Works of Martin Luther - With Introductions and Notes (Volume I)
by Martin Luther
Previous Part     1  2  3  4  5  6  7  8  9     Next Part
Home - Random Browse

None the less, however, stories about the avarice of the priests were bruited in the taverns, and evil was spoken of the power of the keys and of the Supreme Pontiff, and as evidence of this, I could cite the common talk of this whole land. I truly confess that I was on fire with zeal for Christ, as I thought, or with the heat of youth, if you prefer to have it so; and yet I saw that it was not in place for me to make any decrees or to do anything in these matters. Therefore I privately admonished some of the prelates of the Church. By some of them I was kindly received, to others I seemed ridiculous, to still others something worse; for the terror of your name and the threat of Church censures prevailed. At last, since I could do nothing else, it seemed good that I should offer at least a gentle resistance to them, i. e., question and discuss their teachings. Therefore I published a set of theses, inviting only the more learned to dispute with me if they wished; as should be evident, even to my adversaries, from the Preface to the Disputation.[3]

Lo, this is the fire with which they complain that all the world is now ablaze! Perhaps it is because they are indignant that I, who by your own apostolic authority am a Master of Theology, have the right to conduct public disputations, according to the custom of all the Universities and of the whole Church, not only about indulgences, but also about God's power and remission and mercy, which are incomparably greater subjects. I am not much moved, however, by the fact that they envy me the privilege granted me by the power of your Holiness, since I am unwillingly compelled to yield to them in things of far greater moment, viz., when they mix the dreams of Aristotle with theological matters, and conduct nonsensical disputations about the majesty of God, beyond and against the privilege granted them.

It is a miracle to me by what fate it has come about that this single Disputation of mine should, more than any other, of mine or of any of the teachers, have gone out into very nearly the whole land. It was made public at our University and for our University only, and it was made public in such wise that I cannot believe it has become known to all men. For it is a set of theses, not doctrines or dogmas, and they are put, according to custom, in an obscure and enigmatic way. Otherwise, if I had been able to foresee what was coming, I should have taken care, for my part, that they would be easier to understand.

Now what shall I do? I cannot recant them; and yet I see that marvelous enmity is inflamed against me because of their dissemination. It is unwillingly that I incur the public and perilous and various judgment of men, especially since I am unlearned, dull of brain, empty of scholarship; and that too in this brilliant age of ours, which by its achievements in letters and learning can force even Cicero into the corner, though he was no base follower of the public light. But necessity compels me to be the goose that squawks among the swans.

And so, to soften my enemies and to fulfil the desires of many, I herewith send forth these trifling explanations of my Disputation; I send them forth in order, too, that I may be more safe under the defense of your name and the shadow of your protection. In them all may see, who will, how purely and amply I have sought after and cherished the power of the Church and reverence for the keys; and, at the same rime, how unjustly and falsely my adversaries have befouled me with so many names. For if I had been such a one as they wish to make me out, and if I had not, on the contrary, done everything correctly, according to my academic privilege, the Most Illustrious Prince Frederick, Duke of Saxony, Imperial Elector, etc., would never have tolerated such a pest in his University, for he most dearly loves the Catholic and Apostolic truth, nor could I have been tolerated by the keen and learned men of our University. But what has been done, I do because those most courteous men do not fear openly to involve both the Prince and the University in the same disgrace with myself.[4]

Wherefore, most blessed Father, I cast myself at the feet of your Holiness, with all that I have and all that I am. Quicken, kill, call, recall, approve, reprove, as you will. In your voice I shall recognize the voice of Christ directing you and speaking in you. If I have deserved death, I shall not refuse to die. For the earth is the Lord's and the fulness thereof. [Ps. 24:1] He is blessed forever. Amen.

May He have you too forever in His keeping. Amen.



[1] See Introduction, pp. 18, 21.

[2] i. e. The papal laws regulating the methods of collectors of church-funds.

[3] The Ninety-five Theses.

[4] See Tetzel's II. Disputation, Theses 47, 48. Loescher, I, p. 522.



This treatise is not a sermon in the ordinary acceptation of the term. It was not preached, but, according to the Latin usage of the word "sermo," was rather "a discourse," "a discussion," "a disputation" concerning baptism. Even in popular usage, the term "sermon" implies careful preparation and the orderly arrangement of thought. Here, therefore, we have a carefully prepared statement of Luther's opinion of the real significance of baptism. Published in November, 1519, and shortly afterward in a Latin translation,[1] it shows that the leading features of his doctrine on this subject were already fixed. With it should be read the chapter in the Large Catechism (1519), and the treatise Von der Wiedertaufe (1538).[2] The treatment is not polemical, but objective and practical. The Anabaptist controversy was still in the future. No objections against Infant Baptism or problems that it suggested were pressing for attention. Nothing more is attempted than to explain in a very plain and practical way how every one who has been baptised should regard his baptism. It commits to writing in an entirely impersonal way a problem of Luther's own inner life, for the instruction of others similarly perplexed.

He is confronted with a rite universally found in Christendom and nowhere else, the one distinctive mark of a Christian, the seal of a divine covenant. What it means is proclaimed by its very external form. But it is more than a mere object-lesson pictorially representing a great truth. With Luther, Word and Spirit, sign and that which is signified, belong together. Wherever the one is present, there also is the efficacy of the other. The sign is not limited to the moment of administration, and that which is signified is not projected far into the distant future of adult years.

The emphatic preference here shown for immersion may surprise those not familiar with Luther's writings. He prefers it as a matter of choice between non-essentials. To quote only his treatise of the next year on the Babylonian Captivity: "I wish that those to be baptised were entirety sunken in the water; not that I think it necessary, but that of so perfect and complete a thing, there should be also an equally complete and perfect sign." [3] It was a form that was granted as permissible in current Orders approved by the Roman Church, and was continued in succeeding Orders.[4] Even when immersion was not used, the copious application of the water was a prominent feature of the ceremony. No one is better qualified to speak on this subject than Prof. Rietschel, himself formerly a Wittenberger: "The form of baptism at Wittenberg is manifest from the picture by L. Cranach on the altar of the Wittenberg Pfarrkirche, in which Melanchthon is administering baptism. At Melanchthon's left hand lies the completely naked child over the foot. With his right hand he is pouring water upon the child's head, from which the water is copiously flowing." [5]

Nor should it be forgotten that the immersion which Luther had in mind was not that of adults, almost unknown at the time, and as he himself says, practically unknown for about a thousand years,[6] but that of infants. In the immersion of infants, he finds two things: first, the sinking of the child beneath the water, and, then, its being raised out, the one signifying death to sin and all its consequences, and the other, the new life into which the child is introduced. Four years later Luther introduced into the revised Order of Baptism which he prepared, the Collect of ancient form, but which the most diligent search of liturgical scholars has thus far been unable to discover in any of the prayers of the Ancient or Mediaeval Church, expressing in condensed form this thought. We quote the introduction, as freely rendered by Cranmer in the First Prayer Book of Edward VI: "Almighty and Everlasting God, Which, of Thy justice, didst destroy by floods of water the whole world for sin, except eight persons, whom of Thy mercy Thou didst save, the same time, in the ark; and when Thou didst drown in the Red Sea wicked King Pharaoh with all his army, yet, the same time, Thou didst lead Thy people, the children of Israel, safely through the midst thereof; whereby Thou didst figure the washing of Thy holy baptism, and by the baptism of Thy well-beloved Son, Jesus Christ, didst sanctify the flood of Jordan, and all other waters, to the mystical washing away of sin," etc.[7]

The figure is to him not that of an act, but of a process extending throughout the entire earthly life of the one baptised. Sin is not drowned at once, or its consequences escaped in a moment. It is a graphic presentation in epitome of the entire work of grace with this subject.[8] Life, therefore, in the language of this treatise, is "a perpetual baptism." As the mark of our Christian profession, as the sacramental oath of the soldier of the cross, it is the solemn declaration of relentless warfare against sin, and of life-long devotion to Christ our Leader. As the true bride is responsive to no other love than that of her husband, so one faithful to his baptism is dead to all else. It is as though all else had been sunk beneath the sea.

In the distinction drawn between the sacramental sign and the sacramental efficacy in paragraphs seven and eight, the Protestant distinction between justification and sanctification is involved. The one baptised, becomes in his baptism, wholly dead to the condemning power of sin; but so far as the presence of sin is concerned, the work of deliverance has just begun. This is in glaring contrast with the scholastic doctrine that original sin itself is entirely eradicated in baptism.[9] For baptism but begins the constant struggle against sin that ends only with the close of life. Hence the warning against making of baptism a ground for presumption, and against relaxing the earnestness of the struggle upon the assumption that one has been baptised. For unless baptism be the beginning of a new life, it is without meaning.

Nor is the error less fatal which resorts to satisfactions, self-chosen or ecclesiastically appointed, for the forgiveness of sin committed after baptism. For as every sin committed after baptism is a falling away from baptism, all repentance is a return to baptism. No forgiveness is to be found except upon the terms of our baptism. Never changing is God's covenant. If broken on our part, no new covenant is to be sought. We must return to the faith of our childhood or be lost. The Mediaeval Church had devised a sacrament of penance to supplement and repair the alleged broken down and inoperative sacrament of baptism. Baptism, so ran the teaching, blotted out the past and put one on a plane to make a new beginning; but, then, when he fell, there was this new sacrament, to which resort could be taken. It was the "second plank," wrote Jerome, "by which one could swim out of the sea of his sins." "No," exclaimed Luther, in the Large Catechism, "the ship of our baptism never goes down. If we fall out of the ship, there it is, ready for our return." [10]

There are, then, no vows whatever that can be substitutes for our baptism, or can supplement it. The baptismal vow comprehends everything. Only one distinction is admissible. While the vow made in baptism is universal, binding all alike to complete obedience to God, there are particular spheres in which this general vow is to be exercised and fulfilled. Not all Christians have the same office at the same calling. When one answers a divine call directing him to some specific form of Christian service, the vow made in response to such call is only the re-affirmation and application to a peculiar relation of the one obligatory vow of baptism.[11]

While the divine institution and Word of God in baptism are of prime importance, the office of faith must also be made prominent. Faith is the third element in baptism. Faith does not make the sacrament; but faith appropriates and applies to self what the sacrament offers. Non sacramentum, sed fides sacramenti justificat. Nor are we left in doubt as to what is here meant by the term "faith." In paragraph fourteen it is explicitly described. Faith, we are then taught, is nothing else than to look away from self to the mercy of God, as He offers it in the word of His grace, whereof baptism is the seal to every child baptised.

