5.4 Conversion and The Forgiveness of Sins

Simon, Simon, behold, Satan has desired to have you, that he may sift you as wheat: But I have prayed for you, that your faith fail not: and when you have returned, strengthen your brethren.

–Jesus, in The Gospel According to Luke

5.4.1 Voice of Zion Article

Luther’s experience and understanding of conversion and the forgiveness of sins is an area of study in which I have been engaged since the early 1990s. The following is an excerpt of an article I wrote on the topic as it appeared (with its original footnotes, here reproduced in a numbered list below the excerpted text) in the October 2003 Voice of Zion:

As believers, we can be comforted to see that God’s Word remains the same today as He revealed it through Luther and the Reformation five centuries ago. First and most importantly, Luther was a partaker and preacher of the same forgiveness of sins that Jesus authorized to believers when he presented the Holy Ghost to that first congregation of disciples,[1] the same gospel we hear among ourselves today. “Forgiveness of sins,” Luther preached in one sermon, “is nothing more than two words, in which the whole kingdom of Christ consists.”[2] In another sermon, he called the forgiveness of sins “the great and important article of faith,” the only article “by believing which we become and are called Christians, and which distinguishes us from all other saints on earth.” He alone is a Christian, Luther preached, “who receives this article of faith and knows that he is in the kingdom of grace, in which Christ takes him under his wing and unceasingly forgives him his sins.” But, Luther warns, “he who looks for something else or wishes to deal otherwise with God, must know that he is no Christian but is rejected and condemned by God.”[3]

Thus Luther was given to understand that conversion, by the forgiveness of sins, is key to membership in the spiritual body of the Church[4] for one in unbelief. Luther’s own conversion likely occurred when he had a meeting with an old priest that became a “living consolation to the disturbed young monk.”[5] The old monk encouraged Luther to believe not just in the forgiveness of sins in general terms, but in the forgiveness of his own sins.[6] The identity of that priest, the brother from whom Luther received the “one Word” of absolution mentioned above, remains unknown. One possibility is Johann von Staupitz, whom Luther praised in the last year of his life for “first of all being my father in this doctrine, and having given birth [to me] in Christ.”[7] Although Luther was saddened that Staupitz never joined him in public opposition to the Catholic Church’s false teachings, he would always treasure the counsel of his erstwhile mentor on the topic of repentance. In one letter Luther told Staupitz that “I received your word as a voice from heaven [It] pierced me like a sharp arrow.” When Luther afterward compared the portions of Scripture regarding repentance, that word, which had been the “bitterest in the Bible” to him “sounded dearer and sweeter than any other.”[8]

No doubt those Scripture portions included Paul’s Epistle to the Romans, from which Luther would so often write of man’s justification by faith, without works. He considered the admonition of Romans 3:23 that “all have sinned, and come short of the glory of God” to be “the main portion and centerpiece of this epistle and the entire Scripture,” interpreting it to mean that “everything that is not redeemed through the blood of Christ and become righteous in Faith is sin.”[9] The righteousness of God was revealed to Luther as something that could not be earned or bought, but a gift for which Christ had paid the full price. Indeed, Luther held one who offers something for his sins to “deny the Lord Christ, yea, disgrace and slander him, as if Christ’s blood did not count as much as our own repentance and making amends, or as if his blood were not enough to blot out all sin on earth.”[10]

Luther rejected the ordained priests’ claim of exclusive access to the confessional keys. He taught that all believers are members of a universal priesthood,[11] with confession being, in the words of one biographer, “an act Christians might perform in private conversation, even at a meal or on a walk.”[12] Luther understood Jesus’ giving of the Holy Spirit and the power to forgive sins the same way we do today: “This power is here given to all Christians, although some have appropriated it to themselves alone, like the pope, bishops, priests and monks have done: they declare publicly and arrogantly that this power was given to them alone and not to the laity. But Christ [in John 20:22] speaks neither of priests nor of monks, but says: `Receive ye the Holy Spirit.’ Whoever has the Holy Spirit, power is given to him, that is, to every one that is a Christian. But who is a Christian? He that believes. Whoever believes has the Holy Spirit. Therefore every Christian has the power . . . to forgive sins or to retain them.”[13]

1. John 20:22-23.
2. The Precious and Sacred Writings of Martin Luther, John Nicholas Lenker, Trans. (Minneapolis: Lutherans in All Lands, 1906), vol. 14, p. 201. 3. Lenker, vol. 14, pp. 212, 216, author editing of translation based on original German sermon transcription.
4. Luther and his Times: the Reformation from a new perspective (Saint Louis: Concordia, 1950), p. 292.
5. Schwiebert at p. 170.
6. History of the Reformation of the Sixteenth Century (New York: American Tract Society, 1848), 180-181.
7. Luther: Man between God and the Devil (Yale Univ. Press, 1989), p. 152.
8. The Letters of Martin Luther, Margaret A. Currie, Trans. & Ed. (London: MacMillan, 1908), p. 26.
9. Marginal note to Luther’s 1546 translation of the New Testament, author trans.
10. Sermon for 19th Sunday after Trinity at p. 223, author trans. ed.
11. The Reformation Era 1500-1600, (New York: MacMillan, 1973), p. 183.
12. Martin Luther: the Christian between God and Death (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1999), p. 258.
13. Sermon for Sunday after Easter from Lenker, vol. 11, pp. 375-376.

