A person whom I admire – who sadly is not on social media, and so won’t likely won’t see this – suggested that I post a sermon on the doctrine of justification. Nothing says “sermon on justification” like Jesus words “If you forgive the sins of any they are forgiven.” So, here is me, posting a sermon on justification. And, given that it’s call day, and that the thing pastors do is forgive sins, it all seemed like excellent timing.
On Easter we hear the Easter Promise – Christ is risen, He is not hear. It isn’t until the following Sunday – today – that we actually see and hear from Jesus.
And what is it that we see and hear? Jesus, breathing on the disciples, and giving them the authority to forgive sins. Jesus, showing his hands and his side to Thomas, proving that he was dead, but now he lives.
That first Sunday, when the disciples – except Thomas – are gathered in the upper room, something extraordinary happens. Even though the doors are locked, Jesus appears among them. Jesus literally goes through the door and appears to the disciples. And, as is often the case when angels suddenly appear – he says to them “Peace be with you.” Calm down, everything is ok. But Jesus means more than simply settle down. “I am not coming here for your judgment, but to bring good tidings of great joy to you. I am raised from the dead, and now you have a new life in me. Peace be with you.”
And then, he ordains the disciples by breathing on them – giving them the Spirit – and he tells them what they are to do with this ordination – they are to forgive sins. That is what the disciples – now the apostles – are about. It is what the pastors of the church have been about for two thousand years. Just as the faithful priests of the old testament were about bringing the people the forgiveness of Jesus by pointing to him through the sacrifices. The people of the Old testament were saved through that Word.
Now Jesus gives the same ability to bring forgiveness to the apostles – no longer looking forward to what will be accomplished. Now the apostles look to what has been accomplished – and what is being accomplished even to this very day – by the word and command of Jesus – forgive sins, and they are forgiven. Such words had to wait until the resurrection was complete. Without Jesus being raised from the dead – as we heard last week – there can be no forgiveness of sins. But Christ is raised. And forgiveness is now ours through Jesus Christ.
Now, Jesus gives the authority on earth to forgive sins to the apostles. The idea that we sin and are forgiven before God in heaven is really unknown in the history of religion. We sin and then atone for our sins, you’ll see that one sometimes – or more common, we follow whatever system of laws man makes up and then hope we’re good enough to gett to heaven.
Jesus give the apostles authority on earth to forgive sins, and to give the blessing of God to all “who have not seen and yet have believed” Jesus came to give forgiveness of sins to sinners.
One famous prosperity preacher left the Lutheran church because – so she claims – she just couldn’t say the words anymore – I a poor miserable sinner. It’s really rather an appalling thing to say about ourselves. But that’s what the Law tells us. We have to confess the truth of God’s word regardless of our fragile egos:
“You shall have no other God’s, you shall not misuse the name of the Lord your god. Remember the Sabbath day by keeping it holy, honor your father and your mother, you shall not murder, you shall not commit adultery, you shall not steal, you shall not give false testimony against your neighbor, you shall not covet your neighbors house, you shall not covet your neighbors wife or his manservant or his maidservant or his ox or his donkey or anything that belongs to your neighbor.”
Luther says – if someone will not learn the ten Commandments, they should be told that they are no Christian, and they should not be allowed to come to the sacrament of the altar, be sponsors at baptisms, or enjoy any of the benefits of being a Christian. Why? Because without the law, we can not know our condition before God. Unless God’s Law is burned on our hearts, we can not evaluate our conduct according to God’s law, we can not know our sin. Without God’s law, Christianity becomes group counseling for those who aren’t happy with their lives: “We just figure out what makes us happy. We learn to forgive ourselves. We must learn to be comfortable with who we are.”
Which is another way of saying – ignore God’s law and just make your conscience feel better with platitudes. But that’s like a Doctor saying, “Ignore the deadly disease, take two aspirin and call me in the morning.” It might make you feel a bit, but it blinds you to the death you are slowly dying. We must have God’s law. Not to make us feel better about ourselves, not to make us happier, more self-actualized, or more in touch with who we are. We need God’s law because we need to know where we stand in relation to God.
