Vicarious Satisfaction in the Lutheran Confessions


A prior article (“What Are You Taught About Redemption?“) briefly sketched the orthodox Christian doctrine of Christ’s redemption by vicarious satisfaction; heretical denial of vicarious satisfaction by some popular Lutheran theologians; and how the Lutheran church has taught vicarious satisfaction across synods and centuries in North America in explanations of Luther’s Small Catechism.

This article shows how the Lutheran confessors also confess Christ’s vicarious substitution in the the Book of Concord. For those not already familiar with it, this article concludes with a brief description of the Book of Concord.


Not Comprehensive

This compendium of excerpts from the Lutheran confessions is by no means comprehensive. The confessions are shot through with vicarious satisfaction in places where it might not at first seem obvious. For example, Apology Article V has many passages explaining that because Christ is an “Atoning Sacrifice” and “Mediator” we have a “reconciled God.” These terms and phrases are so compact that unless one already has seen how the confessions use them, it easily could escape notice that this is speaking of vicarious satisfaction. This compendium already is long, and if all such passages had been included, one would be reading here a significant fraction of the Book of Concord.

Not Exclusive of Christus Victor

Vicarious satisfaction does not exclude Christus Victor (victory over and deliverance from our enemies), but explains it and gives it its ground. As Luther explains in the Large Catechism, the devil is God’s mask and jailer based on our guilt under the Law. Once Christ by vicarious satisfaction reverses God verdict of guilt to innocence, the devil and all other enemies lose their legal custody, and thereby we are delivered from our enemies.[1] This article does not go into the connection and orientation between vicarious satisfaction and Christus Victor, but the fact of focus on vicarious substitution should not be taken as denial of Christ’s victory over and deliverance from our enemies.

Redemption by Vicarious Satisfaction

“Whosoever commits sin transgresses also the law: for sin is the transgression of the law.” (1 John 3:4)

The penalty of the Law for transgressing it is death. “The LORD God commanded the man, ‘Of every tree of the garden you may freely eat; but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall surely die.’” (Genesis 2:16-17) Adam ate of that tree, and he died. “Through one man sin entered the world, and death through sin, and thus death spread to all men, because all sinned.” (Romans 5:12) “The wages of sin is death.” (Romans 6:23)

Jesus made satisfaction to God for us under the Law in two ways.

  • Active Obedience. On our behalf He lived a life of active obedience under the Law. He fulfilled all righteousness for us under the Law.
  • Passive Obedience. On our behalf He rendered passive obedience to God. He did this by his innocent suffering of the Law’s penalty of death.

“God sent forth His Son, born of a woman, born under the law, to redeem those who were under the law.” (Galatians 4:4) Christ was delivered up because of our offenses, and was raised because of our justification,” (Romans 4:25) “that He might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus” (Romans 3:26).

Confession of Vicarious Satisfaction

Unless otherwise noted, quotations are from Paul Timothy McCain, ed. Concordia: The Lutheran Confessions, 2nd ed. (St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 2006).

Augsburg Confession

AC III.2b-3

There is one Christ, true God and true man, who was born of the Virgin Mary, truly suffered, was crucified, died, and was buried. [3] He did this to reconcile the Father to us and to be a sacrifice, not only for original guilt, but also for all actual sins of mankind [John 1:29].

AC IV.2-3

[2] People are freely justified for Christ’s sake, through faith, when they believe that they are received into favor and that their sins are forgiven for Christ’s sake. By His death, Christ made satisfaction for our sins. [3] God counts this faith for righteousness in His sight (Romans 3 and 4 [3:21–26; 4:5]).

AC XXIV.24-27

[24] Our teachers have warned that these opinions depart from the Holy Scripture and diminish the glory of the passion of Christ. [25] For Christ’s passion was an offering and satisfaction, not only for original guilt, but also for all other sins, as it is written, [26]”We have been sanctified through the offering of the body of Jesus Christ once for all” (Hebrews 10:10). [27] Also, “By a single offering He has perfected for all time those who are being sanctified” (Hebrews 10:14). ‹It is an unheard-of innovation in the Church to teach that by His death Christ has made satisfaction only for original sin and not for all other sin. So it is hoped that everybody will understand that this error has been rebuked for good reason.›

Apology of the Augsburg Confession

Ap III.52

Christ suffered and died to reconcile the Father to us, and was raised again to reign, to justify, and to sanctify believers according to the Apostles’ Creed and the Nicene Creed.

