Luther: Wrong But Right
Get used to it. The closer we get to the 500th anniversary of the Reformation in 2017 the more people will drag out some of the obscurer things Luther said. These will show his political incorrectness, his harshness, and/or his crudeness. Be prepared; sometimes Luther will be just plain wrong, but sometimes even when he's wrong, he's right.
Luther was wrong in his German Bible translation. Luther had one phrase in the entire Bible typeset in all caps. Really it was two words. Think about it; if you only highlighted, underlined, made a box around two words in your Bible what would those words be? For Luther the words were found in our text specifically in Romans 3:25. The words are FORGIVES SINS. Then in the margin he further noted these words are "the chief point" and "the center of this epistle and of the entire Scripture also of the Old Testament" (Martin Luther's Theology, Bayer, 78).
Look at your insert. Look at the Epistle reading. Do you find the words "forgives sins" anywhere? Though our insert doesn't number verses, 3:25 is toward the end of the second full paragraph. Do you see "forgives sins" there? What gives? The words "left" and "unpunished" in our insert is where Luther has "forgives sins." The only English translation that is similar is the King James which has "remission of sins." Others such as New King James, ESV, and NASB translate "pass by."
There's really no debate here. There is a Greek word that means forgives sins or remission of sins. It's aphesis (a-fe-ses). It's used throughout the New Testament this way. The Greek word used in Romans 3:25, however, is paresis (pa-re-ses). It's used only here in the New Testament. It means "pass by." These two words don't mean the same thing. The Holy Spirit means something different when this one time He uses paresis. If I forgive the 5 dollars you owe me, that's that. The debt is no longer a debt. But what if I pass by the debt? That's what Rooms to Go does. No interest, no payments till 2012. The debt is still there; it is just passed by for now.
So let's admit it. Luther was wrong to translate paresis the same way aphesis is translated. He was wrong to translate the word for "pass by" the same way he translated the word for "forgives sins." Luther was wrong in translation but he was oh so very right in theology.
Forgiveness of sins is the chief point, the center of Romans, the entire Scriptures, even the Old Testament. To see this is what it means to be a Lutheran. Our Lutheran confessions "do" theology this way. We reject the errors of the Roman Catholic Church and the Protestant Churches for the same reason because they contradict, obscure, or militate against the chief doctrine, the central doctrine: God forgiving the sins of sinners freely for Jesus' sake.
The chief doctrine, the central doctrine, the most important doctrine is that God "forgives sins." The chief doctrine the one that must not only be proclaimed at every service but be at the center, is not evangelism, not stewardship, not works of mercy. If you do not hear forgiveness of sins proclaimed, announced, preached into your ears you are not hearing a Lutheran sermon. And no it's not enough to preach about forgiveness; forgiveness itself must be preached. And it's not enough to celebrate forgiveness; forgiveness must actually be given out. This is one of the reasons liturgical worship is important. Even if I miss the boat and preach about or celebrate forgiveness, the liturgy still proclaims it, still puts it into the ears of sinners.
Luther was right: "Forgives sins" is the doctrine of the Bible to be emphasized, highlighted, and proclaimed, and "passing by" sins is not good enough. We need our sins forgiven; sent away, separated from us, but often we just pass by our sins or the sins of others. If you treat the forgiveness I proclaim here as a passing by of your sins, that means the following: For now God doesn't see them; for now God doesn't count them against you; for now you can have a song in your a heart and a joy in your soul because your sins don't damn you. But what about later? If you view your sins as only passed by, you habitually return to them later like you do the empty space where a tooth used to me or to a newly formed scab.
If God only passes by my sins, that means the sins I confess, admit, and want to be forever done with are healed like a scabbed over splinter. Come Monday, come Sunday night, come Sunday afternoon, I can go back to those sins because they are still there, still mine and I can pick, pick, pick till they bleed guilt, fear, despair. And because the sins are only passed by and not removed, they infect, get inflamed, and get worse.
There is a correlation between how you view God dealing with your sins and your dealing with the sins of others. If you think God only passes by your sins, that's how you treat the sins of others. When in an argument with someone, you think, "I could bring up this sin of theirs but I won't," you indicate that you haven't forgiven that sin you've only passed it by. Think about it; how on earth could the murderer of Christians, Paul, or the threefold denier of Jesus, Peter, ever be pastors, leaders, or even Christians, if their terrible, horrible, shameful sins were only passed by? When Paul was fighting with the Galatians or when Peter was confronting Ananias and Sapphira, if their sins were only passed by and not forgiven anyone could have brought them up with devastating effectiveness.
