Thursday, November 03, 2005

A Discussion of Confession (Confitendi Ratio)

By Martin Luther, 1520

Source: Works of Martin Luther Volume 3, pp. 74-101.

The Confitendi Ratio is the culmination of a series of tracts published by Luther after the memorable October 31st, 1517, and before his final breach with Rome. In them is dearly traceable the progress that he was making in dealing with the practical problems offered by the confessional, and which had started the mighty conflict in which he was engaged. They open to us an insight into his own conscientious efforts during the period, when, as a penitent, he; was himself endeavoring to meet every requirement which the Church imposed, in order to secure the assurance of the forgiveness of sins as well as to present the questions which as a father confessor and spiritual adviser he asked those who were under his pastoral care. First of all, we find, therefore, tables of duties and sins, reminding us of the lists of cardinal sins and cardinal virtues in which Roman Catholic books abound.

The main effort here is to promote the most searching self-examination and the most complete enumeration of the details of sins, since, from the Mediaeval standpoint, the completeness of the absolution is proportioned to the exhaustiveness of the confession. Although the first of these briefer tracts closes with its note of warning that the value of the confession is not to be estimated by the enumeration of details, but that it rests solely in the resort that is had to the grace of God and the word of His promise, the transition from the one mode of thought to the other is very apparent.

In the Kurze Unterweisung wie man beichten soll of 1519, of which this is a Latin re-elaboration, and, therefore, intended more for the educated than as a popular presentation, he has advanced so far as to warn against the attempt; to make an exhaustive enumeration of sins. He advises that the confession be made in the most general terms, covering sins both known and unknown. “If one would confess all mortal sins, it may be done in the following words: ‘Yea, my whole life, and all that I do, act, speak, and think, is such as to be deadly and condemnable.’ For if one regard himself as being without mortal sin, this is of all mortal sins the most mortal. F140 According to this maturer view, the purpose of the most searching selfexamination is to exhibit the utter impossibility of ever fathoming the depth of corruption that lies beneath the surface. The reader of the Tessaradecas will recall Luther’s statement there, that it is of God’s great mercy that man is able to see but a very small portion of the sin within him, for were, he to see it in its full extent, he would perish at the sight. The physician need not count every pustule on the body to diagnose the disease as smallpox.

A glance is enough to determine the case. The sins that are discovered are the symptoms of the one radical sin that lies beneath them all. F141 The cry is no longer “Mea pecata, mea pecata ,” as though these recognized sins were the exceptions to a life otherwise without a flaw, but rather, overwhelmed with confusion, the penitent finds in himself nothing but sin, except for what he has by God’s grace alone. Most clearly does Luther enforce this in his exposition of the Fifty-first Psalm, of 1531, a treatise we most earnestly commend to those who desire fuller information concerning Luther’s doctrine of sin, and his conception of the value of confession and absolution. He shows that it is not by committing a particular sin that we become sinners, but that the sin is committed because our nature is still sinful, and that the poisonous tree has grown from roots deeply imbedded in the soil. We are sinners not because particular acts of sin have been devised and carried to completion, but before the acts are committed we are sinners; otherwise such fruits would not have been borne. A bad tree can grow from nothing but a bad root. F142 In his Sermon on Confession and the Sacrament of 1524, he discourages habits of morbid self-introspection, and exposes the perplexities produced by the exactions of the confessional in constantly sinking the probe deeper and deeper into the heart of the already crushed and quivering penitent. He shows how one need not look far to find enough to prompt the confession of utter helplessness and the casting of self unreservedly upon God’s mercy. “Bring to the confession only those sins that occur to thee, and say:

I am so frail and fallen that I need consolation and good counsel. For the confession should be brief.... No one, therefore, should be troubled, even though he have forgotten his sins. If they be forgotten, they are none the less forgiven. For what God considers, is not how thou hast confessed, but His Word and how thou hast believed.” F143 In this is made prominent the radical difference between the Roman Catholic and the Lutheran conception of confession. In the former, it is a part of penance, the second of the three elements of “contrition,” “confession,” and “satisfaction,” an absolute condition of the forgiveness of every sin. In the Roman confessional, sins are treated atomistically. Some are forgiven, while others are still to be forgiven. Every sin stands by itself, and requires separate treatment. No unconfessed sin is forgiven. To be forgiven, a sin must be known and lamented, and confessed in all its details and circumstances to the priest, who, as a spiritual judge, proportions the amount of the satisfaction to be rendered by the penitent to the degree of guilt of the offense, as judged from the facts before him. Thus the debt has to be painfully and punctiliously worked off, sin by sin, as in the financial world a note may be extinguished by successive payments, dollar by dollar.

Everything, therefore, is made to depend upon the fullness and completeness of the confession. It becomes a work, on account of which one is forgiven. The absolution becomes simply the stamp of approval that is placed upon the confession.

