Anfechtung and Absolution Part 2
While traveling in Southern Africa, I was once invited to address a Pastors’ Bible College. I had known its Principal for many years and was invited to teach the students for the 3-hour morning session. The students were Pastors, serving churches in the bush. They were used to living with witch doctors and curses, poisonous snakes and spiders, hunger and want, and persecution for their faith. They were already serving as pastors, teaching and preaching the Word of God in a hostile environment. What message could I offer them?
I decided that there was one message that all Christians delight in hearing, one message that all Christians continually need to hear. So, I told the story of the Crucifixion of the Lamb of God for the sin of the world. It was a simple story of the sin of Adam, the sin of humanity, and the sin of each man in that room. It was the story of the Righteousness of God that demanded righteousness, but determined to demonstrate His righteousness by forgiving sins. He had made them righteous by grace through faith in Jesus Christ. As I said, this is not a new message; but, it still is one that we need to hear.
What I did not know and did not expect was that Confession and Absolution were not normal, spiritual disciplines for these Pastors. For whatever reason, it simply was not part of their Christian experience. They had no understanding of the Office of the Keys, the power of Confession and Forgiveness, or the means of grace given by God in the Sacraments. In other words, they had heard that Jesus was the Lamb of God who took away the sin of the world. They understood that Jesus was the Son of God who by His death had conquered death. They believed that Jesus was the Savior who had defeated the power of the devil. What they did not know was that the Word of God, in proclamation, absolution, and Sacraments, applied the living Christ to their hearts and lives right here and right now.
I quoted some Scripture that convicts us of our sin. I quoted other Scripture that explains the work of Christ’s atonement on the Cross. Finally, I quoted Scripture that declared the forgiveness of sins through the passion, death, and resurrection of Christ. I invited any man who wished to receive the personal declaration of his own forgiveness through faith in Jesus Christ, to please come forward. I was not prepared for what happened next.
The entire class, in mass, scrambled from their seats and began to rush to the front of the classroom. I told them to form a single line, to wait some 15 feet from the front of the room, and that I would call them one by one.
The first man came forward. His sin was before him. His pace became slower and heavier as he approached. His face contorted with painful tears. “I will hear your confession,” I said calmly. He began. His shame rose to the surface and he wept, falling to his knees. I placed my hands on his head and declared the Absolution that you have heard so many times in our Service of Public Confession at the beginning of the Divine Liturgy.
“I, as a called and ordained servant of the Word, announce the grace of God to you, and in the stead and by the command of my Lord Jesus Christ, I forgive you all your sins in the name of the Father and of the + Son and of the Holy Spirit.”
He lay on the floor, limp as a rag. The next man came forward and the process was repeated. I remember begin shocked by some of the confessions. Oh, how the devil had taunted and abused them, tempted and condemned them. The confessions and absolutions of these faithful Pastors took approximately 2 hours.
LAW AND GOSPEL
Whether the Word of God is being proclaimed to a room full of Pastors or to your next door neighbor, it must include both the Law and the Gospel. No matter if the hearer is a Pharisee who specializes in the Law, or is one who subscribes to opinio legis and believes that he can justify himself, or is an Idolater who believes that he has too much sin, or is an Antinomian who thinks that the Law does not apply to him. In each instance, each person is in need of the entire Word of God, both the true Law and the true Gospel through Jesus Christ.
The complete Word of God, Law and Gospel, addresses each lie with God’s truth.
1. The Pharisee holds a false anthropology. This person does not understand the sinful nature of humanity. He has departed from the Scripture and the declaration of God that all of us are children of Adam and Eve, all are born in sin. Not one is righteous, with the exception of the God-Man, Jesus Christ. The right proclamation of the Law will teach this Pharisee that he or she cannot keep God’s Law, and will drive him to the Gospel as the only hope.
2. The one who subscribes to opinio legis holds a false Christology. This person thinks that he can justify himself. As such, this one has removed Christ from the central position of Savior and Redeemer, and replaced Jesus with him or her self. This person needs the complete Law so that he will understand the futility of self justification and the necessity of a holy Gospel and spotless Savior.
3. The Idolater holds a false soteriology, or doctrine of salvation. By believing that he or she is too sinful to be saved, this person has limited God and misunderstood both the plan and the power of an Almighty God who comes as Victorious Savior. Again, the Law declares the true nature of this sin and the Gospel provides its only antidote.
4. The Antinomian holds a false Gospel. The Word of God without the Law is no truth, no comfort, and no Gospel. Without the Law, we have no need for a Savior and deceive ourselves with either greater legalism or complete lawlessness. This person needs both the reality of the Law and the redemption of the Gospel.