The article presents certain of Luther’s experiences and expressed views accurately, but the discussion is incomplete without exploring some important issues: the historical context of absolution around the time of the Reformation, Luther’s own private experience of rebirth in the tower of the Wittenberg monastery, and his teachings about the forgiveness of sins in prayer and the sacraments. The article also leaves the incorrect impression that private, lay absolution was as significant and frequently discussed a topic in Luther’s writings as it is in Conservative Laestadianism, where scarcely any devotional articles or sermons go without mentioning–often focusing on–the forgiveness of sins from believer to believer.

5.4.2 Historical Context

Ronald K. Rittgers has written an exhaustive and fascinating study, The Reformation of the Keys: Confession, Conscience, and Authority in 16th-Century Germany, of the theory and practice of absolution in the time leading up to, during, and immediately after Luther’s Reformation ministry. It provides a great deal of insight about the historical context in which Luther’s various quotes about absolution should be read. It focuses mostly on developments and attitudes in the imperial city of Nürnberg (some 300 km south of Luther’s Wittenberg), which can probably be generalized with some accuracy to Luther’s Germany as a whole. It is impossible to do justice to the depth of the book and its subject in a few pages, but here are a few points to at least paint a general picture.

On the eve of the Reformation, absolution was inextricably linked with both confession and penance. “Confessors were to assess penitents’ debts and penalties and then mediate divine credit to them after being assured that they were sufficiently sorrowful for having plundered God. Penitents were to evidence regret for having sinned, acknowledge all their serious offenses, humbly receive God’s undeserved mercy, and willingly pay the remainder of what they owed their Maker” (p. 33). There was no question of absolution being given without confession, or by anyone but a priest.

The confessional rite was both formal and infrequently administered (e.g., an annual requirement), as compared to current-day Laestadian practice:

Having fulfilled his obligation to elicit a full confession from the penitent, a confessor was then formally to exercise the power of the keys in absolving her of her guilt (that is, debt), using a form of the traditional “Ego te absolvo.” According to the 1490-1491 Banberg synod [i.e., church council], confessors were to absolve penitents with one of two formulas: “May our Lord Jesus Christ deign to absolve you,” or, “I, by the authority I possess, absolve you from your sins in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.” Following the absolution, the priest was to assign the confessant some work of penance with which she could pay the penalty she had incurred for her sins. [p. 37]

Luther’s teachings started making an impact in the late 1510s, with Nürnbergers coming “to reject the traditional faith, having been convinced in a matter of years that it was an elaborate hoax. Luther and his followers were able to persuade them that late medieval Christianity was a man-made religion, based on mere human teaching (Menschenlehre), whereas evangelical Christianity was a divinely revealed faith, grounded firmly on the Word” (p. 47). Luther’s mentor Staupitz contributed to that, assailing “traditional piety for its reliance on human moral effort and the performance of religious rituals to merit divine forgiveness,” and urging “trust in God’s mercy and not in [one’s] own good works to obtain absolution” (p. 49). But Staupitz never left Catholicism despite his fondness for and early influence on Luther, and “had no intention of dismantling traditional penitential Christianity” (p. 50).

In 1519, Luther wrote a Sermon on the Sacrament of Penance in which he “greatly elaborated his criticisms of the traditional practice of confession.” He now “argued that forgiveness of guilt was far more important than remission of penances because it ‘removes the fear and timidity of the heart toward God and makes the conscience inwardly light and happy.’ This, for Luther, was true forgiveness because it reconciled one with God, whereas remission of sacramental penances only brought one back into fellowship with the visible Church. Forgiveness of guilt prevented sins from ‘biting’ one’s conscience any longer and gave the penitent ‘a joyful confidence’ that his sins had been completely forgiven.” But he still said that confession was valid and important, and that God “had given the sacrament of penance to be ‘a consolation to all sinners’” (pp. 53-54).

There was plenty of popular opposition to the sacrament of penance because of its need for a person to search his conscience for all of his mortal sins, suffer the shame of telling them to the priest, and (more so in earlier years) perform some sort of penance in satisfaction for those sins. Thus, people were eager to embrace Luther’s changes while tending to ignore his cautions. It should be said, too, that Luther wasn’t entirely consistent; at one point early on he even stated “that the reception of private absolution should be a strictly voluntary matter” (p. 248).