The Lutheran conception is centered upon the person of the sinner, rather than on his sins. It is the person who is forgiven his sins. Where the person is forgiven but one sin, all his sins are forgiven; where the least sin is retained, all sins are retained, and none forgiven, for “there is no condemnation to them that are in Christ Jesus” ( Romans 8:1). The value of the confession lies not in the confession itself, but in that, through this confession, we turn to Christ and the word of His promise. F144 In Luther’s opinion:, there are three species of confession. F145 One to God, in one’s own heart, which is of absolute necessity, and which the true believer is always making; a second to our neighbor, when we have done him a wrong, which is also of divine command; and, a third to a “brother,” “wherein we receive from the mouth of that brother the word of consolation sent from God.” F146 This last species, the verbum solatii ex or fratris , while not commanded in Holy Scripture, is commended because of the great value which it has for those who feel the need of consolation, and the instruction for which it affords the opportunity. It is only by the individualizing of the confession that the comfort to be derived by the individualizing of the promise can he obtained. Hence, as the Augsburg Confession declares (Article XI.): “Private” [i.e., personal] “confession is retained because of the absolution.” F147 Not that, without the absolution, there is not forgiveness, but that, through it, the one absolved rejoices all the more in the possession of that which he possessed even before the absolution, and goes forth from it strengthened to meet temptation because of the new assurance that he has of God’s love. This form of confession, therefore, instead of being a condition of forgiveness, as is our inner confession to God, is a privilege of the justified man, who, before he has made such confession, has been forgiven, and whose sins that lie still concealed from his knowledge, are just as truly forgiven as those over which he grieves.

The confession, therefore, being entirely voluntary and a privilege, penitents are not to be tormented with “the ocean of distinctions” hitherto urged, such, e.g., as those between mortal and venial sins, whereof he says that “there is no doctor so learned as to draw accurately the distinction”; F148 and between the inner impulses that may arise without the least consent of the will resulting from them, and thosee to which the will, in varying measure, may actually consent. On the contrary, it is not well to look too deeply into the abyss. When Peter began to count the waves, he was lost; when he looked away from them to Jesus, he was saved. Thus, while “the good purpose” to amend the life must be insisted upon as an indispensable accompaniment of every sincere confession, tender consciences may search within for such purpose, and be distressed because they cannot find satisfactory evidence of its presence. How excellent then the advice of this experienced pastor, that those thus troubled should pray for this “purpose” which they cannot detect; for no one can actually pray for such purpose without, in the prayer, having the very object he is seeking.

So also he rules out of the sphere of the confession the violation of matters of purely ecclesiastical regulation. Nothing is to be regarded a sin except that which is a violation of one of the Ten Commandments. To make that a sin which God’s law does not make sin, is only the next step to ignoring the sinfulness of that which God has forbidden; for in raising ecclesiastical regulations to the level of divine commands, we lower divine commands to the level of ecclesiastical regulations. Even Private Confession, therefore, useful as it is, when properly understood and practiced, since it rests after all upon ecclesiastical rule, is so little to be urged as a matter of necessity that Luther here defends the suggestion of Gerson, that occasionally one should go to the Lord’s Supper without having made confession, in order thereby to testify that it is in God’s mercy and His promise that we trust, rather than in the value of any particular outward observance.

The treatment of “Reserved Cases,” with which this tract ends, shows the moderation and caution with which Luther is moving, but, at the same time, how the new wine is working in the old bottles, which soon must break. The principle of “the reservation of cases” he discusses in his Address to the German Nobility. It is criticized also in Augsburg Confession, Article XXVIII, 2, 41; Apology of the Augsburg Confession, English Translation, pp. 181, 212. The Roman Catholic dogma is officially presented in the Decrees of Trent, Session XIV, Chapter 7, F150 viz., “that certain more atrocious and more heinous crimes be absolved not by all priests, but only by the highest priests.” Thus the power is centralized in the pope, and is delegated for exercise in ordinary cases to each particular parish-priest within the limits by which he is circumscribed, but no farther.

F151 The contrast is between delegated and reserved rights. The Protestant principle is that all the power of the Church is in the Word of God which it administers; that wherever all the Word is, there also is all the power of the Church; and hence that, according to divine right, all pastors have equal authority. For this reason, Luther here declares that in regard to secret sins, i.e., those known only to God and the penitent, no reservation whatever is to be admitted. But there is still a distinction which he is ready to concede.

It has to do with public offenses where scandal has been given. As “the more flagrant and more heinous crimes,” if public, have to do with a wider circle than the members of a particular parish, the separation for the offense should be as extensive as the scandal which it has created. In the Apology, Melanchthon claims that such reservation should be limited to the ecclesiastical penalties to be: inflicted, but that it had not been intended to comprise also the guilt involved; it was a reservatio poenae , but not a reservatio culpae . F152 Luther suggests the same here, but with more than usual caution.

In the same spirit as in his Treatise on Baptism, he protests against the numerous vows, the binding force of which was a constant subject of treatment in pastoral dealing with souls. The multiplication of vows had caused a depreciation of the one all-embracing vow of baptism.

Nevertheless the pope’s right to give a dispensation he regards as limited entirely to such matters as those concerning which God’s Word has given no command. With matters which concern only the relation of the individual to God, the Pope’s authority is of no avail.

