By Carl Braaten
“Then Peter came and said to him, “Lord, if another member of the church sins against me, how often should I forgive? Jesus said to him, “Not seven times, but, I tell you, seventy-seven times.” Matthew 18:21-22
“In him (Christ) we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of his grace lavished on us.” Ephesians 1:7-8a
The core idea of this sermon is the forgiveness of sins. I will begin by quoting a Swedish scholar, Einar Billing, who wrote: “Anyone wishing to study Luther would indeed be in no peril of going astray were he to follow this simple rule: never believe you have a correct understanding of Luther before you have succeeded in reducing it to a simple corollary of the thought of the forgiveness of sins” (Einar Billing, Our Calling, Fortress, 4).
I am not a Luther scholar, so I can’t guarantee that is not an exaggeration, but I do know that the forgiveness of sins is at the heart of the gospel. Each one of us became a believer in Christ and a member of his church through our baptism for the remission of sin. As we confess our sins, we receive absolution from our pastor, that is, the declaration of the full forgiveness of all our sins. As we eat the bread and drink the wine, we share in the new covenant in the blood of Jesus, shed for us and all people for the forgiveness of sins.
No Room for Forgiveness
The book of Genesis has a happy ending. Joseph’s brothers had sold him into slavery. They had been jealous of him because he was their father’s favorite son. This little Israeli boy, meanwhile, had become the minister of agriculture in Pharaoh’s Egypt, a very powerful and successful ruler. Many years later, the brothers came to Joseph to beg for forgiveness. Joseph had the opportunity to get back at them, to make them pay for their crime, but he simply forgave them.
He knew in his heart that it was God’s way, and the only way to turn something evil into something good. We live in a society in which forgiveness is becoming ever rarer. For the slightest accident or insult, people go looking for lawyer, trying to get even, bilking the system of justice for the last drop of vengeance. The lack of forgiveness is a fact of modern life. There is a real shortage of forgiveness, and an excess of hatred and violence.
Recall how President George H.W. Bush in his Inaugural address appealed for a “kinder and gentler nation.” In the years since we have sunk into the vicious cycle of revenge and retaliation — becoming a nation of people and parties at war with ourselves. We say we are looking for justice and, with doubt, when certain minorities are being deprived of basic justice, we must fight for their rights and demand equal justice under the law.
But justice is not enough. Justice without the spirit of forgiveness cannot produce a kinder and gentler nation. Government, legislation, a police force, law courts, and jails can deter us from doing bad things, but they cannot make people love each other. Apart from the spirit of forgiveness, we are stuck with the law of nature, the logic of vengeance, the spirit of retaliation, the kind of justice that demands an “eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth.” Fear, hate, enmity, and jealousy — such emotions are deeply embedded in our unregenerate human nature. We cannot change the system for the better that keeps expanding the spiral of violence in our society today.
Many worldly wise people make fun of the need for forgiveness. They do not believe it is necessary or makes sense. The forgiving attitude is supposedly a mark of weakness, a sign that a person is lacking self-confidence. Friedrich Nietzsche and Sigmund Freud regarded the whole idea of forgiveness as unacceptable, especially Jesus’ command to love our enemies. Nietzsche believed that forgiveness makes one a beggar.
Virtues such as sympathy, mercy, compassion, humility, and friendliness are for softies, diminishing the human spirit. Instead, Nietzsche said we should promote the qualities of the superman, the self-glorifying virtues of the master race that Adolf Hitler tried to produce — qualities of pride, power, superiority, and domination. There is no room for forgiveness in Nietzsche’s paradigm of what it takes to be a superior human being and great society.
The Leaven of Forgiveness
Forgiveness is the only way to a kinder and gentler nation. Without the leaven of forgiveness, the social bonds of living in community become hard and inflexible. The nation’s statistics on suicide and divorce continue to rise, families become dysfunctional, children rebel against their parents as payback for years of abuse. At the most primitive level and at the first instance the human inclination is not to ask for forgiveness but to get revenge. “I want to get even” is the prevailing sentiment.
The fact is that forgiveness is a revolutionary attitude. It is not doing what comes naturally. Only a person who has experienced forgiveness is able to forgive. Forgiveness is the logic of the new world order created by Jesus through his sacrifice on the cross. If we refuse to forgive as we have been forgiven, we exclude ourselves from the new way of living in the reign of God.
God has broken the spiral of vengeance, violence, and retaliation by sending his only Son, Jesus, into the world to engage the powers and principalities of this age. Jesus exhibited and embodied God’s way of mercy, forgiveness, and unconditional love. He said to Peter that he is to forgive “not seven times, but, I tell you, seventy times seven.”
