IN NOMINE JESU
"What is confession?" the blessed Reformer, Dr. Martin Luther asks in his Small Catechism. By the way, it was 460 years ago yesterday that the Lord called Dr. Luther to his eternal rest. Luther asks, "What is confession?" He answers this question, saying, "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." When I stood before you and spoke in your hearing the Holy Absolution, it was not my forgiveness that I have given you, but it is God's forgiveness. I stand before you in the stead of my Lord Jesus Christ and by His command to forgive you all your sins. It is not I who am speaking to you; rather, it is God speaking to you through me, His called and ordained servant of the Word. What I offer you is nothing new; it is the same forgiveness the God has given His people for thousands of years, the same forgiveness He brings through His Word and Sacraments. God forgives sins, but He gives this forgiveness through means.
The scribes were adamant that only God can forgive sins. They were right; after all, they were the teachers of the Law. They searched the Scriptures; therefore they knew. They were scandalized by this Jesus who forgave the sins of the paralytic. They were offended. They were ensnared by their own false expectations of the Messiah. "Why does this Man speak blasphemies like this? Who can forgive sins but God alone?" (v. 7). They were scandalized because Jesus dared to forgive sins, something that only God was to do. Therefore, they figured, this Jesus is saying that He is God. Their conclusion was correct, but their analysis was fatally flawed. They failed to recognize Him for who He truly is—the long-promised Messiah, the Fulfillment of the Scriptures, God the Son, the Word who became flesh and dwelt among us. They had no problems with His healing people, provided He did not do so on the Sabbath. They built a fence around the Law as their code; they added to the Word of the Lord. As the church father St. John Chrysostom said, "They persecuted Jesus not only because He broke the Sabbath but also because He said that God was His Father, making Himself equal with God, which is a far more drastic declaration." They doubted Jesus could forgive sins because they doubted Jesus is God. They lacked the certainty that God, in the Person of Jesus Christ, forgives sins. And for this they were mired in their misery.
The same can be said for us when we doubt the forgiveness that comes from God. We believe the devil's lies when he plants the seed of doubt in our ears and hearts. Just as he said to Eve, he says to us, "Did God really say…?" We hear him hissing in our ears: "Did God really say that He forgives you? Did God really say He forgave you for that time you cheated on your income taxes? Did God really say He forgave you for the times when you said things that hurt your neighbor? Did God really say He forgave you? And if He did say He forgave you, did He really forgive you?" Yes, the devil loves to plant seeds of doubt in us. He wants us to think that God is angry at us, so angry that there is no way He could forgive us. The devil wants us to think that our sins are so gross that there is no chance of forgiveness. And so we doubt. We doubt the promise. We doubt the one speaking the promise, the pastor, and the One who called him to speak that promise, God Himself. Hear the words of
Luther in a sermon from 1533:
Similarly, when the pastor or another Christian declares [God's forgiveness] to you, God is not angry with you; now don't you be angry with Him, for He has forgiven you all your sins for the sake of His Son, Jesus Christ, and so you should believe this pledge with all your might. Better to be torn apart rather than to doubt it! For if you doubt and do not believe, the absolution is of no benefit, even if God Himself with all His angels were to speak it with His own mouth over you.
For the fact is that when we refuse to believe, we disdain God as a deceiver, as though the things He declares to us were not true, that He can and wants to do them for us. May God graciously keep us from such unbelief and sin. The devil is an extraordinary master at getting us to call God a liar and refuse to believe His promise. An unbelieving heart dishonors God and makes Him a liar.
