A Laymen’s Commentary on the Smalcald Articles: Confession

This is part 14 of 15 in the series A Laymen's Commentary on the Smalcald Articles

Part III, Article VIII. Of Confession.

1] Since Absolution or the Power of the Keys is also an aid and consolation against sin and a bad conscience, ordained by Christ [Himself] in the Gospel, Confession or Absolution ought by no means to be abolished in the Church, especially on account of [tender and] timid consciences and on account of the untrained [and capricious] young people, in order that they may be examined, and instructed in the Christian doctrine.

2] But the enumeration of sins ought to be free to every one, as to what he wishes to enumerate or not to enumerate. For as long as we are in the flesh, we shall not lie when we say: “I am a poor man [I acknowledge that I am a miserable sinner], full of sin.” Rom. 7:23: I see another law in my members, etc. For since private absolution originates in the Office of the Keys, it should not be despised [neglected], but greatly and highly esteemed [of the greatest worth], as [also] all other offices of the Christian Church.

Confession and Absolution are not abolished in the churches of the Reformation but rather retained, and gain an even higher importance.  This is because Confession and Absolution (especially Private Confession and Absolution) give specific guarantees of the forgiveness of sins and comfort to consciences. Even more so it is ordained and commanded by Christ Himself (Matthew 16:13-20).

In the case of Confession it is not required that one list all their sins as Scripture is infinitely clear that one cannot do this (Romans 7).  It is enough to confess that one is generally a sinner and to confess any sins that come to mind.  So rather than being torture, Confession and Absolution become great application of the Gospel and the exercising of the Office of the Keys.  Thus we should not despise Private Confession but rather go to it gladly and regularly.

3] And in those things which concern the spoken, outward Word, we must firmly hold that God grants His Spirit or grace to no one, except through or with the preceding outward Word, in order that we may [thus] be protected against the enthusiasts, i.e., spirits who boast that they have the Spirit without and before the Word, and accordingly judge Scripture or the spoken Word, and explain and stretch it at their pleasure, as Muenzer did, and many still do at the present day, who wish to be acute judges between the Spirit and the letter, and yet know not what they say or declare. 4] For [indeed] the Papacy also is nothing but sheer enthusiasm, by which the Pope boasts that all rights exist in the shrine of his heart, and whatever he decides and commands with [in] his church is spirit and right, even though it is above and contrary to Scripture and the spoken Word.

5] All this is the old devil and old serpent, who also converted Adam and Eve into enthusiasts, and led them from the outward Word of God to spiritualizing and self-conceit, and nevertheless he accomplished this through other outward words. 6] Just as also our enthusiasts [at the present day] condemn the outward Word, and nevertheless they themselves are not silent, but they fill the world with their pratings and writings, as though, indeed, the Spirit could not come through the writings and spoken word of the apostles, but [first] through their writings and words he must come. Why [then] do not they also omit their own sermons and writings, until the Spirit Himself come to men, without their writings and before them, as they boast that He has come into them without the preaching of the Scriptures? But of these matters there is not time now to dispute at greater length; we have elsewhere sufficiently urged this subject.

This diatribe against enthusiasts may seem off topic but upon deeper consideration it is highly appropriate. Confession and Absolution are tied up in the surety of the external objective Word.  If the objective Word is not solid and the only Word from God then we lose our assurance.

To start we hold that God does not grant His Word, grace, or Holy Spirit aside from the external objective Word (Galatians 2:15-3:14).  Against this the enthusiasts (in German schwarmerei meaning buzzing bees as if the spirit were buzzing around their head) think that God speaks to them directly (i.e. unmediated).

Thomas Müntzer (1489-1525) was emblematic of the enthusiasts. He was a former monk and member of the radical Reformation.  He then became a rebel leader during the Peasants’ War and tried to overthrow the government.  He believed in further revelation from God and was an early communist.

