The pastor declares it. We receive it. The forgiveness of sins. It’s a simple thing. “I declare unto you the forgiveness of all your sins, in the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit.” Then we say, “Amen.” This is most certainly true. Sunday after Sunday. We mouth the words. The pastor expresses God’s will for us. Christ suffered and died. Christ rose from death. The benefit we receive from this act is the forgiveness, the forgetting of all our sins, by God. But to live in this freedom, there’s our problem. Yes, we confess Jesus died for the sins of the whole world. Yes, he rose from death to justify all who receive his life-giving sacrifice in faith. But, wait. Full stop. Everybody? Is God’s forgiveness really that indiscriminate? What about my drug addict father? What about the teen mother in my sister’s class? What about the transexual college student in my band sectional? What about my friend’s abusive husband? What about the woman I work with who had two abortions? What about the man at church who says he’s holier than a bus-load of nuns? Sure they go to church. They confess their sins with the rest of us. But, when the pastor declares our sins forgiven, surely he doesn’t mean them too. It can’t be that simple. There’s got to be something more they’ve got to do to be forgiven. Right?
It’s simple to say we’re forgiven all our sins. It’s easy to believe our family and friends, the ones we like anyway, are forgiven too. We’re sure Jesus’ blood covers them. But we all know someone who’s done something that is unforgivable. “Forgiven? Sure. But they’re not as forgiven as me,” we think. “All my sins are forgiven, because I’ve got faith. I believe in God. I go to church almost every Sunday. I try to live a good life. But him? He’s still got to do something to earn absolution. There’s still more he has to do to be forgiven by God.” It’s simple to say we’re all forgiven. But when it comes time to put this into practice we all prove we don’t know the first thing about God’s unconditional grace. It’s too hard, in our judgment, to accept that a man who’s had so many affairs, torn apart so many marriages, will get away with it. He’s got to pay the bill. He’s got to be punished. He’s got to repent, prove he’s truly sorry for his sins. Then, maybe, if he does the right thing, changes his ways, proves to us he is sorry, then maybe we can forgive him. And we speak for God, after all. We’re Christians. Sin against us and you’ve wronged God. Receive forgiveness from us and you can trust God’s forgiven you too.
And when we receive this word in faith we are righteous before God. Not righteous like lawyers, or philosophers, or intellectual heavy weights understand righteousness. When they talk about righteousness they mean something that’s going on inside us. Something that comes from our heart and soul. A way of behaving that shows people we are moral, good, right. God’s righteousness contradicts that kind of definition. God’s righteousness isn’t in us. Never was, never will be. It’s over there. It’s Christ. This is expressed to us through the Gospel. God teaches us that when he forgives all our sins what he means by righteousness is that we are freed from sins by his forgiveness.
You are forgiven for Christ’s sake. God forgets your sin. You are righteous, and it doesn't matter whether other people like it or not.
As Martin Luther writes about this:
When we hear that we have been promised forgiveness of sins, we really cannot grasp that, and take this position: I have committed this and that sin; to pay for them I will do thus and so, fast “x” number of days, say “x” number of prayers, fund “x” number of poorhouses, and pay for all my sins. It’s because human nature is proud and always wants to be in control, pulling it own water bucket from the well, wants to have the honor of laying the first stone, of being Number One. That’s why this is a majestic message of divine wisdom: We must believe that our righteousness, salvation, and comfort lie outside of ourselves, namely, that we are righteous before God, acceptable to him, holy and wise, even though there is nothing within us but sin, injustice, and stupidity. (Martin Luther, Sermon on Matthew 18:23-35)
Left to ourselves we can’t stop trying to tweak God’s forgiveness. There’s just some people who are unforgivable, we imagine, even after they’re forgiven. We can’t stop staring at other peoples’ sins. We can’t believe in free, unconditional grace. Only the Holy Spirit can teach us to look at our own sins, that we are THE sinner, and to receive God’s words of forgiveness as gift, as absolute, as final. That’s why God is always at work to reveal to us, to develop this art in us, so that faith in the forgiveness of sins is the beginning and end of all our talk about sin. That Christ and his grace is all we want to know and all we want to speak about to other people. That there is no one who is forgiven who is unforgivable. Then, as Luther remarks, even when someone aims a loaded gun at your face and is ready to pull the trigger, you will still believe and be able to say, “Not to worry, Christ died and rose to forgive all my sins, so I know he can forgive you for this too. Believe it. Receive it. He has already done it for you.”
Donavon Riley is a Lutheran pastor, conference speaker, author, Online Content Director for Higher Things, a contributing writer at 1517 Legacy Project, Christ Hold Fast, and LOGIA. Pastor Riley co-hosts the podcast: 'The Higher Things Simul Cast'. He is pastor of Saint John Lutheran Church in Webster, MN. A graduate of Concordia Universities in St. Paul, Minnesota and Portland, Oregon, Pastor Riley received his seminary and post-graduate education at Luther Seminary in St. Paul, Minnesota. He colloquized into the LC-MS from the ELCA in 2008. He is married to Annie, and is the father of four children: Owen, Alma, Hoshea, and Hallel.