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date: 15 January 2021

Penance, Confession, Forgiveness, and Reconciliation in Martin Luther’s Context and Writingslocked

  • Ronald K. RittgersRonald K. RittgersValparaiso University


Martin Luther vigorously opposed the traditional sacrament of penance and the theology upon which it was based, arguing that they had no scriptural warrant and that they promoted a troubled conscience, works righteousness, and clerical tyranny. As Luther developed his evangelical soteriology, he dismantled the entire late medieval penitential system, seeking to provide for himself and others what he believed this system lacked: an enduring sense of forgiveness of sin. Luther believed that justification by faith offered this certainty of absolution. Still, despite Luther’s opposition to the sacrament of penance, he was a strong supporter of a reformed version of private confession, arguing that it allowed the consoling promises of the Word to be applied directly to the troubled conscience. Owing to Luther’s support for the practice, Lutherans soon developed an evangelical version of private confession that appeared in the vast majority of Lutheran church ordinances as a mandatory rite. However, there was disagreement among Lutherans as to the theological justification for this new rite, with some arguing that it was a sacrament, while others, including Luther, maintained that it was not. This disagreement contributed to an important debate about private confession in the 1530s, the so-called Nürnberg Absolution Controversy, in which Andreas Osiander sought to make a compelling case for the sacramental status of private confession. Luther was directly involved in this debate, and while he shared Osiander’s enthusiasm for private confession, he disagreed with Osiander’s theology of the power of keys. Luther’s view won out, but Osiander raised important questions about the theological justification for Lutheran private confession as a mandatory rite.

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