Müntzer and any who would claim revelation from God apart from the objective Word are enthusiasts.  They sit in judgement of God’s Word and bend it to their will thinking they have new move of the spirit to justify their novel doctrine or practice. This goes even to the point of new revelation from God that is binding on the Christian.

It is evident from their words that they think they are trying to judge between the Spirit and the letter (see 2 Corinthians 3) but in reality they have no idea what they are talking about.  The Spirit and letter in 2 Corinthians 3 does not refer to different modes of revelation but rather a proper understanding of the objective Word.  Spirit and letter is talking about the proper disctinction Law and Gospel not new moves of God.

The pope is also an enthusiast as he boasts that he can speak new revelation from God and can contradict Scripture.  This is just the devil using his same tricks though.  The exact same trick he used against Adam and Eve: “Did God really say.”  This questioning of God’s Word causes man to turn to his own thoughts and opinions making him a god above the what God has objectively said.  Thus Satan works to turn all of us into enthusiasts (Genesis 3, Revelation 12).

Enthusiasts condemn the outward Word saying that revelation is in the heart.  They are firmly on the ladder of mysticism seeking an unmediated experience of the divine.  They claim that one needs to be in direct communication with God in your heart.  If this is the case though, then why do the enthusiasts preach at all.  Why don’t they just shut their mouths and let the Spirit work? Instead they preach and spew their heresy near and far, showing that it is not the truth, as if it was then all men would look inside for God and know Him without the need of the external Word.

7] For even those who believe before Baptism, or become believing in Baptism, believe through the preceding outward Word, as the adults, who have come to reason, must first have heard: He that believeth and is baptized shall be saved, even though they are at first unbelieving, and receive the Spirit and Baptism ten years afterwards. 8] Cornelius, Acts 10:1ff , had heard long before among the Jews of the coming Messiah, through whom he was righteous before God, and in such faith his prayers and alms were acceptable to God (as Luke calls him devout and God-fearing), and without such preceding Word and hearing could not have believed or been righteous. But St. Peter had to reveal to him that the Messiah (in whom, as one that was to come, he had hitherto believed) now had come, lest his faith concerning the coming Messiah hold him captive among the hardened and unbelieving Jews, but know that he was now to be saved by the present Messiah, and must not, with the [rabble of the] Jews deny nor persecute Him.

We can show abundant evidence from Scripture that God uses and works through the external Word.  For instance Ttose who come to faith prior to Baptism or are baptized only came to faith by the external Word (Mark 16:16).  One had to hear the Word of God first before coming to faith.  It could be years before the external Word that one heard generates faith in the heart and drives one to Baptism.  Even infants hear the Word in Baptism when they are brought to faith. After all it is not just the water in Baptism that does the work but rather God’s Word attached to the water.

We also have the example of Cornelius (Acts 10) who certainly believed via the external Word, first of the old covenant, and then of the new when Peter was sent to him.  Cornelius had faith but his faith was in the coming Messiah; Peter came with the external Word, announced to him the coming of Christ and Cornelius’s faith was fulfilled and renewed now in the risen and ascended Lord.  Immediately this faith sought the external Word of Baptism. Note even though the Spirit came to Cornelius and his household prior to Baptism, it did not come prior to the external Word.

So faith can come by no other means than the external Word.  Recall we are dead in sin. We cannot come to faith by any means of our own. Thus the enthusiasts are wrong as they have a false doctrine of sin and its consequences (Romans 10).

