Real Sins, Real Forgiveness
We're studying the doctrine of forgiveness. Here's the description of a course UT offered in October 2002 called "Radical Forgiveness." "Traditional forgiveness is letting go of the past while still holding onto the idea that something wrong or bad happened. Radical forgiveness is a deep commitment to releasing the past...When that happens problems melt away, behavior patterns can change, relationships can improve, and life seems to become better immediately." And who teaches this amazing course? Julie Perkins, "a Life Coach and Certified Radical Forgiveness Coach." How tragic that people actually go to such garbage and think they have found something. How even more tragic when people who actually have radical forgiveness for real sins don't make use of it.
Some things we're guilty of don't seem like they need radical forgiveness. The soldiers who mocked Jesus in our text, who struck Him on the head with clubs, spit on Him, and put a purple robe and crown of thorns on Him, they really didn't think they were sinning. So they didn't think they needed forgiveness radical or otherwise. Neither do we when we tell those jokes about Jesus or holy things. No, we don't think we're sinning when we make jokes about Communion and drinking all the wine or the wafer not being enough to eat. We no more think we're making fun of the Body and Blood of God than the soldiers thought they were.
When the church leaders said that Jesus was subverting their nation and opposing the payment of taxes to Caesar, they didn't think their lying was anything that ought to be repented of or needed to be forgiven. Big deal; tell a few lies about Jesus. It's not like they were committing adultery, stealing, or killing anyone. Telling lies about Jesus isn't a big deal to us either. That's why false doctrine and teachers are no big deal to us. Sure some rob people of the Sacrament of Holy Communion because they don't have Christ's Body and Blood, but it's not like their robbing people of money or something. Sure some won't give the precious gift of baptism to babies, but it's not like they won't give food to them. Sure there are some Synodical churches who give Communion into the hands of anyone who wants it, but it's not they're handing Jesus over to the hands of thugs, is it?
Herod didn't think he was sinning just because he wanted to see Jesus perform some sort of miracle. Herod didn't think he was wrong to feel let down by Jesus when Jesus did none. Neither do we think it real sin when we're disappointed in Jesus or when we expect Him to prove Himself by some miraculous show. Hey, it's not like we want Jesus to do something wrong or immoral. We just want Him to do what we think He should.
Private confession and absolution is not for things we don't know and feel to be sinful in our hearts. Private confession is for sins which trouble our hearts. In my experience, the things people confess in private confession are mostly things they've already confessed privately before God. Many times it's things they've confessed again and again to God. Things they've knelt at the communion rail confessing. Things they've plunged repeatedly under the waters of their Baptism. Things they've confessed in the general confession. Yet, still those sins prick, stick, and ache their heart.
Say you're bothered by the fact that you have told jokes about holy things or treated the Body and Blood of your God as no more than ordinary bread and wine; say you're bothered by the fact that you have treated false teaching and teachers as no big deal; say you've been convicted for thinking that Jesus let you down because He didn't do the miracle you expected Him to. You confess your sin; you put this sin before the Lord; you bring it to Communion, you dunk it under Baptism.
The Word whether in sermon, song, Communion or Baptism really does bring to you all that Jesus won for you in our text. Jesus was struck in the face; Baptism brings to you the water that comes out of His mouth to cover your sins. The whip lacerated Jesus' back, the blood that misted into the air is delivered to your lips by Communion. Guilty Barabbas went free and innocent Jesus did not, the Word brings home the blessed truth that Jesus got what you deserve so you could get what He did.
Still your sin remains before you. It's like that pimple you had when you were a teenager. To everyone around you, it appeared as no more than a slight bump, but to you it covered your nose, it was your face. For sins that take on pimple like proportions in your heart, radical, real forgiveness is available to you in private confession, and I urge you to make use it.
Historically, Lutherans have said that all may come to private confession. It is a privilege opened to all since Christ died for the sins of all. All may come make confession of their sins privately and receive absolution for them, however, we've also said that none must. Lutherans unlike Catholics don't make anyone go to private confession. The 1994 Catechism of the Catholic Church says, "Anyone conscious of a grave sin must receive the sacrament of Reconciliation before coming to communion." In fact, later the catechism says, "The Eucharist is not ordered to the forgiveness of mortal sins - that is proper to the sacrament of Reconciliation." In the Catholic church you can't be forgiven for a mortal sin unless you confess it out loud to a priest. Lutherans have never taught this. Nevertheless, while we have always taught that none must be required to make private confession, we have also taught that some should.
