Recently we have been talking a lot about Confession & Absolution in Adult Bible class. Our discussions have been invigorating, and I think valuable. They have spawned discussions in other venues, and personal conversation. For many, the idea that there can be great spiritual benefit in confessing before a pastor, and receiving absolution “from the pastor as from God himself” is a new concept.
One question that has come up repeatedly as we have studied the Biblical and Confessional view of absolution is this: “If God has already forgiven me in the cross, or in baptism, then why do I need to go to a pastor to be forgiven, or even to the Lord’s Supper?” Or, a related question: “What is the point of having my sins forgiven, if they are already forgiven when I have faith in Christ?”
In answer to these questions, I have often pointed people to the words of St. Paul in Romans 10: “Faith comes by hearing, and hearing by the Word of Christ.” To have faith in Christ is indeed to have everything that the Gospel promises: forgiveness, eternal life, etc. But that faith doesn’t just come to us without God’s Word. Nor does that faith continue to live and grow without God’s Word. Faith, if it is to grow and become stronger, needs to be strengthened and nourished by the continual application of the Gospel, whether in the general preaching of God’s Law and Gospel, or in the specific proclamation of that Gospel in absolution, or in edible form in the Lord’s Supper.
Another approach I have taken is to ask a person: What wife would say to her husband, “I know that you love me, and I am certain of it. So, I don’t need to keep hearing you say it”? Certainly if a husband tells his wife “I love you” but doesn’t follow it up with works that prove that love, then the words become meaningless. But this is simply an analogy to get people thinking about Christ, our divine husband, and his relationship with His Bride, the Church. Would the Church ever tire of hearing the voice of her heavenly Bridegroom? Would she ever say to Christ, “I am already certain of your love and forgiveness. I don’t think I need to hear of it anymore.”
Granted, this is probably a weaker approach, but what I am trying to convey is the idea that even though we are truly forgiven by Christ in Baptism, even though through faith in Him we are righteous in God’s sight, and we don’t stop being so the moment we are not in contact with his Word or his Sacrament, we still need to return to the source of our forgiveness because doubt can creep in so easily, so sneakily, that before we know it we are wondering whether or not God really loves us. We also have the Old Man around us, plus the constant barrage of arrows from the Old Evil Foe, and the allurements of the world, that we need to have that Word of forgiveness continually applied to us.
There probably is no better human explanation for this than is found in the Smalcald Articles, which we heard from today at Matins. Luther, writing about the Gospel, states:
“We will now return to the Gospel, which does not give us counsel and aid against sin in only one way. God is superabundantly generous in His grace: First, through the spoken Word, by which the forgiveness of sins is preached in the whole world (Luke 24:45-47). This is the particular office of the Gospel. Second, through Baptism. Third, through the holy Sacrament of the Altar. Fourth, through the Power of the Keys. Also through the mutual conversation and consolation of brethren, “Where two or three are gathered” (Matthew 18:20) and other such verses (especially Romans 1:12).
I think that what people often hear when I talk about the benefits of absolution, or the fact that one receives God’s forgiveness and grace through the Gospel in its various forms, is this: “You have to come to me. You must go through me, the pastor, to get to God.” And so, the knee-jerk response is, “I’m part of the royal priesthood. I have direct access to God through faith. I don’t need to go through a man.” And, in part, this is true. We may indeed go to God through prayer, and approach his divine throne. We do indeed offer spiritual sacrifices, as kings and priests to our God.
Luther understood this too. But for him it did not follow that one can experience God’s grace and forgiveness apart from the word of the Gospel. And words require mouths to speak them, whether the mouth of the pastor, who has been called and authorized to teach and proclaim God’s Word, or the mouth of a Christian friend or family member, who is called to bear witness to Christ in his or her daily life. Either way, the Gospel does not come to me without someone preaching it. It certainly doesn’t come from within myself, though I may indeed meditate and reflect on the works of God in Christ and thereby comfort myself by this. And even though it comes by means of the written Word, the written Word itself often needs someone to explain it (e.g. Philip and the Ethiopian Eunuch).