Much of the tension at Nürnberg wound up centering around Andreas Osiander [1498-1552], a preacher appointed there in 1522 who became a leader of the city’s evangelical movement. Early on, he preached “against the sacrament of penance, arguing it was a human creation,” but “was also anxious to retain the power of the keys.” While Osiander “likely envisioned [the] use of the keys taking place in a private encounter between penitent and priest free from the traditional interrogation of conscience and mandatory confession of all mortal sins,” his “congregation interpreted his sermons to mean that they need not turn up in the confessional at all” (p. 67). Osiander’s career would come to be defined by his objection to general absolution, a practice that, ironically, would be revived in the wake of his helping to dismantle the sacrament of penance and the private absolution it involved.

A pivotal event in that revival was in 1524, when a prior of the Nürnberg Augustinian order substituted a general confession in place of private confession for preparation of the celebrants of the mass. “This confession was quite evangelical in tone. It emphasized sins of unbelief and stressed that forgiveness came through placing one’s faith in the divine promise of absolution.” After the general confession, the cleric conducting the mass

said to the congregation, “The Lord God says to us, ‘according to your faith it will happen to you! Go forth in peace! Sin no more! Your sins are forgiven, pardoned, and remitted.’” He then pronounced a general absolution: “My dear brothers and sisters, God has had mercy on you and has forgiven us all our sins and will give us eternal life. Amen.” [p. 84]

This new mass was revolutionary in its prominence and the importance it would have in the hearts and minds of a laity who were showing their disdain for private absolution and all that it had entailed. But it did not represent a wholly new invention of general absolution, which

had long been part of the traditional mass in Germany, a rare inclusion of the vernacular in the Latin liturgy. The extant forms for general confession, or Offene Schuld, constitute some of the oldest remnants of the German language we possess, a few even dating back to the Carolingian era [i.e., before the tenth century]. General confession typically took place after the sermon and before the celebration of the Eucharist, providing laypeople with a final opportunity to prepare themselves for reception of the consecrated host. Though theologians debated its exact nature, by the beginning of the sixteenth century most held that general confession was not a sacrament and, at best, provided forgiveness for venial sins only. Evangelical reformers quickly adopted general confession as a way of confessing and absolving the laity without risking the alleged abuses of the sacrament of penance. By removing offensive elements from the traditional formulas (for example, references to the saints and the Virgin Mary, along with the optative wording of the absolution), early Protestants transformed general confession into an acceptable evangelical ritual [pp. 84-85].

Indeed, Luther’s Formula of Mass and Communion for the Church at Wittenberg from a year earlier [1523] had specified the saying of

The Peace of the Lord, etc, which is, so to speak, a public absolution of the sins of the communicants, truly the Gospel voice announcing remission of sins, the one and most worthy preparation for the Lord’s Table, if it be apprehended by faith and not otherwise than though it came forth from the mouth of Christ Himself. [PE 6, 90-91]

Despite protests by Osiander and even the implicit disapproval of Luther, who had “instructed members of Wittenberg’s clergy to resurrect private confession in their churches” (p. 82), the laity embraced general confession as their “preferred way of preparing for the Lord’s Supper” (p. 92).

Conflict continued, with Osiander opposing general absolution as “a source of ‘cheap grace’ that made a mockery of true forgiveness of sins” (p. 140) and Luther finding value in it, but only alongside private absolution. Writing jointly to the Nürnberger city authorities, Luther and Melanchthon affirmed

the value of private absolution [and] repeated their previous position that forgiveness could be obtained by believing hearts through either private absolution or a sermon. Both owed their authority to God’s promise to be present with his Word, and both required faith [p. 164].

A colleague of Osiander, Johannes Brenz, took a nuanced view

that pronouncing general absolution after the sermon–its usual place in the liturgy–was an abuse of the clerical authority to bind and loose sins because it suggested to the laity that the sermon itself was not a valid form of forgiveness. Such a practice would inevitably lead to a de-emphasis on the sermon as a means of absolution. [p. 142]

This, then, is the context for Luther’s teachings about absolution and the Augsburg Confession’s 1530 statement that “private Absolution should be retained in the churches” (Article 11; McCain 2005, 35).

5.4.3 Shared Doctrine and Significance

The single most compelling aspect of Conservative Laestadianism to me is how remarkably its doctrine and practice conforms with the teachings of Luther about absolution and the Keys of the Kingdom. The importance of absolution is shared by both. Even in 1519, a year before excluding penance from the list of sacraments, Luther wrote that the “true way and the right method, for which there is no other,” of attaining “forgiveness of guilt and for calming the heart in the face of sins” is

that most worthy, gracious, and holy sacrament of penance, which God gave for the comfort of all sinners when he gave the keys to St. Peter in behalf of the whole Christian Church and, in Matthew 16[:19], said “Whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.” This holy, comforting, and gracious word of God must enter deeply into the heart of every Christian, where he may with great gratitude let it become part of him [The Sacrament of Penance, from Bachmann 1970, 10-11].

