† Are We Really Poor, Miserable Sinners? †
Jesus’ parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector confronts us with an important question: Are we really “poor, miserable sinners”?
We often think like the first man. He comes to the temple certain that God is so pleased to see him. “God, I thank you that I am not like other men” (Luke 18:11). Every now and then he’s struck by his own failures and inadequacies, but it’s easy to get over that. He compares himself with others: “I may not be perfect, but at least I’m better than him!“
The other man stays far back knowing he is not worthy on his own to be near God. He knows he deserves nothing from God but death and punishment forever. He clings to nothing but God’s mercy. He begs, “God have mercy on me, a sinner” (Luke 18:13).
The first man, the Pharisee, is not alone. We are often with him—full of ourselves, full of sinful pride, full of judgment of others to make ourselves look better. We’re often foolish, sin-blinded optometrists removing specks from others’ eyes.
But thanks be to God that the second man, the tax collector, is not alone either. Christ is with him. When Jesus calls, sinners come. Jesus calls sinners, only sinners, into communion with Himself. Where Christ is, where His Church is, where He still offers forgiveness and hope and life eternal through His holy Word—there you will find sinners.
Thanks be to God, there we are gathered, too. We kneel or stand with the tax collector. We do not bound into God’s presence full of ourselves and our goodness, but mindful of our failure to fear, love and trust in God above all things. We have not loved God or our neighbor as we ought. God owes us nothing; yet, He is merciful. So we say the truth even when we do not feel it: “I, a poor miserable sinner.“ We humbly stand next to the tax collector.
Some would say that words such as these go too far—that we must be careful not to ruin our self-esteem. But listen to what the Lord Jesus says, “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. I did not come to call the righteous, but sinners” (Matt.9;12,13 NKJV). Best of all “I tell you that this man…went home justified before God” (Luke 18:14).
This Jesus who poured His blood out for us speaks into our ears and hearts words of real comfort, joy, and power: “I forgive you all your sins.” He gathers us sinners at His table and feeds us His body and blood, given and shed for our forgiveness. And there is rejoicing in heaven! © 2003 LCMS Commission on Worship
† God’s Word Brings Life †
Words, words, words. We hear so many words every day of our lives that we come to believe that they have no meaning or power.
But then we enter the house of the Lord and hear words that are powerful, words that forgive: “I forgive you all your sins in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.” Here are words that convey to us what they say—forgiveness of sins.
But, those words are spoken to us by a man. It’s a person, a pastor, who says to us, “I forgive you.” Who gave him that authority? How can a man forgive us our sins? Only the Lord can do that, we say.
Let’s listen again to the words that are spoken to us: Upon this your confession, I, by virtue of my office as a called and ordained servant of the Word, announce the grace of God to all of you, and in the stead and by the command of my Lord Jesus Christ I forgive you all your sins.
Though this forgiveness comes from God, the person who speaks it is a man, a human being just like us. But he is speaking to us in an office; it is the office of a servant of the Word. The pastor is not his own man in this matter, but one who serves the Lord and his Word. Furthermore, he’s “called and ordained,” meaning that it is the Church that has placed him in this office to forgive sins according to Christ’s command.
To make it even clearer, we’re told that the pastor who is the servant of the Word is acting “in the stead and by the command” of Jesus Christ. The Lord gave to his Church the authority to forgive and retain sins. John 20:22-23 says it most clearly: The Lord Jesus breathed on his disciples and said, “receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive anyone his sins, they are forgiven; if you do not forgive them, they are not forgiven.” Here the Lord gives to his disciples the authority to act in his behalf, both to forgive sins and to withhold forgiveness.
Called by the Church and set under the orders of Christ, the pastor is obligated to fulfill the mandate of the Lord to forgive and retain sins. He doesn’t do this as he pleases. The pastor always acts under the command of the Lord to forgive the sins of those who are penitent and to withhold forgiveness to the impenitent.
It is this absolution that Martin Luther, during the difficult days of the Reformation, prized so highly. In a sermon on June 29, 1522, Luther asserted that the minister is commissioned by the Church to exercise the Office of the Keys and quoted John 20. Later that same year he said in another sermon: “Therefore we have ordained pastors and priests in order that they might perform such services (baptizing, absolving, preaching, etc.) in our stead, and these should yield the power as our representatives.”
The power to absolve and grant forgiveness is the special church power granted by Christ and exercised in behalf of the entire Church by the called and ordained servants of the Word.
Words. Just words. But it is through these plain, ordinary words that the Lord’s forgiveness is granted. They are powerful words. They do exactly what they say. They forgive. In the hearing of the Word, the believer who is penitent receives exactly what the word proclaims—forgiveness.
Confession is made. The absolution is given. We are at that very moment the receivers of all of the Lord’s grace and mercy. We are forgiven.
© 2003 LCMS Commission on Worship
† The God Who Kills and Makes Alive †
The Small Catechism teaches that Confession consists of two parts: first, that we confess our sins, and second, that we receive Absolution. Put another way, we could say that in Confession and Absolution, the Holy Spirit works through the Law and the Gospel.
The first part, confessing our sins, is the acknowledgment that God’s Law has had its way with us. We tell the truth about ourselves from what God has revealed to us in the Ten Commandments. The Law says that we are sinners. We say, “I, a poor, miserable sinner.” That is the truth. That is our condition from conception. We say what we have done and what we have failed to do. We sin because we are sinners.
Confession is similar to telling the physician the symptoms so that he or she can make a diagnosis and treat the disease. The disease is sin; our sins are the symptoms. The diagnosis is that we are utterly sinful. The condition is fatal. “The wages of sin is death” (Romans 6:23). The second part is Absolution. Through the mouth of our pastor God delivers the forgiveness of sins won by Jesus’ sacrificial suffering and death on the cross. God tells the truth about us in Christ, and that is a greater truth than the truth of our sins.
Confession and Absolution is a happy exchange. “For our sake He made Him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in Him we might become the righteousness of God” (2 Corinthians 5:21). Christ on the cross was the adulterer, the fornicator, the drunkard, the liar, the cheat, the gossip-in our place. Our sin was laid on Jesus. And in Holy Absolution, Christ’s righteousness is laid on us.
The merit of Christ’s saving death on Calvary comes to us and is applied to us in Holy Absolution, just as it was in our Baptism. Holy Absolution is the on-going work of Holy Baptism, drowning our old, sinful nature in Adam and raising our new, sinless nature in Christ. “The free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord“ (Romans 6:23).
Sin is dealt with decisively, not by our “trying harder,” but by dying and rising in the death and resurrection of Jesus. Confession and Absolution. The Law and the Gospel. Such a Savior we have in Jesus that He has given this divine authority among us to distribute what He died to win for us!
Faith can only say, “Amen.” Gift received.
© 2003 LCMS Commission on Worship