Literature . —CHEMNITZ,MARTIN, Examen Concilii Tridentini, (Preuss edition), 441-456.STEITZ, G.E., Die Privatbeichte und Privatabsolution d. luth. Kirche aus d. Quellen des XVI. Jahrh., 1854. PFISTERER, G.F., Luthers Lehre yon der Beichte, 1857.KLIEFOTH, TH., Lit. Abhandlungen, 2: Die Beichte und Absolution, 1856.FISCHER, E., Zur Geschichte der evangelischen Beichte, 2 vols., 1902-1903 RIETSCHEL, G., Lehrbuch der Liturgik, vol. 2, particularly secs. 44,45, Luthers Auffassung der Beichte alld Luthers Au/fassung von der Absolution. KOESTLIN,JULIUS, Luther’s Theology (English Translation), 1: 357, 360, 400. See also Smalcald Articles, Book of Concord (English Translation), 326, 899. HENRY E. JACOBS. MOUNT AIRY, PHILADELPHIA.


FIRST IN this our age, the consciences of almost all have been led astray by human doctrines into a false trust in their own righteousness and their own works, and knowledge about faith and trust in God has almost: ceased.

Therefore, for him who is about to go to confession, it is before all things necessary that he should not place his trust in his confession — either the confession which he is about to make or the confession which he has made — but that, with complete fullness of faith, he put his trust only in the most gracious promise of God; to wit, he must be altogether certain that He, Who has promised pardon to the man who shall confess his sins, will most faithfully fulfill His promise. For we are to glory, not because we confess, but because He has promised pardon to those who do confess; that is, not because of the worthiness or sufficiency of our confession (for there is no such worthiness or sufficiency), but because of the truth and. certitude of His promise, as says Psalm 25:11: “For Thy Name’s sake, O Lord, pardon mine iniquity.” It does not say, “for my sake,” or “for my worthiness’ sake,” or “for my name’s sake,” but “for Thy Name’s sake.”

So it is evident that the work of confession is nothing else than an occasion by which God is called to the fulfillment of His own promise, or by which we are trained to believe that we shall without doubt obtain the promise. It is just as if we were to say: “Not unto us, O Lord, but unto Thy Name give glow, and rejoice, not because we have blessed Thee, but because Thou hast blessed us, as Thou sayest by Ezekiel.” Let this be the manner of our confession, that he who glories may glory in the Lord, and may not commend himself, but may glorify the grace of God; and it shall come to pass that “confession and majesty shall be the work of God.’ F153 <19B103> Psalm 111:3.


But God, for the glory of His grace and mercy, has promised pardon. And this call be proved from Scripture. First from Psalm 32:5, “I said, I will confess my transgressions unto the Lord, and Thou forgavest the iniquity of my sin.” Then from 2 Samuel 12:13, from which this Psalm is taken.

David first said, “I have sinned against the Lord,” and Nathan straightway said, “The Lord also hath put away thy sin; thou shalt not die.” Again, from Jeremiah 18:8, “If that nation turn away from their evil, I will repent of the evil that I thought to do.” Once more from 1 John 1:9, “If we confess our sins, He is faithful and just to forgive us our sins, and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.” The true definition of the righteous man is found in Proverbs 18:17, “The righteous man is his own first accuser,” F154 that is to say, he is righteous because he accuses himself. The verse goes on to say, “His neighbor (i.e., Christ) cometh and searcheth him,” that is, He seeketh him, and suffereth him not to perish; He will even find him and bring him back from the depths of hell. Hence Joshua 7:19 also calls the confessing of sin the glorifying of God, saying to Achan, “My son, give glory to God, and confess, and tell me what thou hast done.” St.

Jerome comments on this passage, “Confession of sin is praise of God.”

No wonder! For he who confesses his own sins speaks truth; but God is truth; therefore he also confesses God. Thus Manasseh, King of Judah, says in his most beautiful Prayer, F155 which is most excellently suited for one who goes to confession, “But Thou, Lord, according to Thy goodness hast promised repentance for the remission of sins, etc.” Truly, “according to Thy goodness Thou hast promised,” for our confession is nothing unless the promise of God is sure, and it is altogether of His divine goodness that He has promised remission, which could not be obtained by any righteousness, unless He had given the promise. Thus faith in that promise is the first and supreme necessity for one who is about to go to confession, lest, perchance, he may presumptuously think that by his own diligence, his own memory, his own strength, he is provoking God to forgive his sins.

Nay, rather it is God Himself Who, with ready forgiveness, will anticipate his confession, and allure and provoke him, by the goodness of His sweet promise, to accept remission and to make confession.


Before a man confesses to the priest, who is the vicar, he ought first to confess to God, Who is the Principal. But he should regard this matter seriously, since nothing escapes and nothing deceives the eye of God.