Luther's purpose, in this discussion, being to guard against the Mediaeval theory of any opus operatum[12] efficacy in the sacrament, he would have wandered from his subject, if he had entered at this place into any extended discussion of the nature of the faith that is required. A few years later (1528), the Anabaptist reaction, which over-emphasised the subjective, and depreciated the objective side of the sacraments, necessitated a much fuller treatment of the peculiar office of faith with respect to baptism. To complete the discussion, the citation of a few sentences from his treatise, Von der Wiedertaufe, may, therefore, not be without use. Insisting that, important as faith is, the divine Word, and not faith, is the basis of baptism, he shows how one who regards faith, on the part of the candidate for baptism, essential to its validity, can never, if consistent, administer baptism; since there is no case in which he can have absolute certainty that faith is present. Or if one should have doubts as to the validity of his baptism in infancy, because he has no evidence that he then believed, and, for this reason, should ask to be baptised in adult years, then if Satan should again trouble him as to whether, even when baptised the second time, he really had faith, he would have to be baptised a third, and a fourth time, and so on ad infinitum, as long as such doubts recurred.[13] "For it often happens that one who thinks that he has faith, has none whatever, and that one who thinks that he has no faith but only doubts, actually believes. We are not told: 'He who knows that he believes,' or 'If you know that you believe,' but: 'He that believeth shall be saved.' [14] In other words, it is not faith in our faith that is asked, but faith in the Word and institution of God. Again: "Tell me: Which is the greater, the Word of God or faith? Is not the Word of God the greater? For the Word does not depend upon faith, but it is faith that is dependent on God's Word. Faith wavers and changes; but the Word of God abides forever."[15] "The man who bases his baptism on his faith, is not only uncertain, but he is a godless and hypocritical Christian; for he puts his trust in what is not his own, viz., in a gift which God has given him, and not alone in the Word of God; just as another builds upon his strength, wisdom, power, holiness, which, nevertheless, are gifts which God has given us." [16] Even though at the time of baptism there be no faith, the baptism, nevertheless, is valid. For if at the time of marriage, a maiden be without love to the man whom she marries, when, two years later, she has learned to love her husband, there is no need of a new betrothal and a new marriage; the covenant previously made is sufficient.[17]

In harmony with the stress laid in this treatise upon the fact that baptism is a treasury of consolation offered to the faith of every individual baptised, is the great emphasis which Luther, in other places, was constrained to lay upon personal as distinguished from vicarious faith. Neither the faith of the sponsors, nor that of the Church, for which, according to Augustine, the sponsors speak, avails more than simply to bring the child to baptism, where it becomes an independent agent, with whom God now deals directly. Thus the Large Catechism declares: "We bring the child in the purpose and hope that it may believe, and we pray God to grant it faith, but we do not baptise it upon that, but solely upon the command of God." [18] Still more explicit is a sermon on the Third Sunday after Epiphany; "The words, Mark 16:16, Romans 1:17, and John 3:16, 18 are clear, to the effect that every one must believe for himself, and no one can be helped by the faith of any me else, but only by his own faith." "It is just as in the natural life, no one can be born for me, but I must be born myself. My mother may bring me to birth, but it is I who am born, and no me else." "Thus no one is saved by the faith of another, but solely by his own faith." [19]

The treatise is found in Weimar Ed., II, 724-737; Erlangen Ed., XXI, 229-244; St. Louis Ed., X, 2113-2116; Clemen and Leitzmann, Luthers Werke, I, (1912), 185-195.


Mount Airy, Philadelphia.


[1] Erl. Ed., op. var. arg., III, 394-410.

[2] Erl. Ed., XXVI, 256-294.

[3] Erl. Ed., op. var. arg., V. 66. For an exhaustive treatment of Luther's attitude to immersion, sprinkling, and pouring, see Krauth, Conservative Reformation, 519-544.

[4] For formulas, see Hofling, Das Sacrament der Taufe, II. 40.

[5] Riechschel, Lehrbuch der Liturgik, II, 67 f.

[6] "If Infant Baptism were not right, then for one thousand years there was no baptism and no Christian Church," Erl. Ed., XXVI, 287.

[7] More literally, but with no great difference, in the Lutheran Church Book, p. 323. The Book of Common Prayer, following the II. Prayerbook of Edward VI, has abbreviated it.

[8] Small Catechism: "Baptism signifies that the old Adam in us is to be drowned and destroyed by daily sorrow and repentance, together with all sins and evil lusts; and that again the new man should daily come forth and rise, that shall live in the presence of God, in righteousness and purity for ever."

[9] Decrees of Trent, Session V, 5: "If any one asserts that the whole of that which has the proper nature of sin is not taken away, but only evaded or not imputed, let him be accursed."

[10] Book of Concord, Eng. Trans., p. 475.

[11] Luther recurs to this subject in a subsequent treatise, the Confitendi Ratio, below pp. 81 ff.

[12] i. e. The theory of the Roman Church that even without the faith of a recipient, the blessing of the sacrament is bestowed.

[13] Erl. Ed., XXVI, 268.

[14] Ibid., 269.

[15] Erl. Ed., XXVI, 292.

[16] Ibid., 275.

[17] Ibid., 275.

[18] Book of Concord, English Translation, p. 473.

[19] Erl. Ed., XI, 63, 48, 2d Ed., XI, 65, 61. See discussion by writer in Lutheran Church Review, XVIII, 598-657, where passages cited may be found with full context translated, together with other statements of Luther and those who followed him, on the same subject.


[Sidenote: Meaning of the Word]

I. Baptism [German, die Taufe] is called in the Greek language baptismos, in Latin mersio, which means to plunge something entirely into the water, so that the water closes over it. And although in many places it is the custom no longer to thrust and plunge children into the font of baptism, but only to pour the baptismal water upon them out of the font, nevertheless the former is what should be done; and it would be right, according to the meaning of the word Taufe, that the child, or whoever is baptised, should be sunk entirely into the water, and then drawn out again; for even in the German tongue the word Taufe comes undoubtedly from the word tief, and means that what is baptised is sunk deep into the water. This usage is also demanded by the significance of baptism, for baptism signifies that the old man and the sinful birth of flesh and blood are to be wholly drowned by the grace of God, as we shall hear. We should, therefore, do justice to its meaning and make baptism a true and complete sign of the thing it signifies.

[Sidenote: The Sign]

II. Baptism is an external sign or token, which so divides us from all men not baptised, that thereby we are known as a people of Christ, [Heb. 2:10] our Captain, under Whose banner (i. e., the Holy Cross) we continually fight against sin. Therefore in this Holy Sacrament we must have regard to three things—the sign, the significance thereof, and the faith. The sign consists in this, that we are thrust into the water in the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Ghost; but we are not left there, for we are drawn out again. Hence the saying, Aus der Taufe gehoben.[1] The sign must, therefore, have both its parts, the putting in and the drawing out.

[Sidenote: The Thing Signified]

III. 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. Thus St. Paul, in Titus iii, calls baptism a "washing of regeneration," [Tit. 3:5] since in this washing man is born again and made new. As Christ also says, in John iii, "Except ye be born again of water and the Spirit of grace, ye shall not enter into the Kingdom of Heaven." [John 3:5] 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, [Eph. 2:3] 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.

[Sidenote: Its Incompleteness]

IV. This significance of baptism, viz., the dying or drowning of sin, is not fulfilled completely in this life, nay, not until man passes through bodily death also, and utterly decays to dust. The sacrament, or sign, of baptism is quickly over, as we plainly see. But the thing it signifies, viz., the spiritual baptism, the drowning of sin, lasts so long as we five, and is completed only in death. Then it is that man is completely sunk in baptism, and that thing comes to pass which baptism signifies. Therefore this life is nothing else than a spiritual baptism which does not cease till death, and he who is baptised is condemned to die; as though the priest, when he baptises, were to say, "Lo, thou art sinful flesh; therefore I drown thee in God's Name, and in His Name condemn thee to thy death, that with thee all thy sins may die and be destroyed." Wherefore St. Paul says, in Romans vi, "We are buried with Christ by baptism into death"; [Rom. 6:4] and the sooner after baptism a man dies, the sooner is his baptism completed; for sin never entirely ceases while this body lives, which is so wholly conceived in sin that sin is its very nature, as saith the Prophet, "Behold I was conceived in sin, and in iniquity did my mother bear me"; [Ps. 51:5] and there is no help for the sinful nature unless it dies and is destroyed with all its sin. So, then, the life of a Christian, from baptism to the grave, is nothing else than the beginning of a blessed death, for at the Last Day God will make him altogether new.