…It is also the evil spirit's doing that we find ourselves dead in the water spiritually; otherwise our hearts would be joyful and
comforted. For think what it would mean if we rightly and truly believed that what Christ here says to the man sick with palsy, He is saying to you and me every day in baptism, in absolution, and in public preaching, that I must not mistakenly think that God is angry and ungracious toward me. Shouldn't that cause me to stand on my head with joy? Wouldn't that make everything sweet as sugar, pure as gold, sheer everlasting life? The fact that this doesn't happen for us proves that the "old Adam" and the devil drag us away from faith and the Word. [Luther's House Postils: Trinity XIX]
Yes, the Old Adam is us keeps us away from hearing the Word of the Lord, from keeping it, and from believing it. This sinful flesh looks at itself in the mirror and causes us to also doubt that we have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God. However, the Blessed Apostle and Evangelist St. John writes to us, "If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. …If we say that we have not sinned, we make Him a liar, and His word is not in us" (1 Jn. 1:8, 10). When God's Word is not in us, faith soon disappears as well. Without the Word and faith, our souls are unhealthy to the point that we are paralyzed spiritually. As the early father St. Augustine wrote: "You have been a paralytic inwardly. You did not take charge of your bed. Your bed took charge of you." That bed is our spiritual death bed. We are strapped to it by our own sins and unbelief and are unable to move even a finger by the smallest fraction of an inch.
Behold the four men who brought the paralytic before the Lord. Their faith in Him was so firm that, although they could not bring he paralytic in through the front door on account of the crowd, they literally un-roofed the roof and lowered him into the presence of the Lord, who Himself came down from heaven to redeem His people. Note Luther's words from a sermon preached in 1525: "So these people here had also faith, but not the man of the palsy. Yet, he must receive it if he is to get well, otherwise their faith would not have helped him. They, however, in their faith prayed Christ to give the man sick of the palsy a faith of his own. So the faith of others assists to the end that I may obtain a faith of my own." The Holy Spirit led these men to serve as witnesses to the paralytic of the Lord's healing and forgiving power, so that he too would believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the living God, and that by believing he would have life in His Name.
Behold the four men who brought us here before the Lord: SS. Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, for they have announced to us that the Savior of the nations has come and brings pleasure eternal. The Holy Spirit led these Evangelists to serve as witnesses to us of the Lord's healing and forgiving power. By their divinely inspired words, they have brought us here to the Lord's house to hear His Word of healing, His Word of forgiveness. He says to you this day, "Child, your sins are forgiven you. Arise from your deathbed, and come to My Table, where all things are ready." The Lord of the Church has called me to speak these promises in your hearing. As a called and ordained servant of the Word, acting in the stead and by the command of my Lord Jesus Christ, and as a steward of the mysteries, I have announced that I forgive you all your sins in the Name of the Father and of the + Son and of the Holy Spirit, and I will soon bid you to eat and drink at His Table: "Take, eat, the body of Christ, given for you. Take, drink, the blood of Christ, shed for you." This is not merely liturgical language; it is the language of the Gottesdienst, the language of our God serving us through His Word and Sacraments, the language of the Triune God giving you His forgiveness. The ancient father St. Ambrose said, "In their ministry of the forgiveness of sin, pastors do not exercise the right of some independent power. For not in their own name but in the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit do they forgive sins. They ask, the Godhead forgives. The service is enabled by humans, but the gift comes from the Power on high."
Behold the four wounds in our Lord as He was nailed to the cross: the nails in His hands and feet and the crown of thorns on His sacred head, now wounded. These sacred wounds served as witnesses of His undying love for you, even as He was dying on the cross…for you, from His own deathbed. Even as He had told the paralytic in our text that his sins were forgiven, so also has He told us from the cross that our sins are forgiven by a single word: tetelesthai, Greek for "it is finished." His work of winning our forgiveness has been made complete by His holy precious blood and with His innocent suffering and death, that we would live under Him in His kingdom and serve Him in everlasting righteousness, innocence, and blessedness. Just as He commanded the paralytic to take up his bed and go to his own house, so also has our Lord taken His own life back up for us by His resurrection from the dead and has ascended to His heavenly throne. So now we have every reason to believe the promises of God when you hear me say, "I forgive you in the Name of the Father and of the + Son and of the Holy Spirit," and when your brother or sister in Christ tells you that God has forgiven you, and "this is just as valid and certain, even in heaven, as if Christ our dear Lord dealt with us Himself" (Office of the Keys).
In a few moments our Lord will deal with us…in His grace, as He comes from heaven down to earth with the angels, archangels, and all the company of heaven, as He comes to us in His body and blood, given and shed for you for the forgiveness of sins. For you…for these words have come from the Lord Himself, thanks be to God!
In the Name of the Father and of the + Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
SOLI DEO GLORIA
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