Wherefore he ought here, without pretense, to ponder his purpose to lead a better life and his hatred of sin. For there is scarcely anything which deceives more penitents than that subtle and profound dissimulation by which they oftentimes pretend, even to themselves, a violent haired of sin and a purpose to lead a better life. The unhappy outcome proves their insincerity, for after confession they quickly return to their natural bent, and, as though relieved of the great burden of confession, they live again at ease, careless and unmindful of their purpose; by which one fact they can be convicted of their sad pretending. Wherefore a man ought in this matter to be altogether frank, and to speak of himself within himself just as he feels himself moved to speak, just as he could wish to speak if there were no punishment, no God, no commandment, and just as he would speak in the ear of some familiar friend, to whom he would not be ashamed to reveal every-tiring about himself. As he could wish to speak quite freely to such a one about his faults, so let him speak to God, Who loves us far more than we love ourselves.

For if there is any one who does not find himself seriously inclined toward a good life, I know not whether it is safe for him to make confession. This I do know, that it were better for him to stay away from confession. For in this matter he need not care for the commandment of the Church, whether it excommunicate him or inflict some lesser punishment. It is better for him not to listen to the Church, than, at his own peril, to come to God with a false heart. In the latter case he sins against God, in the former case only against the Church; if, indeed, he sin at all in such a case by not listening to the Church, seeing that the Church has no right to command anything in which there is peril to the soul, and a case of this kind is always excepted from the commandments of the Church. For whatever the Church commands, she commands for God and for the soul’s salvation, presuming that a man is capable of receiving her commandment and able to fulfill it. If this presumption falls, the precept does not hold, since nothing can be decreed contrary to the commandments of God, which bind the conscience.

It is certainly to be feared that many come to confession out of fear of the commandment of the Church, who in their hearts are still pleased with their former evil life.


If, however, a man is entangled in these difficulties, fearing to stay away from confession, and yet perceiving (if the truth were told) that he lacks the disposition toward: a better life, let him lay hold of the one thing that remains,” and hear the counsel of the Prophet, “Pour out your heart: before Him”; and let him abase himself, and openly confess to God the whole evil of his heart, and pray for and desire a good purpose. Who, indeed, is so proud as to think he does not need this counsel? There is no one whose good purpose is as great as it ought to be. Let a man, therefore, fearlessly seek from God what he knows he cannot find in himself, until the thought of a better life begin seriously and truly to please him, and his own life to displease him. For the doctrines about the forming of a good purpose, which have been handed down to us and are everywhere taught, are not to be understood in the sense that a man should of himself form and work out this good purpose. Such an understanding is death and perdition; as one says, “There is death in the pot, O man of God.” And yet very many are grievously tormented by this idea, because they are taught to strive after the impossible. But in very despair, and pouring out his heart before God, a man should say, “Lord God, I have: not what I ought to have, and cannot do what I ought to do. Give what Thou commandest, and command what Thou wilt.” For thus St. Augustine prays in his Confessions. F156


But what has been said about a good purpose, I wish to have understood with caution. For a good purpose ought to be twofold. First, a purpose with regard to open, mortal sins, such as adultery, homicide, fornication, theft, robbery, usury, slander, etc. The purpose to avoid these sins belongs properly to sacramental Confession, and to confession before God it belongs at any moment after the sins have been committed; according to the word of Ecclesiasticus, “My son, hast thou sinned? Do so no more, but ask pardon for thy former sins,” and again, “Make no tarrying to turn to the Lord.” In the second place, however, as regards all the sins they call “venial” (of which more below), it is entirely vain to labor after the forming of a good purpose, because if one rightly considers himself, he will find such a purpose altogether impossible, if he wishes henceforth to live in the flesh; since (as Augustine says) this life cannot be lived without such sins as unnecessary and thoughtless laughter, language, imaginations, sights, sounds, etc. As regards such things it is uncertain whether they are sins, or temptations by which merit is increased. And yet it is marvelous how a penitent is vexed and worried in these matters by the present wordy manner of confessing. A purpose ought to be certain, and directed toward things which are certain and which can be shunned in common living, like the aforesaid open, mortal sins.


Whether the hidden sins of the heart, which are known only to God and the man who commits them, belong to sacramental confession or not, is more than I can say. I should prefer to say that they do not. For the need of confessing these sins can in no way be proved, either by reason or by Scripture, and I have often suspected that it was all an invention of avaricious or curious or tyrannical prelates, who took this way of bringing the people of Christ to fear them. This is, in my opinion, laying hands on the judgment of God and is a violation of the rights of God, especially if men are forced to it. F157 Here comes in that whole sea of laws and impossible questions about “cases of sin,” F158 etc., since it is impossible for a man to know when he has in his heart committed the mortal sins of pride, lust, or envy. Nay, how can the priest know this, when he is set in judgment upon mortal sins alone? Can he know another’s heart who does not thoroughly know his own? Hence it comes that many people confess many things, not knowing whether they are sins or not; and to this they are driven ‘by that sentence of Gregory, “A good mind will confess guilt even where there is no guilt.”