Luther then described the “holy sacrament of penance” as having three parts, absolution being the first: “These are the words of the priests which show, tell, and proclaim to you that you are free and that your sins are forgiven you by God according to them by virtue of the above-quoted words of Christ to St. Peter.” The second part “is grace, the forgiveness of sins, the peace and comfort of the conscience, as the words declare.” The third part “is faith, which firmly believes that the absolution and words of the priests are true” (p. 11). In this formulation, Luther discarded “the traditional division of the sacrament into contrition, confession, and satisfaction” (Rittgers 2004, 54).

Luther’s 1525 sermon for the Nineteenth Sunday after Trinity, quoted above in this author’s Voice of Zion article, is for Conservatives another treasure trove of doctrinally consistent teaching. He concludes the sermon with a rousing summary of the “power on earth to forgive sins,” which he, like Conservatives, connects with Christ’s giving of the Holy Ghost in John 20:22-23:

All men who are Christians and have been baptised have this power. For with this they praise Christ, and the word is put into their mouth, so that they may and are able to say, if they wish, and as often as it is necessary: Behold O Man! God offers thee his grace, forgives thee all thy sins; be comforted, thy sins are forgiven; only believe and thou wilt surely have forgiveness. This word of consolation shall not cease among Christians until the last day: “Thy sins are forgiven, be of good cheer.” Such language a Christian always uses and openly declares the forgiveness of sins. For this reason and in this manner a Christian has power to forgive sins. [from The Precious and Sacred Writings of Martin Luther, John Nicholas Lenker, trans., Vol. 14, 208-209]

Luther preached another sermon for the Nineteenth Sunday after Trinity in 1529 with the same text (Mt 9:1-8) and emphasis on absolution and the oral word. He criticizes those who “imagine that God will deal separately with each one by some special internal light and mysterious revelation, and give him the Holy Ghost, as though there was no need of the written Word or the external sermon.” To the contrary, Luther said, “we are to know that God has ordained that no one shall come to the knowledge of Christ, nor obtain the forgiveness acquired by him, nor receive the Holy Ghost, without the use of external and public means; but God has embraced this treasure in the oral word or public ministry, and will not perform his work in a corner or mysteriously in the heart, but will have it heralded and distributed openly among the people” (p. 224). In words quite supportive of Conservative Laestadians’ view of conversion as something obtained from the proclamation of a believer, Luther said he had “always taught that the oral word must precede everything else, must be comprehended with the ears, if the Holy Ghost is to enter the heart, who through the Word enlightens it and works faith. Consequently faith does not come except through the hearing and oral preaching of the Gospel, in which it has its beginning, growth and strength” (p. 225).

In 1530, Luther wrote The Keys, a seminal work in which he sought to correct “[t]he horrible abuse and misunderstanding of the precious keys” that he called “one of the greatest plagues which God’s wrath has spread over the ungrateful world” (LW 40, 325). The “real basis and true nature” of those keys, he wrote, is Christ’s statement in Mt 18:18: “‘Truly, I say to you, whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.’ Notice that assuredly, yes assuredly, it shall be bound and loosed what we bind and loose on earth” (p. 364). Christ does not expect us to know what he binds and looses in heaven: “Who would and could know that? But he speaks in this fashion, If you bind and loose on earth, I will also bind and loose right along with you in heaven” (pp. 364-65). Those with a mistaken notion about the keys think of God

as ‘way up there in heaven, very, very far removed from his Word here below. So we stand there and with open mouth stare heavenward and invent still other keys. Yet Christ says very clearly in Matt. 16:19 that he will give the keys to Peter. He does not say he has two kinds of keys, but he gives to Peter the keys he himself has and no others. It is as if he were saying: Why are you staring heavenward in search of my keys? Do you not understand I gave them to Peter? They are indeed the keys of heaven, but they are not found in heaven. I left them on earth. Don’t look for them in heaven or anywhere else except in Peter’s mouth where I have placed them. Peter’s mouth is my mouth, and his tongue is my key case. His office is my office, his binding and loosing are my binding and loosing. His keys are my keys, and I have no others, nor do I know of any others. [pp. 365-66]

The significance of the keys, then, is that they “are an office, a power or command given by God through Christ to all of Christendom for the retaining and remitting of the sins of men.” Luther urged his readers not to be led astray by “Pharisaic babbling by which some deceive themselves, saying, ‘How can a man forgive sins when he can bestow neither grace nor the Holy Spirit?’ Rely on the words of Christ and be assured that God has no other way to forgives sins than through the spoken Word, as he has commanded us. If you do not look for forgiveness through the Word, you will gape toward heaven in vain for grace, or (as they say), for a sense of inner forgiveness” (p. 366).

This is, as with the 1529 Nineteenth Sunday after Trinity sermon quoted above, a powerful refutation of the attitude of many present-day protestants who indeed seek “a sense of inner forgiveness” through the Sinner’s Prayer and private, direct communion with Jesus as their “personal Savior.” It is a passage from which Conservative Laestadians can rightly take much comfort, who continue to place such value and emphasis on the “loosing key”–more so than all other Christian groups of which I’m aware except the OALC and FALC–that it still “carries forward the work of the gospel. It invites to grace and mercy. It comforts and promises life and salvation through the forgiveness of sins” (p. 373).

