Forgiveness

Why is the concept of forgiveness so difficult for Christians to grasp? On the cross Jesus paid in full for sin. The debt is covered. Christians are called to forgive others as Christ has forgiven us. God’s forgiveness is unlimited, so forgiveness from Christians is unlimited. We do not stop at seven times, or at seventy-seven times, or at seventy-times-seven times. We forgive to the seventy-eleventh time, a number that does not exist, so we can never stop forgiving.

Confusion comes when we use the word “forgive” to cover two distinct actions. One is to forgive silently, “from the heart.” This the Christian is always required to do. There is no revenge from the Christian, no “getting even,” no holding grudges. The other is to absolve, to announce forgiveness. This the Christian does for repentant sinners, but not for unrepentant sinners. Christians do not withhold God’s forgiveness, but they withhold absolution from any sinner who does not want to be forgiven.

To approach an unrepentant sinner with the news, “I still forgive you,” or, “God still forgives you,” is a mistake. It might seem loving and Christian to speak those words; but in those circumstances, those words could be viewed as microaggression. The unrepentant sinner does not want forgiveness, not from the Christian and not from God. The unrepentant sinner loves his or her sin more than he or she loves his or her Savior. Offering unwanted forgiveness cheapens God’s grace; it makes a mockery of the love of God and of the cross of Christ.

When Jesus said, “Do not give what is holy to dogs, and do not cast your pearls before swine,” he was speaking about the announcement of forgiveness. Before we can tell a sinner that his or her debt is paid, we must first inform that sinner of his or her debt. Only when sinners understand the cost of their sin can they also understand the glory of Christ to pay that cost in full. Handing out forgiveness like candy does not glorify the Lord.

But if absolving an unrepentant sinner is bad, casting doubt on the forgiveness of a repentant sinner is far worse. As soon as sinners realize the wickedness of what they have done, they should also be assured that their debt is paid in full. Christ’s sacrifice is sufficient payment to cover any debt; it is more than enough to compensate for all the sins of history. Staying angry, seeking revenge, holding a grudge, or making the sinner pay for the sin is not an option for the Christian. When we cast doubt on the ability of any sin or any sinner to be forgiven, we cast doubt on God’s gift of forgiveness to us as well. God’s forgiveness does not simply flow into the life of a Christian; it flows through that life and into the lives of others.

Jesus said to Peter, “I give you the keys to the kingdom of heaven. Whatever you lock on earth is locked in heaven, and whatever you unlock on earth is unlocked in heaven.” The night after his resurrection, Jesus breathed on all the apostles and said, “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive anyone’s sins, they are forgiven; it you withhold forgiveness, it is withheld.” Not just Peter, not just the apostles, not just pastors, but every Christian holds those keys and has that power. Being remade in the image of Christ, we always want to forgive. But as Jesus did not speak words of forgiveness to the stubborn scribes and Pharisees, so we do not absolve unrepentant sinners.

Christians forgive. Forgiveness is found in the Church. The government has no obligation to forgive criminals, not even if they repent of their sins. Indeed, the government must punish criminals for the good of all citizens. The government must restrict chronic abusers and protect vulnerable citizens, even if the abuser has repented and has received Christ’s forgiveness. The ability of the President and governors to pardon criminals should never be mistaken for forgiveness. A pardon ends punishment and sets a criminal free, but forgiveness removes guilt and changes a sinner into a saint. Paradoxically, in this world the Christian remains both sinner and saint, but in God’s eyes the sin has already been removed; the life of a Christian is already pure and blameless and holy in the sight of God.

Forgiveness should be easy to understand and to discuss. Because of the sinner-saint paradox, our eyes and minds are dimmed, and sometimes even forgiveness seems confusing. Each of us can take that confusion to the cross, where we see the price of our sins paid in full, and we know that Christ’s forgiveness belongs to us—and to whoever has sinned against us. J.

Advertisements

Confession and Absolution

The Bible says: “Confess your sins to one another and pray for one another, that you may be healed. The prayer of a righteous person has great power as it is working” (James 5:16).

Luther explains: “What is confession? Confession has two parts. First, that we confess our sins, and second, that we receive absolution—that is, forgiveness—from the pastor as from God Himself, not doubting but firmly believing that by it our sins are forgiven before God in heaven. What sins should we confess? Before God we should plead guilty of all sins, even those we are not aware of, as we do in the Lord’s Prayer, but before the pastor we should confess only those sins which we know and feel in our hearts. Which are these? Consider your place in life according to the Ten Commandments.
Are you a father, mother, son, daughter, husband, wife, or worker? Have you been disobedient, unfaithful, or lazy? Have you been hot-tempered, rude, or quarrelsome? Have you hurt someone by your words or deeds? Have you stolen, been negligent, wasted anything, or done any harm?”

Salvageable adds: Martin Luther is famous for protesting the system of Penance that the Church had developed over the centuries as part of Confession and Absolution. Some Christians and historians mistakenly believe that Luther was opposed to Confession as well, but that is not the case. In the Augsburg Confession of 1530, Lutherans affirmed that they would continue the historic practice of private Confession and Absolution. Only the thought that Penance is needed to finish Confession and Absolution was rejected.

When other Christians visit a Lutheran congregation, they are sometimes surprised by the Confession and Absolution at the beginning of the service. The worshipers pray to God, confessing their sins and throwing themselves upon His mercy. The pastor then responds, “In the place and by the command of my Lord Jesus Christ, I forgive you all your sins, in the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.” This Absolution shows the Office of the Keys at work in the congregation. When sugar or salt is dissolved in water, the sugar or salt is still there, as anyone can tell by tasting the water. When sins are absolved, they are gone. They are nailed to the cross with Christ, killed with Christ, and buried with Christ. They do not rise with Christ. They have been washed away by Holy Baptism, which is why the Absolution concludes with the same Name of God that is used in baptism. The practice of Confession and Absolution is an expression of repentance. It is repeated often, because we sin often and need God’s forgiveness often.

For many twenty-first century Lutherans, this group experience of Confession and Absolution is the only form they know. Private Confession and Absolution remains an option, even though it is not required. A Christian may look a pastor in the face, confess to that pastor a sin that is troubling one’s heart, and hear a clear and unconditional guarantee of forgiveness. This gift of the Church is even protected by secular law; the confession heard by a pastor, priest, or minister is completely confidential. When we need a personal assurance that the sins troubling our hearts are forgiven, the pastor or priest or minister or other fellow Christian is there to hear our confession and to announce our absolution.

The Church’s neglect of Confession and Absolution has led to its reintroduction in other walks of life. Alcoholics Anonymous and other twelve-step programs that fight addition include a fifth step in which the recovering addict admits all his or her sins and wrongdoings to another person. Many people visit counselors to relieve their consciences of the burden of sin and guilt that is spoiling their lives. Some people confide in friends, only to have those friends whisper their secrets to others, so that a private confession becomes a matter of gossip. How much better it is when the Office of the Keys can function as Jesus intended, conveying forgiveness to sinners through the powerful Word of God, spoken to them by fellow believers.