Paul Tillich, A History Of Christian Thought

Penance and Luther’s Attacks. Erasmus. Muenzer.

Today I come to the point where Luther’s breakthrough was externally occasioned.

It is the sacrament of penance. You remember that I said there are two main sacraments in the Roman church, the Mass, which is a part of the Lord’s Supper; and the subjective sacrament which had an immense educational function, namely the dealing with the individual in the sacrament of penance.

This sacrament can be called the sacrament of subjectivity, in contrast to the Mass which was the complete sacrament of objectivity. Between these two, the medieval situation goes on. But it was not the Mass – although it was tremendously attacked by Luther – which was the real point of criticism; but it was the subjective sacrament and the abuses connected with it. The abuses came from the fact that the sacrament of penance had different parts: contrition, confession, absolution, and satisfaction. The first and the last points were the most dangerous ones.

Contrition – the real repentance, the change of the mind – was replaced by attrition, the fear of eternal punishment, which Luther called the repentance inspired by the imminent prospect of the gallows. So it has no religious value for him. The other dangerous point was satisfaction, which did not mean that you can earn your forgiveness of sins by works of satisfaction, but that you have to do them because the sin is still in you after it is forgiven, and that the humble subjection to the satisfactions demanded by the minister is the decisive thing.

Now this means that the priest imposed on the communicandus all kinds of activities and sometimes such difficult ones that the people wanted to get rid of them. And that was accepted by the Church in terms of the indulgences, which are also sacrifices – you must sacrifice some money, in order to buy them, and then you could get rid of the satisfactions. The popular idea was that these satisfactions are effective for overcoming one’s guilt consciousness. This was a point where one can say that a kind of market with eternal life was going on: you could buy the indulgences and in doing so you could get rid of the punishments, not only on earth but also in Purgatory. The abuses brought Luther to a thinking about the whole meaning of the sacrament of penance. In doing so he came to conclusions which were absolutely in opposition to the attitude of the Roman church, and not only to the abuses: the criticism went to the source of the abuses, namely the doctrine itself. And so Luther put on the door of the Wittenberg church the famous 95 Theses, the first of which is the classical formulation of everything which is Reformed Christianity: “Our Lord and teacher, Jesus Christ, saying ‘Repent ye,’ , wished that the whole life of the believers be penitence.” Now this means the sacramental act is only something in which a much more universal attitude comes to a sacramental form; it is not the sacramental which is important but the relationship to God. It is not a new theological doctrine but a new relationship to God which the Reformers brought about, and this comes out in this one sentence – the relationship is not an objective management between God and man, but it is a personal relationship of penitence, first of all, and then faith.

Perhaps the most striking and paradoxical expression is given by Luther in the following words: “Penitence is something between injustice and justice. Therefore, whenever we are repenting we are sinners, but nevertheless for this reason we are also righteous, and in the process of justification, partly sinners, partly righteous – that is nothing but repenting.,” This means that there is always something like repentance in the relationship to God.