So, I suspect that what people really mean when they say, “I don’t have to go through a man to get to God” is “I don’t want to have to hear the Word from the authorized Servant of the Word. I want to be my own physician, and I certainly don’t want, or need, to confess my sins to you, Pastor.” That is the old, rebellious nature coming out.
I think that what many people also hear is this: “I cannot be saved without a pastor.” But that is not what anyone is saying, much less Luther himself or the Confessions. No one is saying that, but I think that is what many are hearing us say. We can definitely say that God has instituted the preaching Office for the sake of justification, that is, so that people might hear the Gospel and be saved from sin and death. St. Paul says as much: “How can they hear if there is no one to preach? And how can they preach unless they are sent?”
But the Gospel is the Gospel whether it is spoken and preached publicly by a minister of Christ, or a little child who has no call to preach, but is simply bearing witness to his or her faith. What we are emphasizing when we urge people to come to Confession or to go to the Lord’s Supper is that grace comes from outside of us. It comes, of course, from God, but God makes known his love and forgiveness for us in His Word. As I have written elsewhere, this is why the Third Article of the Creed is so significant. We should not try to do an end-run around it.
So, what to do with the question of why we need to be forgiven if we are already forgiven? I suppose the best answer I can give is that “we daily sin much” and “deserve nothing but punishment” (Small Catechism, Lord’s Prayer, Explanation of the Fifth Petition). The question is a good one, and a sincere one. And it is put forth by people who do not despise the Word or the Sacraments (at least in my congregation). It is put forth by those who simply want to be better taught and catechized.
The Gospel in all of its various forms (spoken Word; written Word, which was written down to be made oral again; baptism, Absolution/Keys, Communion, mutual conversation and consolation of brethren) is like a sheet of righteousness that is continually laid on top of our sins. It was done once for us in baptism, a sheet of Christ’s innocence and righteousness, that covered our sins. And every time we hear that Gospel of Christ, the same sheet of righteousness is laid over our sins again, and again, and again to cover them.
It’s not that one loses one’s faith or the Spirit the moment he is not receiving the Sacrament, or the moment he is not hearing the Word of absolution spoken to him. God’s Spirit dwells in the hearts of all repentant believers. Christ himself is with the believer, not in some spiritualized way (like saying, he’s walking with me by my side), but really and truly in the Christian. But in order for the New Man in us to be strengthened and renewed until the end of our lives, the Old Man must continually be crucified and put to death. Perhaps we might say, “He (the Old Man) must decrease so that Christ (the New Man in us) might increase.”
So we confess our sins. We hear again and again the words of the Gospel, whether applied to our sins generally, or specifically. “I forgive you all your sins.” These words take their power from the cross and the atoning death of our Lord. We come to the Sacrament of the Altar, and Commune with Christ in a way that we cannot and do not in any other way. As one seminary professor was fond of saying, “In Baptism we go into Christ. In Communion he comes into us.” We do this until we die, and the Old Man is forever put off. We do it at Christ’s gracious invitation. Christ says, “Come to me all who labor and are heavy-laden, and I will give you rest.” Christ says, “Come, and eat of my bread, and drink of My cup for the forgiveness of your sins, for the strengthening of your New Man.” Christ says, “Come, hear My Word, hear My Gospel. It is for you.”
Is His invitation of no value to us? Do we continue to say, “Thanks, Jesus, but no thanks. I’m doing just fine on my own. I am already very certain of your forgiveness, and that my place is secure in heaven.” Not without insulting the Lord’s invitation! Let me close with one more quote from Luther in the Smalcald Articles, where he specifically talks about the benefits of Absolution (and here Luther is speaking of that which is obtained privately):
“Absolution, or the Power of the Keys, is an aid against sin and a consolation for a bad conscience; it is ordained by Christ in the Gospel (Matthew 16:19). Therefore, Confession and Absolution should by no means be absolished in the Church. This is especially for the sake of timid consciences and untrained young people, so they may be examined and instructed in Christian doctrine.”