Ap IV.53

[53] Whenever we speak of justifying faith, we must keep in mind that these three objects belong together: the promise, grace, and Christ’s merits as the price and atonement. The promise is received through faith. Grace excludes our merits and means that the benefit is offered only through mercy. Christ’s merits are the price, because there must be a certain atonement for our sins.

Ap IV.57

[57] Throughout the Prophets and the Psalms this worship (this latreia) is highly praised, even though the Law does not teach the free forgiveness of sins. The Old Testament Fathers knew the promise about Christ, that God for Christ’s sake wanted to forgive sins. They understood that Christ would be the price for our sins. They knew that our works are not a price for so great a matter. So they received free mercy and forgiveness of sins by faith, just as the saints in the New Testament.

Ap V.57-58

 [57/178] Christ’s death and satisfaction ought to be placed far above our purity, far above the Law itself. This truth ought to be set before us so that we can be sure of this: We have a gracious God because of Christ’s satisfaction and not because of our fulfilling the Law.

[58/179] Paul teaches this in Galatians 3:13, when he says, “Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us.” This means that the Law condemns all people. But Christ—without sin—has borne the punishment of sin. He has been made a victim for us and has removed that right of the Law to accuse and condemn those who believe in Him. He Himself is the Atonement for them. For His sake they are now counted righteous. Since they are counted righteous, the Law cannot accuse or condemn them, even though they have not actually satisfied the Law. Paul writes the same way to the Colossians, “You have been filled in Him” (2:10). This is like saying, “Although you are still far from the perfection of the Law, the remnants of sin do not condemn you. For Christ’s sake we have a sure and firm reconciliation, if you believe, even though sin dwells in your flesh.”

Ap V.101

We are justified only when we receive Christ as the Atoning Sacrifice and believe that for Christ’s sake God is reconciled to us. Neither is justification even to be dreamed of without Christ as the Atonement.

Ap V.261

For Christ is an Atoning Sacrifice, as Paul says, “by faith” (Romans 3:25). When fearful consciences are comforted by faith, and are convinced that our sins have been blotted out by Christ’s death, and that God has been reconciled to us because of Christ’s suffering, then, indeed, Christ’s suffering profits us.

Ap XX.82

One who knows why Christ has been given to us, and who knows that Christ is the Atoning Sacrifice for our sins, needs no further proof. Isaiah says, “The Lord has laid on Him the iniquity of us all (53.6). The adversaries, on the other hand, teach that God does not lay our offense on Christ, but on our works.

Ap XXI.19-20

[19] The second requirement for an atonement maker is that his merits are shown to make satisfaction for other people. They are divinely given to others, so that through them, just as by their own merits, other people may be regarded righteous. For example, when any friend pays a debt for a friend, the debtor is freed by the merit of another, as though it were by his own. So Christ’s merits are given to us so that, when we believe in Him, we may be regarded righteous by our confidence in Christ’s merits as though we had merits of our own.

[20] From both of these—the promise and the giving of merits—arises confidence in mercy. Such confidence in the divine promise, and likewise in Christ’s merits, should be promoted when we pray. For we should be truly confident, both that for Christ’s sake we are heard and that by His merits we have a reconciled Father.

Ap XIIb.43

[43/140] Besides, Christ’s death is a satisfaction not only for guilt, but also for eternal death, according to Hosea 13:14, “O Death, where are your plagues?” It is freakish to say that the satisfaction of Christ redeemed from the guilt, but our punishments redeem from eternal death.

Ap XXI.22-23

[22] Second, they apply the saints’ merits, just as Christ’s merits, to others. They ask us to trust in the saints’ merits as though we were regarded righteous because of their merits, just as we are regarded righteous by Christ’s merits. We are making none of this up. [23] In indulgences, the adversaries say that they apply the saints’ merits. And Gabriel Biel, the interpreter of the canon of the Mass, confidently declares, “According to the order instituted by God, we should betake ourselves to the aid of the saints, in order that we may be saved by their merits and vows.” These are Gabriel’s words. Nevertheless, still more silly things are read here and there in the adversaries’ books and sermons. What is this other than creating people who make atonement? If we must trust that we are saved by their merits, they are made completely equal to Christ.