[Sidenote: Its Completion]

V. In like manner the lifting up out of baptism is quickly done, but the thing it signifies, the spiritual birth, the increase of grace and righteousness, though it begins indeed in baptism, lasts until death, nay, even until the Last Day. Only then will that be finished which the lifting up out of baptism signifies. Then shall we arise from death, from sins and from all evil, pure in body and in soul, and then shall we live forever. Then shall we be truly lifted up out of baptism and completely born, and we shall put on the true baptismal garment of immortal life in heaven. As though the sponsors when they lift the child up out of baptism,[2] were to say, "Lo, now thy sins are drowned; we receive thee in God's Name into an eternal life of innocence." For so will the angels at the Last Day raise up all Christians, all pious baptised men, and will there fulfil what baptism and the sponsors signify; as Christ says in Matthew xxiv, "He shall send forth His angels, and they shall gather unto Him His elect from the four places of the winds, and from the rising to the setting of the sun." [Matt 24:31]

VI. Baptism was presaged of old in Noah's flood, when the whole world was drowned, save Noah with three sons and their wives, eight souls, who were kept in the ark. That the people of the world were drowned, signifies that in baptism sins are drowned; but that the eight in the ark, with beasts of every sort, were preserved, signifies that through baptism man is saved, as St. Peter explains, [1 Pet. 3:20 f.] Now baptism is by far a greater flood than was that of Noah. For that flood drowned men during no more than one year, but baptism drowns all sorts of men throughout the world, from the birth of Christ even till the Day of Judgment. Moreover, it is a flood of grace, as that was a flood of wrath, as is declared in Psalm xxviii, "God will make a continual new flood." [3] [Ps. 29:10] For without doubt many more people are baptised than were drowned in the flood.

[Sidenote: The Continuance of Sin]

VII. From this it follows that when a man comes forth out of baptism, he is pure and without sin, wholly guiltless. But there are many who do not rightly understand this, and think that sin is no more present, and so they become slothful and negligent in the killing of their sinful nature, even as some do when they have gone to Confession. For this reason, as I said above,[4] it should be rightly understood, and it should be known that our flesh, so long as it lives here, is by nature wicked and sinful. To correct this wickedness God has devised the plan of making it altogether new, even as Jeremiah shows. The potter, when the pot "was marred in his hand," thrust it again into the lump of clay, and kneaded it, and afterwards made another pot, as it seemed good to him. "So," says God, "are ye in My hands." [Jer. 18:4 f.] In the first birth we are marred; therefore He thrusts us into the earth again by death, and makes us over at the Last Day, that then we may be perfect and without sin.

This plan He begins in baptism, which signifies death and the resurrection at the Last Day, as has been said.[5] Therefore, so far as the sign of the sacrament and its significance are concerned, sins and the man are both already dead, and he has risen again, and so the sacrament has taken place; but the work of the sacrament has not yet been fully done, that is to say, death and the resurrection at the Last Day are yet before us.

[Sidenote: Sins after Baptism]

VII. Man, therefore, is altogether pure and guiltless, but sacramentally, which means nothing else than that he has the sign of God, i. e., baptism, by which it is shown that his signs are all to be dead, and that he too is to die in grace, and at the Last Day to rise again, pure, sinless, guiltless, to everlasting life. Because of the sacrament, then, it is true that he is without sin and guilt; but because this is not yet completed, and he still lives in sinful flesh, he is not without sin, and not in all things pure, but has begun to grow into purity and innocence.

Therefore when a man comes to mature age, the natural, sinful appetites—wrath, impurity, lust, avarice, pride, and the like—begin to stir, whereas there would be none of these if all sins were drowned in the sacrament and were dead. But the sacrament only signifies that they are to be drowned through death and the resurrection at the Last Day. [Rom. 7:18] So St. Paul, in Romans vii, and all saints with him, lament that they are sinners and have sin in their nature, although they were baptised and were holy; and they so lament because the natural, sinful appetites are always active so long as we live.

[Sidenote: Baptism a Covenant]

IX. But you ask, "How does baptism help me, if it does not altogether blot out and put away sin?" This is the place for the right understanding of the sacrament of baptism. The holy sacrament of baptism helps you, because in it God allies Himself with you, and becomes one with you in a gracious covenant of comfort.

[Sidenote: Man's Pledge]

First of all, you give yourself up to the sacrament of baptism and what it signifies, i. e., you desire to die, together with your sins, and to be made new at the Last Day, as the sacrament declares, and as has been said.[6] This God accepts at your hands, and grants you baptism, and from that hour begins to make you a new man, pours into you His grace and Holy Spirit, Who begins to slay nature and sin, and to prepare you for death and the resurrection at the Last Day.

Again, you pledge yourself to continue in this, and more and more to slay your sin as long as you live, even until your death. This too God accepts, and trains and tries you all your life long, with many good works and manifold sufferings; whereby He effects what you in baptism have desired, viz., that you may become free from sin, may die and rise again at the Last Day, and so fulfil your baptism. Therefore, we read and see how bitterly He has let His saints be tortured, and how much He has let them suffer, to the end that they might be quickly slain, might fulfil their baptism, die and be made new. For when this does not happen, and we suffer not and are not tried, then the evil nature overcomes a man, so that he makes his baptism of none effect, falls into sin, and remains the same old man as before.

[Sidenote: God's Pledge]

X. So long, now, as you keep your pledge to God, He, in turn, gives you His grace, and pledges Himself not to count against you the sins which remain in your nature after baptism, and not to regard them or to condemn you because of them. He is satisfied and well-pleased if you are constantly striving and desiring to slay these sins and to be rid of them by your death. For this cause, although the evil thoughts and appetites may be at work, nay, even although you may sin and fall at times, these sins are already done away by the power of the sacrament and covenant, if only you rise again and enter into the covenant, as St. Paul says in Romans viii. No one who believes in Christ is condemned by the evil, sinful inclination of his nature, if only he does not follow it and consent to it; [Rom. 8:1] and St. John, in his Epistle, writes, "If any man sin, we have an Advocate with God, even Jesus Christ, Who has become the forgiveness of our sins." [1 John 2:2 f.] All this takes place in baptism, where Christ is given us, as we shall hear in the remainder of the treatise.

[Sidenote: The Comfort of the Covenant]

XI. Now if this covenant did not exist, and God were not so merciful as to wink at our sins, there could be no sin so so small but it would condemn us. For the judgment of God can endure no sin. Therefore there is on earth no greater comfort than baptism, for through it we come under the judgment of grace and mercy, which does not condemn our sins, but drives them out by many trials. There is a fine sentence of St. Augustine, which says, "Sin is altogether forgiven in baptism; not in such wise that it is no longer present, but in such wise that it is not taken into account." As though he were to say, "Sin remains in our flesh even until death, and works without ceasing; but so long as we do not consent thereto or remain therein, it is so overruled by our baptism that it does not condemn us and is not harmful to us, but is daily more and more destroyed until our death."

For this reason no one should be terrified if he feel evil lust or love, nor should he despair even if he fall, but he should remember his baptism, and comfort himself joyfully with it, since God has there bound Himself to slay his sin for him, and not to count it a cause for condemnation, if only he does not consent to sin or remain in sin. Moreover, these wild thoughts and appetites, and even a fall into sin, should not be regarded as an occasion for despair, but rather as a warning from God that man should remember his baptism and what was there spoken, that he should call upon God's mercy, and exercise himself in striving against sin, that he should even be desirous of death in order that he may be rid of sin.

[Sidenote: The Office of Faith]

XII. Here, then, is the place to discuss the third thing in the sacrament, i. e., faith, to wit, that a man should firmly believe all this; viz., that this sacrament not only signifies death and the resurrection at the Last Day, by which man is made new for an everlasting, sinless life; but also that it assuredly begins and effects this, and unites us with God, so that we have the will to slay sin, even till the time of our death, and to fight against it; on the other hand, that it is His will to be merciful to us, to deal graciously with us, and not to judge us with severity, because we are not sinless in this life until purified through death. Thus you understand how a man becomes in baptism guiltless, pure and sinless, and yet continues full of evil inclinations, that he is called pure only because he has begun to be pure, and has a sign and covenant of this purity, and is always to become more pure. Because of this God will not count against him the impurity which still cleaves to him, and, therefore, he is pure rather through the gracious imputation of God than through anything in his own nature; as the Prophet says in Psalm xxxii, "Blessed is he whose transgression is forgiven; blessed is the man unto whom the Lord imputeth not iniquity." [Ps. 52:1 f.]

This faith is of all things the most necessary, for it is the ground of all comfort. He who has not this faith must despair in his sins. For the sin which remains after baptism makes it impossible for any good works to be pure before God. For this reason we must hold boldly and fearlessly to our baptism, and hold it up against all sins and terrors of conscience, and humbly say, "I know full well that I have not a single work which is pure, but I am baptised, and through my baptism God, Who cannot lie, has bound Himself in a covenant with me, not to count my sin against me, but to slay it and blot it out."

XIII. So, then, we understand that the innocence which is ours by baptism is so called simply and solely because of the mercy of God, which has begun this work in us, bears patiently with sin, and regards us as though we were sinless, This also explains why Christians are called in the Scriptures the children of mercy, a people of grace, and men of God's good-will. [Eph. 5:1, 9] It is because in baptism they have begun to become pure, [Luke 2:14] and by God's mercy are not condemned with their sins that still remain, until, through death and at the Last Day, they become wholly pure, as the sign of baptism shows.

Therefore they greatly err who think that through baptism they have become wholly pure. They go about in their unwisdom, and do not slay their sin; they will not admit that it is sin; they persist in it, and so they make their baptism of no effect; they remain entangled in certain outward works, and meanwhile pride, hatred, and other evils of their nature are disregarded and grow worse and worse. Nay, not so! Sin and evil inclination must be recognized as truly sin; that it does not harm us is to be ascribed to the grace of God, Who will not count it against us if only we strive against it in many trials, works, and sufferings, and slay it at last in death. To them who do this not, God will not forgive their sins, because they do not live according to their baptism and covenant, and hinder the work which God and their baptism have begun.

[Sidenote: Baptism and Repentance]

XIV. Of this sort are they also who think to blot out and put away their sin by "satisfaction," [7] and even regard their baptism lightly, as though they had no more need of it after they had been baptised,[8] and do not know that it is in force all through life, even until death, nay, even at the Last Day, as was said above.[9] For this cause they think to find some other way of blotting out sin, viz., their own works; and so they make, for themselves and for all others, evil, terrified, uncertain consciences, and despair in the hour of death; and they know not how they stand with God, thinking that by sin they have lost their baptism and that it profits them no more.