They [i.e., the priests] wish that what is offered to God shall be offered to themselves — so immense is the arrogance of priests and pontiffs, and so haughty the pride of the Pharisees — and they do not see, meanwhile, that if this offering were made to man, the whole of life would be nothing else than confession, and that even this confession would have to be confessed in another confession by the man who fears guilt where there is no guilt, since even good works are not without guilt, and Job is afraid of all his works.


Let some one else than, explain this. I am content with this, that not all the sins of the heart are to be confessed. But if some are to be confessed, I say that it is only those which a man clearly knows that he has purposed in his heart against the commandments of God; F159 not, therefore, mere thoughts about a virgin or a woman, nor, on the other hand, the thoughts of a woman about a youth, nor the affections or ardor of lust, that is to say, the inclinations of the one sex toward the other, however unseemly, nor, I would add, even passions of this sort; for these thoughts are frequently passions inspired by the flesh, the world, or the devil, which the soul is compelled unwillingly to bear, sometimes for a long while, even for a whole day, or a week; as the apostle Paul confesses of his thorn in the flesh.

The consequence of all this is that a purpose to avoid these things is impossible and vain and deceitful, for the inclinations and desires of the sexes for one another do not cease so long as occasion is given them, and the devil is not quiet, and our whole nature is sin. But those who wish to be without sin and who believe that man is sound and whole, erect these crosses for us that we may not cease to confess (even to the priest) what things soever tickle us never so little. Therefore, if these hidden things of the heart ought to be confessed at all, only those things should be confessed which involve full consent to the deed; and such things happen very rarely or never to those who wish to lead pious lives, even though they are constantly harassed by desires and passions.


At this place we should also speak of that race of audacious theologians who are born to the end that the true fear of God may be extinguished in human hearts, and that they may smite the whole world with false terrors.

It might seem that Christ was speaking of them when he told of “terrors from heaven.” These are the men who have undertaken to distinguish for us between mortal and venial sin. When men have heard that a certain sin is venial, they are careless and wholly leave off fearing God, as if He counted a venial sin for naught; again, if they have heard that the consent of the heart is a mortal sin, and if they have failed to listen to the precepts of the Church, or have committed some other trifling offense, there is no place in their hearts for Christ, because of the confusion made by the roaring sea of a troubled conscience.

Against these teachers it should be known that a man ought to give up in despair the idea that he can ever confess all his mortal sins, and that the doctrine which is contained in the Decretals F160 and is current in the Church, to wit, that: every Christian should once in a year make confession of all his sins (so the words run), is either a devilish and most murderous doctrine, or else is sorely in need of a loose interpretation.

Not all sins, I say, either mortal or venial, are to be confessed, but it should be known that after a man has used all diligence in confessing, he has yet confessed only the smaller part of his sins. How do we know this? Because the Scripture, says, “Cleanse Thou me from hidden sins, O Lord.” These hidden sins God alone knows. And again it says, “Create in me a clean heart, O God.” Even this holy prophet confesses that his heart is unclean.

And all the holy Church prays, “Thy will be done”; and thus confesses that she does not do the will of God, and is herself a sinner.

Furthermore, we are so far from being able to know or confess all the mortal sins that even our good works are damnable and mortal, if God were to judge with strictness, and not to receive them with forgiving mercy. If, therefore, all mortal sins are to be confessed, it can be done in a brief word, by saying at once, “Behold, all that I am, my life, all that I do and say, is such that it is mortal and damnable”; according to what is written in <19E302> Psalm 143:2, “Enter not into judgment with Thy servant, for in Thy sight shall no flesh living be justified”; and in the Epistle to the Romans 7:14 “But I am carnal, sold under sin; I know that in my flesh dwelleth no good thing; the evil that I would not, that I do, etc.”

But of all mortal sins, this is the most mortal, not to believe that we are hateful in the sight of God because of damnable and mortal sin. To such madness these theologians, with this rule of theirs, strive zealously and perniciously to drag the consciences of men, by teaching that venial sins are to be distinguished from mortal sins, and that according to their own fashion. For we read in Augustine, Cyprian, and other Fathers that those things which are bound and loosed are not mortal sins, but criminal offenses, i.e., those acts of which men can be accused and convicted.

Therefore, by the term “all sins” in the Decretal we should understand those things of which a man is accused, either by others or by iris own conscience. By “conscience” I mean a right conscience, not a conscience seared and deformed by human traditions, but a conscience which is expert in the commandments of God, and which knows that much more is to be left solely to the goodness of God than is to be committed to its own diligence.

But what if the devil, when a man is dying, raises the obstacle of sins which have not been confessed, as we read in many of the stories? F161 I answer, Let these sins go along with those of which it is said, “Who can understand his faults?” and with those others of which it is written, “Enter not into judgment with Thy servant.” Whatever stories have been made up contrary to these sayings, have either been invented under some devilish delusion, or are not rightly understood. It is enough that thou hast had the will to confess all things, if thou hadst known them or hadst been able. God wills that His mercy be glorified. But how? In our righteousness? Nay, in our sins and miseries. The Scriptures should be esteemed more highly than any stories.


