Whoever said it, said it well: without the absolution—“I forgive you all your sins for Jesus’ sake”—Lutheranism has no particular reason to exist. Every issue of the Reformation, from preaching and the sacraments to papal authority, revolved around the bedrock confession that sinners receive mercy through Christ alone. Luther put it clearly in the Large Catechism: “Everything, therefore, in the Christian Church is ordered to the end that we shall daily obtain there nothing but the forgiveness of sin” (Large Catechism, The Creed). Forgiveness is God’s mission, and there is no clearer statement of it than the absolution. If we want to talk renewal, both in the Church and in society, it must begin with that justifying word.
For Jesus’ Sake
I see a video of prisoners in Madagascar crowding around a Lutheran pastor for worship. What brings them? I imagine, perhaps wrongly, that they are like the incarcerated men and women to whom my congregation has ministered. Some of them come because they want a good word, while others are there to look good or because it’s a break from the cell. Despite such mixed motives, they also come knowing something basic about the faith: it’s supposed to be good for people with problems. It’s supposed to welcome people like them. Why do they think so? Where could such a rumor have started? “I forgive you all your sins for Jesus’ sake.” The Holy Spirit has fitted those words like a virus to the mixed up ideas and motives of men. It seeps through the cracks of all our walls as a day-long conference on dismantling patriarchy never could.
But now I come to a church near you, the one that promises to welcome everyone. I spend 65 minutes there trying to be invisible, as I’m on vacation and don’t feel social. Yet where I usually fail at being invisible, something else succeeds at doing so perfectly well: “I forgive you.” Where did it go? Is it still around here somewhere? Why, yes, it’s buried between two hard covers the color of a Thanksgiving relish, and it stayed there, too. There was a lot of splashing about at the font — it’s the “Thanksgiving for Baptism,” the bulletin says — but no one ever heard what it’s all about. Is renewal possible here?
The absolution is the renewal, for both church and society, for several reasons. First, it renews the church because it puts the church back where it belongs: in front of the empty tomb, facing the wide-open future that shines in the face of Christ. Like the empty tomb, forgiveness doesn’t erase the past. To the contrary, it carries the past forward — He’s still the man who died on the cross, wounds and all — but in such a way that this person with such a past may yet live, love, be worthy, and even rule. What excitement! What release!
Lost in Jesus
So if we want to renew the church’s mind on the matter of sexual ethics, for example, then we need to start talking forgiveness into that subject. That is, we must show more than how the New-Old Lies, with all their denial of family and creation, drift from the Biblical prescriptions. We must also carry those prescriptions to their end and show how the New-Old Lies corrupt the proclamation of forgiveness. Did Jesus die for this or that behavior? If so, then He died to forgive it, and we must contend for such — Christ’s honor demands it. “I cannot say it isn’t a sin, for then I would be stealing Christ’s glory from Him. He died to forgive it, you see. It’s in His hands, not yours or mine.” The sin must get lost in Jesus somewhere between Gabbatha and the grave, preached as sunken into His flesh and buried with Him, so that it’s no longer God’s to condemn nor ours to practice. It’s all on Jesus now—you can’t have it back!
That kind of absolution-thinking keeps opening a new future to the same old past. It disarms those who would make our debates a matter of old vs. new, letter vs. spirit, Pharisees vs. Jesus People (the binary couplings that even revisionists can’t kick, apparently), and turns our controverted subjects towards God’s mission, the speaking of the Gospel into every sin and circumstance. Most importantly, it passes on the rumor that first spread like fire among the apostles: God’s in love with you, and isn’t counting sins against you. This faith is good for us people with problems. It gives us a future with God and with each other and all of creation—“for wherever forgiveness is, there also are life and salvation” (Small Catechism, The Sacrament of the Altar).
Infectious Rumor of Mercy
Yet this absolution, coming from God, may renew things well beyond the church, because God’s goodness always seems to spill over its borders. The absolution carries in itself more than a new future and a happy Lord. It carries also the stamp of that Lord’s virtue and wholesome way. To trust forgiveness is to trust patience and compassion—who can forgive a sinner without taking the time to sympathize with him? And for Christians to trust and preach forgiveness is to trust and preach Christ crucified, the very picture of God “counting others better” than Himself (Philippians 2:3). When that image and rumor of mercy start permeating Christians, and Christians start seeping into society and infecting it, they take that virtue and ethic with them.
I read a poll recently that said most people think America stands on the brink of a civil war. The sexes, too, are increasingly estranged, as young people avoid dating either because they fear relationships or just getting arrested and sued. What we do as children becomes national news and a cause for mockery or hate. How can it be otherwise in a land that has mostly stopped hearing absolution? Roman Catholics find they can commune just as well without it, and Protestants are busy casting new visions for ministry or splashing at the font or running a stewardship drive. With the gradual disappearance of absolution and its attendant preaching, so also fades the best image we have of patience, compassion, humility, and the thirst for reconciliation—and if absolution fades, can Lutheranism shine?
Renewal in Absolution
I include this latter reflection about societal renewal because I know that cultural as well as churchly issues lie heavy on the hearts of Lutheran CORE folk. I commend to you the thought that both society and church will find their renewal in the absolution that we alone may speak: “I forgive you all your sins for Jesus’ sake.” Lose that absolution, and you lose the point of being Lutheran. Lutheranism is simply being God’s church, and God’s church exists to preach and believe forgiveness. Speaking, preaching, and believing it, for sure, remain the priority. Consider also what the absolution teaches about God’s will for His creation and who you are and what life really is, or how it delivers both righteousness and holiness of living. Any Christian or church could benefit from such reflection on God’s most important word.
And a good place to start might be, you know, actually going to confession and hearing it.