Guard yourself, by all means, against this error. For, as has been said, if any one has fallen into sin, he should the more remember his baptism, and how God has there made a covenant with him to forgive all his sins, if only he has the will to fight against them, even until death. Upon this truth, upon this alliance with God, a man must joyfully dare to rely, and then baptism goes again into operation and effect, his heart becomes again peaceful and glad, not in his own work or "satisfaction," but in God's mercy, promised him in baptism, and to be held fast forever. This faith a man must hold so firmly that he would cling to it even though all creatures and all sins attacked him, since he who lets himself be forced away from it makes God a liar in His covenant, the sacrament of baptism.

[Sidenote: Baptism and Penance]

XV. It is this faith that the devil most attacks. If he overthrows it, he has won the battle. For the sacrament of penance also (of which we have already spoken)[10] has its foundation in this sacrament, since sins are forgiven only to those who are baptised, i. e., to those whose sins God has promised to forgive. The sacrament of penance thus renews and points out again the sacrament of baptism, as though the priest, in the absolution, were to say, "Lo, God hath now forgiven thee thy sin, as He long since hath promised thee in baptism, and as He hath now commanded me, by the power of the keys,[11] and now thou comest again into that which thy baptism does and is. Believe, and thou hast it; doubt, and thou art lost." So we find that through sin baptism is, indeed, hindered in its work, i. e., in the forgiveness and the slaying of sin; yet only by unbelief in its operation is baptism brought to naught. Faith, in turn, removes the hindrance to the operation of baptism. So much depends on faith.

[Sidenote: Forgiveness and Sanctification]

To speak quite plainly, it is one thing to forgive sins, and another thing to put them away or drive them out. The forgiveness of sins is obtained by faith, even though they are not entirely driven out; but to drive out sins is to exercise ourselves against them, and at last it is to die; for in death sin perishes utterly. But both the forgiveness and the driving out of sins are the work of baptism. Thus the Apostle writes to the Hebrews, [Heb. 12:1] who were baptised, and whose sins were forgiven, that they shall lay aside the sin which doth beset them. For so long as I believe that God is willing not to count my sins against me, my baptism is in force and my sins are forgiven, though they may still, in a great measure, remain. After that follows the driving out of my sins through sufferings, death, etc. This is what we confess in the article [of the Creed], "I believe in the Holy Ghost, the forgiveness of sins, etc." Here there is special reference to baptism, for in it the forgiveness takes place through God's covenant with us; therefore we must not doubt this forgiveness.

[Sidenote: Baptism and Suffering]

XVI. It follows, therefore, that baptism makes all sufferings and especially death, profitable and helpful, since these things can only serve baptism in the doing of its work, i. e., in the slaying of sin. For he who would fulfil the work and purpose of his baptism and be rid of sin, must die. It cannot be otherwise. Sin, however, does not like to die, and for this reason it makes death so bitter and so horrible. Such is the grace and power of God that sin, which has brought death, is driven out again by its own work, viz., by death.[12]

You find many people who wish to live in order that they may become righteous, and who say that they would like to be righteous. Now there is no shorter way or manner than through baptism and the work of baptism, i. e., through suffering and death, and so long as they are not willing to take this way, it is a sign that they do not rightly intend or know how to become righteous. Therefore God has instituted many estates in life in which men are to learn to exercise themselves and to suffer. To some He has commanded the estate of matrimony, to others the estate of the clergy, to others, again, the estate of the rulers, and to all He has commanded that they shall toil and labor to kill the flesh and accustom it to death, because for all such as are baptised their baptism has made the repose, the ease, the plenty of this life a very poison, and a hindrance to its work. For in these things no one learns to suffer, to die with gladness, to get rid of sin, and to live in accordance with baptism; but instead of these things there grows love of this life and horror of eternal life, fear of death and unwillingness to blot out sin.

[Sidenote: Baptism and Good Works]

XVII. Now behold the lives of men. Many there are who fast and pray and go on pilgrimage and exercise themselves in such things, thinking thereby only to heap up merit, and to sit down in the high places of heaven. But fasting and all such exercises should be directed toward holding down the old Adam, the sinful nature, and accustoming it to do without all that is pleasing for this life, and thus daily preparing it more and more for death, so that the work and purpose of baptism may be fulfilled. And all these exercises and toils are to be measured, not by their number or their greatness, but by the demands of baptism; that is to say, each man is to take upon him so much of these works as is good and profitable for the suppressing of his sinful nature and for fitting it for death, and is to increase or diminish them according as he sees that sin increases or decreases. As it is, they go their heedless way, take upon themselves this, that, and the other task, do now this, now that, according to the appearance or the reputation of the work, and again quickly leave off, and thus become altogether inconstant, till in the end they amount to nothing; nay, some of them so rack their brains over the whole thing, and so abuse nature, that they are of no use either to themselves or others.

All this is the fruit of that doctrine with which we have been so possessed as to think that after repentance or baptism we are without sin, and that our good works are to be heaped up, not for the blotting out of sin, but for their own sake, or as a satisfaction for sins already done. This is encouraged by those preachers who preach unwisely the legends and works of the blessed Saints, and make of them examples for all. The ignorant fall eagerly upon these things, and work their own destruction out of the examples of the Saints. God has given every saint a special way and a special grace by which to live according to his baptism. But baptism and its significance He has set as a common standard for all men, so that every man is to examine himself according to his station in life, to find what is the best way for him to fulfil the work and purpose of his baptism, i. e., to slay sin and to die. Then Christ's burden grows light and easy, [Matt. 11:30] and it is not carried with worry and care, as Solomon says of it, "The labor of the foolish wearieth every one of them, because he knoweth not how to go to the city." [Eccl. 10:15] For even as they are worried who wish to go to the city and cannot find the way, so it is with these men; all their life and labor is a burden to them, and yet they accomplish nothing.

[Sidenote: The Vow of Baptism and Other Vows]

XVIII. In this place, then, belongs the question whether baptism and the vow which we there make to God, is something more or something greater than the vows of chastity, of the priesthood, of the clergy, since baptism is common to all Christians, and it is thought that the clergy have taken a special and a higher vow. I answer: From what has been said, this is an easy question to answer. For in baptism we all make one and the same vow, viz., to slay sin and to become holy through the work and grace of God, to Whom we yield and offer ourselves, as clay to the potter [13] and in this no one is better than another. But for a life in accordance with baptism, i. e., for slaying sin, there can be no one method and no special estate in life. Therefore I have said[14] that each man must prove himself, that he may know in what estate he may best slay sin and put a check upon his nature. It is true, then, that there is no vow higher, better, or greater than the vow of baptism. What more can we promise than to drive out an, to die, to hate this life, and to become holy?

Over and above this vow, a man may, indeed, bind himself to some special estate, if it seems to him to be suitable and helpful for the completion of his baptism. It is just as though two men went to the same city, and the one went by the foot-path, the other by the high-way, according as each thought best. So he who binds himself to the estate of matrimony, walks in the toils and sufferings which belong to that estate and lays upon himself its burdens, in order that he may grow used to pleasure and sorrow, avoid sin, and prepare himself for death better than he could do outside of that estate. But he who seeks more suffering, and by much exercise would speedily prepare himself for death and soon attain the work of baptism, let him bind himself to chastity, or the spiritual order; for the spiritual estate,[15] if it is as it ought to be, should be full of torment and suffering, in order that he who belongs to it may have more exercise in the work of his baptism than the man who is in the estate of matrimony, and through such torment quickly grow used to welcome death with joy, and so attain the purpose of his baptism. Now above this estate there is another and a higher, that which rules in the spiritual order, viz., the estate of bishop, priest, etc. And these men should be well practised in sufferings and works, and ready at every hour for death, not only for their own sake, but for the sake of those who are their subjects.

Yet in all these estates the standard, of which we spoke above, should never be forgotten, viz., that a man should so exercise himself only to the end that sin may be driven out, and should not be guided by the number or the greatness of works. But, alas how we have forgotten our baptism and what it means, and what vows we made there, and that we are to walk in its works and attain its purpose! So, too, we have forgotten about the ways to that goal, and about the estates, and do not know to what end these estates were instituted, and how we are in them to keep at the fulfilling of our baptism. They have been made a gorgeous show, and little more remains of them than worldly display, as Isaiah says, "Thy silver is become dross, thy wine mixed with water." [Isa. 1:22] On this may God have mercy! Amen.

[Sidenote: The Joy of Baptism]

XIX. If, then, the holy sacrament of baptism is a thing so great, so gracious and full of comfort, we should pay earnest heed to thank God for it ceaselessly, joyfully, and from the heart, and to give Him praise and honor. For I fear that by our thanklessness we have deserved our blindness and become unworthy to behold such grace, though the whole world was, and still is, full of baptism and the grace of God. But we have been led astray in our own anxious works, afterwards in indulgences and such like false comforts, and have thought that we are not to trust God until we are righteous and have made satisfaction for our sin, as though we would buy His grace from Him or pay Him for it. In truth, he who does not see in God's grace how it bears with him as a sinner, and will make him blessed, and who looks forward only to God's judgment, that man will never be joyful in God, and can neither love nor praise Him. But if we hear and firmly believe that He receives us sinners in the covenant of baptism, spares us, and makes us pure from day to day, then our heart must be joyful, and love and praise God. So He says in the Prophet, "I will spare them, as a man spareth his own son." [Mal. 3:17] Wherefore it is needful that we give thanks to the Blessed Majesty, Who shows Himself so gracious and merciful toward us poor condemned worms, and magnify and acknowledge His work.

[Sidenote: The Danger of False Confidence]

XX. At the same time, however, we 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 fulfil 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 desired 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. If they scarcely remain who do do sin or who fall because of sheer weakness, where shall your wickedness remain, which has tempted and mocked God's grace? [1 Pet. 4:18]

Let us, therefore, walk with carefulness and fear, that with a firm faith we may hold fast the riches of God's grace, and joyfully give thanks to His mercy forever and ever. Amen. [Eph. 5:15]


[1] Literally, "lifted or raised out of baptism"; in common usage simply "baptised." Cf. "aus der Taufe beben," "to stand sponsor."