By thus getting down to the thing itself, F162 the penitent, of whom I have so often spoken, does away entirely with that riot of distinctions; to wit, whether he has committed sin by fear humbling him to evil, or by love inflaming him to evil; what sins he has committed against the three theological virtues of faith, hope, and charity; what sins against the four cardinal virtues; what sins by the five senses; what of the seven mortal sins, what against the seven sacraments, what against the seven gifts of the Holy Spirit, what against the eight beatitudes, what of the nine peccata aliena , what against the twelve Articles of Faith, what of the silent sins, what of the sins crying to heaven; or whether he has sinned by or against anything else. F163 That hateful and wearisome catalogue of distinctions is altogether useless, nay, it is altogether harmful. Some have added to these evils a most troublesome business of “circumstances.”

By all this they have produced two results. First, the penitent makes so much of these trifles that he is not able really to give heed to the thing of chief importance, namely, the desire for a better life. He is compelled to tax his memory with such a mass of details, and so to fill his heart with the business of rightly expressing his cares and anxieties, while seeking out forgotten sins or a way of confessing them, that he entirely loses the present pangs of conscience, and the whole profit and salutary effect of confession. When he is absolved, therefore, he rejoices not so much because he is absolved, as because he has freed himself once for all from the wretched worry of confession; for what he has been seeking has been not the absolution, but rather the end of the laborious nuisance of confessing. Thus, while we sleep secure, everything is upset again. In the second place, such penitents weary the confessor, stealing his time, and standing in the way of other penitents.

We ought, therefore, to look briefly at the Commandments of God, in which, if they are rightly understood, all sins are, without doubt, contained.

F164 And not even all of these are to be considered, but the last two Commandments are to be excluded entirely from confession. Confession should be brief, and should be a confession chiefly of those sins which cause pain at the time of confession, and, as they say, “move to confession.” For the sacrament of confession was instituted for the quieting, not for the disturbing, of the conscience.

For example, as regards the Commandment, “Thou shalt not commit adultery,” let the penitent quickly say in what manner he has given place to lust, either in act or word, or by consent, just as though he were describing himself entirely, with all his limbs and senses, in that Commandment. Why, then, should he uselessly bring in the five senses, the mortal sins, and the rest of that ocean of distinctions? So in the case of the Commandment, “Thou shalt not kill.” Let him quickly say by what kind of wrath he has sinned, whether by hatred, slander or cursing, or by the act of murder itself.

And so with the rest; as I have tried to show in my Preceptorium and my writings on the Decalogue. F165 Let it not disturb anyone that in the Decretals on Penance and in the IV.

Book of the Sentences F166 this matter is differently treated. For they all are full of human inventions; and no wonder! They have taken everything they say out of a certain apocryphal and unlearned book called De vera et falsa poenitentia , F167 which is widely circulated, and ascribed, by a lying title, to St. Augustine.


In making confession diligence should be used to distinguish with great care between sins committed against the Commandments of God and sins committed against the statutes of men. I say this because of the mad opinion, which is now prevalent, that sins which are committed against the decretals of the popes are to be noted with wondrous care, but sins committed against God, with little or none.

Let me give you some illustrations:

You will find priests and monks who are horrified, as at some prodigy, if they stammer, or repeat even a syllable in the Canon of the Mass, F168 though this may be a natural defect of the tongue, or an accident, and is not a sin. Again, there is no priest who does not confess that he was distracted, or failed to read his Preparatoria , or other old- womanish trifles of the kind. There was one who, even when he was at the altar celebrating, called a priest three times and confessed that something had happened. Indeed, I have seen these endless jests of the devil taken by many so seriously that they almost lost their minds. And yet the fact that they cherished hatred or envy in their hearts, that they had cursed before or after Mass, that they had intentionally lied or slandered, all this moved them not at all. Whence this perversity? From the “traditions of men who turn from the truth,” as the Apostle says. Because we have neglected to offer God a confession of true sins, He has given us up to our reprobate sense, so that we delude ourselves with fictitious sins and deprive ourselves of the benefit of the sacrament, F169 and the more we seem to seek it, the more this is true.

Of this stuff are those who make the neglect of the canonical hours F170 an almost irremissible sin, while they easily remit fornication, which is against the commandments of God, or the neglect of duty toward our neighbor.

These are they who so approve of that dream or story about St. Severinus F171 that they think they cannot read their Hours in advance, or afterward make them up without sin, even if they have been hindered at the proper time by the most just cause, such as ministering to the necessities of a neighbor, Which is of six hundred times more merit than their worthless and all but damnable prayers. So far do they go in their failure to observe that the commandment of God, in the service of one’s neighbor, should be preferred to the commandment of merit, in the thoughtless mumbling of the words of the Hours. To this class too belong those who think it a crime to speak or to call a boy during the Canon of the Mass even in case of the greatest necessity or danger. Finally, these men make the fasting of nature one thing, and the fasting of the Church another thing, and if one has thoughtlessly swallowed some drops of liquid, or has taken some medicine, they exclude him utterly from the sacrament, and make it a sin, even the very greatest sin. I wonder whence these men have the authority to set up such laws as these and to trouble consciences with sins of their own invention. By these illustrations other, similar cases may be judged.