Beware of the false anthropology that does not hold a biblical view of sinful humanity; the false Christology that does not hold a biblical view of the humanity’s need for a Savior; the false soteriology that does not hold a biblical view of the atonement; and the false Gospel that removes the application of the Law of God and thereby eliminates the need for a saving Gospel.
I had been invited to teach and preach somewhere in the jungles of Ecuador, South America. The indigenous people are direct descendants of the Incas called Quechua. The shamanism of that region is called “bruharia.” It is a combination of witchcraft, ancestry worship, and indigenous animism. Sometimes, this occultism is combined with Roman Catholicism, resulting in a syncretism that renames local gods with saints names for home altars. The fear and superstition of sorcery, demons, and the shaman are absolutely overwhelming for those living under their power.
Typically, I will teach pastors during the day and preach at a joint service of their congregations in the evening. As you might expect, the message is usually simple, straightforward, Law and Gospel. Also, it is typical to have a time of prayer or ministry after the proclamation of the Word of God. It is not uncommon for 80% or more of the congregation to come forward to receive prayer at the conclusion of a sermon.
On this particular occasion, I remember a weather-beaten, little, old man. He had on a dirty hat and a soiled shirt. He had only a few teeth and the creases in his face were deepened by years of mountain exposure. “How may I pray for you?” is my typical question. The interpreter posed the question. I have no recollection of the request for prayer, only the sense of the Holy Spirit pressing me to give him the assurance of the love of God, and the declaration of the forgiveness of Christ from the Cross.
So, I began. I told him about the sin of humanity and our pain and separation from God because of sin. I told him of the love of the Savior and His determination to pay for the sins of the world. I explained to him the purpose of the Cross, the defeat of Satan, and the declaration of the Savior, “Father, forgive them.” Then, I told him of the promise for those who believe: forgiveness of all sin, freedom from death and the devil, and eternal life that begins right now as a beloved child of God.
The small, old man was listening intently. The devil was accusing him; his own guilt was accusing him. He was hopeful and afraid and ashamed. Then came the declaration:
“I, as a called and ordained servant of the Word, announce the grace of God to you, and in the stead and by the command of my Lord Jesus Christ, I forgive you all your sins in the name of the Father and of the + Son and of the Holy Spirit..”
It was as if the warmth and brightness of the sun had suddenly hit his face. His tired eyes exploded with wonder. His gaping mouth opened wide. Then, he began to dance, his hands held high and his old knees popping up. Around the church he skipped and twirled. “Limpio,” he shouted. “Limpio, limpio, clean, clean.” The Word of God had invaded his heart. Christ had taken His place on the throne of his life. No longer consumed by terror, nor self-hatred, nor Anfechtung, the Quechua man had received the Word of Christ.
OFFICE OF THE KEYS
I remember being attacked one day after administering the Office of the Keys, having declared the forgiveness of sins in the stead and at the command of Jesus Christ. A man came to me, followed by several others. “You cannot do that,” he stormed. “You cannot forgive sins,” he shouted.
I thought for a moment of the Scriptures that described Jesus receiving the same criticism. I suddenly understood that he thought that I was putting myself in the place of Christ. Just as the Pharisees had called Jesus a blasphemer because He declared the Word of the Father, now they called me a blasphemer because I declared the Word of Christ. “You cannot forgive sins,” they said.
It was a difficult moment. They were not ready to hear anything that I had to say. There was no winning in this one. But, I could not agree with what they said. They did not want Confession and Absolution in their church. They did not want the command of Jesus to be carried out in that place. They did not realize what they were doing, depriving themselves and their congregational members of the blessed gift of the forgiveness of Jesus.
I had to tell them what the Scripture said. I had to explain to them that this is what believers have done in the Christian Church since the time of the apostles. I had to show them Scripture passages and give them explanation.
In brief, this is what I said. In Matthew 18:18, Jesus says this to His disciples: “Truly I say to you, whatever you bind on earth shall have been bound in heaven; and whatever you loose on earth shall have been loosed in heaven.”
