12. In former times canonical penalties were imposed, not after, but before absolution, as tests of true contrition.
Martin Luther reminds those who are reading these words that the canonical penalties (penances) were given as a test that a person was truly repentant of their sin. Only in the recent years of Luther’s time did it come to be that penances were given as a penalty to pay for the sin that was committed. In this way people were taught that they did penance to “earn” forgiveness, rather than to receive the forgiveness of God as a gift of love. So the priests were now seen as the ones who deal out punishments rather than the conduit for the love of God to His people.
Luther himself had fallen into the depressive trap of punishing himself even more than the priests required. When he was living in the monastery he would go into his room and whip himself bloody! But even then he would not feel worthy of forgiveness.
So what does it mean to be truly contrite? I would describe it as feeling so sorry for our sin that we never want to sin again, not that we will never sin again. Some have said that to be truly repentant is to never do that sin again, but as frail human beings we are not capable of avoiding any sin. We will always sin again. In later works Luther says that we must “daily drown our sins and put them to death and then come forth as a new person each day.”
Even for the believer we still sin and must daily confess and receive the forgiveness of God anew.
Father, help me to remember the death and resurrection of my savior that have earned me forgiveness so that I do not have to “earn” it anymore. Let me feel the love of Your salvation each day and I begin again to live for You, Amen.