Recently I have had several congregation members ask me about how many sacraments there are. The Roman Catholic church says there are seven. The Lutheran church says that there are two … or is it three? The question is a good one to address because it highlights the unique character of the gifts Christ has given to His Church through which delivers the forgiveness of sins and sustains faith.
The word “sacrament” is based on the Latin word sacramentum that is sometimes used to translate the Greek word μυστήριον (mystery) in the New Testament (Col 1:26; Eph 3:9; 6:19). The term “sacrament” is not found in the Bible. Instead, it is a term that the Church uses to organize how we think about the biblical texts and what they say about Christ’s gifts. For this reason, the number of sacraments depends on how we define what a sacrament is.
For a thousand years there was no firm definition or numbering of the sacraments. Though Holy Baptism and the Lord’s Supper were almost always included in the list, the specific items varied. It is only in the twelfth century that Peter Lombard in his work the Sentences provided the beginning of the tradition that firmly identified the seven sacraments of Baptism, Confirmation, Eucharist, Penance, Extreme Unction (today called Anointing of the Sick), Holy Orders and Matrimony. In the thirteenth century this list was accepted and used by Thomas Aquinas in his Summa Theologicae and received official recognition at the Council of Florence in 1439.
In their foundational statement of faith, the Augsburg Confession, the Lutherans discussed Baptism (Art. IX), the Lord’s Supper (Art. X) and Confession (Art. XI). The Roman Catholic response, the Confutation, demanded that the Lutherans explicitly confess the seven sacraments (pt. I, art. XIII). The Apology of the Augsburg Confession replied by saying, “But we do not think it makes much difference if, for the purpose of teaching, different people have different enumerations, as long as they properly preserve the matters handed down in Scripture. After all, even the ancients did not always number them in the same way” (XIII.2).
The Lutherans then proceeded to provide a more Gospel focused definition – one that emphasized the forgiveness of sins. They said, “If we define the sacraments as rites, which have the command of God and to which the promise of grace has been added, it is easy to determine what the sacraments are, properly speaking (quae sint proprie sacramenta). For humanly instituted rites are not sacraments, properly speaking, because human beings do not have the authority to promise grace. Therefore, signs instituted without the command of God are not sure signs of grace, even though perhaps they serve to teach or admonish the common folk. Therefore, the sacraments are actually (vere) baptism, the Lord’s Supper, and absolution (the sacrament of penance). For these rites have the command of God and the promise of grace, which is the essence of the New Testament” (Apology of the Augsburg Confession XIII.3-4). The definition of a sacrament therefore is a rite that: 1) Has been commanded by God (instituted by Christ); and, 2) Has the promise of grace (the forgiveness of sins). Based on this definition there are three sacraments: Holy Baptism, the Sacrament of the Altar and Holy Absolution.
It all seems clear until we read the Large Catechism which says, “We must still say something about our two sacraments, instituted by Christ” (Large Catechism 4.1). The Large Catechism then goes on to discuss Holy Baptism and the Sacrament of the Altar. It mentions Confession and Absolution, but does so using the medieval term Penance and subsumes it under Holy Baptism: “Here you see that baptism, both by its powers and by its signification, comprehends also the third sacrament, formerly called penance, which is really nothing else than baptism” (IV.74-75).
We find that the Lutheran Church has two different definitions of the word “sacrament”:
1. Instituted by Christ 1. Instituted by Christ
2. Promise of forgiveness 2. Promise of forgiveness
3. Uses a physical means
Both include the Christ’s institution and the promise of forgiveness. But the definition in the Large Catechism limits the sacrament to those that use a physical means (water; bread and wine). These two definitions produce two different numbering of the sacraments:
1. Holy Baptism 1. Holy Baptism
2. Lord’s Supper 2. Lord’s Supper
3. Holy Absolution
There is a neatness to Luther’s definition that makes it highly attractive, and in fact it has been dominant in Lutheranism from its earliest days. Already we find that Chemnitz in his Examination of the Council of Trent lists as the first requirement of a sacrament: “That it have some external, material or corporeal and visible element or sign (aliquod materiale seu corporale, et visible elementum seu signum), which is handled, offered, and employed in a certain external rite.” On this basis, Chemnitz states very clearly, “For it is in this way that Baptism and the Lord’s Supper are truly and properly (vere et proprie) sacraments of the New Testament.”
