What is a sacrament? Some Lutherans disagree on the number of sacraments because of how it’s normally taught in Confirmation, that a sacrament is (1) commanded/instituted by Christ, (2) has a visible element, and (3) delivers God’s grace for the forgiveness of sins “He has earned for us by His suffering, death, and resurrection” (SC, Question 293). Because of principle 2, some will say Absolution is not a sacrament since it lacks a visible element (and in retort, others argue the pastor is the visible element since he absolves in the stead and by the command of Christ, and the words touch your visible ears, but these are weak arguments). Yet those who say Absolution is not a sacrament because of these three commonly taught principles do not say what our Confessions say. If you learnt the above principles, you were taught incorrectly.
The Apology to the Augsburg Confession includes only principles 1 and 3 and explicitly says Absolution is a sacrament, “If we call Sacraments ‘rites that have the command of God , and to which the promise of grace has been added ,’ it is easy to decide what are true Sacraments… Therefore, Baptism, the Lord’s Supper, and Absolution (which is the Sacrament of Repentance) are truly Sacraments” (Ap XIII, 3-4; emphasis mine). Where is it written that these three were instituted by Christ with His promise of forgiveness? Matthew 26:26-28 for the Lord’s Supper (see also 1 Corinthians 11:23-29), Matthew 28:18-20 for Baptism (see also Acts 2:38-39), and John 20:21-23 for Absolution (see also Matthew 18:18). Therefore, the question on the number of sacraments and what makes a sacrament is a ludicrous debate since the matter was settled 491 years ago in the Apology. Teaching principle 2 above and that Absolution is not a sacrament is not in agreement with our Confessions.
With that matter settled, it is worth reiterating that Christ’s instituting the Sacraments is consistent with God’s character, for as discussed in the previous column, God likes to work through means when it comes to His human creatures. He especially loves to do this regarding the salvation of His people. Luther summarises this well:
The same God who now saves us by baptism and the bread, saved Abel by his sacrifice, Noah by the rainbow, Abraham by circumcision, and all the others by their respective signs. So far as the signs are concerned, there is no difference between a sacrament of the Old Law and one of the New… But our signs or sacraments, as well as those of the fathers, have attached to them a word of promise which requires faith, and they cannot be fulfilled by any other work. Hence they are signs or sacraments of justification, for they are sacraments of justifying faith and not of works. Their whole efficacy, therefore, consists in faith itself, not in the doing of a work.LW 36:65-66
Thus, as has been said before, your forgiveness does not depend on your work of feeling forgiven; it depends simply on the Word of Christ in the Sacrament that you believe in. For example, when you approach the Sacrament of the Altar, you know Christ’s body and blood are truly present for the forgiveness of your sins. By faith in what He delivers in His body and blood at the Table by virtue of what He accomplished for you on the cross, you walk away knowing you are forgiven, though you may not necessarily feel it, for the devil does not wish you to feel the efficacy of this most precious and certain gift. This is why the words, “given and shed for you” are so vital, for these words signify not only that the Supper is for such a person as you, but also they accomplish what He says.