Be right with Luther. See your sins forgiven not merely passed by. Paul's point, which Luther doesn't miss in his commentary on Romans, is that in the Old Testament God passed by sins; in the New Testament He actually pays for sins. In the Old Testament on the Day of Atonement the sins were confessed in public, but the place where the blood of the sacrificial animals was poured out was private. It was on the mercy seat of the Ark of the Covenant which was in the Holy of Holies where only the High Priest could go. In the New Testament God puts our sins on display by making Jesus to be sin, and then He publicly nailed Him to the cross. God displays Jesus for the whole world to see as a sacrifice of atonement, as a wrath removing sacrifice for the sins of the world.
Don't think sins weren't forgiven in the Old Testament; they were for the sake of Jesus who was coming to pay for them in His own blood. But sins were passed by in the sense that the public paying for them hadn't happened yet. See how closely Paul connects what happened in the Old Testament with what happened in the New. I told you that in the Old the blood of the Day of Atonement goat was poured into the mercy seat which was the lid of the Ark of the Covenant. Under that lid in the Ark were the two stone tablets with the 10 Commandments engraved on them. Above the mercy seat God dwelled in a cloud. Pouring the blood in the mercy seat put the blood of a goat between God above and the 10 Commandments below. God could no longer see the broken 10 Commandments which accused Israel.
The word for mercy seat is in our text, but most don't translate it that way. If you do, you see the Old Testament fulfilled in the New. Listen: "God presented Christ Jesus as a mercy seat through faith in His blood." Christ crucified suspended between us wretched sinners on earth and the Holy God in heaven is our Mercy Seat. God can't see our sins any longer through the Body and Blood of Christ. They are gone, so that God never deals with us according to them. He hasn't passed them by He has forgiven them; sent them away; separated them from us as far as east is from west.
When did He do this? Ever see that painting of Luther preaching? He stands in the pulpit and he points to Christ on the cross. To be sure, faith apprehends, receives, makes forgiveness one's own, but the forgiveness of sins happened on that cross. Otherwise, how could Jesus declare, "It is finished?" Otherwise, how could God the Father raise Jesus from the dead? Jesus died to pay for sins, to win forgiveness; if He didn't succeed in doing that, then He would have had to stay dead.
Forgiveness of sins happened about 2000 years ago on an ugly hill outside of Jerusalem but how does it get to you today? Understand I'm talking about forgiveness, not a temporary passing by of your sins. I'm talking such absolute, complete, total forgiveness that even if someone else, your own conscience, or the Devil himself should bring up your sins or that sin it would be a lie.
Where is that sort of forgiveness found? It's found in your Baptism where Peter says you were sprinkled with the blood that Jesus shed on the cross so that God can no longer see your sins. It's found in your Absolution where the Spirit breathes forgiveness into your body and soul. It's found in your Communion with the holy Body and Blood of Jesus where you eat and drink the complete forgiveness His Body and Blood purchased for sinners.
Friends this is what the Lutheran Reformation is about. It's about confessing the pure doctrine of forgiveness over against the Roman Catholic Church's teaching that forgiveness wasn't won completely on the cross but needs to be earned today by the sacrifice of the mass and by good works. And it's about confessing the pure doctrine of the Sacraments over against the Protestants' teaching that forgiveness isn't distributed today in Baptism, Absolution, or in the Body and Blood of Jesus in Communion.
What's at stake is whether your sins are just passed by or are they really forgiven? For if forgiveness wasn't a done deal in 30 AD or if that forgiveness can't be put on your body, in your ears, or in your mouth today, then sins are just being passed by, and a passed by sin isn't a forgiven one. But a forgiven one is a done one, a gone one, one not to be remembered today, tomorrow, or ever again. A good Lutheran is wrong in translation rather than wrong in the faith. A better Lutheran is right in both. But the best Lutheran is a forgiven one. Amen
Rev. Paul R. Harris
Trinity Lutheran Church, Austin, Texas
Reformation (20101031); Romans 3: 22a-25