As we have seen above, the Apology of the Augsburg Confession states that the numbering and listing of the sacraments is not something to get upset about. This is a healthy and sensible attitude, and Chemnitz provides an example of what this looks like in practice. Although he clearly affirms that Baptism and the Lord’s Supper are truly and properly the only sacraments, he repeatedly affirms the possibility of calling absolution a sacrament based on Apology XIII. For example, he states, “Therefore absolution is not truly and properly a sacrament in the same way as Baptism and the Lord’s Supper. However, if anyone, with this added explanation and difference [i.e. the lack of a material element or sign], should want to call it a sacrament on account of this peculiar (singularem) application of the promise, the Apology of the Augsburg Confession testifies that it does not want to object.” In fact Chemnitz readily concedes: “And in order that the salutary use of private absolution may be the more commended to the church from the teaching of the Word of God, our teachers have often testified that they do not oppose but freely concede that absolution, because it has the application of the general promise to individuals who use this ministry, may be numbered among the sacraments.”
The issue, therefore, is not whether we call Holy Absolution a “sacrament” or not. In fact I think that in our present context we probably cause ourselves more problems than good if we insist on calling it a sacrament. After nearly five hundred years of the Large Catechism’s “two sacrament” definition, when congregation members hear the term “sacrament” applied to Holy Absolution it sounds incorrect to them and simply raises unnecessary questions and resistance rather than extolling the gift.
The concern, instead, should be that we treat Holy Absolution in a “sacramental” manner. That is, we need to treat it as a distinct and unique gift instituted by Christ (John 20:22-23) that is on par with Holy Baptism and the Lord’s Supper as a means by which Christ forgives sin. We need to recognize the profound commonality that these three gifts share. This commonality exists in four ways. First, all three have been instituted by Christ (Baptism: Matthew 28:18-20; Lord’s Supper: Words of Institution; Holy Absolution: John 20:22-23). Second, all three have God’s promise of forgiveness (Baptism: Acts 2:38; Lord’s Supper: Matt 26:28; Holy Absolution: John 20:23). Third (and here I am drawing a slightly broader circle than the Large Catechism’s definition), all three are the located means by which Christ delivers forgiveness as they use water, bread and wine, and a man in the Office of the Holy Ministry. And finally, according to the Book of Concord all three are administered only by a man in the Office of the Holy Ministry (AC XIV).
This treatment of Holy Absolution as “sacramental” is justified by the fact that Apology XIII lists the three as sacraments. More importantly, it is justified by the manner in which those confessional documents that don’t enumerate it as a sacrament treat Holy Absolution. We see this in four ways. First, the ordering in the Augsburg Confession lists them in consecutive order: IX. Baptism; X. Lord’s Supper; XI. Confession (where the point is the necessity of retaining private absolution). Second, when Luther’s Large Catechism first appeared in mid-April 1529, it ended with Luther’s treatment of Baptism and the Lord’s Supper in IV and V. However, before the year was even over, Luther felt the need to add “A Brief Exhortation to Confession” in the revised and expanded edition of 1529 that discussed Confession and Holy Absolution so that now we find a treatment of Baptism (IV.), the Lord’s Supper (V) and Holy Absolution (“A Brief Exhortation to Confession”) side by side in the Large Catechism. Third, we note that the Small Catechism has always contained some treatment of confession and absolution. In fact, in our Synodical Catechism we have set off “Confession” as a separate section in between “The Sacrament of Holy Baptism” and “The Sacrament of the Altar.” When the popular phrase “six chief parts” is applied to the Small Catechism, Confession and Absolution then receive an equal footing with Baptism and the Lord’s Supper. Finally, we find the ordering in the Smalcald Articles: Baptism (III.v.), The Sacrament of the Altar (III.vi.), The Keys (III.vii.) and Confession (III.viii.). On a consistent basis in the Confessions, we find all three gifts listed side by side. Though the Confessions do not always define Holy Absolution as a sacrament, they treat it in a sacramental manner – it receives the same emphasis as the gifts that are strictly speaking defined as sacraments.
