In the last quarter of 1519, Dr. Martin Luther published three sermons on the sacraments of penance, baptism, and Lord’s Supper. He wrote them in German and dedicated all three to Duchess Margaret of Brunswick. These texts represent Luther’s early attempts to interpret the sacraments through the theology of justification by faith. They also demonstrate Luther’s desire to publish in German in order to explain his theology to the Christian laity, particularly those educated and of high rank in society.
His sermon on the sacrament of penance reveals how Luther had begun to apply his new understanding of forgiveness to other Christian doctrines. After reiterating his basic criticism of the indulgence system, he turned toward an explanation of the sacrament of penance. While concentrating on the forgiveness of sins and peace of conscience, Luther identified the three parts of penance as absolution, grace, faith.
Luther defined the absolution as the words of the priest, which proclaim the freedom from and forgiveness of sin. Grace is the forgiveness and peace of conscience. Faith, then, trusts in the words and receives the grace. Appealing to Augustine of Hippo, Luther then explained how everything depended on faith in God’s Word of absolution and not one’s own contrition or good deeds: “It follows…that the forgiveness of guilt, the heavenly indulgence, is granted to no one on account of the worthiness of his contrition over his sins, nor on account of his works of satisfaction, but only on account of his faith in the promise of God.”*
While Luther encouraged both contrition and good works, he knew that both of these might waiver in thought or practice. However, Christ will not lie to the Christian; therefore, he or she must trust his Word and actions. In fact, Luther wrote that not having faith in the forgiveness of sins was the greatest sin. Neither the sinner’s inner state (contrition) nor the sinner’s outward action (acts of satisfaction) could grant him or her certainty. Luther concluded:
“This is why you must cast yourself upon the grace of God, hear his sufficiently sure word in the sacrament, accept it in free and joyful faith, and never doubt that you have come to grace—not by your own merits or contrition but by his gracious and divine mercy, which promises, offers, and grants you full and free forgiveness of sins in order that in the face of all the assaults [anfechtung] of sin, conscience, and the devil, you thus learn to glory and trust not in yourself or your own actions, but in the grace and mercy of your dear Father in heaven.”**
*Luther, The Sacrament of Penance, LW 35:12 [Emphasis added]
**Sacrament of Penance, LW 35:15.