"Should" as you know is ordinarily a Law word, but not here. "Should" here is a Gospel word. We mean this in the same way we would say, "Judas should have taken his sin to Jesus." What the devil does to a person trapped by some sin, usually a sin they have repeatedly confessed and been forgiven for, is whisper into their ear, "If that pastor really knew what you have done, he never would forgive you for that." And so you live your life in the joy of forgiveness that belongs to the Baptized, except in this one case. So you eat and drink Christ's Body and Blood for the forgiveness of all but this sin. So you go through Lent year after year seeing how Christ bore your sins and suffered for them all with the exception of this one.
You my dear brother or sister in Christ, should go to private confession so the pastor can forgive you that sin which is so big and ugly and unforgivable to you. You who have spoken that sin to yourself and God on many a dark night need to speak it in the light of God's Word before God's minister. You'll speak that which the devil has convinced you is unspeakable. You'll put your unspeakable, unforgivable sin before the man who is called and ordained by God to hear your confession, and in the name and in the stead of Christ he will send it away from you as far as east is from the west. And you will be free. O sure, the devil will try to bring your forgiven sin back down upon your head, but now you have a specific Word from God spoken by a man on earth to set against that sin.
You can see how seriously you ought to take the absolution of the pastor by how seriously he takes it. A godly pastor will never absolve a sin that ought not to be. When a pastor absolves a sin, he is taking responsibility for it. If he is wrong, if he forgives what ought not to be forgiven, on the Last Day God will require it from him. So when I forgive, I am saying to you, "I am so sure that this sin which is unspeakable and unforgivable to you was indeed on the back of Christ, carried to the cross and paid for, that I can forgive it right here and now." So when the devil tries to whisper it back into you ear, you can say, "You have to go back to that pastor. He said, 'I forgive you,' so it's his sin not mine." And when the devil does come to me, I send him to Jesus saying, "If you want to know about sins, go ask the One who carried away the sins of the world."
Private confession is for real sins. For sins so harsh that they caused welts and bruises on the holy, tender body of Jesus. For sins so real that they caused Jesus to cry out in agony. For sins so terribly disgusting that when Jesus saw them in the cup of God's wrath, He begged and pleaded with His Father to have the cup pass Him by. But of course, the cup did not pass Jesus by. He drank it. He drained it. Though it was filled with the puss from a billion pimples, Jesus drank it dry thereby winning, gaining, achieving real forgiveness for real sins.
As you know, real forgiveness is distributed by means of the Water and the Word of Holy Baptism, by means of the Body and Blood of Christ in Holy Communion and real forgiveness for radical sins is distributed personally and pointedly in private confession. Forgiveness is so complete that the sin doesn't exist any longer. As far as east is from west, that's how far Absolution sends a person's sins away from him or her. Can east and west ever meet on a point on earth? No east is always over there and west is always over here. Therefore, when a sin is absolved, forgiven, sent away, it can no longer be found at the same place and time as the person who committed it. That's why a pastor can never, ever divulge what you confess and he absolves. That sin is no longer yours. He could never tell a soul because it would be a lie. You are not guilty or are even connected with that sin any longer, not before God or even before men.
This is called the seal of the confessional. Think of it like when the court seals a person's records. Actually, it's more complete than that. When court records are sealed it is the voice of a mere man, albeit a judge, who does that. Not so Absolution. Our Augsburg Confession says, "It is not the voice or word of the man who speaks it, but is the Word of God, who forgives sins, for it is spoken in God's stead and by God's command"( XXV, 3). Just as it was the voice of God who made Jesus who was guilty of nothing guilty of all things, so it is the voice of God who makes the sinner who is guilty of all things guilty of nothing.
That's how God wants you to walk out of Divine Service, that's how God wants you to walk away from your Baptism and away from this altar, guilty of nothing. That's especially how God wants you to walk away from private confession. He wants you to walk away without that sin that has bothered you so and with a light heart certain that you have a smiling Father in heaven. How come I'm so sure of this? Because to walk away sad and with your sins in tow is to deny, denigrate, and disrespect what we saw Jesus go through in our text. Everything you heard, saw and felt Him suffer He did to pay for your sins. He went through such grief to bring you gladness, such pain to bring you relief, such hell to bring you heaven. Now friend, you know it's wrong and disrespectful to treat lightly the freedoms we have in America that have been paid for by the sufferings endured and the blood spilled by others in brutal wars. That's how wrong it is when we are made guilty and gloomy by sins that Jesus suffered and shed blood to forgive.
Have you real sins? Have you radical sins? Take heart Jesus has forgiveness realer and more radical than anyone's sins, even yours, especially yours. Amen
Rev. Paul R. Harris
Trinity Lutheran Church, Austin, Texas
Midweek IV (3-26-03), Confession II