I Believe in the Forgiveness of Sins
People think, "I believe in the forgiveness of sins" is the easiest statement of faith to drive your life with. After all St. Augustine said, "The Christian life differs from the faith of the devils in the last articles of the Creed: 'I believe in the forgiveness of sins,' etc." So if you're a Christian belief in the forgiveness of sins must certainly drive your life. Not so fast. Of all the articles of the faith, this is probably the hardest to actually use.
For one thing the free forgiveness of sins is not even on natural man's radar. The Muslim keeps his Five Pillars believing there is forgiveness in them; the Mormon keeps the commandments of God believing this cleanses away the stain of sin. And billions of non-religious people believe their acts of kindness, charity, and goodness offset their sins. Believing your sins are forgiven by faith in what Christ did is just simply nonsense to fallen man. Forgiveness is the only thing everyone believes you must work for in order to get. Lots of people believe you can learn a foreign language without studying, lose weight without diet or exercise, and learn to speed read without effort, but no one, I mean no on, believes naturally that their sins can be forgiven freely...not even you and me.
How many times have you thought: "Forgiveness can't be this easy? It can't be a matter of simply believing that God put my sins on Christ and has put His righteousness over me." Or how many times have you felt shame for something you did, said, or perhaps even just thought and heard the promise of the free forgiveness of sins and said to yourself, "I haven't felt bad long enough to be forgiven"?
This is where most of us are. Forgiveness as an article of faith isn't certain enough for us. We want to make forgiveness an article of sight. Rather than confessing " I believe in the forgiveness of sins," we want to say I "touch, feel, or see" it. How many times have you come away from this altar, a service, a sermon saying, "I don't feel forgiven"? And in search of a feeling, a seeing, a touching of forgiveness you are ripe for 2 errors. Salvation by works and contemporary worship.
Salvation by works satisfies the hunger we have to feel forgiven by making us feel we've earned it. Unrelenting guilt for real or imagined sins can be dealt with for awhile by putting money in a collection plate, by putting your time in on a church pew, by doing something for the less fortunate. You can offset before men and even in your own mind your sins by doing good things. But on your deathbed, hopefully before, you will be confronted by the terrifying wrath of God which no appeal to your works can appease and it will devour you and send you to hell.
The broad path to this horrifying end is contemporary worship. How can I say that? Well, why do congregations say they go to it? People aren't getting anything out of the liturgy. They don't feel uplifted. Although in the liturgy forgiveness is given out in Word and Sacrament, people don't feel it. Now friend, if your doctor gives you medicine and you say, "I don't feel it," does he sing, dance and entertain you to make you feel better? He might change your medicine but neither he nor you believe that entertaining you, getting an emotional response from you is a key to your physical health. So why do people believe that about spiritual health? Because natural man demands to see, feel and touch forgiveness and puts no stock in believing it.
However, unless you believe in the forgiveness of your sins, there is no other way for you to have it. Lutherans confess this against Catholicism which says the Sacraments work without faith even if a person is an unbeliever. But our stating that you receive forgiveness only through faith doesn't do away with the Sacraments as the Protestants have. They say faith does everything and the Sacraments are just outward signs which don't give forgiveness at all. The Lutherans maintain that faith is necessary for receiving the forgiveness of sins, but confess against the Protestants that God distributes forgiveness through the Sacraments: Baptism, Absolution, and Communion. These 3 are where faith is to seek the forgiveness of sins.
Faith is the means of receiving the forgiveness of sins in Word and Sacraments because forgiveness is in them as a promise. Go back to the upper room. Jesus takes Bread in His hands and commands, "Take eat; this is My Body" but promises it is "given for you." And Jesus takes the cup of wine in His hands and commands, "Take drink; this is My Blood" but promises it is "poured for you for the forgiveness of sins." Jesus here makes the promise that in Communion His Body and Blood are present to forgive the sins of those who eat and drink it.
