When looking at the Sacraments of the Roman Church compared to the
Lutheran Church, why is confession/absolution (reconciliation in Rome)
not considered a sacrament in the Lutheran Church?
Dear M,

What the Roman Church calls “Reconciliation” or “Confession” the Lutheran Church tends to call Holy Absolution or the Office of the Keys. We like to emphasize what God gives (forgiveness/absolution) over what we do (confession). At times, you will actually see Absolution listed as a Sacrament or even called a “half Sacrament” in the Lutheran Church. However, Lutherans usually operate with a more narrow definition for a Sacrament. Rather than the list of seven from Aquinas, Lutherans call those actions Sacraments that were instituted by Christ, that have a promise of the forgiveness of sins, and that the use of a physical element. This leaves Baptism (water) and Holy Communion (bread and wine).

Some will make the argument that the pastor is the visible element in Absolution. Others will point out that Absolution is really a return to Baptism. Still others will say that Absolution is merely proclaiming the Gospel in a very directed sense, and so if Absolution is a Sacrament, then so is preaching. You can find all of these ideas in our symbols (the Book of Concord). At the end of the day, Lutherans are less interested in the label than in the activity. What is certain is that Christ gave the Office of the Keys to His church to be exercised publicly by her called and ordained ministers.

“And when [Jesus] had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you withhold forgiveness from any, it is withheld'” (John 20:22-23).

Rev. Robert O. Riebau


To add to the above, our confessions define a “Sacrament” in two ways.

The first uses a quotation from Philip Melanchthon’s Loci which echo’s Tertullian’s definition
3 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. For rites instituted by human beings will not be called true Sacraments. For human authority cannot promise grace. Therefore, signs set up without God’s command are not sure signs of grace, even though signs perhaps instruct the unlearned or admonish about something. 4 Therefore, Baptism, the Lord’s Supper, and Absolution (which is the Sacrament of Repentance) are truly Sacraments.
Apology of the Augsburg Confession article XIII

The second definition that is used is from Augustine, this definition Aquinas also affirmed in his Summa
It has been well said by Augustine that a Sacrament is a visible Word, because the rite is received by the eyes and is, as it were, a picture of the Word, illustrating the same thing as the Word. The result of both is the same.
Apology of the Augsburg Confession article XIII

Of course throughout the history of the Church, there have been a number of definitions on what the word “Sacrament” means. The only reason this is even an issue is that the Roman Confutation forced the Evangelical (Lutheran) Princes to affirm seven sacraments, something which was not a dogmatic article of faith prior to that point. Again, as mentioned above, Lutherans confess that matters and ceremonies instituted in the Scripture, however they are classified, should not be neglected. So really the numbering is of little consequence as the Church has never at any time in its entire history ever had unanimity on the number or definition of the word “Sacrament.”

Matthew Lorfeld, Pastor
Messiah Lutheran Church
La Crescent, MN


2.5 Sacraments of the Lutheran Church