How many Sacraments are there?
The short, Lutheran answer is “It depends whom you ask.”
Lutherans have never been dogmatic about a number of sacraments like Roman Catholics are, except that they adamantly deny that there are seven. In some places, the Lutherans say there are two sacraments; in other places, they say three. Baptism and the Lord’s Supper are always included in the list of Lutheran sacraments. Absolution sometimes makes the list.
The word sacrament is the Latin translation of “mystery,” as when St. Paul calls pastors “stewards of the mysteries of God (1 Corinthians 4:1). Scripture never sets forth a definition of “Sacraments;” those definitions always come from theologians.
What is a Sacrament? The Explanation of the Small Catechism (not a part of the Catechism, but a later American addition to help teach the Catechism) says, “A sacrament is a sacred act A. instituted by God, B. in which God Himself has joined His Word of promise to a visible element, C. and by which He offers, gives, and seals the forgiveness of sins earned by Christ.” So the question is, “Does Absolution have a visible element?” The answer: kinda. While the pastor is not an element akin to water, wine, or bread, his placing hands on the head of the penitent, is both visible and tactile, like Baptism and the Lord’s Supper.
What do the Lutheran Confessions say? The Small Catechism sandwiches Confession and Absolution between The Sacrament of Holy Baptism and The Sacrament of the Altar. The Apology of the Augsburg Confession says, “If we call Sacraments ‘rites that have the command of God, and to which the promise ofgrace has been added,’ it is easy to decide what are the 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 such signs perhaps instruct the unlearned or admonish about something. Therefore, Baptism, the Lord’s Supper, and Absolution (which is the Sacrament of Repentance) are truly Sacraments. For these rites have God’s command and the promise of grace, which is peculiar to the New Testament” (Ap AC, XIII, 3-4).
The point is not to be dogmatic about a number but to receive what God has commanded as a means through which He forgives our sins. To the question, “Does Absolution forgive our sins?” the answer is a clear “Yes!” It is God’s gift, whether it gets included in our human list of Sacraments.
The danger of a question like “How many Sacraments?” is that we use it to prescribe limits. The better question is “How does God forgive my sins?” Then, the answer is easy, “In Holy Baptism, in Holy Absolution, in Holy Communion, and in the preaching of the Word.”