You can't see His Body and Blood. You only see Bread and Wine. And you certainly can't see forgiveness there, can you? But faith goes by what Jesus says and not what it sees and feels. Jesus promises the forgiveness He won on the cross by giving up His holy body in place of your sinful one is in His Body on the altar. Jesus promises the forgiveness He won on the cross by pouring out His blood to cover up your sins is in His Blood on the altar. You receive His Body and Blood orally, by mouth, but you can only receive the promise of forgiveness that is in His Body and Blood by faith. That's how it is with all promises. If I promise to give you a bike for Christmas, you can only get enjoyment, hope, comfort from that promise by believing it.
By confessing, "I believe in the forgiveness of sins," you're saying you don't expect to see it or feel it. It's yours by faith. But don't mistake this for what many American's believe, i.e., as long as I have faith in my heart I'm saved even if don't go to Church, am not absolved, and don't commune. How can they know they have faith in their heart? Americans, following the Protestant faith, say, if I feel or see that I have faith then I do. Don't you see? This makes forgiveness an article of sight not faith. No, a Lutheran knows he or she has faith in their heart not by looking into their heart, what mess that is, but by whether or not they are using the things God promises to work faith by: Word and Sacraments.
Lutherans believe, according to our Large Catechism, that they can't have forgiveness of sins apart from the holy Christian Church and the Word and Sacrament found there: "We believe that in this Christian Church we have the forgiveness of sins which is granted through the holy sacrament and absolution." "Everything in the Christian Church is so ordered that we may obtain daily full forgiveness of sins through the Word and through the Sacraments." And finally, "Although we have sin, the Holy Spirit sees to it that it does not harm us because we are in the Christian Church where there is full forgiveness of sins...But outside the Christian Church there is no forgiveness." You're outside of the Christian Church if you're not where the Gospel is preached and the Sacraments are distributed according to how Christ instituted them.
Can you see how this confession, "I believe in the forgiveness of sins" is to drive our life? We don't say I see or feel it, so when we look in the mirror and see a wretched sinner or when our hearts feel condemned for what we have done, thought, or said, we are not to despair. We don't expect to look in the mirror or feel in our heart our forgiveness. We are free to ignore the image in the mirror and the feeling in our heart, and go by what God promises He has done and will do for us in Word and Sacraments.
And just what does He promise? God promises that as many of you who've been baptized have put on Christ. So, when God looks at me He sees Christ and surely He can find no sin in Him. Likewise in absolution, Christ promises that the pastor's words are His Words and that the pastor's forgiveness on earth is God's forgiveness in heaven. And finally God promises that Communion is the Body His Son gave up to redeem your body and it's the Blood He shed to cover your sins. So Communion is good, sweet, powerful medicine able to give forgiveness, life and salvation to our body and blood because it is the Body and Blood of Christ.
So where does this confession, "I believe in the forgiveness of sins" drive us? To Church: to font, pulpit, and altar. Those of you not coming here with any sort of regularity belie your confession by your actions. By not coming here, you're confessing that you believe the forgiveness of sins is located somewhere else, either in your pious little heart or in what you do. On your deathbed, but hopefully sooner, you'll see there is no forgiveness in either place. Then the terrors will set in. And the only way to calm those terrors is to have the forgiveness Jesus won on the cross given to you.
Well, here there's plenty of forgiveness. As the Catechism says, "In this Christian Church He daily and richly forgives all my sins and the sins of all believers." So even though you may have despised Word and Sacrament by not attending Church or by not believing Word and Sacraments really forgive your sins, there's still forgiveness for you here, enough to get you all the way to heaven and to enrich your life on earth.
A life driven by the confession 'I believe in the forgiveness of sins,' is free from the tyranny of feelings because it rests on Jesus winning my forgiveness on the cross and giving me forgiveness through His Church on earth. But can such a life withstand the storms of life? Consider this: when Jesus wanted to prepare His disciples in the upper room to face the coming night where their sinfulness, the devil's power, and death's fury would all rage, all He gave them was Word and Sacrament. This was all they needed to face the coming crisis, and it's all we need as well. Christ's victory over sin, death, and the devil is given to us in Word and Sacrament. So hear, believe, eat, drink and win. Amen.
Rev. Paul R. Harris
Trinity Lutheran Church, Austin, Texas
Ash Wednesday (2-9-05); Passion Reading I