Early on as a reformer, Luther publicly concluded that penance (the church sacrament involving confession of sin) wasn't a sacrament at all. Yet he continued to daily confess his sins to another person for most of his life.This is one of those tidbits that leaves the modern day reformer scratching his head. How was it possible for Luther to confess his sins to another person his entire life? Aren't believers to confess their sins to God alone? The new edition of LW 69 contains some interesting information in regard to this.
The editors point out that Luther's retention of private confession and absolution "put him at odds not only with adherents of the traditional theology but also, over the course of the 1520s and 1530's, with a range of protestant opponents" (LW 69: 317-318]. The editors note particularly Luther's conflict with Karlstadt. while Luther was hidden away in the Wartburg, Karlstadt abolished private confession in Wittenberg. Luther preached that it should be reinstated when he came back (LW 51:97-100].
Now, before a Roman Catholic claims Luther as a champion for their cause, it isn't as simple as it appears. Recall, Luther rejected the power of the keys as understood by Roman Catholicism. That is, Luther rejected the keys of binding and loosing sins had been given exclusively to the clergy (LW 69:321). True, a minister in office hears a confession, and grants absolution. However, if a minister was shown to violated his office, a person could just as easily confess their sins to another Christian person, and accept their word of absolution. This was so because Christ's words in John 20:23 (If you forgive anyone his sins, they are forgiven; if you do not forgive them, they are not forgiven), were spoken not just to the apostles, but to all Christendom. Luther says:
"But in the New Testament every Christian has this authority to forgive sins, where a priest is not at hand. And he has it through the promise of Christ, where he said to Peter, “Whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven” [Matt. 16:19]. Had this been said to Peter alone, then in Matthew 18[:18] Christ would not have said to all in general, “Whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.” There he is speaking to all Christendom, and to each [Christian] in particular" [LW 35:21].In a sermon toward the end of his life, Luther stated:
"O how grateful we should be, for God gives me the power that He Himself has, so that when I lay my hands [on a sinner and speak the Absolution], it is as valid as if God Himself had done it. He gives this power to the tongue and hand of the powerless. And so, if no preacher is there and my conscience despairs, and a boy comes to me, [I say], 'Please speak the Absolution to me; lay your hand upon my head.' Even when a boy or a woman speaks the Absolution, [it is valid] because both are members of Christ and have His power. We are not on this account to disparage the office of ministry, which God wants to be free from contempt. But in case of need, when no one else is available, [it is right for] a boy to speak [the Absolution], so surpassingly richly has God willed to pour out His gifts; and it is His will that whatever I do by His mandate, He has done Himself" [WA 49:312, cf. LW 58:75].Never underestimate Luther's belief in the power of the spoken Word. While it's true God's Word is found printed in the Scriptures, Luther placed a heavy emphasis on the the Word spoken orally. That is, God's Word was meant to be oral. It has power when spoken. That's why Luther was a preacher: the Word being spoken orally is more powerful than the words on a page. When the minister preaches in front of his congregation, he's preaching the powerful Word of God. God's Word wasn't simply meant to be read, it was intended to be heard. For Luther, when Absolution was spoken by a mere boy, it was the powerful Word of God.