Reformation, part one

The Christian Church contains sinners. We are forgiven sinners, made saints by the work of Christ, heirs of the kingdom of heaven. Yet at the very same time, we remain sinners, desperately needing a Savior. For this reason, the Church from time to time needs reformation. The Church needs reminders why it exists: to bring the Gospel of Jesus Christ to the world, to rescue victims of sin and evil, to announce the forgiveness of sins and call sinners to repent, and to share Christ’s victory with the people he loves. The Church is not a private club, nor a business selling a product and making a prophet. The Church is a hospital for the healing of broken lives. The Church is a lighthouse to steer people away from danger. The Church is a haven on the battlefield, equipping soldiers and assisting those who have been wounded by the attacks of the enemy.

The Cluny Reform around the year 900 healed the Church and the monastic movement from some of the abuses that had been building within them over time. The ministries of Saint Dominic, Saint Francis, and Saint Peter Waldo helped to reform the Church around the year 1200. A movement of inner spirituality led by teachers such as Meister Eckhardt and Thomas Kempis aided Christians during the later middle ages. Troubles with the papacy, including its relocation to Avignon and then rivals claiming the office, encouraged a conciliar movement that had potential to steer the Church in the proper direction. As the time of Martin Luther’s reformation drew near, John Huss in Bohemia and John Wycliffe in England and Girolamo Savonarola in Florence, Italy, all raised their voices to call for reform. Luther, though, would be the heroic figure who could not be silenced or ignored.

Luther challenged the Church’s practice of selling indulgences. The roots of this problem extended back to early Church times, before Constantine, when Christians were being persecuted by the Roman government. During times of persecution, some Christians would leave the congregations, obey the government’s commands to honor false gods, and so spare themselves the trouble that their fellow Christians endured. When the persecution ran its course, many of these fallen Christians sought to return to the Church. Those who had endured the persecution reminded the lapsed believers of the words of Jesus, who said, “Whoever disowns me before men, I will disown before my Father in heaven.” But the returning believers reminded the leaders of the Church that Jesus came to rescue and forgive sinners. Jesus forgave Peter, who denied knowing Jesus. The mission of the Church is to forgive. A compromise was reached: Christians who left the Church to avoid persecution and then wanted to return were forgiven, but they were required to undergo a time of probation. They had to show that they truly believed and that they were truly sorry for their sins. They had to do works of penance—essentially, a milder persecution from the Church to replace the fierce persecution imposed by the Roman government.

Penance first was required only of those who had denied Christ to avoid persecution. Later, it was extended to all sinners. As the book of James urges Christians to confess their sins to one another (thus providing an opportunity to receive absolution, the spoken guarantee of Christ’s forgiveness), so all Christians were expected to confess their sins, receive absolution, and then be given penance, a set of tasks that would express their sorrow over sin and complete the process of being forgiven. When some Christians wondered what would happen to believers who died before completing their penance, they were told of a place called Purgatory, where believers could complete their penance before ascending to Paradise. The poet Dante, in his Divine Comedy, located Purgatory on the far side of the globe from Italy, a mountain surrounded by the great ocean and accessible only to the Christians traveling to Paradise.

Penance did not always involve money. It could take many forms: prayers, pilgrimages, kindness to strangers, and other good works. The completion of an act of penance was called an indulgence; in the case of a gift of money, the indulgence might take the form of a piece of paper, a receipt that acknowledged the good work. Soldiers who fought in the Crusades were given indulgences, saying that they had done a good work for Christ and the Church. Those who paid the expenses of a crusading soldier were given indulgences. Those who gave gifts of money to Christian hospitals were given indulgences. Those who gave money to build churches or maintain and beautify churches were given indulgences.

In theory, an act of penance and receiving an indulgence were not equivalent to buying or earning God’s forgiveness. Forgiveness was earned by Christ’s sacrifice on the cross and was given freely to all sinners who repented and sought forgiveness from Christ through the Church. Absolution—the promise of forgiveness—followed confession, and penance followed the absolution. But many Christians misunderstood the subtlety of penance and indulgences, and some people in the Church took advantage of those misunderstandings. Because of the perception that God’s forgiveness could be bought, could be transferred to another person already dead and in purgatory, or could even be treated as a license to sin, the Church was in desperate need of Reformation. This need set the stage for Martin Luther’s dramatic act in 1517, an act that is still remembered and celebrated as the Reformation of the Christian Church. J.

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.

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.