Communicating God's Forgiveness
by Russell C. Lee (May / June 2001 • Volume 17 • Number 3)
While studying worship resources, and their relationship to forgiveness in various Christian traditions, the author was asked whether Lutherans have become obsessed with sin and forgiveness, are becoming overly sacramental, and believe they are justified by baptism instead of faith. He thinks the criticisms have some substance.
I recently completed a study in which I examined and critiqued how God's forgiveness is communicated in the worship resources of five Christian denominations.
During conversations with clergy from other denominations, I was asked questions about Lutherans. One person asked: "Why is it that Lutherans seem to have such an obsession with sin and forgiveness?"
Another asked: "When did Lutherans become so sacramental?" Still another asked: "How did a church that claims as its core doctrine, justification by faith, become a church that seems to teach justification by baptism?"
These are all legitimate questions. They are, of course, all based on certain assumptions: that we are obsessed with sin and forgiveness, that we have become "so sacramental," and that we have moved from justification by faith to justification by baptism.
There is evidence around to indicate that there is some truth to those assumptions. Since these issues are all related to the subject of God's forgiveness as communicated in worship resources, I want to examine each of them closely.
Obsessed by Sin?
First, "Why is it that Lutherans seem to have such an obsession with sin and forgiveness?"
For nearly two years after I retired in January 1998, my wife and I had the opportunity to worship in many different churches. We went to worship in congregations of many different denominations and usually went to two different services on a given Sunday.
In addition to the enriching experiences of worship, I gained many impressions about communication.
Many of the church services we attended did not have a written order for confession of sin and declaration of forgiveness. It was a rare occasion, however, when a Lutheran service did not include it.
One Sunday, after reading the confession along with the rest of the congregation, and hearing the pastor declare forgiveness, I realized that I had been reading the familiar words with very little thought as to their meaning and application. I wondered how true this might be for those around me.
These questions came to mind: Is this how to get forgiveness, to go to the church service, read those words, and receive the assurance from the "called and ordained minister of the Church of Christ?"
Are there no other conditions? Is there no need to be sorry (contrition)? Is there no need for repentance (change of mind and/or direction)? Is there no need to trust in Jesus as my savior (faith)? Are there no conditions, except to read these words?
The pastor declared to me "the entire forgiveness of all your sins." Which sins? The ones I committed since last Sunday? The ones I committed since an hour earlier when I had my private time of prayer and asked for God's forgiveness?
A half hour later, I was at the altar for Holy Communion and as the pastor handed me the glass of wine, he said "drink this for the forgiveness of your sins." Which sins did he mean? The ones I committed during the past half hour since he made the declaration of the entire forgiveness of all my sins?
During that half hour between, I heard a sermon in which I was again reminded of my "sinfulness" and how Jesus suffered and died a horrible death on account of my "sin." I was also told that I had a sinful nature, that I was a part of "fallen humanity," but not to worry because in my baptism I was "liberated from sin and death." I need never doubt God's forgiveness because I "have been sealed by the Holy Spirit and marked with the cross of Christ forever."
(I wondered how many others beside me knew he was quoting from the Order for Holy Baptism.)
The experience of worship in that particular Lutheran church was repeated many times in other Lutheran churches with some variations. Perhaps that is why my friend asked why Lutherans are obsessed with sin and forgiveness.
One of the serious issues involved here has to do with the very nature and meaning of forgiveness. Just what is this forgiveness we speak of so often and with so much repetition? What is God's forgiveness, and how is it experienced?
I get the distinct impression from some parts of the liturgy and from some sermons I have heard that God's forgiveness is a commodity, some "thing" that God dispenses. It is as though an exchange is made: I get baptized and God provides forgiveness. I read the words of the confession and God provides forgiveness. I consume the bread and wine of Holy Communion and God provides forgiveness.
Regarding God's forgiveness as a type of commodity not only makes forgiveness into a substance to be dispensed, but also makes it transitoryone minute I have it and the next minute I don't have it. In addition, it tends to communicate a noxious forgiveness, giving people a false security and assurance.
I grew up going to a Lutheran church. I was baptized when I was a baby, confirmed at age 12, and went to church on a fairly regular basis. I was usually considered to be a "good boy." At age 17, I began to experience a spiritual awakening with a growing desire for a closer and more meaningful relationship with the Lord.