Of the laity, one confesses that he has tasted sweets, another that he has listened to jests, smelled perfumes, touched things that were soft.

Let us come to greater things! The common people are persuaded that to eat butter or eggs on fast-days is heretical; so cruelly do the laws of men rave in the Church of God! And we unconcernedly profit by this superstition of the people, nay,, by thins tyranny of ours, caring nothing that the commandments of God are taken in jest, so long as men tremble and turn pale at our laws. No one calls an adulterer a heretic; fornication is a light sin; schisms and discords, inspired, preserved and increased by the authority and in the name of the Church, are merits; but to eat meat on Friday is the sum of all heresies. Thus we teach the people of Christ, and permit them to be taught!

But I am disgusted, wearied, shamed, distressed at the endless chaos of superstitions which has been inflicted upon this most salutary sacrament of confession by the ignorance of true theology, which has been its own tyrant ever since the time that men have been making its laws.


I advise, therefore, as John Gemon F172 used to advise, that a man shall now and then go to the altar or to the Sacrament “with a scruple of conscience,” that is, without confession, even if he has been immoderate in drinking, talking, or sleeping, or has done something else that is wrong, or has not prayed a single one of the Hours. Would you know why this advice is given? Listen! It is in order that a man may learn to trust more in the mercy of God than in his own confession or in his own diligence. For enough cannot be done toward shaking that accursed trust in our own works. It should be done for this reason, too, that if a man is assailed by some necessity, whether temptation or death, and those hidden sins begin to appear which he has never been able to see or to confess, then he may have, ready and prepared, a practice of trusting in the mercy which God offers to the unworthy; according to the word, “His heart is prepared to trust in the Lord.” F173 How shall a man hope, in the face of the sudden inroads of such a great mass of sins, if he has not learned in this life, while there was time, to hope in the Lord against the smallest, nay, against even an imagined sin? If you say, “What if this were despising the sacrament and tempting God?” I answer, It will not be tempting God if it is done for the glory of God; that is, if you do it, not because you despise God’s sacrament nor because you want to tempt Him (since you are ready to make the fullest confession), but only in order that you may accustom a troubled conscience to trust in God and not to tremble at the rustling of every falling leaf. Do not doubt that everything pleases God which is done to the end that you may have trust in Him, since it is all His glory that we trust with our whole heart in His mercy.

I do not wish, however, that a man should always go to the altar without confession; but I say that it should be done sometimes, and then only for the arousing of trust in God and the destroying of trust in our own act of confession. For a man will hardly go to mass without guilt, if he thinks his forgiveness sure because he has confessed, rather than because God is merciful; nay, this is altogether an impiety. The summa summarum F174 is, “Blessed are all they that put their trust in the Lord.” When you hear this word, “in the Lord,” know that he is unblessed who puts his trust in anything whatsoever that is not the Lord Himself. And such a man those “artists of confession” make; for what has the “art of confessing” done except to destroy the art and practice of confiding, until at last we have learned to confess a great deal, to confide not at all.


In the matter of reserved cases, F175 many are troubled. For my own part, because I know that the laws of men ought to be subject to mercy, and be applied with mildness rather than with severity, I follow the custom and advice of those who think that in hidden sin, no case is to be reserved, and therefore all penitents are to be absolved whose sins are hidden, as are the sins of the flesh, that is to say, every form of lust, the procuring of abortion, and the like. For it should not be presumed that any pope would be willing, in matters of hidden sin, to set so many snares and dangers for men’s souls. But when a sin has been public, an open reserved case, it should be left entirely to the authorities of the Church, no matter whether they are just or unjust. In such case, however, the confessor may so moderate the power of the keys F176 as not to let the penitent depart without absolution, for those sins at least which he knows to be not reserved. Just now, to be sure, I am in doubt, and have not yet found a place for the proper discussion of it, whether any sin can be reserved, or ever is reserved, so far as the remission of guilt F177 is concerned; that the penalty can be reserved is not doubted; but of this let others judge. But even in the remission of the penalty, neither the confessor nor the penitent should be too much troubled by scruples. The penalty I have especially in mind is excommunication, or any other censure of the Church — what they call their lightnings and thunders. Since excommunication is only penalty and not guilt, and can be laid upon the innocent and allowed to remain upon the man who has returned to his senses, and, furthermore, since it is sometimes necessary to put off satisfaction, because of the length of the journey required or because of poverty; therefore the penitent who is excommunicated or under censure should be absolved from all his sins, if he seeks absolution, and be dismissed to the higher authorities to be loosed from excommunication and to make satisfaction. Thus he should be absolved in the judgment of God and of conscience from guilt and sins, and sent to the judgment of the Church to be freed from the penalty. This is what is meant when it is said that the desire to make satisfaction F178 suffices for the absolving of a sinner.


The subject of vows should also have consideration, for it is almost the greatest question involved in this whole matter, and gives rise to much more confusion than does the reservation of cases, though this, too, rules its Babylon with great tyranny. If one would wish to speak freely on this subject, “the land would not be able to bear all his words,” as the impious Amaziah says of Amos.

