Theo 681 - Penance and Penitence
Discussion Summary 10/1/96

I. Reformation: Luther on Penance and Justification
Presenter Jeffrey Truscott

In the Reformation period, the relationship between reconciliation and justification is crucial. In the vast majority of Luther's Ninety-five Theses, there are questions related to penance. Proceeding in chronological order several Lutheran writings were examined . The sermon of 1519 entitled The Sacrament of Penance draws upon the scholastic distinction between forgiveness of punishment and forgiveness of guilt. Luther addresses how the sacrament is efficacious as the penitent "hears" the word that signifies forgiveness. Sacramental efficacy is not tied to contrition nor to the role of the confessor. Rather it is linked to the faith of the penitent.
The Babylonian Captivity of the Church (1520) marks Luther's ultimate break with Catholic doctrine on penance. In a stinging critique of medieval sacramental system, he attacks the church for teaching neither the promise of God's forgiveness nor the need for faith. The scholastic distinction dividing penance into contrition, confession, and satisfaction was judged as unhelpful because it overlooks the role of faith in justifying the sinner. Nevertheless Luther favored private confession, even though there is no Scriptural warrant, because it has therapeutic value in helping the "troubled conscience".
Finally The Large Catechism (1529) treats of penance in the separate section. Here Luther encourages frequent confession and absolution for two reasons: 1) the penitent laments sin and comforts the conscience and 2) God grants absolution. Penance is related to Baptism but he rejects the notion of penance as a "second plank" -- as a recourse for post-baptismal sin. Rather than penance as something which someone does (works righteousness), it is the promise of forgiveness.

II. Calvin on Penance
Presenter Stacey Wendlinder

Calvin also found no Scriptural warrant for penance as a sacrament but rather the rite of penance resulted as a historical development in the church. The fundamental sacrament of forgiveness is baptism which remains effective throughout the person's life. Therefore he rejected penance as the "second plank" after baptism. In frequent confession of sins, the accent should fall on God's mercy rather than the penitent's confessing of sins, since it is impossible to confess all sins. Equally the notion of satisfaction places more emphasis on the penitent's action (works righteousness) rather than God's gratuitous mercy.
Related to the question of penance is Calvin's theology of justification which focuses on Christ as the only means of liberation from sin. Salvation is obtained only by belief in Christ. Like Luther, Calvin uses the phrase "justified by faith alone" but faith in itself does not effect justification. Calvin's entire approach is based on the issue of the full efficacy of Jesus' salvific act and the absolute gratuity of God's grace.
Attention was next turned to contemporary Calvinism represented by three emphases in the American Reformed churches, viz. doctrinalism, pietism, and culturalism. Representative of different Calvinistic movements in three different time periods were Charles Hodge (mid 1800s) J. Gresham Machen (early 1900s) and the Niebuhrs Reinhold and H. Richard (contemporary). The study concluded that there is much unity amidst diversity in Calvinistic thought emphasizing 1) the absolute sovereignty of God, 2) a theological anthropology of humanity as completely corrupt, and 3) the believer in relationship to culture.