Do you see how strange those words sound? You would expect that it would say, “Whatever you bind on earth is bound in heaven. Whatever you lose on earth is loosed in heaven.” If it said that, we might claim that we have within ourselves the power to bind and loose. But, it does not say that. It says that when the apostle or the Pastor declares that something is bound, it shall have been bound. When a Pastor declares that something is loosed, it shall have been loosed. The point is that the binding and loosing shall have been done on the Cross of Calvary. Jesus is the Lamb of God that takes away the sin of the world. The sin has been taken away, on the Cross. When a Pastor declares the Word, the Word is true. The Word is performative, effective now! Because of what Christ has already done, the Word acts either to forgive the sin because of faith in Christ’s sacrifice, or the Word acts to retain the sin because of lack of faith in Christ’s sacrifice.
The Pastor has no power by his own merits or actions. The Word of God has the power; when it is declared, it performs its promises. Look at John 20:23. Jesus gives His disciples, and therefore His Church, a command and with it great authority. “If you forgive the sins of any, their sins have been forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they have been retained.”
The Pastor, on behalf of the whole Church, has been commanded to declare the Word of God.The power that he wields is not by virtue of his own name or promise. It is the power of God’s Word, based upon the saving work of Jesus Christ on the Cross, and His command and promise. Listen again, “If you forgive the sins of any, their sins HAVE BEEN forgiven them.” When the Word of Forgiveness is declared, forgiveness HAS BEEN DONE. It was done on the Cross and is now living and active in the Word that is received HERE AND NOW by faith.
In his Catechism, Luther writes:
The Pastor shall say, “God be merciful to thee and strengthen thy faith! Amen.
Then, he shall say, “Dost thou believe that my forgiveness is God’s forgiveness?
Answer: Yes, dear sir.
Then, “As thou believest, so be it done unto thee. And by the command of our Lord Jesus Christ I forgive thee thy sins, in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Hoy Ghost. Amen.
This is the Word of God, living and active, forgiving sins in the stead and at the command of Jesus Christ because of what He has done on the Cross.
As you may have guessed, the men who confronted me did not believe and did not receive the Absolution that day. What prevented them from the reception of Christ’s forgiveness? Isn’t that the question that we have been asking. What lies were they hearing? What Anfechtungen: temptation, tribulation, accusation, sin, torment, and fear of eternal judgment. What lies prevented them from receiving the Word of Christ, “Te absolve,” “I forgive you… all of your sins.”
We must not be too hard on these brothers in the Lord. After all, they are already being very hard on themselves. Furthermore, I suspect that we all have been in their position at one time or another. Is it not true that you have sometimes wanted and needed to receive the Word of Christ and the complete forgiveness of all of your sins, but somehow and for some reason, you were prevented from receiving it? What lies were you believing at that moment? What false anthropology, false Christology, false soteriology, and false Gospel whispered in your ear? May God help us always to hear His Holy Word of Truth.
A BROTHER FORGIVES
Not long ago, I had a most profound experience. As you know, where two or more persons are gathered in His name, there is conflict. It is true. The only Persons who do not have conflict are the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. The rest of us experience conflict in every relationship, even in our most precious ones. This, unfortunately, also is true within the Church. In the Holy Body of Christ, there are difficulties, misunderstandings, abhorrent behaviors, fits of anger, rude and caustic speech, and broken relationships. May Our Lord forgive us all. For, we all are guilty.
I went to visit a brother in the Lord. As Christians, we both have been involved in difficulties in the Body of Christ. Thankfully, there has not been a direct problem between the two of us, but we have watched something pretty awful taking place. I knew that he had been hurt by the actions of others. I did not know the extent to which I had hurt him too. We are dear friends and we each expressed sorrow for difficulties in the Body of Christ. We each expressed genuine contrition for sorrow that we had caused each other.
Then, it happened: something for which I was completely unprepared. He looked across at me and said that he forgave me. He was absolutely sincere, and with no animosity he declared, “I want you do know, Curtis, that I hold nothing against you.” It took my breath away. My eyes filled up and I could hardly swallow. I was forgiven, limpio, clean.
A GIFT TO HIS CHURCH
I truly believe that the gift of forgiveness is a breath-taking, divine, and holy grace that Jesus has given to His people, and that His people now share with one another. Forgiveness is to characterize us as we live together. We are to give forgiveness to each other. But, we can do that holy thing only because we, ourselves, have experienced the pure, undeserved, and complete forgiveness that has been given to us by Jesus Christ. We sometimes have trouble forgiving each other. We sometimes have trouble forgiving ourselves. There are times when lies prevent us from receiving the forgiveness of Our Lord and Savior, in spite of the fact that forgiveness is what we so desperately need and desire.
Today, I want to do more than talk about our Anfechtung and Christ’s Absolution. Today, I want to declare that which is yours through Him who has promised, “Your sins HAVE BEEN FORGIVEN you.”