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” (2:38). 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” (2:39)
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” (2:40). 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” (2:39).
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.
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.
Next: The many facets of Holy Baptism