Maybe There Are Only 94 Theses

   This being Reformation it’s time once more to haul out the 95 Theses.  Here’s one I’ll bet you haven’t read: Number 7.  It says, “God remits guilt to no one unless at the same time he humbles him in all things and makes him submissive to his vicar, the priest.”  Wow! won’t here that from many Protestant pulpits, will you?  Democratic ears would be smoking.  You might think Luther went on to disavow this thesis, but I find no record of him doing so.  He in fact maintained and defended it in his Explanations of the Ninety-Five Theses published a year later.  He says, “I maintain this thesis.  And since it has been thoroughly approved by the consensus of everyone, it does not require further discussion and proof” (AE, 31, 98).  Of course, then in good Luther fashion, he goes on to discuss and prove it for 8 more pages.

He begins by going to the Scriptures saying, “In all these passages remission is indicated as taking place on earth before it takes place in heaven” (99).  Absolution is not a declaration of a pardon God has already made.  It sends the sins away right then and there.

Prior to doing this, however, the penitent is plunged into despair as part of God’s alien work.  “When the priest sees such humility and anguish, he shall, with complete confidence in the power given him to show compassion, loose the penitent and declare him loosed, and thereby give peace to his conscience” (100).  So much for “If you want peace work for justice.”  No, if you want peace, go to confession.

Luther goes on.  Even if the penitent is uncertain of the anguish of his conscience “as it must always be if it is a true sorrow, yet he is constrained to abide by the judgment of another….Whoever seeks peace in another way, for example, inwardly through experience, certainly seems to tempt God and desires to have peace in fact, rather than in faith” (100).  Put that in your existential pipe and smoke it!

Now let me warn those of you who’ve just got to see things for yourself not to read Luther’s Explanations yourself.  He is still much mired in infused grace (Aren’t we all?).  However, if you can pick through the landmines, you will find such gold as, “Therefore, God’s remission effects grace, but the priest’s remission brings peace…” (102).

Huh?  That’s what you’re thinking, right?  Skip to page 103 for the explanation, “For when a man through the remission of guilt (which he cannot bestow upon himself, for no one should believe in himself unless he prefers to make two disorders out of one [so much for the psychobabble of self-esteem]) has found peace through the acceptance of faith in absolution, every punishment is to him as no punishment at all.  For anxiety of conscience makes the punishment harmful, but cheerfulness of conscience makes punishment desirable.”

Allow a personal story to explain.  When one of my sons was about 6 years-old and quite a handful, he was acting up at the dinner table.  I told him that if he did that again I would give him 10 swats.  He did.  I took him from the table to administer the spanking, but I relented and only gave him 5.  Back at the table he was whimpering.  I, in irritation said, “What’s wrong with you?”  He said, “You said you would give me 10 swats.”  I, in anger said, “You want me to give you 5 more?”  He whimpered, “Yes.”  “Why,” said I, “would you want me to give you 5 more swats?”  “Because,” said the little Luther, “You’re helping me to be a good boy.”  So, I did, and all was well in the Harris house. My son was a better theologian than I.  He knew the punishment wasn’t to merit forgiveness.  It was to help him.  He, flush with the forgiveness of sins, happy in a peaceful conscience could look at the punishment as “desirable.”

At this point Luther had not broken with penance.  He had broken with it being what guaranteed forgiveness, but he still saw it as salutary.  One should desire the priest to impose it on him for his well-being and should freely submit to it.

Again a warning.  There is much in this writing of Luther to trouble one not well grounded in mature Reformation Lutheranism.  However, what comes through loud and clear is that Christ wills to deal with us through the mouth of a man.  Our troubled consciences are to find rest in him speaking the words of Christ.  We can submit to him even obey him for he is keeping watch over our souls as one who will have to give an account.  Those are not my words or Luther’s but Hebrews 13:17.

About Paul Harris

Pastor Harris retired from congregational ministry after 40 years in office on 31 December 2023. He is now devoting himself to being a husband, father, and grandfather. He still thinks cenobitic monasticism is overrated and cave dwelling under.
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