28. August 2011
Catechetical Sermon on Confession and Absolution (Augsburg XI-XII). The audio recording also includes reflections on the commemoration of St. Augustine of Hippo, the sack of Rome, and his “City of God.”
“Our churches teach that private Absolution should be retained in the churches, although listing all sins is not necessary for Confession. For, according to the Psalm, it is is impossible. ‘Who can discern his errors?’ (Psalm 19.12).” (Augsburg Confessions, Article XI). Confessions of sins is retained in our churches. You know this well. Each Sunday we confess our sins before God and neighbor corporately. Did you also know that our churches retained private or individual confession? Perhaps not.
You might be quick to call this practice “Roman Catholic.” You would be half right. Repentance and forgiveness of sins is the central and universal practice of our church. Any doctrine or practice received from Jesus through the apostles is rightly called catholic. When you confess your sins before your pastor in a Lutheran church, there is a difference from the Roman practice.
“Our churches reject those who do not teach that forgiveness of sins comes through faith, but command us to merit grace through satisfactions of our own. They also reject those who teach that it is necessary to perform works of satisfaction, commanded by Church law, in order to remit eternal punishment or the punishment of purgatory” (Augsburg XII.10). Our Lutheran Confession outright denies that you can earn forgiveness through saying the Rosary, our Fathers, or Hail Marys. Its not that pious practices are in and of themselves wrong. On the contrary, you ought to pray the Lord’s Prayer daily, even throughout the day.
You cannot earn our Lord’s forgiveness. You are utterly incapable of loving God or loving neighbor according to our sinful flesh. Your will is so corrupted that you choose to do evil all the time. You cannot choose to obey. You cannot choose to be forgiven. You cannot escape eternal punishment.
You need is Jesus. You need a Savior, who does the saving for you. You need a Redeemer, who redeems you from the pit. You need a Sanctifier, who creates in you a clean heart. You need a Righteous One, who obeys the law for you. You need a Lamb of God, who dies as the sacrifice for you. You need a Scapegoat who suffers the penalty of your rejection and abandonment of God for you. You need Jesus.
That’s why “our churches teach that … the church ought to impart Absolution to those who return to repentance [Jeremiah 3:12].” You need Absolution, that is, forgiveness. You need to be made holy and righteous in God’s eyes. You need this holiness to enter into his courts with praise. Righteousness imparted to you for the sake of Christ makes you ready to walk through the gates whose heads are lifted up. The reconciliation given to you in Christ will be declared before the judgment throne on the last day.
Absolution is not randomly thrown about. It is not cast recklessly. Bound inextricably with Absolution is repentance. “Now, strictly speaking, repentance consists of two parts. One part is contrition, that is, terrors striking the conscience through the knowledge of sin. The other part is faith, which is born of the Gospel [Romans 10:17] or the Absolution and believes that for Christ’s sake, sins are forgiven” (AC XII.2-5).
Believing that Christ has forgiven your sins is bound to the knowledge of sin, the terror your trespasses put on your conscience. Logically, this makes sense. For what would be the point of forgiveness if there is no sin? It is the knowledge of sin that makes the Gospel of Jesus all the more sweet. That sick taste in our mouth is just like a dog returning to its vomit. The only medicine that cleanses and purifies is the pure sweet Gospel of Christ’s Absolution.
“[Absolution] comforts the conscience and delivers it from terror. Then good works are bound to follow, which are the fruit of repentance [Galatians 5:22-23]” (AC XII.6). Thus, the Christian church is built, sustained, freed, and fruitful because of repentance, that is, contrition over sin and faith, born of the Gospel of forgiveness. Or to say it another way, the rock upon the church is built is the rock that is Christ. You need Jesus.
Confession and Absolution is nothing else than the renewal of what we already received in our Baptism. In Baptism, our Lord Jesus snatched us out mouth of the roaring lion and placed on his shoulders. Like little lambs, we were redeemed from all that we sought in our corruption. Rather than follow after idols of this world, we know follow the Good Shepherd. Here too, you were saved for Christ’s sake, by the forgiveness won in his death and resurrection.
Everything you need is in Jesus. What, then, of those who deny Christ? What of those who hear and refuse to believe? For those who are not contrite, the church must declare the consequence of their unbelief. For those who refuse to acknowledge their sin cannot be forgiven. Its not to say Christ doesn’t desire to forgive them. Nor was Jesus’ death insufficient to atone for their sin or the sin of the whole world. No, he desires all men to come to the knowledge of the truth.
That doesn’t stop some from rejecting Jesus and His forgiveness. They look at the cross and say, “so what?” They see their resurrected Lord and laugh, “Big deal!” Their unbelief has a stranglehold on them and will drag them to the grave. Worse yet, it will damn them to an eternity of torment, with lakes of fire, and all that.
So it was, even for Jesus, as he entered the holy city preaching repentance for the forgiveness of sins. His people refused to heed his voice, to receive his testimony. To reject Jesus, is to reject His forgiveness. Even in the face of complete denial, Jesus cares. When he drew near and saw the city, he wept over it, saying, “Would that you, even you, had known on this day the things that make for peace! But now they are hidden from your eyes. For the days will come upon you, when your enemies will set up a barricade around you and surround you and hem you in on every side and tear you down to the ground, you and your children within you. And they will not leave one stone upon another in you, because you did not know the time of your visitation.”
The very Messiah stood before them and they as a whole rejected Him. Not all of them, of course. He kept teaching and preaching in the Temple. Others came to faith on Good Friday, others as he appeared to them after His resurrection, and yet many more in Jerusalem on Pentecost.
The city would be destroyed but not quite yet. So it goes with Jesus. He visits you with His Word, calling you to repentance, working faith in your heart to believe the promise. He visits you with knowledge of sin and forgiveness in His shed blood. He visits you and performs the good work in you, in mercy and pity.
When you refuse this good and gracious Word, he waits in sorrow. He stands before you as you curse His name and weeps. When you hide from the shadow of his wings, he grieves. When you whore after idols, he suffers your infidelity.
He is longsuffering. But there will be an end. He suffers unbelief only for a time, only out of his incredible mercy. It is true: Our sin deserves instant punishment and yet he delays. Perhaps the span of your life is seventy or by reason of strength, eighty. Or perhaps death will greet you on the way home? Or perhaps our Lord will come to judge the living and dead tomorrow. He is longsuffering but only until the end.
He suffered in this way for Jerusalem. When Jesus looked upon Jerusalem, He knew that in a short 37 years, AD 70, the prophecy would come true. The call to repentance would ring out in the city until that last day. Finally, the consequence for their unbelief was great.
The old German church agendas, even the one published by our Concordia in St. Louis prescribed the reading of the account of the Destruction of Jerusalem on this day. It is story of the horrible fulfillment of Christ’s prophecy.
The destruction foretold is a glimpse into what the final days of the creation will be like. In Jesus’ Word and its fulfillment, you know how utterly important the life of faith—granted in your baptism, nurtured by the Word, declared in Absolution, fed in Christ’s own body and blood—is for that final judgement. You know how His many declarations of Absolution is the sweetest possible gift, forgiving you of your sin, far removing you from the fate consigned to Jerusalem.
May we heed his lesson well, rejoicing in Jesus Christ only as the gracious promise of forgiveness. While the judgment is delayed, let us not lose heart but remain steadfast in repentant faith.
In Name of the Father, + Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.
Rev. Christopher R. Gillespie
Grace Lutheran Church