I Believe in the Forgiveness of Sins

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God gives us the power and authority to proclaim the forgiveness of sins to burdened sinners who entrust us with their pain, guilt, and defeat.

Every Sunday churches around the world confess together what is probably the oldest of the primary creeds believed by the church today: the Apostles Creed. Luther, in his Small Catechism, divided the Apostle's Creed into three parts or articles. 

The first article confesses God as our Father and Creator, the second article confesses God as Son and Redeemer, and the third article confesses God as the Holy Spirit and Sanctifier. In the third article, where we confess God as the One who sets us apart, calls us his own, and declares us to be holy, it reads:

"I believe in the Holy Spirit, the holy Christian church, the communion of saints, the forgiveness of sins, the resurrection of the body, and the life everlasting. Amen."

Luther, in the Small Catechism, goes on to explain: 

"What does this mean? I believe that I cannot by my own reason or strength believe in Jesus Christ, my Lord, or come to Him; but the Holy Spirit has called me by the Gospel, enlightened me with His gifts, sanctified and kept me in the true faith. In the same way He calls, gathers, enlightens, and sanctifies the whole Christian church on earth, and keeps it with Jesus Christ in the one true faith. In this Christian church He daily and richly forgives all my sins and the sins of all believers. On the Last Day He will raise me and all the dead, and give eternal life to me and all believers in Christ. This is most certainly true." 

It is God who sanctifies and keeps us in the true faith, and he does this by "forgiving our sins." When we confess the Creed, we are acknowledging a myriad of things about God and his creation, but for the sake of this post, I want to focus on that line in the third article —

"I believe in…the forgiveness of sins" 

By confessing this, we are saying something powerful about man and God. First of all, we acknowledge that man is sinful and in need of forgiveness, and then we confess together that God is quite willing to forgive sinful man. The sinful man and the justifying God are at the heart of Christian theology. But as I was reciting this line last Sunday it occurred to me, "Do we really believe this?" Does the church collectively and Christians individually really believe "in the forgiveness of sins?" If we do, why are we so reticent to "hand over the goods" as my teacher, the late Dr. Nestingen, used to call absolution? 

Christ found me and saved me in a Baptist church youth group where I grew up in Olympia, WA. I then attended a small Bible College and became a church planting pastor in a well-known Evangelical non-denominational denomination. Like many Evangelicals, I believed in the forgiveness of sins and was more than willing to tell unbelievers that if they confessed Christ as Lord, they would be saved (forgiven), as Paul declares in Romans 9:10. However, that willingness quickly turned into reticence when it came to professing Christians, who it turns out, continue to sin with the same fervor that they did before. 

Years ago, when I was pastoring in Colorado, our young music leader used to call me regularly to confess his sin. Unfortunately, at that time, I did not have the tools to properly care for this young man. Rather than hand over the goods, I would give him practical advice and other law-laden words that I knew were hollow and unhelpful. After months of this, I asked him, "why do you call me every week confessing the same sin? It seems like you just want me to justify your actions with no desire on your part to change." 

As I write these words, I am filled with regret for how poorly I pastored him in this situation. At the time, I felt like this was the wake-up call he needed to help him along in his "sanctification." Change, after all, was the desired result of my theological paradigm, and this needed change surely would not come simply by telling him he was forgiven. In fact, this kind of unconditional grace would only give him permission to continue to sin and use me to justify it. 

I believed in the "forgiveness of sins," but I was unwilling to hand this over to a real-life sinner. Not long after, I resigned my position with this church due to personal burnout and internal conflict with our leadership team. After over a decade of church planting and pastoring, I found myself questioning everything I had once preached so fervently. It was during this time that I discovered Martin Luther and the idea that theology at its core is something to be proclaimed. I began devouring the works of Luther and the many teachers who Luther influenced over the last 500 years, including people like Dr. Jim Nestingen, who I had the privilege of sitting under during my time at St. Paul Lutheran Seminary. Teachers like Dr. Nestingen, Dr. Steve Paulson, Dr. Marney Fritts, and the late Dr. Gerhard Forde opened my eyes to the authority that Christ gave to the church to listen for sinner's confession of sins and to find the boldness to give them a word they will not hear anywhere else, "on account of Christ I forgive you all your sins." 

Despite our reticence and unwillingness to hand over the goods of the gospel, proclaiming the forgiveness of sins is, in fact, the primary call of the church. As Hermann Sasse wrote, 

"the only thing which is essential to its nature as the church of Christ is that it is the place, the only place in all the world, in which the blessed tidings of the forgiveness of sins for Christ's sake are heard." [1]

Advice is ubiquitous and can be found cheaply at every turn. There is something else that is not cheap and is sadly very difficult to find: grace.

When Jesus appeared to his disciples, after his resurrection, he handed them what are called "the keys to the kingdom." He did so by saying, "As the Father has sent me, even so, I am sending you" (John 20:21). What was he sending them to do? The text in John 20 goes on to say that he breathed on them and imparted the Holy Spirit to them (vs. 22), and then he said, "if you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you withhold forgiveness from any, it is withheld." (vs. 23)

This used to be one of those texts I glossed over without much thought (if I had any thought, it was something along the lines of, "that's just Jesus saying crazy stuff he doesn't actually expect us to understand"). But now, with new eyes and ears, I see that this is anything but some ambiguous crazy talk. This is our Lord giving the church its marching orders. He gives us the power and authority to proclaim the forgiveness of sins to burdened sinners who entrust us with their pain, guilt, and defeat. The wise pastor and the faithful Christian must attune their ear to hear these confessions because they do not always, at first listen, sound like a confession of sin. However, when heard with the compassionate ear of one who has been broken by their own sin, Christ's keys open up an opportunity to proclaim the most powerful message ever heard. That the Creator of the Universe is not mad at them, that, in fact, he is overjoyed to set them free from the bondage of sin and death. 

Do we believe this? Do we believe in the forgiveness of sins? If we do, then it is our calling and privilege to let Christ's words flow off of our tongue with the same enthusiasm that we often impart advice to our fellow sinners. Advice is ubiquitous and can be found cheaply at every turn. There is something else that is not cheap and is sadly very difficult to find: grace. Maybe with the help of the great teachers I mentioned above, and organizations like 1517, we can make the proclamation of the forgiveness of sins more commonplace. Start with your family and your friends, listen for confessions, and when you hear one, give the confessor Christ's forgiveness without condition.

“If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness” (1 John 1:9).

[1]  Sasse, Hermann. Here We Stand. St. Louis: CPH, 1988