“The A-B-Cs of Lent” - Absolution
1 John 1:5-10; Matthew 9:1-8; Small Catechism, Confession
We continue looking at “The A-B-Cs of Lent.” For the first two weeks we looked at the “B” – Baptism. Tonight we look at the “A” – Absolution.
Last week we heard what Baptism means for daily life. Baptism is not just a one-time bath; it’s a daily, ongoing dying and rising of the Christian. We sinners die daily in the death of Jesus, and daily we rise in the life of Jesus. This dying and rising continues until our own death and then our resurrection on the Last Day at Jesus’ appearing.
This daily dying and rising brings us to what we rightly call the “Third Sacrament” – Holy Absolution. And what a poor, neglected Sacrament it is! This really should not be, especially in church that pledges herself to the Lutheran Confessions. Those Confessions do call Absolution a “Sacrament.” They also call it the “living voice” of the Gospel. They even say, “it would be wicked to remove personal absolution” from our churches. But tell a fellow Lutheran that your pastor actually offers Private Confession and Absolution, or even sets and publishes certain times for it, and I guarantee you that jaws will drop and eyebrows will rise. However, restoring the Sacrament of Holy Absolution is like rediscovering a priceless family treasure that’s been lost for years. Instead of putting it back in the musty basement, let’s bring it out to enjoy. After all, if it was wicked to remove private/personal Absolution back in 1530, it would be doubly wicked not to restore it now that we are rediscovering it—unless something has changed about our sin and Jesus’ forgiveness!
Confession and Absolution is our constant return to our Baptism. It’s our ongoing return to the waters that first brought us life and cleansing from God. Confession is so basic to the Christian life that Luther could say this in the Large Catechism: “When I urge you to go to confession, I am simply urging you to be a Christian.” Unbelievers deny their sins, gloss over them, cover them up, and have no use for forgiveness. Christians, though, confess their sins and are forgiven.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer calls Absolution without personal confession a form of “cheap grace,” a cross-less Christianity. It’s trying to have repentance without shame, contrition without guilt. It’s like an out of court settlement—just pay the money and admit no specific wrongdoing. God, however, does not work that way—no back room bargaining with Him. Face the truth of our sin and the death of Christ for our sin.
As we said with the Catechism, Holy Absolution has two parts. The first is that we confess our sins. To “confess” means to “say the same thing,” to say back what we’ve heard, just like a little child learning to talk by repeating what she’s heard. We might feel bad about ourselves; we might have low self-esteem; we might feel guilty or depressed. But those are not the main problems. God tells us: “You are sinners.” That’s the main problem—not what we do or feel, but who we are. So we confess, “Yes, Lord, I am a sinner.” And what is a sinner? A sinner is an enemy of God; one who tries to dethrone God and put himself/herself on that throne; one who fears, loves, and trusts himself/herself above God. That’s the truth. And in Confession, we speak the truth about ourselves.
The opposite of confession is denial. “If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us.” When we deny our sickness of sin and its symptoms of sinful thoughts, words, and deeds, we are only fooling ourselves. Just think of how irate we might get if someone called us a “sinner” or caught us in something and said, “You are sinning.” But it’s the truth; it’s what we are! “If we say that we have not sinned, we make [God] a liar, and his word is not in us.” Our past and our present testify against us. We are sick with sin, and we have sinned.
Confession puts the past and the present into concrete words. Sure, we can confess generally, as we do on Sunday mornings: “We have sinned against You in thought, word, and deed, by what we have done and by what we have left undone.” But we also need to confess specifically, “those sins which we know and feel in our hearts.” And feeling in our hearts need not be only the ton-of-bricks sins; it also includes the sins that feel more like little pin pricks, because they are still sins. And yet we need not worry about the mathematics of “how many” sins to confess. “Who can discern his errors?” the Psalmist cries. “Declare me innocent from hidden faults” (Ps. 19:12). There’s no end to the lists that each of us could make. And at the same time we don’t want to be satisfied with a generic, all-purpose confession, the kind that you, I, and 6 ½ billion other people in the world could all say together. “I, a poor, miserable sinner.” True enough, yes, but what makes you say that?
General confession without specific confession runs the risk of merely bad-mouthing ourselves. That’s not telling the truth. That’s using a surface truth to cover over the deeper truth, so that we don’t have to face it. And specific confession run amok can lead us into a perverse kind of pride, bragging about our weaknesses and airing our dirty laundry for everyone to see—as happens in the so-called “online confessionals.” Speaking the truth of our sin means neither kicking the corpse of our body of death, nor putting it on display.
We make our confession in three directions—to God, to the neighbor, and to our pastor. First, a Christian always confesses to God, and can always confess to God directly, as we do in the Lord’s Prayer and in our personal prayers. It’s your privilege as baptized children of God. However, too often we use this privilege as an artful dodge and easy excuse: “I can confess directly to God; therefore, I don’t need to confess to another person.” That’s not humility; it’s pride. How odd that we are ashamed to admit our sinful words and deeds to fellow sinners, but we can be so proud to admit them before the Lord of heaven and earth, who treats sin as fire treats gasoline!
