God will punish you if you don’t. (Trig. 483.16)
13 And when this didn’t work (e.g., when you fornicated, and actually liked it, or sought revenge, and knew the bastard deserved it) then you were asked if at least you wished you could feel sorry. Even though it wasn’t actual contrition, it was sufficient nevertheless).
14 Confession itself was enumerating each sin. The humility of this was to be the thing that moved God through pity to give grace. God gives grace when confession is done.
15 Satisfaction was to complete repentance, as grace itself leaves the penitent feeling it was too easy, and grace then becomes cheap. A penalty is added to make the process enough, but not too much. This addition becomes a great, growing bush which can’t be trimmed until it overwhelms and finally drives you out of the house. Satisfaction is a small penalty which is “do-able,” since no-one can actually know in each case what God demands by way of a proper punishment for every specific deed, how mad He really is at fornication, for example, as opposed to say, not going to church on Sunday[casuistry].
16 Purgatory was added to help, since, what happens if not all satisfaction is completed before my life is cut short? Purgatory ensured that what was undone in this life could be done in the next. But what was meant for comfort became a whole new arena for fear. How many years? How does one get out of Purgatory’s ever lengthening climb to the Kingdom of Heaven? Enter indulgences to rescue you from purgatory via help from the church on earth.
17 And, as Luther observed, when the money came into the church for its necessary and good work, the jubilee year followed, then more, then vigils for the dead, and finally prayers and masses.
18 What happened? This was a process that each step of the way was meant for good, for the consolation of troubled souls. A legal system of grace evolved. Luther noticed two groups that this legal system of grace produced. One group that was crushed under the system of penance, feeling guilty and the other, the self-righteous (of which he counted himself one), “who did not believe [acknowledge] themselves guilty of such actual sins in [committed by] thoughts, words, and works…” (Trig. 487.28)
19 What is the result of this pastoral care that legalizes repentance? First, it falsely reduced the accusation of law to manageable proportions. A discount house for God’s wrath. It dumbed God’s wrath down to something people could handle.
20 Second, it actually produced the opposite of trust for the penitent. How much is enough? Do I have them all done right? Luther mentions it throughout Smalcald Articles III, Article 3: “In this way he could never know,” (Trig. 483.19) where he stood in relation to God. The penitential system made, “the [whole] matter uncertain,” (Trig. 487.27) and everyone ends up in the Myth of Sisyphus, rolling the stone up the hill to the top, only to watch it roll back down again, and down they go to roll it up again and again.
21 Third, and by far most important, this system never mentioned the central matter of justification by faith alone. That is, Christ disappears. Here there was no Christ.Instead of Christ was the church, its system, and the practitioners, priest, and pentitent. All this came, “according to its own imagination,” seeking, “for consolation in its own works, and cannot think of [entirely forgets] Christ and faith.” (Trig. 483.18)
22 So, in sum, confession and satisfaction were made now into our work, not because it was so hard, but because it buried Christ, and repentance was trivialized. Grace became law.
23 This system stands on three false premises, like three crumbling pillars. First, that sin is an act (actual sin), as if sin was always a thing done or not done. Second, this assumed that a man retained a free will regarding our relation to God. Thus he can, “by his natural powers … love God above all things and his neighbor as himself,” (Trig. 477.7) or at least a sinner could, “do as much as is in him,” then, “God certainly grants him grace.” (facere quod in se est). (Trig. 477.8) This was the Nominalist reduction of law and grace to Your Utmost for His Highest. This left sinners with the mad search for some good left in us, as a natural power we can build on to make our conscience comfortable with God. And anyone who questioned the system was called “Manicheaen.” A hater of creation and its goodness. The third premise is a complete misunderstanding of law as the thing that belongs in the conscience. As the moral compass by which God determines whether you are trying hard enough to merit justification or not. (See: SA III, Article 2)
24 Luther to the contrary keyed repentance to the work of law and Gospel in our lives. He recognized repentance as God’s own activity, not our own. In other words, our confession of faith is that the law has no business being in the conscience as our locater in relationships. What belongs in our conscience is Jesus Christ alone.