To say that God acts in a sacramental manner, is to say that Christ has instituted gifts in which he uses located means to deliver forgiveness. This continuing action by Christ through located means reflects the very nature of the incarnation that won the forgiveness being delivered.
The located means of water, and bread and wine are apparent. Yet it is also necessary to recognize the unique located means of the pastor in the Office of the Holy Ministry who speaks absolution. I have written elsewhere regarding AC V: “God wishes to deliver the faith of AC IV to concrete men via the concrete means of the Word and the Sacraments. He works through the external Word of the Gospel apart from our own efforts. However, the Word and the Sacraments do not ‘just happen’ by themselves nor do we ‘do them for ourselves.’ Rather, they occur where a concrete minister placed by God in the office of the ministry preaches the Word and administers the sacraments. God has instituted the concrete means and instituted the office of the ministry in order for those concrete means to go on among concrete people.”
Christ continues to be present in our midst in Holy Absolution as he forgives sins through the located means of the man in the Office of the Holy Ministry. When the pastor pronounces Holy Absolution in accordance with Christ’s institution and command, he represents Jesus and speaks in the stead and place of Christ. Apology VII.28 puts it this way: “Nor does this detract from the efficacy of the sacraments when they are distributed by the unworthy, because they represent the person of Christ (repraesentant Christi personam) on account of the call of the church and do not represent their own persons, as Christ himself testifies, “Whoever listens to you listens to me” [Luke 10:16]. When they offer the Word of Christ or the sacraments, they offer them in the stead and place of Christ (Christi vice et loco).”
Christ is present - represented - and speaks in the first person singular to us, “I forgive you all your sins” through the located means of the man who by virtue of his office, as a called and ordained servant of the Word, speaks in the stead and place of Christ. Let me be clear that this is not to say that the pastor “is Christ.” Rather, in Holy Absolution the pastor is the located means used by Christ to forgive sins as the pastor speaks in the stead and place of Christ.
In the history of the Lutheran Church, the second (two sacrament) definition has been dominant. The unfortunate result of this development is that it has often caused Holy Absolution to drift into relative obscurity in spite of the prominence it held for the Lutheran Confessions. When the only sacraments are Holy Baptism and the Sacrament of the Altar, there is little place left for Holy Absolution.
Ultimately, to argue about how many sacraments there are distracts us from what really matters. It is a fruitless exercise because it simply pits the two confessional definitions against one another (where the weight of history always pushes the scale down in favor of the two sacrament definition that leaves Holy Absolution to the side). Instead we should focus on all of the means that God has given in order to deliver forgiveness and sustain faith. The term that I normally use for this in catechesis and preaching is “the Means of Grace.” This is a helpful way to speak since it highlights these unique gifts as a group. The Means of Grace are:
1. The Word
2. The Sacrament of Holy Baptism
3. Holy Absolution
4. The Sacrament of the Altar
I list the Word first because it is the Word that makes the other three to be Means of Grace. They are the Word in its various forms. The other three Means of Grace are then listed in the same order as they occur in the Small Catechism. In catechesis I explain the different ways that the Lutheran church has defined a sacrament and explain how the two sacrament definition has hindered the appreciation of Holy Absolution. Though I refer to Baptism and the Lord’s Supper as sacraments, I often speak of the Means of Grace as a whole and the congregation has become used to hearing these four gifts repeatedly listed in the same order. Likewise, Holy Absolution is regularly singled out as one of God’s gifts in order to emphasize its own unique standing.
