"Gallows Sorrow" was what it was called, and Luther loathed it. It was the popular theory taught during the late middle ages as a part of the Roman Catholic sacrament of penance. What gallows sorrow referred to was a penitent's attitude toward his sin. The most used analogy for this was the image of a thief with a noose around his throat. The thief hates his punishment but not his crime. The thief's sorrow, like that of the penitent, is produced by fear of punishment for his crime. Martin Luther's rejection of this "hypocrisy" was vital to his formulation of justification.
Dr. Luther condemned this "fear sorrow" or "gallows sorrow" as hypocritical contrition and in doing so he chipped away at the most basic assumptions of the Roman Catholic teaching on confession. By condemning the necessity of confessing to one's priest, Luther essentially did away with the most important element of the medieval penitential system and in doing so, undermined the foundation of the papacy itself. He attacked the Pope's authority to command yearly confession.
Confession, Luther argued, must be freely willed and a choice, otherwise it cannot be an honest confession produced by faith in Christ's grace and forgiveness. Even preparation for the Lord's Supper, for example, does not require confession, but only faith in Christ's promise that forgiveness, life, and salvation are delivered to the sinner by way of Jesus' body and blood in the sacrament.
Along with the need to prove one's sorrow over his sins, and the legislating of yearly confession, Luther also struck out at the long-standing practice of examining a penitent so as to prove whether he was truly sorry for his sin. Instead, Luther asserted, only as one is moved by his own conscience, and the particular sin that troubles him, should he confess. Rather than focus his attention on examining himself to prove to himself and the priest whether he is worthy of absolution, the penitent should focus all his attention on his new life in Christ. Baptismal promise, not past sin, is the proper focus of a Christian's attention when he confesses.
True contrition then, for the Lutherans, was not an act or a habit aroused by each sin, or for each sin that grabbed one's attention, or for all the sins he could remember. Instead, true contrition bears fruit in a changed heart, spirit, and attitude toward God and neighbor, not just during the time it takes one to confess to his priest.
Only Jesus’ absolute absolution can satisfy a troubled conscience.
But the truly revolutionary move Luther made was that he reversed directions altogether. Instead of an active contrition, Luther taught that contrition was a passive experience for the Christian. As a sinner is convicted by God's Word of Law, he is turned toward the cross so that he may behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world. Justification, not "fear sorrow" is the basis of true confession. Passive contrition simply admits that one is powerless and unable under any circumstances to repent and confess his sin honestly. Before all-powerful, almighty God one is powerless and his confession of sin worthless. Only the blood of Christ Jesus can cover sin and offer comfort and consolation to a troubled sinner.
Only Jesus' absolute absolution can satisfy a troubled conscience. The quality, intensity, and perfection of a sinner's confession has nothing whatsoever to do with whether God forgives him or not. A sinner can only do one thing in relation to Christ's cross: believe Jesus' bloody suffering and death is for him, for the forgiveness of all his sin, and that trusting this constitutes forgiveness itself. In this regard, the priest, Luther taught, is entrusted by God with his primary responsibility, which is simply to declare Christ Jesus' forgiveness when one distrusts that the Lamb of God is "for him" in his dying for sin and rising for our justification.
The consequences of Luther's undermining of the late medieval sacrament of penance are easy to understand when we read his summary of over a decade's work on this topic in The Small Catechism:
Here consider your calling according to the Ten Commandments, namely, whether you are a father or mother, a son or daughter, a master, mistress, or servant, if you have been disobedient, unfaithful, slothful, angry, unchaste, or quarrelsome, if you have injured anyone by words, or deeds, if you have stolen, neglected, or wasted aught, or done any evil.
In short, what Luther asks is, what has cut us loose from enjoying a good relation and clear conscience in regards to God and neighbor? His focus is on consolation and reconciliation, not priestly interrogation and subsequent discipline. Luther employs the logic of salvation by grace through faith in Christ to formulate an "evangelical" confession. As a consequence, he taught that the pastoral office is established primarily to comfort troubled consciences.
This was a radical departure from the late medieval sacramental penitential system, and still ruffles feathers to this day amongst Roman Catholics and Protestants alike, who view contrition and confession as something we do to prove to God that we are worthy of absolution, rather than as a passive confession that in Christ we have been forgiven and continue to live in His bloody absolution regardless of the quality of our confession. For Luther, and those who follow him, we do not confess in order to be forgiven, but because we are forgiven we are free to confess our sin and enjoy the blood-drenched grace of God that covers the whole of our life, even into the life to come.