Martin Luther placed “the justification of the sinner” at the heart of his preaching and teaching because he believed the righteousness—the justified nature—of those who had revolted against God in sin constituted the heart of the Biblical recital of God’s interaction with human creatures after the Fall into sin. We usually associate a description of the Atonement as the vicarious satisfaction of the Law’s demand for the death of the sinner (Romans 6:23a) with Luther’s Doctrine of Justification. His use of Romans 4:25, “Christ was handed over into death because of our sin and rose to restore our righteousness,” often with the application of His death and resurrection to the baptized in Romans 6:3-11 and Colossians 2:11-15, opened up a number of other expressions on how the work of Christ results in the restoration of our existence as God’s children. However, at the heart of much of his proclamation in pulpit and lecture hall, forgiveness of sins through Christ’s death and resurrection formed an essential element at the heart of Luther’s understanding of justification. At its core, Luther’s understanding of “justification” meant a restoration of the perfect trust and love Adam and Eve enjoyed as the most essential part of their nature as human beings in Eden. This meant the sin of the faithful had to be obliterated in God’s sight. For Luther, justification is “humanization,” the restoration of our true humanity.
Forgiveness for Luther did not mean simply to take away sinfulness from a person, returning the person to some neutral point between God and Satan. The Author of life did not create nonaligned blobs but living creatures in His own image. When sin is no longer present in a human being, righteousness is, because this is the way God made us. There is no place for the forgiven sinner half-way between the Creator and the Deceiver, permitting the forgiven person to wonder which way to turn, according to Luther. Sinner or Saint—those were his alternatives. Certainly, he recognized the ongoing battle within all the saints on earth between their sinful nature and their true existence as God’s children. He never ventured to explain or master the mystery of the continuation of sin and evil in the lives of the baptized; although he said in his De Servo Arbitrio this dilemma drove him to despair. In the face of this most baffling of all human questions, he simply fled to the Cross of Christ. There he found forgiveness of sins, which he often equated with life—true human life—and salvation. This is not only rescue from sin but its result in the blessedness, peace, and joy that are implied in the two words he used most for what we translate as “salvation,” Seligkeit and Heil.
In the face of this most baffling of all human questions, he simply fled to the Cross of Christ.
Years ago, I was offended by a pastor who told a group of young Walther Leaguers, “God has forgotten things you remember.” But he brought me to recognize that when God ceases to identify us as sinful rebels and run-aways, He does not think of our sin and He does not think of us as sinners anymore. Indeed, He still gets very angry with us when we sin, and there is no reconciling these two facts. We can only distinguish the Gospel of the first from the Law of the second. But God does not view His chosen children apart from the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, who really and in fact has changed our identity from sinner to child of God.
“Forgive and forget,” we say. God does. We sometimes should not. Not only is this psychologically impossible in certain cases, but the preservation and practice of what is right and just sometimes depends on our remembering the horrors or even the slight injustices of the past. We can easily drive ourselves, personally and as a society, over a cliff if we do not learn from the horrors produced by minds of good citizens blinded by the prejudices of race or class in the twentieth century. But forgiving while not forgetting is indeed possible. For forgiving is not counting, not “imputing” to use Luther’s term, not regarding sins as what identifies another person or defines our relationship to him or her. Forgiving is reconstructing a person’s—whether God’s or our own—regard for perception of one who has offended, hurt, rejected the individual. Acknowledging what has gone wrong in the past does not have to determine and dominate our estimation of others. Whatever knowledge God has of our past revolt against and rejection of His person and His Word does not determine what He thinks of His elect.
Whatever knowledge God has of our past revolt against and rejection of His person and His Word does not determine what He thinks of His elect.
