How does the Christian respond when they know themselves to be a sinner?
When we talk about sin, we frequently are thinking or talking about sin in the lives of others or in the world around us. But if there is one thing God’s law is good at, it’s pointing out our own inadequacies and failures. Jesus, himself, tells us to take the log out of our own eye before we attempt to take the speck out of our neighbor’s eye.
Growing up I was told, “remember, every time you point your finger at someone, there are three more pointing back at you.” It was a reminder that one should be careful when addressing the faults of others. “Let he who is without sin, cast the first stone,” Jesus said, pointing to the reality that He alone is the only human being ever born to be without sin.
But what do we do when we, “get it.” What is a Christian to do when we feel God’s accusing finger – the finger of His law pointing squarely at us declaring, “You are the man!”(2 Samuel 12:7). We can be certain that there are no fingers pointing back at Him. We cannot deflect our guilt or our shame and blame others. So, what is a Christian to do when we are burdened and heavy laden and we feel the reality of our sin deeply and inwardly. How do we deal with it? Who shall save us from this body of death?
Some people would say, “just know that you’re forgiven in Christ and move on.” To paraphrase a popular children’s book, this is terrible, horrible, no good, very bad advice. It does nothing to deal with the guilt and shame and leaves me to myself. For many, the entire problem is that they are seeking a way to “know” they are forgiven. To simply say, “just believe that you’re forgiven,” is not merely trite, it adds another law that I am unable to keep. Now, I am doubly guilty of sin. Not only am I guilty for whatever sin I committed in the first place, but now I’m even more a sinner because I don’t “believe enough” that I’m forgiven.
THE MEANS GOD USES TO APPLY TO YOU, PERSONALLY AND DIRECTLY,
THE FORGIVENESS WON BY CHRIST ON THE CROSS
This is the very reason God has given His “means of grace.” By these means, He applies to us individually and directly the forgiveness that Christ won by His death on the cross. We can not go back 2,000 years through time to the cross that was planted in the earth thousands of miles away. So God brings forward to us here and now the fruits of that tree through baptism, the words of the absolution, and even the body and blood of our Lord Jesus Christ in the Lord’s Supper. These means which God gives to us allow us to be confident as we answer the questions:
Can I know that I am forgiven? Can I know that I am forgiven for that sin?
God does not calls us to look inward but urges us to look to Him and what He has done for us. He does not ask us to simply “know that you’re forgiven,” but He gives us a place to go and receive that forgiveness. To hear it spoken to us, to touch it, to eat it and to drink it.
If you find yourself wondering if God loves you and cares for you, you should not ask, “Do I believe I am forgiven?” Instead, ask yourself these questions: Did Jesus die for my sins? (Answer: YES) Did He rise again from the dead? (Answer: YES) Was the suffering and death of the Son of God sufficient to cover my sins? (Answer: YES)
If this does not provide comfort, you can continue by asking, Has God sought me out and caused me to be baptized? Was the water poured over my head? Has He placed His Holy and precious Name upon me as the pastor baptized me “in the Name of the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit”? Has God provided a pastor to feed me with Christ’s Body and Blood? Does God give me opportunity to eat and to drink Christ’s Body and Blood and thus receive the forgiveness promised by my Lord, Jesus? Has God provided a place for me to go to hear of Christ’s death for my sins? Has God provided me a pastor to preach of Christ crucified for sinners? Has God given me a pastor who will speak Jesus’ words of forgiveness and apply them to my specific sins?
If you are a member of Risen Christ Lutheran Church, the answer to all of these questions is an unqualified, “YES!” Christ is at work delivering to us the forgiveness He won on the cross 2,000 years ago as we gather here around His Word and His Sacraments.
The fact that God provides you with a location and a pastor to hear His word of forgiveness preached and proclaimed means that God has not left you nor has He forsaken you. The very fact that you can go to church and your pastor speaks to you about the life, death, and resurrection of the Jesus who came into the world to seek and to save sinners means that God has sought you out and wills that you are saved. He has provided the means for this to happen and He is accomplishing your salvation as you sit and hear Christ’s voice beckoning you through the lips of your pastor and as Christ feeds you with His body and His blood.
Your pastor has been given to you specifically to speak God’s word of peace and forgiveness to you. If your pastor is not doing these things, He is not doing what God sent him to you to accomplish and you should gently and in meek humility ask him to do what God has placed him in his office to do for you.