All of the Means of Grace do the same thing. They all deliver the forgiveness of sins and strengthen faith. In this way they are all the same. However, they are not identical and they do not all operate in the same way. One of our goals should be then to learn about how each of the Means of Grace is different and unique. Holy Baptism is not Holy Absolution or the Lord’s Supper. The Lord’s Supper is not Holy Baptism or Holy Absolution. Each one is a special gift through which God works for our salvation and we need to appreciate each one as a unique gift from God. Our God embraces us with a variety of gifts, and in their own way, each one delivers the forgiveness of sins that Jesus Christ won for us through his death and resurrection.
 Martin Chemnitz, The Examination of the Council of Trent, vol. 2 (trans. Fred Kramer; St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 1978), 38.
 Examination 2:39. Note that the lists in Ap. XIII.4 and Chemnitz use the words “vere.”
 Examination 2:40. Chemnitz makes an almost identical statement when discussing penance (pg. 554-555).
 Examination 2:39.
 Robert Kolb and Timothy J. Wengert, eds., The Book of Concord: The Confessions of the Evangelical Lutheran Church (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2000), 378.
 Book of Concord, 379; 476, ftnt. 237.
 The section “How simple people are to be taught to confess” appeared in 1531 and replaced the earlier “Short Order of Confession” of 1529. In an Latin version of the Small Catechism the “Short Order of Confession” hd stood in the same position now occupied by “How simple people are to be taught to confess .” In a German edition from 1529 it follows the Baptismal Booklet (Book of Concord, pg. 360, ftnt. 83).
 Martin Luther, Luther’s Small Catechism with Explanation (St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 1986), 24-27. Arand notes that the section “On the Office of the Keys” was not written by Luther and was added after his death (Charles P. Arand, The I May Be His Own: An Overview of Luther’s Catechisms [St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 2000], 47). It did not appear in any of the editions during Luther’s life and its best known form was derived from Osiander’s and Sleupner’s Nürnberg Sermons for Children (1533) (pg. 56, ftnt. 103).
 Luther did not use the phrase “six chief parts.” Instead he spoke of the “five parts” (Arand, That I May Be His Own, pg. 54, ftnt. 69).
 On the connection between the incarnation and the sacrament as located means see, Mark P. Surburg, “Good Stuff!: The Material Creation and the Christian Faith,” Concordia Journal 36:3(2010): 245-262, 248-255.
 Mark P. Surburg, “‘That is’?: A Look at the Translation and Interpretation of AC V,” 2-3. Or as As Marquart puts it, “A ‘ministry in the abstract,’ however is as fanciful as an abstract Gospel and abstract sacraments. These incarnationally concrete divine means of salvation [media salutis] are to be administered by an equally concrete divinely instituted public ministry, without the latter thereby becoming yet another ‘means of grace’ itself” (Kurt E. Marquart, The Church and Her Fellowship, Ministry and Governance [Ft. Wayne: The International Foundation for Lutheran Confessional Research, 1990], 123).
 Apology VII.47: “In it we confess that hypocrites and evil people are mixed together in the church and that the sacraments are efficacious even though they may be dispensed by evil ministers, because the ministers act in the place of Christ (vice Christi) and so do not represent their own person (non repraestant suam personam iuxta illud). This accords with that passage, ‘Whoever listens to you listens to me” [Luke 10:16]. Cf. the similar use of Luke 10:16 in AC XXVIII.21-22; Ap. XXVIII.18-19. Apology XIII.4, of course, designates absolution as a sacrament.
 When speaking of Holy Absolution, I am referring to the “Te absolvo” form found in the Small Catechism and present in Lutheran Service Book.
 Nathan Jastram’s suggestion that “Pastors are like Christ” has much to commend it. Jastram comments: “Pastors are like Christ; their person and work are characterized with the same nouns and verbs which characterize the person and work of Christ” (Nathan Jastram, “Man as Male and Female: Created in the Image of God,” Concordia Theological Quarterly 68 (2004): 5-96, 82.