Ap XXIV.22

[22] In fact there has been only one atoning sacrifice in the world, namely, Christ’s death, as the Epistle to the Hebrews teaches, “It is impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sins” (10:4). A little later, of the will of Christ, “By that will we have been sanctified through the offering of the body” (10:10). [23] Isaiah interprets the Law, so that we may know Christ’s death is truly a satisfaction for our sins, or remedy, and that the ceremonies of the Law are not. He says, “When his soul makes an offering for sin, he shall see his offspring,” and so on (Isaiah 53:10). The word used here means a victim for transgression (asham). In the Law this illustrated that a certain Victim was to come to make satisfaction for our sins and reconcile God. This was so that people might know that God wishes to be reconciled to us, not because of our own righteousnesses, but because of another’s merits: Christ.

Ap XXIV.23b-24

Isaiah and Paul, therefore, mean that Christ became a victim, that is, a remedy, that by His merits, and not by our own, God might be reconciled. [24] Let this remain the case: Christ’s death alone is truly an atoning sacrifice. For the Levitical atoning sacrifices were so called only to illustrate a future remedy. Because of a certain resemblance they were satisfactions delivering the righteousness of the Law and preventing those persons who sinned from being excluded from the commonwealth. But after the revelation of the Gospel, those sacrifices had to end. Since they had to end in the revelation of the Gospel, they were not true atoning sacrifices, for the Gospel was promised specifically to present an atoning sacrifice.

Ap XXIV.53-56

[53] The main proofs for our belief are in the Epistle to the Hebrews. Yet, the adversaries twist mutilated passages from this Epistle against us, as in this very passage, where it is said that every high priest is ordained to offer sacrifices for sins. Scripture immediately adds that Christ is the High Priest (Hebrews 5:5–6, 10). The preceding words speak about the Levitical priesthood and show that the Levitical priesthood was an image of Christ’s priesthood. The Levitical sacrifices for sins did not merit the forgiveness of sins before God. They were only an image of Christ’s sacrifice, which was to be the one atoning sacrifice, as we said before. [54] To a great extent the Epistle speaks about how the ancient priesthood and the ancient sacrifices were set up not to merit the forgiveness of sins before God or reconciliation, but only to illustrate the future sacrifice of Christ alone. [55] In the Old Testament, saints had to be justified by faith, which receives the promise of the forgiveness of sins granted for Christ’s sake, just as saints are also justified in the New Testament. From the beginning of the world all saints had to believe that Christ would be the promised offering and satisfaction for sins, as Isaiah 53:10 teaches, “when His soul makes an offering for sin.”

[56] In the Old Testament, sacrifices did not merit reconciliation, except as a picture (for they merited civil reconciliation), but they illustrated the coming sacrifice. This means that Christ is the only sacrifice applied on behalf of the sins of others. Therefore, in the New Testament, no sacrifice is left to be applied for the sins of others, except the one sacrifice of Christ upon the cross.

Smalcald Articles

SA II.i.1-5

As Lutherans we are accustomed to hearing, justification is the article on which the church stands or falls. As Robert Preus[2] and David Scaer[3] teach, Lutherans often make a mistake of separating justification from atonement. Notice here in the Smalcald Articles how Luther joins atonement, including vicarious satisfaction, with justification and says that this entire united truth is necessary to believe, that everything we teach depends on it, otherwise all is lost and the pope, the devil, and all adversaries win the victory and right over us.

The first and chief article is this:

[1] Jesus Christ, our God and Lord, died for our sins and was raised again for our justification (Romans 4:24–25).

[2] He alone is the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world (John 1:29), and God has laid upon Him the iniquities of us all (Isaiah 53:6).

[3] All have sinned and are justified freely, without their own works or merits, by His grace, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, in His blood (Romans 3:23–25).

[4] This is necessary to believe. This cannot be otherwise acquired or grasped by any work, law, or merit. Therefore, it is clear and certain that this faith alone justifies us. As St. Paul says:

For we hold that one is justified by faith apart from works of the law. (Romans 3:28)

That He might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus. [Romans 3:26]

[5] Nothing of this article can be yielded or surrendered, even though heaven and earth and everything else falls [Mark 13:31].