[2] See above, p.56, note 1.

[3] Luther habitually quoted the Vulgate and quoted from memory; hence the many variations from the familiar test of Scripture.

[4] See above, p. 58.

[5] See above, p. 57.

[6] See above, p. 57.

[7] Good works prescribed as "penances" upon confession to the priest.

[8] Literally, "lifted up out of it." See above, p. 57, note 1.

[9] See above, p.58.

[10] Luther here refers to his Treatise on the Sacrament of Penance, which was published just before the present treatise on baptism, in 1519. See Weimar Ed., II, pp. 709 ff and p. 724.

[11] The power to forgive and retain sin, belonging, according to Roman teaching, to the priest, and normally exercised in the sacrament of penance.

[12] Cf. Fourteen of Consolation, Part II, ch. II; below, pp. 146 ff.

[13] See above, p. 59.

[14] See above, p. 67.

[15] The "spiritual estate" or "spiritual order" includes all those who have deserted the world and worldly pursuits for the religious life. It includes monks and friars and nuns, as well as priests, etc.


The Confitendi Ratio is the culmination of a series of tracts published by Luther after the memorable October 31st, 1517, and before his final breach with Rome.[1] In them is clearly traceable the progress that he was making in dealing with the practical problems offered by the confessional, and which had started the mighty conflict in which he was engaged. They open to us an insight into his own conscientious efforts during the period, when, as a penitent, he was himself endeavoring to meet every requirement which the Church imposed, In order to secure the assurance of the forgiveness of sins, as well as to present the questions which as a father confessor and spiritual adviser he asked those who were under his pastoral care. First of all, we find, therefore, tables of duties and sins, reminding us of the lists of cardinal sins and cardinal virtues in which Roman Catholic books abound. The main effort here is to promote the most searching self-examination and the most complete enumeration of the details of sins, since, from the Medieval standpoint, the completeness of the absolution is proportioned to the exhaustiveness of the confession. Although the first of these briefer tracts closes with its note of warning that the value of the confession is not to be estimated by the enumeration of details, but that it rests solely in the resort that is had to the Grace of God and the word of His promise, the transition from the one mode of thought to the other is very apparent.

In the Kurze Untetweisung wie man beichten soll of 1519, of which this is a Latin re-elaboration, and, therefore, intended more for the educated man than as a popular presentation, he has advanced so far as to warn against the attempt to make an exhaustive enumeration of sins. He advises that the confession be made in the most general terms, covering sins both known and unknown. "If one would confess all mortal sins, it may be done in the following words; 'Yea, my whole life, and all that I do, act, speak, and think, is such as to be deadly and condemnable.' For if one regard himself as being without mortal sin, this is of all mortal sins the most mortal." [2] According to this maturer view, the purpose of the most searching self-examination is to exhibit the utter impossibility of ever fathoming the depth of corruption that lies beneath the surface. The reader of the Tessaradecas will recall Luther's statement there, that it is of God's great mercy that man is able to see but a very small portion of the sin within him, for were he to see it in its full extent, he would perish at the sight. The physician need not count every pustule on the body to diagnose the disease as small-pox. A glance is enough to determine the case. The sins that are discovered are the symptoms of the one radical sin that lies beneath them all.[3] The cry is no longer "Mea peccata, mea peccata," as though these recognized sins were the exception to a life otherwise without a flaw, but rather, overwhelmed with confusion, the penitent finds in himself nothing but sin, except for what he has by God's grace alone. Most clearly does Luther enforce this in his exposition of the Fifty-first Psalm, of 1531, a treatise we most earnestly commend to those who desire fuller information concerning Luther's doctrine of sin, and his conception of the value of confession and absolution. He shows that it is not by committing a particular sin that we become sinners, but that the sin is committed because our nature is still sinful, and that the poisonous tree has grown from roots deeply imbedded in the soil. We are sinners not because particular acts of sin have been devised and carried to completion, but before the acts are committed we are sinners; otherwise such fruits would not have been borne. A bad tree can grow from nothing but a bad root.[4]

In his Sermon on Confession and the Sacrament of 1524, he discourages habits of morbid self-introspection, and exposes the perplexities produced by the extractions of the confessional in constantly sinking the probe deeper and deeper into the heart of the already crushed and quivering penitent. He shows how one need not look far to find enough to prompt the confession of utter helplessness and the casting of self unreservedly upon God's mercy. "Bring to the confession only those sins that occur to thee, and say: I am so frail and fallen that I need consolation and good counsel. For the confession should be brief....No one, therefore, should be troubled, even though he have forgotten his sins. If they be forgotten, they are none the less forgiven. For what God considers, is not how thou hast confessed, but His Word and how thou hast believed." [5]

In this is made prominent the radical difference between the Roman Catholic and the Lutheran conception of confession. In the former, it is a part of penance, the second of the three elements of "contrition," "confession," and "satisfaction," an absolute condition of the forgiveness of every sin. In the Roman confessional, sins are treated atomistically. Some are forgiven, while others are still to be forgiven. Every sin stands by itself, and requires separate treatment. No unconfessed sin is forgiven. To be forgiven, a sin must be known and lamented, and confessed in all its details and circumstances to the priest, who, as a spiritual judge, proportions the amount of the satisfaction to be rendered by the penitent to the degree of guilt of the offence, as judged from the facts before him. Thus the debt has to be painfully and punctiliously worked off, sin by sin, as in the financial world a note may be extinguished by successive payments, dollar by dollar. Everything, therefore, is made to depend upon the fulness and completeness of the confession. It becomes a work, on account of which one is forgiven. The absolution becomes simply the stamp of approval that is placed upon the confession.

The Lutheran conception is centered upon the person of the sinner, rather than on his sins. It is the person who is forgiven his sins. Where the person is forgiven but one sin, all his sins are forgiven; where the least sin is retained, all sins are retained, and none forgiven, for "there is no condemnation to them that are in Christ Jesus" (Rom. 8:1). The value of the confession lies not in the confession itself, but in that, through this confession, we turn to Christ and the word of His promise.[6]

In Luther's opinion, there are three species of confession.[7] One to God, in one's own heart, which is of absolute necessity, and which the true believer is always making; a second to our neighbor, when we have done him a wrong, which is also of divine command; and, a third to a "brother," "wherein we receive from the mouth of that brother the word of consolation sent from God." [8] This last species, the verbum solatii ex ore fratris, while not commanded in Holy Scripture, is commended because of the great value which it has for those who fed the need of consolation, and the instruction for which it affords the opportunity. It is only by the individualizing of the confession that the comfort to be derived by the individualizing of the promise can be obtained. Hence, as the Augsburg Confession declares (Article XI.): "Private" [i. e., personal] "confession is retained because of the absolution."[9] Not that, without the absolution, there is not forgiveness, but that, through it, the one absolved rejoices all the more in the possession of that which he possessed even before the absolution, and goes forth from it strengthened to meet temptation because of the new assurance that he has of God's love. This form of confession, therefore, instead of being a condition of forgiveness, as is our inner confession to God, is a privilege of the justified man, who, before he has made such confession, has been forgiven, and whose sins that lie still concealed from his knowledge are just as truly forgiven as those over which he grieves.

The confession, therefore, being entirely voluntary and a privilege, penitents are not to be tormented with "the ocean of distinctions" hitherto urged, such, e.g., as those between mortal and venial sins, whereof he says that "there is no doctor so learned as to draw accurately the distinction";[10] and between the inner impulses that may arise without the least consent of the will resulting from than, and those to which the will, in varying measure, may actually consent. On the contrary, it is not well to look too deeply into the abyss. When Peter began to count the waves, he was lost; when he looked away from them to Jesus, he was saved. Thus, while "the good purpose" to amend the life must be insisted upon as an indispensable accompaniment of every sincere confession, tender consciences may search within for such purpose, and be distressed because they cannot find satisfactory evidence of its presence. How excellent then the advice of this experienced pastor, that those thus troubled should pray for this "purpose" which they cannot detect; for no one can actually pray for such purpose without, in the prayer, having the very object he is seeking.

So also he rules out of the sphere of the confession the violation of matters of purely ecclesiastical regulation. Nothing is to be regarded a sin except that which is a violation of one of the Ten Commandments. To make that a sin which God's law does not make sin, is only the next step to ecclesiastical regulations to the level of divine commands, we lower divine commands to the level of ecclesiastical regulations. Even Private Confession, therefore, useful as it is, when properly understood and practised, since it rests after all upon ecclesiastical rule, is so little to be urged as a matter of necessity that Luther here defends the suggestion of Gerson, that occasionally one should go to the Lord's Supper without having made confession, in order thereby to testify that it is in God's mercy and His promise that we trust, rather than in the value of any particular outward observance.

The treatment of "Reserved Cases," with which this tract ends, shows the moderation and caution with which Luther is moving, but, at the same time, how the new wine is working in the old bottles, which soon must break. The principle of "the reservation of cases" he discusses in his Address to the German Nobility.[11] It is critical also in Augsburg Confession, Article XXVIII, 2, 41; Apology of the Augsburg Confession, English Translation, pp. 181, 212. The Roman Catholic dogma is officially presented in the Decrees of Trent, Session XIV, Chapter 7,[12] viz., "that certain more atrocious and more heinous crimes be absolved not by all priests, but only by the highest priests." Thus the power is centralized in the pope, and is delegated for exercise in ordinary cases to each particular parish-priest within the limits by which he is circumscribed, but no farther.[13] The contrast is between delegated and reserved rights. The Protestant principle is that all the power of the Church is in the Word of God which it administers; that wherever all the Word is, there also is all the power of the Church; and hence that, according to divine tight, all pastors have equal authority. For this reason, Luther here declares that in regard to secret sins, i. e., those known only to God and the penitent, no reservation whatever is to be admitted. But there is still a distinction which he is ready to concede. It has to do with public offences where scandal has been given. As "the more flagrant and more heinous crimes," If public, have to do with a wider circle than the members of a particular parish, the reparation for the offence should be as extensive as the scandal which it has created. In the Apology, Melanchthon claims that such reservation should be limited to the ecclesiastical penalties to be inflicted, but that it had not been Intended to comprise also the guilt involved; it was a reservatio poenae, but not a reservatio culpae.[14] Luther suggests the same here, but with more than usual caution.

