Is Confession a sacrament in Lutheran theology?

It is often said that Lutheran churches only have two sacraments; Baptism and the Eucharist. The fact is that they have, at least,[1] three; Baptism, the Eucharist, and Confession, or more accurately confession and absolution, emphasis on the latter. And this can be shows by reference to what is arguably the most central of the specifically Lutheran confessions; Confessio Augustana (CA) or the Augsburg Confession. Although confession is never explicitly called a sacrament (but neither is Baptism),[2] we can conclude from both the historical context of the confession and its structure that it is indeed a sacrament.

The confession was presented at the Imperial Diet of Augsburg in 1530, primarily to show how Catholic and ecumentical the Lutheran congregations were and not how unique they were. Art. I-XXI presents the foundational Lutheran theology, before concluding: “This is nearly a complete summary of the teaching among us. As can be seen, there is nothing here that departs from the Scriptures or the catholic church, or from the Roman church, insofar as we can tell from its writers.”[3] We should, therefore, suppose that confession is a sacrament, since that was indeed the belief of the Roman Church at the time. The difference was not so much in the principle but in the fact that they opposed the fact that you need to remember and enumerate all the sins: “For this is impossible according to the psalm [19:12*]: “But who can detect their errors?”” (CA XI, cf. XXV).

The most compelling argument, however, in my opinion, is the structural one. CA VII concerns the Church (defined as the assembly of saints wherein “the gospel is taught purely and the sacraments are administered rightly”), CA VIII concerns the validity of the means of grace and the nature of the Church, CA IX concerns Baptism, CA X concerns the Eucharist, CA XI concerns confession, CA XII concerns repentance, penance, and absolution, CA XIII concerns the use of the sacraments, and CA XIV concerns Church order and the public exercise of the priestly office. Structurally speaking, then, it is quite obvious that confession (or or more accurately confession and absolution) is a sacrament. After two articles concerning the Church, the Word, and the sacraments (VII-VIII) we get four articles on the specific sacraments (IX-XII) before we find an article on the use of the sacraments (XIII). They could have put the articles on confession and repentance after the one on church order but they did not. It is, then, obvious that Confessio Augustana teaches that the sacrament of confession, is, well, a sacrament. So yes, confession is a sacrament in Lutheran theology.


[1] As the Lutheran equivalent of an Anglo-Catholic, I firmly hold to that we have (at least) seven sacraments but I’ll try to argue for that some other time.

[2] The word ‘sacrament’ is used numerous times in during the confession but never directly about Baptism, though no one seriously doubts that Baptism is considered a sacrament in the confession. The Eucharist is called a sacrament in CA XXIV, though not in CA X.

[3] I make use of the translation found in The Book of Concord: The Confessions of the Evangelical Lutheran Church, eds. Robert Kolb and Timothy J. Wengert, trans., Charles P. Arand et al. (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress, 2000), 27-105 (using the translation of the Latin text). For the Latin and German originals, see Die Bekenntnisschriften der Evangelisch-Lutherischen Kirche, vollständige neuedition, ed. Irene Dingel (Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 2014).