For there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved. (Acts 4:12)

And with His stripes we are healed. (Isaiah 53:5)

Upon this article everything that we teach and practice depends, in opposition to the pope, the devil, and the whole world. Therefore, we must be certain and not doubt this doctrine. Otherwise, all is lost, and the pope, the devil, and all adversaries win the victory and the right over us.

SA III.iii.38

[38] Neither can the satisfaction be uncertain, because it is not our uncertain, sinful work. Rather, it is the suffering and blood of the innocent Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world [John 1:29].

Large Catechism

LC II.31

Let this then be the sum of this article: the little word Lord means simply the same as redeemer. It means the One who has brought us from Satan to God, from death to life, from sin to righteousness, and who preserves us in the same. But all the points that follow in this article serve no other purpose than to explain and express this redemption. They explain how and by whom it was accomplished. They explain how much it cost Him and what He spent and risked so that He might win us and bring us under His dominion. It explains that He became man [John 1:14], was conceived and born without sin [Hebrews 4:15], from the Holy Spirit and from the virgin Mary [Luke 1:35], so that He might overcome sin. Further, it explains that He suffered, died, and was buried so that He might make satisfaction for me and pay what I owe [1 Corinthians 15:3–4], not with silver or gold, but with His own precious blood [1 Peter 1:18–19]. And He did all this in order to become my Lord. He did none of these things for Himself, nor did He have any need for redemption. After that He rose again from the dead, swallowed up and devoured death [1 Corinthians 15:54], and finally ascended into heaven and assumed the government at the Father’s right hand [1 Peter 3:22]. He did these things so that the devil and all powers must be subject to Him and lie at His feet [Hebrews 10:12–13] until finally, at the Last Day, He will completely divide and separate us from the wicked world, the devil, death, sin, and such [Matthew 25:31–46; 13:24–30, 47–50].

LC IV.37

[37] So you see plainly that there is no work done here by us, but a treasure, which God gives us and faith grasps [Ephesians 2:8–9]. It is like the benefit of the Lord Jesus Christ upon the cross, which is not a work, but a treasure included in the Word. It is offered to us and received by faith.

Formula of Concord: Epitome

Ep III.3

[3] 1. Against both the errors just mentioned, we unanimously believe, teach, and confess that Christ is our Righteousness [1 Corinthians 1:30] neither according to His divine nature alone nor according to His human nature alone. But it is the entire Christ who is our Righteousness according to both natures. In His obedience alone, which as God and man He offered to the Father even to His death [Philippians 2:8], He merited for us the forgiveness of sins and eternal life. For it is written, “For as by the one man’s disobedience the many were made sinners, so by the one man’s obedience the many will be made righteous” (Romans 5:19).

Formula of Concord: Solid Declaration


[4] In opposition to both these groups it has been unanimously taught by the other teachers of the Augsburg Confession that Christ is our righteousness not according to His divine nature alone, nor according to His human nature alone, but according to both natures. For He has redeemed, justified, and saved us from our sins as God and man, through His complete obedience. Therefore, the righteousness of faith is the forgiveness of sins, reconciliation with God, and our adoption as God’s children only on account of Christ’s obedience. Christ’s obedience alone—out of pure grace’is credited for righteousness through faith alone to all true believers. They are absolved from all their unrighteousness by this obedience.

SD III.9-16

[9] We unanimously believe, teach, and confess the following about the righteousness of faith before God, in accordance with the comprehensive summary of our faith and confession presented above. A poor sinful person is justified before God, that is, absolved and declared free and exempt from all his sins and from the sentence of well-deserved condemnation, and is adopted into sonship and inheritance of eternal life, without any merit or worth of his own. This happens without any preceding, present, or subsequent works, out of pure grace, because of the sole merit, complete obedience, bitter suffering, death, and resurrection of our Lord Christ alone. His obedience is credited to us for righteousness.