In the same spirit as in his Treatise on Baptism, he protests against the numerous vows, the binding force of which was a constant subject of treatment in pastoral dealing with souls. The multiplication of vows had caused a depredation of the one all-embracing vow of baptism. Nevertheless the pope's right to give a dispensation he regards as limited entirely to such matters as those concerning which God's Word has given no command. With matters which concern only the relation of the individual to God, the Pope's authority is of no avail.

Literature.—Chemnitz, Martin, Examin Concilii Tridentini, 1578 (Preuss edition), 441-456. Steitz, G. E., Die Privatbeichte und Privatabsolution d. luth. Kirche aus d. Quellen des XVI. Jahrh., 1854. Pfeisterrer, G. F. Luthers Lehre von der Beichte, 1857. Klieftoth, Th. Lit. Abhandlungen, 2: Die Beichte und Absolution, 1856. Fischer, E., Zur Geschichte der evangelischen Beichte, 2 vols., 1902-1903. Rietschel, G., Lehrbuch der Liturgik, vol 2, particularly secs. 44, 45, Luthers Affassung der Beichte and Luthers Auffassung von der Absolution. Koestlin, Julius, Luther's Theology (English Translation), I:357, 360, 400. See also Smalcald Articles, Book of Concord (English Translation), 326, 899.

Henry E. Jacobs. Mount Airy, Philadelphia.


[1] 1. Decem Praecepta Wittebergenai praedicata populo, 1518, Erl. Ed., op. ex. lat., I, 218. A series of sermons entering into almost minute analyses of sins.

2. Die zehen Gebote Gottes mit einer kurzen Auslegung ihre Erfullung und Uebertretung, Weimar Ed., I, 247 ff; Erl. Ed., XXXVI, 145-154. Reduces contents of the sermons to a few pages. A brief handbook for use in the confessional first printed in tabular form, giving a very condensed exposition of each commandment, followed by a catalogue of sins prohibited and virtues enjoined. Written a month before the publication of the Theses, and published the next year.

3. Instructio pro confessione peccatorum abbrevianda secundum decalogum. Latin form of the above, published shortly after the original. Erl. Ed., op. ex. lat., XII, 229-230.

4. Kurze Unterweisung wie man beichten soll. Weimar Ed., II, 57 ff.; Erl. Ed., XXI, 245-253 prepared by request of Spalatin, first in Latin, and then translated, Kostlin thinks by Spalatin, into German. Published 1518. Contains eight introductory propositions, followed by lists of sins against each commandment.

5. Confitendi Ratio, published in 1520, a re-elaboration by Luther of the preceding German treatise. Weimar Ed., VI, 159-169; Erl. Ed., IV, 152-170; St. Louis Ed., XIX, 786-806.

[2] "Ja, mein ganzes Leben, und alles, das ich thu, handel, red und gedenk, ist also gethan, das es todlich und vordammlich ist." These are almost the words of the public confessional prayer in the Kirchenbuch of the General Council of the Lutheran Church in America: "Also dans alle meine Natur und Wesenstraflich und verdammlich ist."

[3] Erl. Ed., op. var. arg., IV, 89 aq. "Si enim suum malum sentiret, infernum sentiret, nam infernum in se ipso habet." See this volume, p. 115f.

[4] Erl. Ed., op. ex. lat., XIX, 1-154.

[5] Erl. Ed. (2d ed.), XI, 173.

[6] See the opening paragraph of this treatise.

[7] Erl. Ed., XI, 166, XXIX, 352-359. Cf. with this, the still fuller treatment by Chemnitz, Examin Concilii Tridentini (Preuss edition), 441-453.

[8] Babylonian Captivity, Erl. Ed., op. var. arg., V, 82.

[9] Cf. Augsburg Confession, Art. XXV; Apology in Book of Concord, English Translation, pp. 133, 173, 185, 188, 196; Smalcald Articles, 330-339; Small Catechism, 371.

[10] Sermon vom Sacrament der Busse, Erl. Ed., XX, 190. For definition of "mortal and venial," see Introduction to XCV Theses, above, p. 19.

[11] See Vol. II. of this edition.

[12] Deninger, Enchridion Symbolorum, soc. 782; Sceaff's Creeds of Christendom.

[13] "As though the Word of God cannot forgive sins, except where power derived from the Pope assist it." Chemnitz, Examen Concilii Tridentini (Preuss ed.), p. 456.

[14] Apology, p. 212; "There is a reservation of canonical punishments; there is not a reservation of guilt before God in those who are truly converted."





[Sidenote: Need of Faith]

In this our age, the consciences of almost all have been led astray by human doctrines into a false trust in their own righteousness and their own works, and knowledge about faith and trust in God has almost ceased. Therefore, for him who is about to go to confession, it is before all things necessary that he should not place his trust in his confession—either the confession which he is about to make or the confession which he has made—but that, with complete fulness of faith, he put his trust only in the most gracious promise of God; to wit, he must be altogether certain that He, Who has promised pardon to the man who shall confess his sins, will most faithfully fulfil His promise. For we are to glory, not because we confess, but because He has promised pardon to those who do confess; that is, not because of the worthiness or sufficiency of our confession (for there is no such worthiness or sufficiency), but because of the truth and certitude of His promise, as says the xxiv. Psalm: "For Thy Name's sake, O Lord, pardon mine iniquity." [Ps. 25:35] It does not say, "for my sake," or "for my worthiness' sake," or "for my name's sake," but "for Thy Name's sake." So it is evident that the work of confession is nothing else than an occasion by which God is called to the fulfilment of His own promise, or by which we are trained to believe that we shall without doubt obtain the promise. It is just as if we were to say: "Not unto us, O Lord, but unto Thy Name give glory, [Ps. 115:1] and rejoice, not because we have blessed Thee, but because Thou hast blessed us, as Thou sayest by Ezekiel." [Ezek. 20:44] Let this be the manner of our confession, that he who glories may glory in the Lord, and may not commend himself, but may glorify the grace of God; and it shall come to pass that "confession and majesty shall be the work of God." [1] Psalm cxi [Ps. 111:3].


[Sidenote: God's Promises]

But God, for the glory of His grace and mercy, has promised pardon. And this can be proved from Scripture. First from Psalm xxxii, "I said, I will confess my transgressions unto the Lord, and Thou forgavest the iniquity of my sin." [Ps. 32:5] Then from II. Samuel xii, from which this Psalm is taken. David first said, "I have sinned against the Lord," and Nathan straightway said, "The Lord also hath put away thy sin; thou shalt not die." [2 Sam. 12:13] Again, from Jeremiah xviii, "If that nation turn away from their evil, I will repent of the evil that I thought to do." [Jer. 18:8] Once more from I. John i, "If we confess our sins, He is faithful and just to forgive us our sins, and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness." [1 John 1:9] The true definition of the righteous man is found in Proverbs xviii, "The righteous man is his own first accuser," [2] [Prov.18:17] that is to say, he is righteous because he accuses himself. The verse goes on to say, "His neighbor (i. e., Christ) cometh and searcheth him," that is, He seeketh him, and suffereth him not to perish; He will even find him and bring him back from the depths of hell. Hence Joshua vii. also calls the confessing of sin the glorifying of God, saying to Achan, "My son, give glory to God, and confess, and tell me what thou hast done." [Josh. 7:19] St. Jerome comments on this passage, "Confession of sin is praise of God." No wonder! For he who confesses his own sins speaks truth; but God is truth; therefore he also confesses God. Thus Manasseh, King of Judah, says in his most beautiful Prayer,[3] which is most excellently suited for one who goes to confession, "But Thou, Lord, according to Thy goodness hast promised repentance for the remission of sins, etc." [Prayer of Manasseh, 7] Truly, "according to Thy goodness Thou hast promised," for our confession is nothing unless the promise of God is sure, and it is altogether of His divine goodness that He has promised remission, which could not be obtained by any righteousness, unless He had given the promise. Thus faith in that promise is the first and supreme necessity for one who is about to go to confession, lest, perchance, he may presumptuously think that by his own diligence, his own memory, his own strength, he is provoking God to forgive his sins. Nay, rather it is God Himself Who, with ready forgiveness, will anticipate his confession, and allure and provoke him, by the goodness of His sweet promise, to accept remission and to make confession.


[Sidenote: The Purpose of a Better Life—Its Necessity]

Before a man confesses to the priest, who is the vicar, he ought first to confess to God, Who is the Principal. But he should regard this matter seriously, since nothing escapes and nothing deceives the eye of God. Wherefore he ought here, without pretence, to ponder his purpose to lead a better life and his hatred of sin. For there is scarcely anything which deceives more penitents than that subtle and profound dissimulation by which they oftentime pretend, even to themselves, a violent hatred of sin and a purpose to lead a better life. The unhappy outcome proves their insincerity, for after confession they quickly return to their natural bent, and, as though relieved of the great burden of confession, they live again at ease, careless and unmindful of their purpose; by which one fact they can be convicted of their sad pretending. Wherefore a man ought in this matter to be altogether frank, and to speak of himself within himself just as he feels himself moved to speak, just as he could wish to speak if there were do punishment, no God, no commandment, and just as he would speak in the ear of some familiar friend, to whom he would not be ashamed to reveal everything about himself. As he could wish to speak quite freely to such a one about his faults, so let him speak to God, Who loves us far more than we love ourselves.