And the news isn’t good. The diagnosis is total corruption, bondage to sin, we poor and miserable sinners. The prognosis is worse – temporal and eternal punishment. We need someone who can do more than help us come to grips with who we are – we need someone who can actually take away the sin. And that is beyond our ability. Someone else has to do it for us. We can’t just feel sorry until the sin goes away. The feelings go away, the sin remains. it keeps doing its work of killing us – both in this life and in the world to come.
We need that contrition – we need to be sorry for our sin. It’s high time the world rediscovered shame. The idea that some actions are not allowed, and that they separate us from God. The world tells us it isn’t so. Just ease your conscience and dull it so that you don’t feel the sin anymore.
That’s where the ten commandments come into play – they force us to realize that we aren’t good, we aren’t ok, and unless someone does something, we are going to die.
Before the Gospel can do its work, the Law must work on our hearts, and bring us to realize how much trouble we are in. It’s not comfortable. It’s no fun saying, “I have sinned” But we must. We do the wrong easily enough – we must also say, “I have done wrong.”
Only when we recognize our sin, and have sorrow for it – that’s called contrition, only then can we desire forgiveness. Or as Jesus says – only the sick need a doctor.
And once the law has done its work then we must turn to the Gospel. That’s where repentance comes into play. It’s not just being sorry – its trusting in Jesus to actually forgive the sins. And this is the extraordinary thing that Jesus does.
The idea that we can confess our sins and be absolved of them is not only foreign to any other religion, it’s not all that common in Christianity. There are two ways that churches usually go on this, either they teach that You are forgiven because of your personal faith, so you can just sit at home until you believe it, and then presto you are forgiven. While technically this may be true, it leaves Satan out of the equation – who won’t let you forget your sin so easily, and who will stop at nothing to get you to disbelieve that forgiveness. Generally this group says that to be forgiven you must be sorry, ask for forgiveness, and promise never to do it again – as if your puny – easily broken promise – is required for forgiveness. It’s a variation on the pagan – you do and then God… it turns God’s grace into something that depends on us. It gives us something to do, but robs us of the comfort of salvation.
On the other side there are those who would say, “You can get a certain portion of your sin forgiven, but there are still consequences to be worked off. And you can only be forgiven for the sins you specifically confess” There’s nothing like turning a gift of God into a torment – what if I forget a sin? How long do I have to wait after I die before I can enter the joys of heaven? it takes away the assurance of the Gospel and replaces it with doubts and man’s work – and man’s work can never take away sin. Only God can forgive sin.
Luther takes these words of Jesus at face value – he doesn’t add anything to them, or take anything away. When you confess your sins, says Luther, and the pastor forgives them, it is as if Christ himself has done it.
In the Large catechism, Luther says “When I encourage you to go to confession, I am only encouraging you to be a Christian.” Why? Because it is living out our baptism – remember daily contrition and repentance. We must daily have sorrow over sin, and daily trust that Jesus is the way – the only way – to forgiveness. To confess sins to the pastor then, is simply part of that baptismal life.
In the Gospel reading Jesus says these forgiveness words on Easter Sunday – why wait until the resurrection? Because without the death and resurrection of Christ, there is no forgiveness. If you want to know what it is that Jesus death and resurrection gives us, here it is – the authority on earth to forgive sins – something that only God can do, but now something that God not only does, he gives to his church to do – and specifically to his pastors.
And another thing – Jesus died for your sins. So when the pastor pronounces forgiveness, that sin is bound to Jesus death. It is placed in the tomb. And it can never rise again. Remember – sin leads to death. Sin can’t be raised from the dead. Those sins that are confessed to a pastor can never be brought up again – not by the pastor, not even by you. And especially not ever by Satan, not even when you stand before the judgment throne of God.
Jesus takes away the eternal punishment you deserve and gives you eternal forgiveness. And with it eternal life. And no one can take it from you.
That is why we join Thomas this day in confessing – “my Lord and My God”. Jesus, who died for your sins and rose again for your justification, is your salvation.