When I was 19, I listened to a young man, about 2 years older than myself, share a personal witness about his relationship with God. He quoted a verse from the Bible"By grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God" (Ephesians 2:8).
He described salvation as living in a right relationship with God, which included the forgiveness of all our sins. He went on to describe how grace means God's gift, not something we earn, and that faith is our response, the way we receive this gift.
About that same time, I heard someone talk about the parable of Jesus found in Luke 15 where the wayward boy was welcomed home by his father. I learned the wonderful truth of what it means to live in a right relationship with God as my loving, heavenly Father, and I responded by opening my heart to Christ, receiving him as Lord and Savior, and dedicating my life to God.
Those experiences have stayed with me the rest of my life, and I have never seriously doubted God's salvation and forgiveness. I have always had what I call the "blessed assurance." Do I ever need to confess my sins? Yes, and on a regular basis. But not in order to be forgiven. I live in a constant relationship of forgiveness. Confession is rather a part of a nurturing, strengthening, and healing process. Failure to confess could lead to hardness of heart and indifference to sin. It could eventually disrupt and even break that relationship.
In addition, there could be occasions of gross transgression and wrong doing when I would need to seek a very special pardon from God, or a time of estrangement when I need to seek a renewed restoration and reconciliation.
The analogy of a human relationship can be helpful. My wife and I have a very close relationship, one of trust and harmony. Neither of us is perfect, and we both do things that adversely affect our relationship.
In other words, we "sin" against each other and our relationship. Are either of us ever unforgiven by the other? I don't think so. We live in a forgiven relationship where forgiveness is constant. Do we ever need to say we are sorry to each other? Yes, we do. Why? Not in order to be more forgiven, but rather to keep the relationship nurtured, strengthened, and healed.
Could there ever be the occasion where we would need a special pardon from the other, or a restoration of a broken relationship? Yes, it could happen. If there should be a gross transgression of the marriage vow, or a deep brokeness in the relationship, these would be occasions for a special confession and forgiveness that leads to pardon and restoration.
I am convinced that we in the church need to find better ways to communicate God's forgiveness. We need to find better ways to help people experience genuine forgiveness. We need to find better ways so that we will avoid giving false assurance, and will help people truly experience the "blessed assurance."
The endless repetition of the existing ritual will not do it. We need some people with an evangelical spirit, a clear understanding of the gospel, and skilled in contemporary rhetoric, to compose new liturgies. We also need to devise other settings and occasions to communicate forgiveness. These could be such things as small teaching groups, a structured and ordered Service of Reconciliation, equipping for personal evangelism, and retraining in preaching sermons.
The second question posed earlier was "When did Lutherans become so sacramental?" Perhaps the question should be worded "When did so many Lutherans become so sacramental?" That is assuming that some have always been that way.
The publication of the LBW in 1978 had something to do with it. In the introduction, it says that one of the goals of the Inter-Lutheran Commission on Worship (ILCW) that prepared the liturgy was "to restore to Holy Baptism the liturgical rank and dignity implied by Lutheran theology, and to draw out the baptismal motifs in such acts as the confession of sin and the burial of the dead" (p. 8).
The commission superbly achieved that goalat least to what they determined to be its proper "liturgical rank and dignity" which must surely be somewhat subjective.
I have been a Lutheran all my life, and have been in the ELCA since its beginning in 1987. Somewhere in the late 1970s and early 1980s, I noticed a gradual but dramatic shift in terminology beginning in denominational literature and later in "parish pastor talk." It was becoming increasing sacramental.
Baptism reached a new "rank and dignity" that seemingly permeated everything. I have heard it used as a descriptive adjective for most everything, including: baptismal calling, baptismal vocation, baptismal stewards, baptismal undertaking, baptismal evangelism, baptismal journey, baptismal destination, and baptismal life-style.
I have read that in baptism we are saved, called, commissioned, and ordained. One document says "Absolution is a speaking and hearing of the Word of God and a return to Baptism." A writer wrote, "The ministry of the baptized is a modern version of the priesthood of all believers."
Another wrote, "Through baptism God calls and empowers us" and "we live and breathe and move in our baptism."1 The common expression for Christians seems to be "the baptized."