The year 1530 also saw the publication of the Augsburg Confession, which indicates that the first Lutherans were “taught that they should highly prize the Absolution as being God’s voice and pronounced by God’s command. The Power of the Keys is set forth in its beauty. [The people] are reminded what great consolation it brings to anxious consciences and that God requires faith to believe such Absolution as a voice sounding from heaven” (Article 25; McCain 2005, 50). A year later, the Apology of the Augsburg Confession went on to state:

Many troubled consciences have derived comfort from our teaching. They have been comforted after they heard that it is God’s command, no, rather the very voice of the Gospel, that we should believe the Absolution and regard it as certain that the forgiveness of sins is freely granted to us for Christ’s sake. We should believe that through this faith we are truly reconciled to God. [Article 11; McCain 2005, 156]

[T]he Power of the Keys administers and presents the Gospel through Absolution, which is the true voice of the Gospel. We also it include Absolution when we speak of faith, because "faith comes from hearing," as Paul says in Romans 10:17. When the Gospel is heard and the Absolution is heard, the conscience is encouraged and receives comfort. Because God truly brings a person to life through the Word, the Keys truly forgive sins before God. According to Luke 10:16, “the one who hears you hears Me.” Therefore, the voice of the one absolving must be believed no differently than we would believe a voice from heaven. [Article 12a; p. 162]

Absolution is God’s Word which, by divine authority, the Power of the Keys pronounces upon individuals. Therefore, it would be wicked to remove private Absolution from the Church. If anyone despises private Absolution, he does not understand what the forgiveness of sins or the Power of the Keys is. [Article 12b; p. 172]

In 1539, Luther criticized the pope for misinterpreting Christ’s statement to Peter about binding and loosing as applying to his own power, and said “one finds that Christ is speaking of the binding and loosing of sin. The keys are keys to the kingdom of heaven, into which no one enters except through forgiveness of sin, and from which no one is excluded except those who are bound because of an impenitent life. Thus the words do not concern Saint Peter’s power, but the need of miserable sinners, or of proud sinners . . . ” (On the Councils and the Churches, from PE 5, 174-75).

5.4.4 Thorns in the Rose Bed

For all this, it is important to remember that, although Luther “clearly regarded absolution as a means of grace, he was still very reluctant to refer to the keys as a sacrament.” In The Keys, “[a]bsolution was still a pseudo-sacrament in his mind. He would not place it on the same level with baptism and the Lord’s Supper” (Rittgers 2004, 156). He had done so in the 1519 The Sacrament of Penance, but changed that view just a year later, in The Babylonian Captivity of the Church. There he said that “there are, strictly speaking, but two sacraments in the Church of God–baptism and bread [i.e., Communion]; for only in these two do we find both the divinely instituted sign and the promise of forgiveness of sins. The sacrament of penance, which I added to these two, lacks the divinely instituted visible sign, and is, as I have said, nothing but a return to baptism” (PE 2, 291-92).

Absolution seems to have been elevated back to sacramental status in The Apology of the Augsburg Confession [1531], however. Its Article 11 says that “most people in our churches frequently use the Sacraments (Absolution and the Lord’s Supper) during the year” (McCain 2005, 156). Article 13 states explicitly that “Baptism, the Lord’s Supper, and Absolution (which is the Sacrament of Repentance) are truly Sacraments. For these rites have God’s command and the promise of grace” (p. 184).

Whether or not Luther ultimately viewed absolution as one of the sacraments, it is hard to reconcile the importance he places on baptism and Communion with Conservative Laestadian belief and practice. The proclamation of absolution is, for Conservatives, the exclusive means by which those few who possess the Holy Spirit are able to proclaim the forgiveness of sins and personally convey God’s grace to mankind.

Despite Luther’s various comments about how highly prized and indispensible absolution is, he did not view it as the only means of grace. Summarizing Luther’s view of the matter, Althaus writes, “In baptism we are immediately given complete forgiveness of sins and purity in God’s judgment” (1963, 356). And, regarding Communion, “the forgiveness of sins stands in the center of Luther’s thinking as the special gift of the sacrament” (p. 381). That may be unthinkable for Conservatives who equate “the forgiveness of sins” with absolution itself, conveyed by nothing else but the proclamation of forgiveness. But consider the following quotations from various of Luther’s writings:

The significance of baptism is a blessed dying unto sin and a resurrection in the grace of God, so that the old man, which is conceived and born in sin, is there drowned, and a new man, born in grace, comes forth and rises. . . . For just as a child is drawn out of its mother’s womb and born, and through this fleshly birth is a sinful man and a child of wrath, so man is drawn out of baptism and spiritually born, and through this spiritual birth is a child of grace and a justified man. Therefore sins are drowned in baptism, and in place of sin, righteousness comes forth. [A Treatise on Baptism (1519); PE 1, 57]