For if there is any one who does not find himself seriously inclined toward a good life, I know not whether it is safe for him to make confession. This I do know, that it were better for him to stay away from confession. For in this matter he need not care for the commandment of the Church, whether it excommunicate him or inflict some lesser punishment. It is better for him not to listen to the Church, than, at his own peril, to come to God with a false heart. In the latter case he sins against God, in the former case only against the Church; if, indeed, he sin at all in such a case by not listening to the Church, seeing that the Church has no right to command anything in which there is peril to the soul, and a case of this kind is always excepted from the commandments of the Church. For whatever the Church commands, she commands for God and for the soul's salvation, presuming that a man is capable of receiving her commandment and able to fulfil it. If this presumption falls, the precept does not hold, since nothing can be decreed contrary to the commandments of God, which bind the conscience.

[Sidenote: The purpose of a Better Life—Its Difficulty]

It is certainly to be feared that many come to confession out of fear of the commandment of the Church, who in their hearts are still pleased with their former evil life. If, however, a man is entangled in these difficulties, fearing to stay away from confession, and yet perceiving (if the truth were told) that he lacks the disposition toward a better life, let him lay hold of the one thing that remains, and hear the counsel of the Prophet, "Pour out your heart before Him"; [Ps. 62:8] and let him abase himself, and openly confess to God the whole evil of his heart, and pray for and desire a good purpose. Who, indeed, is so proud as to think he does not need this counsel? There is no one whose good purpose is as great as it ought to be. Let a man, therefore, fearlessly seek from God what he knows he cannot find in himself, until the thought of a better life begin seriously and truly to please him, and his own life to displease him. For the doctrines about the forming of a good purpose, which have been handed down to us and are everywhere taught, are not to be understood in the sense that a man should of himself form and work out this good purpose. Such an understanding is death and perdition; as one says, "There is death in the pot, O man of God." [2 Kings 4:40] And yet very many are grievously tormented by this idea, because they are taught to strive after the impossible. But in very despair, and pouring out his heart before God, a man should say, "Lord God, I have not what I ought to have, and cannot do what I ought to do. Give what Thou commandest, and command what Thou wilt." For thus St. Augustine prays in his Confessions. [4]


[Sidenote: The Purpose of a Better Life—Its Nature]

But what has been said about a good purpose, I wish to have understood with caution. For a good purpose ought to be twofold. First, a purpose with regard to open, mortal sins, such as adultery, homicide, fornication, theft, robbery, usury, slander, etc. The purpose to avoid these sins belongs properly to sacramental Confession, and to confession before God it belongs at any moment after the sins have been committed; according to the word of Ecclesiasticus, "My son, hast thou sinned? Do so no more, but ask pardon for thy former sins," [Ecclus. 21:1] and again, "Make no tarrying to turn to the Lord." [Ecclus. 5:8] In the second place, however, as regards all the sins they call "venial" (of which more below), it is entirely vain to labor after the forming of a good purpose, because if one rightly considers himself, he will find such a purpose altogether impossible, if he wishes henceforth to live in the flesh; since (as Augustine says) this life cannot be lived without such sins as unnecessary and thoughtless laughter, language, imaginations, sights, sounds, etc. As regards such things it is uncertain whether they are sins, or temptations by which merit is increased. And yet it is marvelous how a patent is vexed and worried in these matters by the present wordy manner of confessing. A purpose ought to be certain, and directed toward things which are certain and which can be shunned in common living, like the aforesaid open, mortal sins.


[Sidenote: Hidden Sins—Are They to be Confessed?]

Whether the hidden sins of the heart, which are known only to God and the man who commits them, belong to sacramental confession or not, is more than I can say. I should prefer to say that they do not. For the need of confessing these sins can in no way be proved, either by reason or by Scripture, and I have often suspected that it was all an invention of avaricious or curious or tyrannical prelates, who took this way of bringing the people of Christ to fear them. This is, in my opinion, laying hands on the judgment of God and is a violation of the rights of God, especially if men are forced to it.[5]

Here comes in that whole sea of laws and impossible questions about "cases of sin," [6] etc., since it is impossible for a man to know when he has in his heart committed the mortal sins of pride, lust, or envy. Nay, how can the priest know this, when he is set in judgment upon mortal sins alone? Can he know another's heart who does not thoroughly know his own? Hence it comes that many people confess many things, not knowing whether they are sins or not; and to this they are driven by that sentence of Gregory, "A good mind will confess guilt even where there is no guilt." They [i. e., the priests] wish that what is offered to God shall be offered to themselves—so immense is the arrogance of priests and pontiffs, and so haughty the pride of the Pharisees—and they do not see, meanwhile, that if this offering were made to man, the whole of life would be nothing else than confession, and that even this confession would have to be confessed in another confession by the man who fears guilt where there is no guilt, since even good works are not without guilt, and Job is afraid of all his works. [Job 9:28]


[Sidenote: Hidden Sins—What Hidden Sins Should be Confessed?]

Let some one else, then, explain this. I am content with this, that not all the sins of the heart are to be confessed. But if some are to be confessed, I say that it is only those which a man clearly knows that he has purposed in his heart against the commandments of God;[7] not, therefore, mere thoughts about a virgin or a woman, nor, on the other hand, the thoughts of a woman about a youth, nor the affections or ardor of lust, that is to say, the inclinations of the one sex toward the other, however unseemly, nor, I would add, even passions of this sort; for these thoughts are frequently passions inspired by the flesh, the world, or the devil, which the soul is compelled unwillingly to bear, sometimes for a long while, even for a whole day, or a week; as the apostle Paul confesses of his thorn in the flesh. [2 Cor. 12:7]

The consequence of all this is that a purpose to avoid these things is impossible and vain and deceitful, for the inclinations and desires of the sexes for one another do not cease so long as occasion is given them, and the devil is not quiet, and out whole nature is sin. But those who wish to be without sin and who believe that man is sound and whole, erect these crosses for us that we may not cease to confess (even to the priest) what things soever tickle us never so little. Therefore, if these hidden things of the heart ought to be confessed at all, only those things should be confessed which involve full consent to the deed; and such things happen very rarely or never to those who wish to lead pious lives, even though they are constantly harassed by desires and passions.


[Sidenote: Mortal and Venial Sins]

At this place we should also speak of that race of audacious theologians who are born to the end that the true fear of God may be extinguished in human hearts, and that they may smite the whole world with false terrors. It might seem that Christ was speaking of them when he told of "terrors from heaven." [Luke 21:11 Vulg.] These are the men who have undertaken to distinguish for us between mortal and venial sin. When men have heard that a certain sin is venial, they are careless and wholly leave off fearing God, as if He counted a venial sin for naught; again, if they have heard that the consent of the heart is a mortal sin, and if they have failed to listen to the precepts of the Church, or have committed some other trifling offence, there is no place in their hearts for Christ, because of the confusion made by the roaring sea of a troubled conscience.

Against these teachers it should be known that a man ought to give up in despair the idea that he can ever confess all his mortal sins, and that the doctrine which is contained in the Decretals[8] and is current in the Church, to wit, that every Christian should once in a year make confession of all his sins (so the words run), is either a devilish and most murderous doctrine, or else is sorely in need of a loose interpretation.

Not all sins, I say, either mortal or venial, are to be confessed, but it should be known that after a man has used all diligence in confessing, he has yet confessed only the smaller part of his sins. How do we know this? Because the Scripture says, "Cleanse Thou me from hidden sins, O Lord." [Ps. 19:12] These hidden sins God alone knows. And again it says, "Create in me a clean heart, O God." [Ps. 51:10] Even this holy prophet confesses that his heart is unclean. And all the holy Church prays, "Thy will be done"; [Matt. 6:10] and thus confesses that she does not do the will of God, and is herself a sinner.

[Sidenote: Should All Mortal Sins be Confessed?]

Furthermore, we are so far from being able to know or confess all the mortal sins that even our good works are damnable and mortal, if God were to judge with strictness, and not to receive them with forgiving mercy. If, therefore, all mortal sins are to be confessed, it can be done in a brief word, by saying at once, "Behold, all that I am, my life, all that I do and say, is such that it is mortal and damnable"; according to what is written in the cxliii. Psalm, "Enter not into judgment with Thy servant, for in Thy sight shall no flesh living be justified" [Ps. 143:2]; and in the Epistle to the Romans, Chapter vii, "But I am carnal, sold under sin; I know that in my flesh dwelleth no good thing; the evil that I would not, that I do, etc." [Rom. 7:14, 18, 19]

But of all mortal sins, this is the most mortal, not to believe that we are hateful in the sight of God because of damnable and mortal sin. To such madness these theologians, with this rule of theirs, strive zealously and perniciously to drag the consciences of men, by teaching that venial sins are to be distinguished from mortal sins, and that according to their own fashion. For we read in Augustine, Cyprian, and other Fathers that those things which are bound and loosed are not mortal sins, but criminal offences, i. e., those acts of which men can be accused and convicted.

Therefore, by the term "all sins" in the Decretal we should understand those things of which a man is accused, either by others or by his own conscience. By "conscience" I mean a right conscience, not a conscience seared and deformed by human traditions, but a conscience which is expert in the commandments of God, and which knows that much more is to be left solely to the goodness of God than is to be committed to its own diligence.

But what if the devil, when a man is dying, raises the obstacle of sins which have not been confessed, as we read in many of the stories?[9] I answer. Let these sins go long with those of which it is said, "Who can understand his faults?" [Ps. 19:12] and with those others of which it is written, "Enter not into judgment with Thy servant." [Ps. 143:2] Whatever stories have been made up contrary to these sayings, have either been invented under some devilish delusion, or are not rightly understood. It is enough that thou hast had the will to confess all things, if thou hadst known them or hadst been able. God wills that His mercy be glorified. But how? In our righteousness? Nay, in our sins and miseries. The Scriptures should be esteemed more highly than any stories.