25 How does God do repentance? God’s first tool is His holy law that initiates repentance by attacking the conscience, one’s self-standing, when it has taken up with some false opinion, or teaching, or idol. This is none other than God taking on the deceptive self. Your self that is bound and determined to secure itself by finding something to love. And is there anything more pitiable than someone knocking about the world trying to loved and be loved? Just watch a dating show once. God uses his law to fence in your hungry, searching heart to give it proper place (the heart being a lonely hunter, and all).
26 Each man who becomes a pastor fills the office of the preaching of the law, the preaching of repentance. That means that God uses His preacher’s words in preaching to level His attack. But though the attack of the law on the sinner’s conscience can happen through preaching, it always has its start in our daily lives, before the word of proclamation. Through the pastor’s preaching God comes to expose the powers already at work in a person’s conscience in the form of self-accusation or self-righteousness.
27 For example, a suicide in the family has profound impact on all other people’s sense of location in their relationships. When a pastor is rushed to the family and for years after, he will be speaking to people who are under considerable attack already by the law. Likewise, a drinker will be well underway in denying his problem before a preacher gets to him. That is why pastorally we distinguish those already in dislocation, and those whose religious piety, convinced of their own righteousness, needs the law to pierce its pride. This is why only pastors who are in relation to their flock can effectively preach, and why they administer pastoral care, not a professionalized therapist-centered model.
28 The first part of your office as preachers is thus the law, which is to function as Nathan’s accusation to David. The coverup well under way, God uses the preaching office of the law to pierce the illusion: “You are the man.” Now part of the problem with this use in the oral preaching is that usually your accusation is dismissed as, “for others.” This is why, when you really give it to sinners, they’ll say at the door on their way out of church, “We need more of that around here!” This reaction to the preaching of the law is likely because the preaching of law is often done in their daily lives where they receive it as good news.
29 Thus Luther articulates in the second article of the third part of the Smalcald Articles, “Concerning the Law,” that God has two offices or powers of the law. A first, and finally failed one, in which by terror and offers of favor (carrot, stick, pain, and pleasure) God seeks to curb sin. God does curb sin by using law, but this also produces people with cracked consciences. People frightened and so running to any port, or god, in a storm. And others, who are presumptuous and treating themselves as the rock in which to place their trust. (Trig. 479.2,3)
30 The second is what Luther calls the, “chief office or force of law.” (Trig. 479.4) That is, the law’s ability to reveal, show, and catch sinners in the act. God’s law is effective in exposing you, but it cannot fix the problem. It doesn’t make a right relation. It can’t help a conscience find rest. The law flushes the bird out but … “he anxiously desires aid, but sees no escape: he begins to be an enemy of [enraged at] God, and to murmur…” (Trig. 479.4)
31 Sometimes we say this in a medical way for pastors. You will be the diagnostician who enunciates the fear of the heart, “Could this lump be cancer? Is it bad, doctor?” The pastor confirms the fears, using his diagnostic tools, “I’m afraid your fears are right, you are indeed a sinner, subject to death and the devil, heading for a crash landing…” (Trig. 477.1) “Sorry, you are right, everyone seems to be dying and you are next.”
32 Right here, however, in comes the fiery angel, St. John [Rev. 10], declaring that all must, “Repent!” (Trig. 487.30) This is a thunderbolt from heaven. Repentance is not what contrition, attrition, or at least wishing you could feel bad is about. In fact it is not addressing your free will at all. It is rather announcing God’s time. It is God’s own work and is well under way by the time you wise up to what’s happening to you. God is in the process of destroying both active, open, coarse sinners and concealed, self-righteous, pious sinners [the kind who will not only make your casket, but deliver it to your front door]. (Trig. 479.2) “Repent,” announces that God, “allows no one to be right but drives the whole lot of them into terror and despair.” This is the hammer of God (Jeremiah 23:29).