The first and best plan would be for the pontiffs and preachers to dissuade and deter the people from their proneness to the making of vows, to show them how the Visiting of the Holy Land, Rome, Compostella, F179 and other holy places, as well as zeal in fastings, prayers, and works chosen by themselves, are nothing when compared with the works commanded by God and the vows which we have taken in baptism. F180 These vows every one can keep in his own home by doing his duty toward his neighbors, his wife, his children, his servants, his masters, and thereby gain incomparably greater merit than he can find by fulfilling vows to do works chosen by himself and not commanded by God. The foolish opinion of the common people and the ostentation of the Bulls F181 have brought it to pass that these vows of pilgrimages, fastings, prayers, and other works of the kind far outweigh in importance the works of God’s Law, although we never have sufficient strength to do these last works. For my part, I could wish that there should not henceforth be any vows among Christian people except those which we take in baptism, and this, indeed, seems formerly to have been the case; and I would wish all to understand what is required of them, namely, that they be obedient to the commandments of God. For the vows of baptism seem to have been altogether cheapened by the too great practice, parade, dispensation, and redemption of these other vows. Let us put all our strength to the task, I say, and we shall find that we have vowed in baptism more than we are ever able to perform.

Some vows, including oaths, are made to men, others to God. Those made to men are admitted to be binding, so far and so long as he may desire, to whom the vow is made. Accordingly, it should be known that, as Gerson correctly thinks, the oaths and vows usually taken in the Universities or to worldly lords F182 ought not to be so rigorously regarded that every violation of them should be regarded as the breaking of a vow or an act of perjury. It is more just not to consider vows of this kind broken unless they are violated out of contempt and obstinate malice. It is otherwise in things that are vowed to God.

In vows made to God, I see dispensation granted by the pontiffs, but I shall never be persuaded that he is safe to whom such a dispensation is granted.

For such a vow is of divine law, and no pontiff, either mediate or supreme, has any more authority in this matter than any Christian brother, though I know that certain of the Decretals and the Glosses on the Decretals venture many statements about it which I do not believe.

This, however, I would readily believe, that a vow of chastity given before puberty, neither holds nor binds, because he who made the vow was ignorant of what he was promising, since he had not yet felt the “thorn of the flesh.” It is my pious opinion that such a vow is counted by God as foolish and void, and that the fathers of the monasteries should be forbidden by a general edict of the Church to receive a man before his twentieth, or at least his eighteenth, year, and girls before their fifteenth or sixteenth, if we are really concerned about the care of souls.

It is also a great piece of boldness, in commuting or remitting vows, to impose what they call “a better work.” In the eyes of God there is no difference in works, and He judges works not according to their number or greatness, but according to the disposition of the doer; moreover, “the Lord is the weigher of spirits,” as the Scripture says, and He often prefers the manual labor of the poor artisan to the fasting and prayer of the priest, of which we find an illustration in St. Anthony and the shoemaker of Alexandria. F183 Since these things are so, who shall be so bold and presumptuous as to commute a vow into some “better work”? But these things will have to be spoken of elsewhere, for here we have undertaken to speak of confession only as it concerns the Commandments of God, for the quieting and composing of confidences which are troubled by scruples.

I shall add but one thing;. There are many who set perilous snares for married folk, especially in case of incest; and when any one (for these things can happen, nay, alas! they do happen) has defiled the sister of his wife, or his mother-in-law, or one related to him in any degree of consanguinity, they at once deprive him of the right to pay the debt of matrimony, and nevertheless they suffer him not, nay, they forbid him, to desert his wife’s bed. What monstrous thing is this? What new remedy for sin? What sort of satisfaction for sin? Does it not show how these tyrants make laws for other men’s infirmity and indulge their own? Show me the law-giver, however penitent and chaste, who would allow such a law to be made for himself. They put dry wood on the fire and say, Do not burn; they put a man in a woman’s arms and forbid him to touch her or know her; and they do this on their own authority and without the command of God.

What madness! My advice is that the confessor beware of tyrannical decrees or laws, and confidently sentence a sinner to some other penance, or totally abstain from punishing, leaving free to him the right of matrimony which has been given him not by man, but by God. For no angel in heaven, still less any man on earth, has the power to enjoin this penance, which is the burning occasion of continual sin. Wherefore they are not to be heeded who wish such things to be done, and the penitent is to be freed from this scruple and peril.

But who may recount all the tyrannies with which the troubled consciences of penitent and confessing Christians are daily disturbed, by means of death-bringing “constitutions” and customs, administered by silly manikins, who only know how to bind and place on the shoulders of men burdens grievous and heavy to be borne, which they themselves are not willing to move with a finger? So this most salutary sacrament of penance has become nothing else than. a mere tyranny of the great, then a disease, and a means to the increase of sins. Thus in the end it signifies one thing and works another thing for miserable sinners, because priestlings, impious and unlearned in the law of the Lord, administer the Church of God, which they have filled with their laws and their dreams.

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