[10] These treasures are brought to us by the Holy Spirit in the promise of the Holy Gospel. Faith alone is the only means through which we lay hold on, accept, apply, and take them for ourselves. [11] This faith is God’s gift [Ephesians 2:8–9], by which we truly learn to know Christ, our Redeemer, in the Word of the Gospel and trust in Him. We trust that for the sake of His obedience alone we have the forgiveness of sins by grace, are regarded as godly and righteous by God the Father, and are eternally saved. [12] Therefore, it is considered and understood to be the same thing when Paul says (a) we are “justified by faith” (Romans 3:28) or (b) “faith is counted as righteousness” (Romans 4:5) and when he says (c) “by the one man’s obedience the many will be made righteous” (Romans 5:19) or (d) “so one act of righteousness leads to justification and life for all men” (Romans 5:18). [13] Faith justifies not because it is such a good work or because it is so beautiful a virtue. It justifies because it lays hold of and accepts Christ’s merit in the promise of the Holy Gospel. For this merit must be applied and become ours through faith, if we are to be justified by it. [14] Therefore, the righteousness that is credited to faith or to the believer out of pure grace is Christ’s obedience, suffering, and resurrection, since He has made satisfaction for us to the Law and paid for ‹expiated› our sins. [15] Christ is not man alone, but God and man in one undivided person. Therefore, He was hardly subject to the Law (because He is the Lord of the Law), just as He didn’t have to suffer and die for His own sake. For this reason, then, His obedience (not only in His suffering and dying, but also because He was voluntarily made under the Law in our place and fulfilled the Law by this obedience) is credited to us for righteousness. So, because of this complete obedience, which He rendered to His heavenly Father for us by doing and suffering and in living and dying, God forgives our sins. He regards us as godly and righteous, and He eternally saves us. [16] This righteousness is brought to us by the Holy Spirit through the Gospel and in the Sacraments. It is applied, taken, and received through faith. Therefore, believers have reconciliation with God, forgiveness of sins, God’s grace, sonship, and are heirs of eternal life.


[25] Not everything that belongs to conversion also belongs to the article of justification. Only God’s grace, Christ’s merit, and faith belong and are necessary to the article of justification. Faith receives these blessings in the promise of the Gospel, by which Christ’s righteousness is credited to us. From this we receive and have forgiveness of sins, reconciliation with God, sonship, and are made heirs of eternal life.

SD III.56-58

[56] Even if Christ had been conceived and born without sin by the Holy Spirit and had fulfilled all righteousness in His human nature alone, and yet had not been true and eternal God, this obedience and suffering of His human nature could not be credited to us for righteousness. Also, if God’s Son had not become man, the divine nature alone could not be our righteousness. Therefore, we believe, teach, and confess that the entire obedience of Christ’s entire person (which He has offered to the Father for us, even to His most humiliating death on the cross) is credited to us for righteousness. For the human nature alone, without the divine, could not by obedience or suffering make satisfaction to eternal, almighty God for the sins of all the world. However, the divinity alone, without the humanity, could not mediate between God and us.

[57] As mentioned above, the obedience not only of one nature, but of the entire person, is a complete satisfaction and atonement for the human race. By this obedience God’s eternal, unchangeable righteousness, revealed in the Law, has been satisfied. So our righteousness benefits us before God and is revealed in the Gospel. Faith relies on this before God, which God credits to faith, as it is written in Romans 5:19:

For as by the one man’s disobedience the many were made sinners, so by the one man’s obedience the many will be made righteous.

The blood of Jesus His Son cleanses us from all sin. (1 John 1:7)

The righteous shall live by his faith. (Habakkuk 2:4 [see also Romans 1:17])

[58] Neither Christ’s divine nor human nature by itself is credited to us for righteousness, but only the obedience of the person who is at the same time God and man. And faith thus values Christ’s person because it was made under the Law [Galatians 4:4] for us and bore our sins, and, in His going to the Father, He offered to His heavenly Father for us poor sinners His entire, complete obedience. This extends from His holy birth even unto death. In this way, He has covered all our disobedience, which dwells in our nature, and its thoughts, words, and works. So disobedience is not charged against us for condemnation. It is pardoned and forgiven out of pure grace alone, for Christ’s sake.

Book of Concord

The Lutheran church published its confessions in the Book of Concord (1580). Pastors in confessional synods subscribe to the Book of Concord without qualification because it is a correct exposition of what Scripture reveals about the faith.

