We Believe in the God who Forgives
"The other articles are rather far from us and do not enter into our experience; nor do they touch usBut the article on the forgiveness of sins comes into continual experience with us and in daily exercise, and it touches you and me without ceasing," so said Luther (Table Talk, Weimar Edition). Our Lutheran Confessions' chief problem with the Catholic Church is that it doesn't know, write, teach, or care about how forgiveness takes place. The Lutherans rejected praying to Mary, the Mass, and Penance simply because they make the forgiveness of sins uncertain. And "Anyone who believes that forgiveness of sins is uncertain must be intent on abolishing the Gospel" (AP, IV, 161), says our confession.
Of course, this isn't you. You're all about forgiveness being certain. Really? You know the Lutherans reject the idea of attaching the certainty forgiveness to the works they do, but did you know we believe being certain of forgiveness is related to the change that follows?
An illustration will help. The legends of Charlemagne tell the story of his son guilty of murder. Charlemagne concedes to surrender his son to Ogier the father whose son he murdered. Charlemagne watches as Ogier lifts his huge sword. Charlemagne expecting to see his son's head rolling at his feet shut his eyes. Nothing happened. Charlemagne opens his eyes and sees Ogier cutting his son's bonds and raising him to his feet. King Charlemagne says, "I feel at this moment that Ogier is greater than I." As for his son the legend reports, "His base soul felt nothing but the joy of having escaped death; he remained such as he had been" (Bulfinch's Mythology, 860-3). This isn't just a legend either; this is Biblical truth from Luke 7. Forgiven much change much; forgiven little change little; forgiven nothing change nothing.
How can we who confess to believe in a God who "daily and richly forgives all my sins" not change daily and richly? We don't deny the fact that we daily and richly sin. Our Lord Himself doesn't deny it. He taught us to pray, "forgive us our sins," as often as we pray for bread, daily. He taught us to pray to be cleansed from secret faults. Our sins are richer than any of us know; more than the number of hairs on our heads. If even our best works are filthy rags, how richly sinful must we be? As we chant from Psalm 130 every Vespers service, if the Lord had a slate in heaven where He counted our iniquities daily, so rich would be their number not one of us could stand before Him.
We come to terms with this fact each divine service. In our confession of sins many think we're being too general. Those writing their own liturgies like to personalize it. They have their people confess to being poor parents, unloving neighbors, bad stewards, etc. What they're really doing is limiting the confession. They're taking away from its richness. We confess to being "poor, miserable, sinners." All that we are, think, do, and say is sin. As our Confessions say: We don't debate what is or isn't sin. Rather we put it all in a pile and say, "There is nothing in us that is not sin" (SA, III, III, 36).
Daily and richly we sin, so daily and richly we need forgiveness, and we believe in a God who gives it. Consider this. Jesus lived visibly on this earth about 12,000 days. Of these we can identify about 120 in the Gospels. Yet, the Gospels spend 26% of their words covering Maundy Thursday and Good Friday; technically they're covering Holy Saturday too, but only with a sentence or two. On 1/5,000th of Jesus visible life, and on 1/50th of His ministry, the Holy Spirit focuses 26% of His words. Why? So you might know your sins are daily and richly paid for.
Jesus is stripped naked before a troop of laughing, ribald soldiers, teased, beaten, whipped, and crowned because you richly deserve that for your sins of just today. Your sins unknown to others aren't to God. He knows them all is offended by them all and Jesus is punished for them all. On and on the punishment, the tortures go reported in comparatively minute detail by the Holy Spirit so that you might know for certain that not one of your sins escaped punishment. Your lust, lies, unbelief, and your worrying, fearing, cursing, and despairing were all punished richly in these two days.
We believe in the God who daily and richly forgives "me and all believers." Here we need to be careful. I have a 1998 article from the St. Louis Post Dispatch entitled "Seeking forgiveness can be complicated, clergy say." Muslim imams and Jewish rabbis are interviewed and they certainly believe in forgiveness, so does God richly and daily forgive their sins? No, because they don't believe in the God who forgives.
The only God who actually forgives sins is Father, Son, and Holy Ghost. We confess to believe "He daily and richly forgives all my sins and the sins of all believers," the He here is none other than the Holy Ghost. The Second Article of the creed focuses on how the true God paid for our sins, how Jesus "redeemed me a lost and condemned person, purchased and won me for all sins, from death, and from the power of the devil.with His holy, precious blood and with His innocent suffering and death." The Third Article focus on how the true God delivers forgiveness to sinners.
