An age-old debate amongst Christians is the number and use of the sacraments. Rome and the Eastern Orthodox hold that there are seven sacraments of the church. On the other hand, most confessing Protestant groups will say there are only two. Since each group defines “sacrament” differently, technically, they are all correct according to their own definitions. The Catechism of the Catholic Church defines a sacrament as a visible rite of the church which confers grace. Because of this rather broad definition, Rome includes baptism, confirmation, the Eucharist, penance, the anointing of the sick, Holy Orders, and matrimony in their list. In contrast, the Heidelberg Catechism defines a sacrament as a visible, holy, sign and seal of God’s promise, which is instituted by Christ and more narrowly only includes baptism and the Lord’s Supper.
The Lutheran Confessions curiously take a third way by naming three sacraments: baptism, the Lord’s Supper, and absolution. The question can be asked, why do Lutherans differ from everyone else? The answer, again, comes down to the actual definition. The Apology to the Augsburg Confession, Article XIII, defines a sacrament with three qualifiers: as a rite, commanded by God, and to which the promise of grace has been attached. This definition excludes human traditions and institutions (contrary to Rome), but it also doesn’t require a physical sign (contrary to general Protestantism). So let’s look at how absolution fits all three of these qualifiers.
The way in which absolution is a rite is relatively apparent. A preacher is sent by God to a sinner who confesses her sins, and after hearing this confession, pronounces forgiveness over her in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. There’s a ritual exchange here in which the sinner hands over her sins, and the preacher hands over the goods of forgiveness. Confronted in this way, the sinner comes face to face with Christ. Christ comes on the lips of another sinner to speak the absolution, and because it is Christ who speaks, this promise is most certain and true. Your sins are forgiven before the preacher as before God himself.
God commands that absolution is also readily available from the Scriptures. The sedes doctrinae or where the doctrine “sits” in Scripture is John 20. After Jesus’ resurrection, he dramatically appears to the disciples who have hidden themselves away for fear of the Jews. The first thing he does is to give them the absolution they were desperately in need of. Following the crucifixion, the disciples had reason to be fearful of the Jews in general, and most certainly reason to be afraid of one Jew in particular: the God-man, Jesus, whom they betrayed into the hands of men who crucified him (Mark 14:50).
If someone confesses their sins into my ears, I have no options but to forgive them in the name of Christ.
But instead of condemning them, Jesus says, “Peace be with you.” He shows them the hands that were pierced for them, the side that bled for them, and again says, “Peace be with you” (John 20:19-20). He gives them absolution, and then he gives them a mandate. As God the Father had sent him, Jesus sends them to do one thing: forgive sinners. Loosen the sins that bind the broken. It’s because of this we don’t have an option when it comes to giving forgiveness to others.
“‘As the Father has sent me, even so I am sending you.’ And when he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you withhold forgiveness from any, it is withheld’” (John 20:20-23).
As a Christian, I am bound to this word. If someone confesses their sins into my ears, I have no options but to forgive them in the name of Christ. Christ has commanded that Christians do this and promised that when they do, it is he who forgives.
The matter of primary importance for the Lutheran Reformers is not actually the number of sacraments, but their use.
This promise of grace also is the third part of the sacrament. When a Christian forgives sins, “they are forgiven them,” and if the Christian retains any “they are retained”! Likewise, in Matthew 28, in the so-called “Great Commission,” Christ does not give his authority to the disciples, he retains it! He says all authority in heaven and on earth has been given to him. Therefore, it is Christ who runs the verbs of discipling. It is Christ who baptizes, it is Christ who serves his body and blood, it is Christ who absolves, and it is in these ways that Christ’s promise is fulfilled. He is with us always unto the end of the age because he never stops serving, never stops giving, and never stops absolving by the power of the Holy Spirit.
With all this said, the matter of primary importance for the Lutheran Reformers is not actually the number of sacraments, but their use. The Reformers desired that the sacraments be used and that by their use, Christians be saved and have comfort in the sure knowledge that Christ has done all things for their good. In this way, the cross of Christ does not stay remotely in the past, but is always a present reality for those who are in Christ.