The confessions include eight parts:

  1. Three Chief Symbols (Apostles, Nicene, and Athanasian Creeds)
  2. Augsburg Confession (1530)
  3. Apology of the Augsburg Confession (1531)
  4. Smalcald Articles (1537)
  5. Treatise on the Power and Primacy of the Pope (1537)
  6. Small Catechism (1529)
  7. Large Catechism (1529)
  8. Formula of Concord (1577)

The Creeds were formulated long before the Reformation. They were formulated before corruptions of the Gospel that had come into the Church in the last roughly 200 to 300 years before the Reformation. The Lutheran church confesses the Creeds in accord with the early Christians.

During the Reformation, the Holy Roman Emperor summoned an imperial meeting at Augsburg. Each party was commanded to give its confession of faith. The stated purpose was to identify areas where the parties could agree and thereby reduce the areas of dispute, but also to state what articles of faith were in real dispute so that, optimistically, those could be addressed later. The Lutherans appeared and read to the Emperor their Augsburg Confession.

The Apology or Defense of the Augsburg Confession replies to an unpublished Confutation of the Roman church against the Augsburg Confession.

The Smalcald Articles are a confession of faith by Martin Luther setting forth what, at a later time, sill remained nonnegotiable articles of faith.

The Treatise addresses the offices of pope, bishop, and pastor-elder-bishop both in Scripture and by human arrangement.

Martin Luther wrote the Small Catechism for the instruction of lay people. Many years, much study, much preaching, and many decisions about options on how to teach the “six chief parts of Christian doctrine” went into the drafting. The result can be understood by children, and yet in lifelong study never can be fully mastered by elder adults or doctors of the church. The six parts are the Ten Commandments, Apostles’ Creed, Lord’s Prayer, Baptism, Confession and Absolution, Sacrament of the Altar, and Table of Duties.  Also included are morning and evening prayers and grace at table.

Martin Luther wrote the Large Catechism to show pastors and teachers how to teach the faith, but again, he did this in such a plain style that anyone can understand it.

Martin Luther died in 1543. Without his unifying influence, controversies arose in the Lutheran churches. The Formula of Concord resolved many of the controversies in 1577.

With the confession of the Formula of Concord, the Lutheran pastors and theologians drew together what they recognized as the confessions of the Lutheran church into the Book of Concord (1580).

In English there are several popular editions of the Book of Concord that go by the following abbreviated names:

The Book of Concord is accessible freely on the internet at

[1] Albrecht Peters, trans. Thomas H. Trapp, Commentary on Luther’s Catechisms, Creed (Concordia Publishing House, St. Louis: 2011), 161-162; Jack D. Kilcrease, The Doctrine of the Atonement from Luther to Forde (Eugene, Oregon: Wipf & Stock, 2018), 28-29, 44, 48; and Theodore Dierks, Reconciliation and Justification (St Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 1938), 19, 43-44.

[2] Robert D. Preus, “Perennial Problems in the Doctrine of Justification,” Concordia Theological Quarterly, 45:3 (July 1981). “In his essay, ‘Perennial Problems in the Doctrine of Justification,’ Preus lists five ways in which the doctrine of justification is threatened, of which, “The second assault against the article of justification by faith is to separate God’s act of justifying the sinner through faith from its basis in Christ’s atonement.” . . . ‘There can be no imputation of Christ’s righteousness with which I can stand before God, if Christ did not by His atonement acquire such righteousness.’ . . . For Preus, ‘The propter Christum is exclusive in that it is the only basis for God’s verdict of justification.” David P. Scaer, “Justification in the Theology of Robert D. Preus,” Concordia Theological Quarterly, 86:1 (2022), 43-56, 51.

[3] David P. Scaer, “Flights from Atonement,” Concordia Theological Quarterly, vol. 72, no. 3, 2008, pp. 195-210. Scaer “addresses the tendency of Lutherans to see atonement as a doctrine easily separated from – and less important than – justification. He demonstrates the intimate interrelationship and interdependence of these doctrines.” Charles A. Gieschen, “The Death of Jesus as Atonement for Sin,” editorial introduction to Concordia Theological Quarterly, vol. 72, no. 3, 2008.

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