Your pastor has not been sent to commiserate with you or to give you life lessons and coach you how to be a better person. You can learn all of that by looking to the Law of God. You can find God’s law written in Scripture, in the order and structure of nature, written on your own heart and even through the sciences of psychology and sociology when they are properly exercised.
But when your conscience seizes you and you find your hope and trust in the promise of forgiveness in Christ wavers and falters, your first step should be to contact your pastor. You should ask him and beg him if necessary (though, I really hope begging it isn’t necessary – or you should probably find another pastor), to pronounce the absolution to you.
Of course, He will ask you what sins are troubling you. He is not prying (nor ought he), but he is asking you to be specific about the sin(s) that are troubling you so that when he speaks Christ’s word to you, you are certain that those words of forgiveness apply to those specific sins which you have confessed – so that you can have confidence and assurance that Christ has come and has forgiven THOSE sins.
Likewise, if your church uses a rite of absolution as part of the communion service, it is specifically the sins which are troubling you that should fill your mind as you confess, “I a poor, miserable sinner, confess to you all my sins and iniquities . . . ”
And when you hear those words, “I forgive you,” you should not look at the man speaking them, but know and realize that these are the very words of God – they are merely spoken by the pastor as God’s voicebox and spokesman. As Christ’s ambassador – standing “in the stead and by the command” of Christ your pastor does not (and ought not) speak his own words. The words spoken by the person whom Christ has sent to you are the very words of Christ (Luke 10:16 – “He who hears you hears me”). Since Christ himself has said it, you can be certain that it is true. And it’s true no matter what your opinion of that individual pastor is or what your relationship with him is. Because God has placed him in the office, He is God’s man sent to you to speak to you God’s word and God’s word is true even if it is spoken by the most despicable man on earth.
If you are unable to convince your pastor to speak those words to you and if he refuses to preach to you about Christ and Him crucified for your sins, you should, if you are in ANY wise able, seek a faithful pastor to shepherd your soul because the man you call “pastor” (which literally means shepherd), has become a “hired hand” (John 10) and cares nothing for the sheep God has committed to his care.
EVEN IF YOUR PASTOR IS UNFAITHFUL
THE GOD WHO WASHED YOU BY WATER AND THE WORD
HAS NOT ABANDONED YOU
But even if your pastor is unfaithful in his task and fails to speak Christ’s words of forgiveness. Even if your pastor has abandoned his post as God’s spokesman and withholds Christ’s words of forgiveness (absolution) from you. Even if He refuses to speak to you, “in the stead and by the command” of Jesus and tell you, “I forgive you all your sin,” and even if the nearest faithful pastor is beyond your ability to travel so that you may sit at Jesus’ feet and hear Jesus’ words spoken to you, you can be certain that God has not left you nor abandoned you. He has still given you the means by which you can have a clear conscience before God.
St. Paul writes, “Do you not know that as many of us as were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into His death?” He then goes on to say, “if we have been united together in the likeness of His death, certainly we also shall be in the likeness of His resurrection, knowing this, that our old man was crucified with Him, that the body of sin might be done away with, that we should no longer be slaves of sin. For he who has died has been freed from sin. Now if we died with Christ, we believe that we shall also live with Him, knowing that Christ, having been raised from the dead, dies no more. Death no longer has dominion over Him. For the death that He died, He died to sin once for all; but the life that He lives, He lives to God. Likewise you also, reckon yourselves to be dead indeed to sin, but alive to God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”
While Paul’s point, here, is to encourage us to live a holy and righteous life worthy of God’s calling, it is based upon the reality of the all availing sacrifice of Christ for sinners.
When you find yourself broken by the law, you already know that you should not “keep on sinning that grace may abound.” Instead, when you have fallen into sin and your conscience is terrifying you, you find yourself praying with St. Paul, “O wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death?” (Romans 7:24)
We can’t avoid the reality that our life here and now is lived out in the “body of death.” But because of what Christ has done, this is a temporary situation. Eventually this body will go to the grave and then, “the body of sin [is] done away with.”
The victory of Christ over sin has already been accomplished for us. By our baptism, we have already been buried with Christ. In our baptism, God has given to us what Christ accomplished on the cross of calvary. It’s an accomplished reality applied to us individually. We can rightly say, “Because of my baptism, I can be certain that Christ died for MY sins – all of them!”