Forgiveness is ours, Luther continually proclaimed, because Christ has put His claim on our sins and taken them as His own to the Cross and into His tomb. Luther told his students in 1531 that Christ is, “the greatest thief, murderer, adulterer, robber, desecrator, blasphemer, etc. there has ever been anywhere in the world.” Here Christ, “is not acting in His own person. Now He is not the Son of God born of the Virgin but a sinner, who has and bears the sins of Paul, the former blasphemer, persecutor, and assaulter; of Peter, who denied Christ; of David, who was an adulterer and a murderer, and who caused the Gentiles to blaspheme the name of the Lord” (Luther’s Works (LW) 26: 277). Luther created a dialog in which the Father tells Christ, “Be Peter the denier; Paul the persecutor, blasphemer, and assaulter; David the adulterer; the Sinner who ate the apple in Paradise; the Thief on the cross… the one who has committed the sins of all people… See to it that you pay and make satisfaction for these sins.” The Law attacked and killed Christ (LW 26: 280) for, “He has and bears all the sins of all people in His body—not in the sense that He has committed them but in the sense that He took these sins, committed by us, upon His own body, in order to make satisfaction for them with His own blood” (LW 26: 277).
Christ, Luther assured his hearers, satisfied the one demand the Law makes of those who have sinned: that they die (Romans 6:23a). The Father accepted His substitutionary death as the only “payment” the Law demands. It is not a payment of silver and gold, as Peter wrote (1 Peter 1:18-19), but a payment of life which most people would not make for a friend, to say nothing of enemies (Romans 5:7). Such substitution would not be accepted by any human court of law. Only by deceiving the authorities could Sydney Carton go to the guillotine so Charles Darnay could escape the Revolutionary court’s judgment in Charles Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities. Had the French Revolutionary government’s agents ever caught up with Darnay, he would also have lost his head. God is not bound by human standards of justice. So, He counts the death of Christ as our death to the identities we fashion for ourselves as sinners and He raises us up to new identities as sinless children of God.
For our Savior, Jesus Christ, has come out of His tomb spotless, without blemish, as the sacrificial lamb of God. He has disposed of our sins in His tomb, according to Paul in Romans 6 and Colossians 2, and the heavenly Father does not peek into His tomb anymore. He rolls the stone back across its entrance once our sins are deposited there. Having lost our sinful status and nature in God’s regard, through His words of absolution, we are the righteous and holy children of God.
Having lost our sinful status and nature in God’s regard, through His words of absolution, we are the righteous and holy children of God.
Forgiveness does not mean “home free,” for we are now the human beings God designed us to be, not those who can go their own way as they will. But forgiveness does mean “home,” for we can now enjoy all the comforts of home—the love of the Father, peace, joy—as we enjoy our relationship to our God and to other human beings.
Living sin-free is always a struggle. All believers, and preachers in their office, wage this struggle against the practice of sin with the Law, while they wage the struggle against the brooding over sin with the Gospel. For too much in our daily life makes us think God has not really told us the truth when He says, “I forgive you all your sins.” This is the quandary confronting us when we look at our failure to fear, love, and trust in God above all things and every instance of ignoring or defying God which flows from such failure. But God knows what He is talking about. He knows about whom He is talking when He says to us, “I forgive you all your sins.”
His forgiveness frees us to forgive others even when we cannot—and occasionally should not—forget the harm done. Our failure to forgive those who have hurt or offended us lets them harm us twice, both with the offense itself and with the sentence pronounced upon ourselves when we fail to forgive and thus imprison ourselves in continuing feelings of hurt, bitterness, and perhaps even revenge. We turn our enemies into gods who determine the way we feel and act when we fail to forgive. That is just plain stupid.
Harder yet may be forgiving ourselves. God’s forgiveness does not take away our regret and remorse over sins against Him or others. But it does deprive us of any reason to continue to hate or have contempt for ourselves when we share God’s opinion of us and see ourselves as His children instead of those who have rejected Him.
God’s restoring our righteousness through the forgiveness of sins determines who we are and how we live as the persons He made us to be. “Forgiven” is our name.