[W]hen a man comes forth out of baptism, he is pure and without sin, wholly guiltless. [p. 59]1

[W]e must have a care that no false security creeps in and says to itself: “Baptism is so gracious and so great a thing that God will not count our sins against us, and as soon as we turn again from sin, everything is right, by virtue of baptism; meanwhile, therefore, I will live and do my own will, and afterwards, or when about to die, will remember my baptism and remind God of His covenant, and then fulfill the work and purpose of my baptism.” Baptism is, indeed, so great a thing that if you turn again from sins and appeal to the covenant of baptism, your sins are forgiven. Only see to it, if you thus wickedly and wantonly sin, presuming on God’s grace, that the judgment does not lay hold upon you and anticipate your turning back; and beware lest, even if you then desire to believe or to trust in your baptism, your trial be, by God’s decree, so great that your faith is not able to stand. [p. 71, emphasis added]2

[I]f you are present at mass [i.e., Communion] and do not consider nor believe that here Christ through His testament has bequeathed and given you forgiveness of all your sins, what else is it, then as if you said: “I do not know or do not believe that it is true that forgiveness of my sins is here bequeathed and given me”? Oh, how many masses there are in the world at present! But how few who hear them with such faith and benefit! Most grievously is God provoked to anger thereby. [A Treatise on Good Works (1520); PE 1, 223-24]

Lo, how rich therefore is a Christian, or one who is baptised! Even if he would, he cannot lose his salvation, however much he sin, unless he will not believe. For no sin can condemn him save unbelief alone. All other sins,–if faith in God’s promise made in baptism return or remain,–all other sins, I say, are immediately blotted out through that same faith, or rather through the truth of God, because He cannot deny Himself if you but confess Him and cling believing to Him that promises. But as for contrition, confession of sins, and satisfaction [the three parts of penance],–if you turn your attention to them and neglect this truth of God, they will suddenly fail you and leave you more wretched than before. [The Babylonian Captivity of the Church (1520); PE 2, 222]

[W]e cannot confess our secret sins, for God alone knows them, and we are to obtain remission by prayer. [“An Article in Defense of all the Articles of Dr. Martin Luther Wrongly Condemned in the Roman Bull” (1521); PE 3, 52]

We believe that we have the forgiveness of sins in Christianity, which takes place through the holy Sacraments and absolution, as well as all kinds of comforting sayings of the entire Gospel. [Large Catechism (1529), Part 2, §54]

Look at . . . the power and benefit that is ultimately instituted in the Sacrament, in which also the most necessary thing is, and what we should seek and go there for. Now that is clear and easy to understand, even from the words of Jesus, “This is My body and blood, given and shed for you for the forgiveness of sins.” Briefly, that is like saying, “For this reason we go to the Sacrament, that we there receive such a treasure through this, and in this, that we have the forgiveness of sins handed to us. [Large Catechism, Part 5, §§21-22]

[W]hen we pray, we remember the promise and thus think: “Dear Father, for this reason I come and ask you, that you would forgive me, not that I could make satisfaction for or earn it, but rather because you have promised it and have attached the seal to it, that it should so be known, as if I had an absolution proclaimed from you yourself.” [Large Catechism, Part 3, §§97-98]

[Baptism] works forgiveness of sins, releases from death and the devil and gives eternal salvation to all who believe it, as the word and promises of God declare. [Small Catechism (1529), Part 4, §§5-6]

What then is the benefit of such eating and drinking [of the Sacrament]? That is indicated to us by these words: “Given and shed for you [plural] for the forgiveness of sins,” that is, the forgiveness of sins, life, and salvation are given to us through these words, for where forgiveness of sins is, there is also life and salvation. [Small Catechism, Part 6, §§5-6]

To the Anabaptists it appears to be great wisdom when they come with their big talk and rant that water cannot touch the spirit or the soul, but only the naked skin, and that for this reason Baptism contributes nothing to the remission of sins. [Lectures on Genesis (1535), Ch. 3, §6]

In a 1522 sermon, Luther asked what harm there is if a man “humbles himself a little before his neighbor, puts himself to shame, looks for a word of comfort from him, and takes it to himself and believes it, as if he heard it from God himself” (PE 2, 424). We must, he said,

have many absolutions, so that we may strengthen our timid consciences and despairing hearts against the devil and against God. Therefore no man shall forbid the confession nor keep or drive any one away from it. And if any one wrestles with his sins, is eager to be rid of them and looks for some assurance from the Scriptures, let him go and confess to another in secret, and receive what is said to him there as if it came directly from God’s own lips. Whoever has the strong and firm faith that his sins are forgiven, may ignore this confession and confess to God alone. But how many have such a strong faith? Therefore, as I have said, I will not let this private confession be taken from me. Yet I would force no one to it, but leave the matter to everyone’s free will. [p. 424]