In baptism, we have been called to be a part of God’s family, washed clean, and given Christ’s robe of righteousness which covers all our sin. Though we do not see it, we already have been given “victory through our Lord, Jesus Christ (1 Cor 15:57)”. Because of the Holy Spirit which He gives us in baptism, we desire and do walk in newness of life. The temporary setbacks of our old sinful nature are merely the last gasping breaths of a dying man seeking to take us with him into the grave. (Romans 7:21-24)
Because you have been baptized, you know that God has elected and chosen us in Christ. Adopted through that water as His child, God views you as Holy and Righteous because of the work Christ did through His perfect sinless life and His death in your place. Therefore, your sin, no matter how grievious, is washed away by the few drops of water sprinkled on your head. Therefore, you already have a clear conscience before God (1 Peter 3:20-21) because God has rescued us and raised us up to new life through Christ.
WHEN YOU STRUGGLE TO HANG ON TO THE PROMISES OF YOUR BAPTISM,
GOD DELIVERS HIS FORGIVENESS INTO YOUR MOUTH
Baptism is not the only means God has given to us to help us as we suffer under the weight of our sin. Our baptism means God does not look on our sin (whether committed before or after baptism), but there are times that our conscience will continue to accuse us. In this life, we struggle to trust in the forgiveness, life and salvation that He hands over to us in the water of our baptism because we are those who “see through a glass darkly” (1 Corinthians 13:12). Therefore, we find ourselves questioning how that one-time act so many years ago has any lasting effects today.
This is why, “on the night when He was betrayed, our Lord Jesus Christ took bread, gave thanks and broke it and gave it to His disciples.” And, “in the same manner also, He took the cup after supper, and when He had given thanks, He gave it to them.”
There in the upper room, He instituted a meal in which He gives to us His body and His blood for the forgiveness of sins. He knew that our weak human flesh would not be able to hold on to the comforting promises of His Word through the storms and trials of life. He knew there would be unfaithful pastors who abandoned their post and refused to speak His forgiveness to their flock. He knew that we would not be able to always remember how our baptism connects us to His death for sin and His resurrection to eternal life. As a result, our Lord knew that throughout our lives, our consciences would be seized by guilt and shame over sin. So, to help us in our fight, He gives to us His very body and His very blood to eat and drink so that there we may again receive the forgiveness He won for us on Calvary’s cross. There, too, we proclaim to one another and the world at large that the death of the God-man, Jesus of Nazareth, is sufficient to cover our sin until He returns to redeem our bodies and gather us to be with Him forever.
St. John in his 1st Epistle writes (1 John 5:6-8) “This is the one who came by water and blood—Jesus Christ. He did not come by water only, but by water and blood. And it is the Spirit who testifies, because the Spirit is the truth. For there are three that testify: the Spirit, the water and the blood; and the three are in agreement.”
Christ has left us ample testimony of His work among us. He has left us His Word. He has also established His church which He has commanded to speak His word to the world. In and through that Word as it is read, spoken, sung and proclaimed, the Holy Spirit works.
Our Lord has given us pastors (Ephesians 4:11) to speak to us that word and hand over to us all the promises of God which He has fulfilled in Christ. He given us the water of baptism where God washed us clean and brought us into His family, making us His own child. And He gave us Christ’s “blood of the new testament” – the meal of the new covenant of peace between God and man so that we may continually receive the forgiveness that Christ won by shedding His blood on the cross.
The Christian response to sin in our lives – when it is recognized – is to receive that forgiveness and trust in Christ who procured that forgiveness for us. We receive it as we recall our baptism – trusting that in those waters, we were connected with Christ and His death to sin. That forgiveness is delivered over and over in the words of absolution spoken to us by the man God has sent to speak in the stead and by the command of our Lord Jesus Christ so that we may be sure that those promises apply to us, personally, in the many circumstances or situations in our individual life. In those words, we hear the assurance that there is no sin greater than Christ’s ability to forgive.
God has commanded His church to deliver that forgiveness to us in the bread and wine which we eat and drink. Through that holy meal, which He established for us to proclaim His death for sin (not just general “sin,” but our very own, personal sins), He welcomes us to His heavenly banquet spread in the presence of the enemies of the Gospel on earth. In that meal, He gives us His very own body to eat and His very own blood to drink to give us life and strength to live as children of God in the New Covenant of forgiveness through Christ.
When you find yourself struggling with sin, therefore, seek out the means by which God is active in this world applying the forgiveness won by Christ to sinners. Come and be reminded of your baptism, “in the Name of the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.” Come and hear God’s words of forgiveness spoken to you in the absolution. Come and eat and drink for the forgiveness of your sins.
Therein, Christ’s peace will be with You, Amen.
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UPDATE: Edited 5/12/2012 – Newsletter Final Draft