While we certainly may confess directly to God, He always deals with us through the external Word—through Baptism, through the Supper, through the Gospel proclaimed. The person who says, “I can confess directly to God, therefore, I don’t need the Church,” misses the point. It’s not our confession that matters; it’s God’s spoken forgiveness. Just as God deals with us in the incarnate Lord Jesus, He also deals with us through the earthly, creaturely means of water, words, and bread and wine. For Absolution, God uses the earthly, creaturely sound waves that emanate from mouths and go into earholes.
Second, a Christian also confesses to the neighbor, especially when he/she has sinned against the neighbor. Whenever we hurt or harm another person, we need to confess it to that person, and then forgive one another as God has forgiven us. We need to let Jesus get between us, or else our sins will push us apart. That’s how we pray in the Lord’s Prayer—a double absolution, if you will—that our Father in heaven would forgive us as we forgive others. But we are so out of practice! Our tongues are tied in knots. The language of confession sounds so foreign to our ears because we don’t use it. Instead, we harbor grudges and resentments. We nurse quarrels for years. We isolate and alienate each other. Dear friends, this should not be—especially in the Christian congregation that God institutes to be a place overflowing with forgiveness. Just like Nathan went to David, every Christian has God’s call and command to go to the brother or sister, rebuke the sin, and restore the sinner in forgiveness. Of all places and institutions in the world, the Church is God’s very own “laboratory” where the conversation of confession is practiced and the healing of forgiveness is applied among His baptized children.
The third direction of our confession is to our pastor. Now, there are several good reasons for doing this. First, your pastor is ordained to hear confessions. That’s what we put him here for. Hearing confessions is one of the jobs given in his ordination vow. Second, he is equipped by training and practice to help others sharpen and deepen their confession. He can focus them on the Word of God. Third, he is bound by a solemn vow to secrecy, something to which a close friend is not bound. If a pastor breaks the seal of confession, he should be dismissed, no questions asked.
Fourth, the pastor is a public, corporate person; he holds an office. The pastor does not speak for himself; he only speaks for Christ and for the whole Church. The pastor is a “minister,” a servant of Jesus Christ, a steward of God’s mysteries revealed in Christ. He’s not a superior, but a servant. He serves not “from above,” but “from below.” He is not there to condemn, but to forgive. In fact, that’s what the Lord put him here to do. He is under holy orders to forgive sins. A friend may forgive you simply to keep your friendship. A family member may forgive you just to have peace in the family. We have plenty of family and friends. But pastors? We have precious few of them. A pastor forgives by the divine order of the crucified, risen, and reigning Son of God. He speaks, not for his own person, but for the person of Jesus. It doesn’t matter if you don’t like the pastor, or if he doesn’t like you. His forgiveness is Christ’s forgiveness. It is sure and certain. And it is addressed specifically to you, specifically for your particular sins. That’s really all that matters.
And now we come to the second main part, the more important part of Confession: the Absolution. “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.” Absolution is spoken forgiveness, release, and freedom from sin. God releases the sinner from his/her sin. He puts our sin “as far as the east is from the west” (Ps. 103:12). He buries it in the death of Jesus. He cleanses us with His holy, precious blood.
God says, “I absolve you. I forgive you.” This is no cheap, idle talk. It’s no sappy, saccharine sentimentality that says, “Smile, be happy, God loves you.” No, this is a very costly word from God to you. It cost the Son of God His very life. He sweated and suffered, bled and died so that this forgiveness talk might be spoken. It’s a word anchored in the past, nailed to the bloody cross of Calvary. It’s a word that reaches through time into the here and now, into our very lives. It reaches into our ears and minds and hearts and says, “Christ died for you.” It’s a word authorized and approved by the crucified and risen Son of God Himself, freshly risen from the dead with the wounds to prove it. He breathed His Spirit and His words into His disciples and said, “If you forgive the sins of anyone, they are forgiven; if you withhold forgiveness from anyone, it is withheld” (Jn 20:23).
Sometimes people are offended by the Absolution. “Who can forgive sins but God alone?” The unbelieving Pharisees asked that of Jesus. “How dare that guy speak as though he were God!” Well, people should be offended. The Absolution is as offensive as the Incarnation of the Son of God. It’s as offensive as the God who wears diapers and sleeps in a manger, or the God who hangs naked and bleeding on a cross. Only God can forgive. That’s true. And God only forgives through His Son, who became Man, who speaks through His Church and the Holy Ministry that He ordained to speak. In the Absolution we hear the living voice of God. “So if there is a heart that feels its sin and desires consolation, it has here a sure refuge when it hears in God’s Word that through a man God looses and absolves him from his sins” (Large Catechism, V.14).
Do we have to go to Confession? Does a thirsty deer question if it has to drink from a cold mountain stream? Does a hungry person ask if he has to eat a free meal offered to him? Does one who hungers and thirsts for righteousness ask if he has to hear a word of forgiveness from Christ? Does a Christian ever ask if he/she has to be forgiven? Do we have to go to Confession? You already know the answer. Of course, you don’t have to go. God never forces anyone to be forgiven. Instead, you get to be forgiven. And that’s always a free gift! Amen.