But Luther’s “we must have many absolutions” can be taken two ways. The one that matches Conservative Laestadian doctrine is that we would resort often to obtaining absolution from our neighbor. The other, which seems like a more likely reading based on the paragraph immediately following in Luther’s sermon, is that such personal contact is just one of many types of “absolutions”:

For our God is not so miserly that He has left us with only one comfort or strengthening for our conscience, or one absolution, but we have many absolutions in the Gospel, and are showered richly with them. For instance, we have this in the Gospel: “If ye forgive men their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you.” Another comfort we have in the Lord’s Prayer: “Forgive us our trespasses,” etc. A third is our baptism, when I reason thus: See my Lord, I am baptized in Thy name so that I may be assured of Thy grace and mercy. After that we have the private confession, when I go and receive a sure absolution as if God Himself spake it, so that I may be assured that my sins are forgiven. Finally I take to myself the blessed sacrament, when I eat His body and drink His blood as a sign that I am rid of my sins and God has freed me from all my frailties; and in order to make me sure of this, He gives me His body to eat and His blood to drink, so that I shall not and cannot despair: I cannot doubt I have a gracious God. [pp. 424-25]

5.4.5 Lay Absolution

Many of these quotes, and those in the last paragraph of my Voice of Zion article reproduced above, make it clear that Luther included the possibility of lay absolution from believer to believer. Conservatives who have grown up receiving absolution on an everyday basis from their friends and family–and preaching it back to them in return–should appreciate what a revolutionary idea this was after over a thousand years of complete clerical monopoly over the keys.

For Luther, “all brothers and sisters” were to be permitted “freely to hear the confession of hidden sins, so that the sinner may make his sins known to whomever he will and seek pardon and comfort, that is, the word of Christ, by the mouth of his neighbor” (The Babylonian Captivity of the Church [1520]; PE 2, 252). In The Sacrament of Penance (1519), he expressed no doubt that “every one is absolved from his hidden sins when he has made confession, . . . sought pardon and amended his ways, privately before any brother, however much the violence of the pontiffs may rage against it; for Christ has given to every one of His believers the power to absolve even open sins.” He would “permit all brothers and sisters freely to hear the confession of hidden sins, so that the sinner may make his sins known to whomever he will and seek pardon and comfort, that is, the word of Christ, by the mouth of his neighbor” (PE 2, 252). And when Luther asked in 1522 what harm there is if a man “humbles himself a little before his neighbor, puts himself to shame, looks for a word of comfort from him, and takes it to himself and believes it, as if he heard it from God himself,” as quoted above (PE 2, 424), he continued to support the idea of lay absolution.

Rittgers is quite restrained about the impact of lay absolution, though. While it was “still valid in theory,” it “was soon overshadowed by confession to a pastor” (Rittgers 2004, 113), and there is certainly evidence for that view. For example, even in 1520, Luther’s Open Letter to the Christian Nobility relegated lay baptism and absolution to “cases of necessity”:

If a little group of pious Christian layman were taken captive and set down in a wilderness, and had among them no priest consecrated by a bishop, and if there in the wilderness they were to agree to choosing one of themselves, married or unmarried, and were to charge him with the office of baptizing, saying mass, absolving and preaching, such a man would be as truly a priest as though all bishops and popes had consecrated him. [PE 2, 67]

Another example of a case of necessity is also found in the Open Letter, when Luther’s “brethren and sisters” still in the Catholic convents were unable to get their superiors “to grant you permission to confess your secret sins to whomever you wish, then take them to whatever brother or sister you will and confess them, receive absolution, and then go and do whatever you wish and ought to do; only believe firmly that you are absolved, and nothing more is needed” (p. 124).

Still, I think the importance of Luther’s support for the idea of the priesthood of all believers should not be understated. Luther “constantly emphasizes the Christian’s evangelical authority to come before God on behalf of the brethren and also of the world” (Althaus 1963, 314). He certainly “limits the public preaching of the word within the church to those who have been called through the community.” But within those limitations, “all have been called to proclaim God’s word to one another” (p. 315). And a “special form of such preaching of God’s word to each other is speaking the forgiveness of sins” (p. 316), which became possible outside the priestly confessional only as a result of Luther’s reforms.

5.4.6 Luther’s Conversion

As with the early figures of Laestadianism (see 4.1.4), Luther’s own experiences don’t exactly fit in with the Conservative view of conversion by the proclamation of the forgiveness of sins. There were a couple of moments in his early life that Luther considered pivotal in his conversion. The one that most closely comports with Conservative doctrine is what I referenced in my 2003 Voice of Zion article by stating that Luther had “‘received comfort from a brother through this one word’ of absolution during his years in the Erfurt monastery of Augustinians.” D’Aubigné, in a passage within the citation for that statement, places the event in “the second year of [Luther’s] abode in the convent” (around 1507) and describes it as follows:

One day, as he lay overwhelmed with despair, an aged monk entered his cell, and addressed a few words of comfort to him. Luther opened his heart to him, and made known the fears by which he was tormented. The venerable old man was incapable of following up that soul in all its doubts, as Staupitz had done; but he knew his Credo, and had found in it much consolation to his heart. He will therefore apply the same remedy to his young brother. Leading him back to that Apostles’ Creed which Luther had learnt in early childhood at the school of Mansfeldt, the aged monk repeated this article with kind good-nature: I believe in the forgiveness of sins. The simple words, which the pious brother pronounced with sincerity in this decisive moment, diffused great consolation in Luther’s heart. “I believe,” he repeated to himself erelong on his bed of sickness, “I believe in the forgiveness of sins!”–“Ah!” said the monk, “you must believe not only in the forgiveness of David’s and of Peter’s sins, for this even the devils believe. It is God’s command that we believe our own sins are forgiven to us.” How delightful did this commandment seem to poor Luther! “Hear what St. Bernard says in his discourse on the Annunciation,” added the aged brother: “The testimony of the Holy Ghost in my heart is this: Thy sins are forgiven thee.” From this moment light sprung up in the heart of the young monk of Erfurth. The word of grace had been pronounced: he had believed in it” [pp. 180-81]

There is certainly much in this that compares with the current Laestadian experience of conversion. Luther had to believe in that forgiveness, not just as some abstract concept, but for himself personally.

But why did Luther refer to two other epiphanies in later correspondence and writings? As discussed in my Voice of Zion article, Staupitz’s words about repentance “pierced him like a sharp arrow” and he took on an entirely new viewpoint about Paul’s writings on repentance. That was undoubtedly a separate occasion from his encounter with the anonymous “aged monk,” who was (contrary to my article) probably not Staupitz, the latter being around 47 years old at the time. And the other epiphany, his Turmelebnis in the Wittenberg monastery, is problematic in its lack of human contact, the touchstone of Laestadian conversion today.

The Turmelebnis, or tower experience, undoubtedly took place after his encounters with the “aged monk” and Staupitz, but the exact date is still the subject of scholarly debate. Luther’s own recollection in the last year of his life was that it occurred in 1519, but such a date seems unlikely, being after some important early works including his 95 Theses. Gritsch says the search for the date of Luther’s “‘conversion’ or spiritual ‘breakthrough’” has “created a literary jungle. Recent scholarship tends to date the breakthrough late, about 1517 or 1518” (Gritsch 2002, 10 & 273). Gritsch co-authored another book with Robert W. Jenson, Lutheranism: the Theological Movement and its Confessional Writings, which places the tower experience “sometime between 1508 and 1518” (p. 45).

In any event, Luther recalls it as being a pivotal experience in his life: “The Holy Spirit unveiled the Scriptures for me in this tower” (from Gritsch 2002, 12). And, strikingly to the Conservative Laestadian reader, it was a very private one:

Though I lived as a monk without reproach, I felt that I was a sinner before God with an extremely disturbed conscience. I could not believe that he was placated by my satisfaction. I did not love, yes, I hated the righteous God who punishes sinners, and secretly, if not blasphemously, certainly murmuring greatly, I was angry with God, and said, “As if, indeed, it is not enough, that miserable sinners, eternally lost through original sin, are crushed by every kind of calamity by the law of the Decalogue [i.e., Ten Commandments], without having God add pain to pain by the gospel and also by the gospel threatening us with his righteousness and wrath!” Thus I raged with a fierce and troubled conscience. Nevertheless, I beat importunately upon Paul at that place, most ardently desiring to know what St. Paul wanted.

At last, by the mercy of God, meditating day and night, I gave heed to the context of the words, namely, “In it the righteousness of God is revealed, as it is written, ‘He who through faith is righteous shall live.’” There I began to understand that the righteousness of God is that by which the righteous lives by a gift of God, namely by faith. And this is the meaning: the righteousness of God is revealed by the gospel, namely, the passive righteousness with which merciful God justifies us by faith, as it is written, “He who through faith is righteous shall live.” Here I felt that I was altogether born again and had entered paradise itself through open gates. There a totally other face of the entire Scripture showed itself to me. . . .

And I extolled my sweetest word with a love as great as the hatred with which I had before hated the word “righteousness of God.” Thus that place in Paul was for me truly the gate to paradise . . . [Preface to the Complete Edition of Luther’s Latin Writings, from Lull 2005, 8-9].

1 One who would argue that Luther’s asserted benefit of baptism is quickly lost to sin (that only can be remitted through absolution) should consider the thousands of adult baptisms performed in other churches and missionary encounters every day around the world. Conservatives would not contest the efficacy of those baptisms for having been done by “unbelieving” officiants (nor would Luther himself), but also would not consider the baptized person to be “heaven acceptable” even if he died moments after receiving the rite.

2 Luther’s reply to the sinner completely misses the point of Conservative Laestadian doctrine, which would instead warn the sinner that baptism does nothing for his committed, unforgiven sins even if he “turns again from” them.