And then on the cross Jesus practiced what he preached: “Father, forgive them for they do not know what they are doing” (Luke 23: 34). He had in mind his accusers and oppressors, namely, the priests, scribes, Pharisees, politicians, and soldiers. Forgiveness was in the heart of Jesus. He did not condemn sinners, nor did he condone their sins. Jesus did not say that sin does not matter. He did not teach that all actions are morally relative. Sinners are real sinners, and their sins are real sins. By his death on the cross, Jesus showed that he took sin seriously. He paid the full price by giving up his life so that love might break the vicious cycle of sin, vengeance, and violence. Sin and forgiveness go together like hand and glove.
The reason many people think they have no need for forgiveness is because they have no sense of sin. Dr. Karl Menninger, a famous Christian psychiatrist, wrote a book with the title Whatever Happened to Sin? In it he laments that the concept of sin has fallen out of modern psychology and psychotherapy. Where there is no awareness of sin, there is no felt need for forgiveness, and where there is no need for forgiveness, there is no need for Christ either and his sacrificial death on the cross.
Not only is sin missing from modern psychotherapy and medical science, it has fallen flat in much of modern Christianity and popular preaching. Sin does not fit the religion of “positive thinking” and the “be-happy attitudes.” Sin is too negative; it makes people feel like there is something fundamentally wrong with them deep down in their souls. H. Richard Niebuhr characterized the preaching of liberal Protestantism this way: “A God without wrath brought people without sin into a kingdom without judgment through the ministry of Christ without a cross.” No wrath, no sin, no judgment, no cross — ergo, no need for Christ and the gospel of forgiveness of sins.
A boy was with his dad visiting a great cathedral. As they walked under the giant arches, the boy asked, “Dad, what is the big plus sign up front?” “Why, that’s the cross on the high altar. But son, you’re exactly right, that’s what the cross is, God’s eternal plus sign, which adds something new to our life.” That something new is forgiveness of sins — the gateway to sanctification and the pursuit of holy living. There can be no new life and freedom, no friendship with God and hope of eternal salvation, and no membership in the communion of saints without the forgiveness of sins.
Why is the forgiveness of sins so absolutely essential? Look at it this way. In Wisconsin we had a cottage at the lake. When we planned to stay for a month, we knew we would have a problem with the garbage. We began putting the garbage in a few empty milk containers. But soon they filled up and began to pile up. So we went out and bought a garbage can. But eventually that filled up. We got a larger galvanized can, and for a week or so it seemed we had taken care of the problem.
But we knew we were only stalling. We had not really solved the problem of garbage disposal. One day our neighbor told us what he did. There is a local garbage collector; he could add us to his route. The point is this. We cannot handle the garbage of sin, guilt, fear, and death by ourselves. We need an outside agency to take the garbage away, the poisonous pollution of sin that breeds spiritual cancers in our bodies and souls.
Jesus died for us and he was raised from the dead to deal with our human problem of sin, the sickness unto death. “For while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly.” (Rom. 5:6). This is truly God’s amazing grace.
The Church as the Dispenser of Forgiveness
We cannot receive the forgiveness of sins without someone to declare it to us. If we have sinned against God or other people, we cannot forgive ourselves. Luther said:
You cannot sit down in some corner and wait for an angel to come from heaven and announce to you, “Your sins are forgiven.” Not any angel, but your pastor has been given a special commission from the Lord to say to you, “I, in God’s place, announce to you through Christ forgiveness of all your sins.” When this happens, you are to be certain that by such an external word your sins are truly and surely forgiven, for God’s Word cannot lie and deceive you. Thank God for his mercy, that he wants to forgive sins in no other way than by giving the power to do it to human beings in the church.
God has chosen the Church to do some things that no other agency or institution can do — baptize, absolve, preach, and celebrate the Lord’s Supper. We cannot get the absolute word of forgiveness in Jesus’ name any other place than in the church, the assembly of believers in Christ. That is the special ministry that God has given the church, to be a sanctuary where the forgiveness of sins is freely given for the healing for our broken lives and burdened souls.
In Luther’s day there were “spiritualists” who said they did not need the church. They believed they could enjoy a personal relationship with God apart from the church. They supposed they had no need of a minister to mediate the forgiveness of sins. They had no need of such external things as water in baptism, bread and wine in holy communion, or the audible words of the preacher. All that supposedly matters is how one feels inside.
Luther said no to them; it does not work that way. We cannot mend our ruptured relationship with God by a do-it-yourself approach. Our feelings are important, but they are not in charge of what is really going on in our relationship with God. It is possible that we may delude ourselves. We cannot infer from our feelings that God forgives us. The important thing is not so much how we feel about God but how God feels about us. Every Lord’s Day we come to church to hear the Word of God, to be absolved of our sins, and to thank and praise God for all the blessings that by his grace he showers upon us every day. Amen!
The Rev. Carl Edward Braaten is an American Lutheran theologian and pastor.