33 Luther gives this a name: truly and completely “passive” contrition. God is doing this without waiting for you to feel bad. From dust you came, to dust He is returning you on account of Adam’s sin, which does not wait for you to decide anything. God is saying loudly and clearly, “… you all must become different and do otherwise than you now are and are doing [no matter what sort of people you are], whether you are as great, wise, and powerful, and holy as you may. Here no one is [righteous, holy], godly, etc.” (Trig. 481.3
34 But your conscience is ruled by sin and its sting, death, and so God does not wait for you to act. God is repenting you with a hammer. Killing you. He is making you passively contrite. But this is, you should gladly hear, preparation, for the change God is about to make in you when He raises you up to walk in newness of life.
35 The coup de grace, the completion of true repentance, is Christ Himself, the Gospel. Here the Gospel overlaps the work of the law, confirms it and makes its accusation final for sinners. What does John the preacher do?
36 He has two words. First, “Repent,” (Matt. 3:2) “for you are all false penitents… and all of you on either side need forgiveness of sins, because neither of you know what true sin is, not to say anything about your duty to repent of it and shun it. For no one of you is good; you are full of unbelief, stupidity, and ignorance of God and God’s will.” (Trig. 487.32) And afterwards, “Look,” “Behold, over there, there goes the Lamb of God,” “For God is present over there, in the One from whose fullness we all must receive grace upon grace and without whom no human being can be justified before God.” (Trig. 487.32)
37 The first thing that Gospel does is seal the deal about our sin and wandering conscience. If our righteousness is as John the preacher says, only “over there” with Christ, then it can’t be here in me. So, the door closes on our efforts to change: “No one is righteous, no one seeks God, no one shows kindness, all have turned…” (Here we come up against St. Paul’s use of the particulae exclusiva which ends all attempts by sinners to claim a little bit of free will for themselves in relation to God, His Word and works)
38 That is why this repentance is neither piecemeal, fragmentary, (Trig. 489.36) or in the least uncertain. It is finalized in that Christ alone is righteous before His Father, and He is “over there,” not in me and my measurement of the conscience by the law.
39 But there is the answer also to my predicament, for Christ is completely righteous, and this is the, “Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world.” It turns out God is using the hammer because He is extravagantly rich, sparing not even His own Son, our Lord, in order to destroy our false lords. God is occupying our conscience, creating us anew by defeating the things that have bound us?sin, death, and the devil.
40 God is taking our indictment by the law and stopping it in His spotless Lamb, Christ. That Lamb that John points to is going to the cross precisely for us. In this way trust in Christ is restored, original sin defeated, bondage and subjection to futility over and done with, and a lawless life of freedom opens up to us when Christ says in the conscience, “You are mine, I have claimed you, with you I am pleased.” That voice is made specifically for you in the preaching office we call Gospel.
41 When we come to trust Christ because the Holy Spirit makes faith in us by the announcement of the absolution of our sin through sermon and sacrament, we can finally step back and say, “I must really have been in bad trouble, if God needed to do this to change me.” Death and resurrection is a big change, and Christ leading the way is a big act of love on God’s part. In the same stroke, the sacraments are rightly understood, not as acts of the pious, but as God’s action alone.
42 Here, finally, the Pope and everything that is built upon our good works is, “dashed to the ground,” (Trig. 489.39) as Luther noted. The late medieval penitential system was done away with. Luther did away with the understanding of sin as bad act, confession as moral purging, and conscience as moral compass. Instead, sin as lack of trust, is revealed, and Christ returns to the center. He and not the free will becomes the center of what we preach, so, we say, “Repent,” and “Behold, the Lamb of God,” because repentance is needed as long as this life continues, but of the passive kind, where God puts our sinful self with law in the conscience to death so that Christ alone can sit in our conscience. That means He locates us, not on the glory road to heaven above, but so we arrive at home, and contentedly do our work for neighbor, and all creation, and trust that we have been made right as God promised, through His Son alone.
43 Pastor’s are care-takers of souls, not in themselves, but by the Holy Spirit and in this way only: as forgiveness people?absolvers. So, now concerning the Gospel, God is extravagantly rich in grace, all of which works to make faith in us, that is certain, because it is based on Christ, not my will. And this in the form of Christ’s promise: “With you I am well pleased,” not on account of your work, but my desire, election, choice, and grace alone.