9] In a word, enthusiasm inheres in Adam and his children from the beginning [from the first fall] to the end of the world, [its poison] having been implanted and infused into them by the old dragon, and is the origin, power [life], and strength of all heresy, especially of that of the Papacy and Mahomet. 10] Therefore we ought and must constantly maintain this point, that God does not wish to deal with us otherwise than through the spoken Word and the Sacraments. 11] It is the devil himself whatsoever is extolled as Spirit without the Word and Sacraments. For God wished to appear even to Moses through the burning bush and spoken Word; and no prophet neither Elijah nor Elisha, received the Spirit without the Ten Commandments [or spoken Word]. 12] Neither was John the Baptist conceived without the preceding word of Gabriel, nor did he leap in his mother’s womb without the voice of Mary. 13] And Peter says, 2 Pet. 1:21: The prophecy came not by the will of man; but holy men of God spake as they were moved by the Holy Ghost. Without the outward Word, however, they were not holy, much less would the Holy Ghost have moved them to speak when they still were unholy [or profane]; for they were holy, says he, since the Holy Ghost spake through them.

In short, enthusiasm is the most basic of all heresies and sins.  It is the ultimate expression of our pride and foolishness. It is the source and power of all heresy.  Especially that of the papacy and Islam. After all it was an internal voice that Muhammad heard, not the external Word.  Muhammad also contradicted clear Scripture which true revelation cannot.

We must be clear and steadfast.  God only comes through external means: Word and Sacrament. Anything else or anyone who wants us to use anything else is of the devil himself.

God appeared to Moses by external means (Exodus 3).  No prophet ever prophesied without the external Word.  All prophets and apostles from Adam through St. John all prophesied by the external spoken Word (Luke 1).  It is God’s spoken Word that makes men holy and prophets (2 Peter 1:16-21).  Thus we must maintain and hold that there is no revelation apart from the external Word of God.  There is no new revelation and even if there was it would not contradict extant Scripture, else it would clearly be from Satan and not from the Holy Spirit.

Thy strong word did cleave the darkness;
At thy speaking it was done.
For created light we thank thee
While thine ordered seasons run.
Alleluia! Alleluia! Praise to thee who light dost send!
Alleluia! Alleluia! Alleluia without end!

Lo, on those who dwelt in darkness,
Dark as night and deep as death,
Broke the light of thy salvation,
Breathed thine own life-giving breath.
Alleluia! Alleluia! Praise to thee who light dost send!
Alleluia! Alleluia! Alleluia without end!

Thy strong Word bespeaks us righteous;
Bright with thine own holiness,
Glorious now, we press toward glory,
And our lives our hope confess.
Alleluia! Alleluia! Praise to thee who light dost send!
Alleluia! Alleluia! Alleluia without end!

From the cross thy wisdom shining
Breaketh forth in conqu’ring might;
From the cross forever beameth
All thy bright redeeming light.
Alleluia! Alleluia! Praise to thee who light dost send!
Alleluia! Alleluia! Alleluia without end!

Give us lips to sing thy glory,
Tongues thy mercy to proclaim,
Throats to shout the hope that fills us,
Mouths to speak thy holy name.
Alleluia! Alleluia! May the light which thou dost send
Fill our songs with alleluias, Alleluias without end!

God the Father, light-creator,
To thee laud and honor be.
To thee, Light from Light begotten,
Praise be sung eternally.
Holy Spirit, light-revealer, Glory, glory be to thee.
Mortals, angels, now and ever Praise the holy Trinity!

(LSB 578)

About Dr. Paul Edmon

Dr. Paul Edmon is from Seattle, Washington and now resides in Boston, Massachusetts. He has his B.S. in Physics from the University of Washington in 2004 and Ph.D. in Astrophysics from the University of Minnesota in 2010. He is professional staff at Harvard University and acts as liaison between Center for Astrophysics and Research Computing. A life long Lutheran, he is formerly a member of Messiah Lutheran Church in Seattle and University Lutheran Chapel in Minneapolis. He now attends First Lutheran Church (FLC) of Boston where he teaches Lutheran Essentials. He sings bass in the FLC choir and Canto Armonico. He was elected to the Concordia Seminary St. Louis Board of Regents in 2016. He is single and among his manifold interests are scotch, football, anime, board games, mythology, history, philosophy, and general nerdiness. The views expressed here are his own and do not represent Harvard University or Concordia Seminary. Twitter: @pauledmon

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