Forgiveness comes to you the same way pardon came to Barabbas, by someone else's choice by someone else's word. The crowd was persuaded to choose pardon for Barabbas, and next week Pilate's word will release him. It isn't by your choice that you are pardoned or by your word that you are released. Indeed, you had no choice but to live, die and be damned in your sins, and telling yourself you're forgiven is self-absolution which is talking to yourself, which is no absolution.
No, in eternity God choose you over His only beloved Son. Either you or Him where going to satisfy the holy demands of the Law of God. You had tried and failed and the more you kept trying the more you failed and your guilt increased So God choose Jesus to enter into your flesh and blood to keep all laws. Jesus did, but someone still had to pay for their being broken, someone had to pay the wages of sin, and the Father chose the Son to pay them daily and richly and so completely.
The crowd chose Barabbas to go free but that's not what freed him. No, the word of Pilate was needed. This brings us to the part of our confession where we say, "He daily and richly forgives all my sins and the sins of all believersin this Christian Church." People say, "I can worship God on a golf course." "I can worship God in nature." "I can think about God better around the house." All that may be true; but they can't be forgiven there. We believe that "in this Christian Church" not outside it, not beside it is where we are forgiven rich and daily.
Barabbas could've told himself repeatedly you're free, you're pardoned, you can go, and it would've meant nothing. Just as you can't baptize yourself, so you can't absolve yourself. Jesus gave Baptism and Absolution to His Church after He bought them on Good Friday and the Father accepted payment for them on Easter by raising Him. On Easter evening, Jesus breathed on His Church the Spirit of forgiveness and told them to forgive sins. Before ascending Jesus commanded His Church baptize and teach forgiveness.
You're Barabbas. You're imprisoned for murder and revolt. You're going to the cross. You richly deserve to die that day. Certainly the family and families of those you've harmed feel that way. There's no hope, no help, only suffering and death in you future. Then the chants "Crucify! Crucify!" reach your ears but they're not calling for your blood. They're calling for the blood of Another, and when the governor asks them, "Which of the two do you want me to release to you?" They cry out with one voice, "Away with this Man! Release Barabbas to us!" And the governor did that. He says to you, "Go you are free!" And to Jesus he says, "To the cross."
Daily you experience this in your Baptism. Daily it indicates that you've been baptized into the suffering and death of Jesus and therefore you're free. Richly you are told each Divine Service, "I forgive you in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit" thereby freeing you from the judgment and punishment you deserve. Moreover, you're invited to eat of the rich Body and Blood of Jesus for the forgiveness of daily sins.
Be very clear. Barabbas was a free man whether he believed it or not. He was pardoned of all his offenses whether or not he trusted the choice of the crowd or the word of Pilate. The Romans wouldn't have let him stay in jail when the crowd chose otherwise and Pilate said otherwise. And why on earth would Barabbas do that? Why would you? Barabbas was a freed and pardoned man whether he believed it or not, but if he believed it, it would change him.
Understand this: the choice to send Jesus to the cross instead of you was made in eternity. The pardon from heaven ordering your release happened when Jesus rose from the dead. Each time the Gospel is proclaimed that choice and pardon are announced anew. They're reality whether or not you believe it. However, there's a difference between you and Barabbas; you can stay in your jail cell. You can choose to suffer for your sins; you can choose to punish yourself for your sins. You can reject that word of pardon. You can say it's for everyone else but me. I can't be forgiven. I can't go free.
I misspoke just now. I said you could do what Barabbas could not. We don't know what happened to Barabbas after he was released. O there are always legends. And there's the 1960s movie which has him become a Christian, but the 1951 Swedish novel the movie is based on is disturbingly ambiguous. The Christians call him "Barabbas the acquitted!" But he lives as one unsure. At least he is unsure of all that his pardon really means. When he dies at the end of the book, you're unsure of whether He believes in the God who forgives.
I can see that happening if your pardon isn't daily and richly. I can see a pardon changing your life at first but gradually becoming less and less significant if it's not richly and daily because then it becomes uncertain. But richly and daily forgiveness in Water you can touch, in Words you can hear, in Bread and Wine you can taste, smell, and feel is certain, and so changes us. Because unlike Charlemagne's son forgiveness isn't merely escape from death, but like his father forgiveness is a new perspective on our life because it's overwhelming grace from One greater than us. Amen.
Rev. Paul R. Harris
Trinity Lutheran Church, Austin, Texas
Midweek IV (20090318)
Third Article, Passion Reading IV