[Sidenote: Distinction between Sins]

By thus getting down to the thing itself,[10] the penitent, of whom I have so often spoken, does away entirely with that riot of distinctions; to wit, whether he has committed sin by fear humbling him to evil, or by love inflaming him to evil; what sins he has committed against the three theological virtues of faith, hope, and charity; what sins against the four cardinal virtues; what sins by the five senses; what of the seven mortal sins, what against the seven sacraments, what against the seven gifts of the Holy Spirit, what against the eight beatitudes, what of the nine peccata aliena, what against the twelve Articles of Faith, what of the silent sins, what of the sins crying to heaven; or whether he has sinned by or against anything else.[11] That hateful and wearisome catalogue of distinctions is altogether useless, nay, it is altogether harmful. Some have added to these evils a most troublesome business of "circumstances."

By all this they have produced two results. First, the penitent makes so much of these trifles that he is not able really to give heed to the thing of chief importance, namely, the desire for a better life. He is compelled to tax his memory with such a mass of details, and so to fill his heart with the business of rightly expressing his cares and anxieties, while seeking out forgotten sins or a way of confessing them, that he entirely loses the present pangs of conscience, and the whole profit and salutary effect of confession. When he is absolved, therefore, he rejoices not so much because he is absolved, as because he has freed himself once for all from the wretched worry of confession; for what he has been seeking has been not the absolution, but rather the end of the laborious nuisance of confessing. Thus, while we sleep secure, everything is upset again. In the second place, such penitents weary the confessor, stealing his time, and standing in the way of other penitents.

[Sidenote: The Commandments a Guide to Confession]

We ought, therefore, to look briefly at the Commandments of God, in which, if they are rightly understood, all sins are, without doubt, contained.[12] And not even all of these are to be considered, but the last two Commandments are to be excluded entirely from confession. Confession should be brief, and should be a confession chiefly of those sins which cause pain at the time of confession, and, as they say, "move to confession." For the sacrament of confession was instituted for the quieting, not for the disturbing, of the conscience.

For example, as regards the Commandment, "Thou shalt not commit adultery," let the penitent quickly say in what manner he has given place to lust, either in act or word, or by consent, just as though he were describing himself entirely, with all his limbs and senses, in that Commandment. Why, then, should he uselessly bring in the five senses, the mortal sins, and the rest of that ocean of distinctions? So in the case of the Commandment, "Thou shalt not kill." Let him quickly say by what kind of wrath he has sinned, whether by hatred, slander or cursing, or by the act of murder itself. And so with the rest; as I have tried to show in my Preceptorium and my writings on the Decalogue.[13]

Let it not disturb anyone that in the Decretals on Penance and in the IV. Book of the Sentences[14] this matter is differently treated. For they all are full of human inventions; and no wonder! They have taken everything they say out of a certain apocryphal and unlearned book called De vera et falsa poenitentia,[15] which is widely circulated, and ascribed, by a lying title, to St. Augustine.


[Sidenote: Commandments of God and of Man]

In making confession diligence should be used to distinguish with great care between sins committed against the Commandments of God and sins committed against the statutes of men. I say this because of the mad opinion, which is now prevalent, that sins which are committed against the decretals of the popes are to be noted with wondrous care, but sins committed against God, with little or none.

Let me give you some illustrations:

You will find priests and monks who are horrified, as at some prodigy, if they stammer, or repeat even a syllable in the Canon of the Mass,[16] though this may be a natural defect of the tongue, or an accident, and is not a sin. Again, there is no priest who does not confess that he was distracted, or failed to read his Preparatoria, or other old-womanish trifles of the kind. There was one who, even when he was at the altar celebrating, called a priest three times and confessed that something had happened. Indeed, I have seen these endless jests of the devil taken by many so seriously that they almost lost their minds. And yet the fact that they cherished hatred or envy in their hearts, that they had cursed before or after Mass, that they had intentionally lied or slandered, all this moved them not at all. Whence this perversity? From the "traditions of men who turn from the truth," [Tit. 1:14] as the Apostle says. Because we have neglected to offer God a confession of true sins, He has given us up to our reprobate sense, [Rom. 1:24] so that we delude ourselves with fictitious sins and deprive ourselves of the benefit of the sacrament,[17] and the more we seem to seek it, the more this is true.

[Sidenote: They Tyranny of Ordinances]

Of this stuff are those who make the neglect of the canonical hours[18] an almost irremissible sin, while they easily remit fornication, which is against the commandments of God, or the neglect of duty toward our neighbor. These are they who so approve of that dream or story about St. Severinus[19] that they think they cannot read their Hours in advance, or afterward make them up without sin, even if they have been hindered at the proper time by the most just cause, such as ministering to the necessities of a neighbor, which is of six hundred times more merit than their worthless and all but damnable prayers. So far do they go in their failure to observe that the commandment of God, in the service of one's neighbor, should be preferred to the commandment of men, in the thoughtless mumbling of the words of the Hours. To this class too belong those who think it a crime to speak or to call a boy during the Canon of the Mass even in case of the greatest necessity or danger. Finally, these men make the fasting of nature one thing, and the fasting of the Church another thing, and if one has thoughtlessly swallowed some drops of liquid, or has taken some medicine, they exclude him utterly from the sacrament, and make it a sin, even the very greatest sin. I wonder whence these men have the authority to set up such laws as these and to trouble consciences with sins of their own invention. By these illustrations other, similar cases may be judged.

Of the laity, one confesses that he has tasted sweets, another that he has listened to jests, smelted perfumes, touched things that were soft.

Let us come to greater things! The common people are persuaded that to eat butter or eggs on fast-days is heretical; so cruelly do the laws of men rave in the Church of God! And we unconcernedly profit by this superstition of the people, nay, by this tyranny of ours, caring nothing that the commandments of God are taken in jest, so long as men tremble and turn pale at our laws. No one calls an adulterer a heretic; fornication is a light sin; schisms and discords, inspired, preserved and increased by the authority and in the name of the Church, are merits; but to eat meat on Friday is the sum of all heresies. Thus we teach the people of Christ, and permit them to be taught! But I am disgusted, wearied, shamed, distressed at the endless chaos of superstitions which has been inflicted upon this most salutary sacrament of confession by the ignorance of true theology, which has been its own tyrant ever since the time that men have been making its laws.


[Sidenote: Communion Without Confession]

I advise, therefore, as John Gerson[20] used to advise, that a man shall now and then go to the altar or to the Sacrament "with a scruple of conscience," that is, without confession, even if he has been immoderate in drinking, talking, or sleeping, or has done something else that is wrong, or has not prayed a single one of the Hours. Would you know why this advice is given? Listen! It is in order that a man may learn to trust more in the mercy of God than in his own confession or in his own diligence. For enough cannot be done toward shaking that accursed trust in our own works. It should be done for this reason, too, that if a man is assailed by some necessity, whether temptation or death, and those hidden sins begin to appear which he has never been able to see or to confess, then he may have, ready and prepared, a practice of trusting in the mercy which God offers to the unworthy; according to the word, "His heart is prepared to trust in the Lord." [21] [Ps. 57:7] How shall a man hope, in the face of the sudden inroads of such a great mass of sins, if he has not learned in this life, while there was time, to hope in the Lord against the smallest, nay, against even an imagined sin? If you say, "What if this were despising the sacrament and tempting God?" I answer, It will not be tempting God if it is done for the glory of God; that is, if you do it, not because you despise God's sacrament nor because you want to tempt Him (since you are ready to make the fullest confession), but only in order that you may accustom a troubled conscience to trust in God and not to tremble at the rustling of every falling leaf. Do not doubt that everything pleases God which is done to the end that you may have trust in Him, since it is all His glory that we trust with our whole heart in His mercy.

I do not wish, however, that a man should always go to the altar without confession; but I say that it should be done sometimes, and then only for the arousing of trust in God and the destroying of trust in our own act of confession. For a man will hardly go to mass without guilt, if he thinks his forgiveness sure because he has confessed, rather than because God is merciful; nay, this is altogether an impiety. The summa summarum[22] is, "Blessed are all they that put their trust in the Lord." [Ps. 2:12] When you hear this word, "in the Lord," know that he is unblessed who puts his trust in anything whatsoever that is not the Lord Himself. And such a man those "artists of confession" make; for what has the "art of confession" done except to destroy the art and practice of confiding, until at last we have learned to confess a great deal, to confide not at all.


[Sidenote: Reserved Cases—No Hidden Sins can be Reserved]

In the matter of reserved cases,[23] many are troubled. For my own part, because I know that the laws of men to be subject to mercy, and be applied with mildness rather than with severity, I follow the custom and advice of those who think that in hidden sins no case is to be reserved, and therefore all penitents are to be absolved whose sins are hidden, as are the sins of the flesh, that is to say, every form of lust, the procuring of abortion, and the like. For it should not be presumed that any pope would be willing, in matters of hidden sin, to set so many snares and dangers for men's souls. But when a sin has been public, an open reserved case, it should be left entirely to the authorities of the Church, no matter whether they are just or unjust. In such case, however, the confessor may so moderate the power of the keys[24] as not to let the penitent depart without absolution, for those sins at least which he knows to be not reserved. Just now, to be sure, I am in doubt, and have not yet found a place for the proper discussion of it, whether any sin can be reserved, or ever is reserved, so far as the remission of guilt[25] is concerned; that the penalty can be reserved is not doubted; but of this let others judge. But even in the remission of the penalty, neither the confessor nor the penitent should be too much troubled by scruples. The penalty I have especially in mind is excommunication, or any other censure of the Church—what they call their lightnings and thunders. Since excommunication is only penalty and not guilt, and can be laid upon the innocent and allowed to remain upon the man who has returned to his senses, and, furthermore, since it is sometimes necessary to put off satisfaction, because of the length of the journey required or because of poverty; therefore the penitent who is excommunicated or under censure should be absolved from all his sins, if he seeks absolution, and be dismissed to the higher authorities to be loosed from excommunication and to make satisfaction. Thus he should be absolved in the judgment of God and of conscience from guilt and sins, and sent to the judgment of the Church to be freed from the penalty. This is what is meant when it is said that the desire to make satisfaction[26] suffices for the absolving of a sinner.

Previous Part     1  2  3  4  5  6  7  8  9     Next Part
Home - Random Browse