Yet, what language does the Bible use? Nowhere in the Bible do we read about a "baptismal calling," or a "baptismal journey." Instead, we read about being called by the gospel, and called by Jesus Christ. The Christian life is described as a journey of faith and not a journey of baptism.2
Other biblical and theological motifs for baptism seem to have been lost or obscured with the evolved emphasis on sin and forgiveness. Whatever happened to the understanding of baptism as covenant? Initiation? Adoption? Sign and seal?
A similar evolution has taken place with the teaching and practices of the sacrament of Holy Communion.
I recall the days when Holy Communion seemed to have a variety of emphases, including remembrance, renewal, fellowship, thanksgiving, anticipation, and foretaste. My observation in visiting Lutheran churches nowadays is that the emphasis in Holy Communion is primarily, if not exclusively, a means of forgiveness.
In the questionnaire referred to earlier, I had a section on the relationship of Holy Communion to forgiveness. I indicated that in the written resources of most denominations, Jesus is quoted as "saying: This cup is the new covenant in my blood, shed for you and for all people for the forgiveness of sin." I pointed out that the RSV, NIV, and NRSV all have the wording "for this is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins."
I pointed out a two-fold variance. One is that we now have Jesus saying "for you and for all people" instead of "poured out, for many." The other is the word "sin" instead of "sins." I asked what difference these variances might make in our understanding and teaching of the relationship of Holy Communion and forgiveness.
As might be expected, I received varied responses ranging from being surprised to find this out, it makes no difference, you are splitting hairs, and they are intended to be a composite of the words of Jesus and not a quote.
I think it does make a difference, and I have a hunch it affects understanding, teaching, and emphasis. If it is not intended to be a quote from Jesus, should we precede his words with "saying?"
Instead of linking forgiveness with receiving Holy Communion, as though we were receiving something more of what we already have (more commodity?), we should be emphasizing the nurturing, strengthening, and healing role that this sacrament has in living out the Christian life.
It should be a special means that God uses to assure and re-assure us of his love and forgiving grace. It should be a time of thanksgiving, of remembering, of communing, of bonding, of celebrationnot another time for false assurance, but a time of "blessed assurance."
Justified by Baptism?
The third question posed was how did a church that claims as its core doctrine justification by faith become a church that teaches justification by baptism?
I can understand why some people would ask this question. It is a perception based on a lot of evidence.
In the New Testament we read that Christians were called "the believers." I read in Lutheran publications, and I listen to Lutheran pastors speak continually of Christians as "the baptized." Such a change is misleading and distorting.
We are also told that people should be encouraged to "affirm their baptism." Instead people should be encouraged to affirm their relationship with the Lord by a renewal of faith. And this faith is not faith in baptism, which is to confuse the means with the end. It is rather to put faith in Christ and his saving grace.
When my wife and I got married, we had a wedding. The wedding was an important event, but it has little to do with the health and wellbeing of our marriage today. We don't need to affirm our wedding. We need to affirm our relationship with love and grace that nurtures growth.
In a similar way, we don't affirm our baptism. We rather affirm God's grace made known to us in Christ, and his loving presence that sustains us day by day.
To speak of "the baptized" and to keep "affirming our baptism" smacks of a teaching that was rejected by Luther and the other reformers of his time. That teaching was called ex opere operato which referred to the idea that the sacraments were efficacious in and of themselves. The early reformers made it very clear that the efficacy of the sacraments depended on faith in Jesus Christ.
Article XIII of the Augsburg Confession is on "The Use of the Sacraments" and reads: "It is taught among us that the sacraments were instituted not only to be signs by which people might be identified outwardly as Christians, but that they are signs and testimonies of God's will toward us for the purpose of awakening and strengthening our faith. For this reason they require faith, and they are rightly used when they are received by faith and for the purpose of strengthening faith."3
The word justification may not be as viable in our day as it once was. To some it means to explain something away, and to others it means to prove you qualify. In biblical times, it meant to be declared guiltless or to be accounted righteous. To be justified by God meant to be put into a saving relationship with him. One result of justification is to have sins forgiven.
To be justified by grace means the saving relationship is a gift, not earned or achieved. But as with any gift, it is to be received and appropriated. That is why we speak of being justified by grace through faith. Faith is our response to God's gracious gift of forgiveness. It is living with the joy and peace that comes from the "blessed assurance."
Russell C. Lee is a retired pastor, from Albuquerque, New Mexico. He has continued to work as a part-time pastor, is one of the presenters of the "Mid-Sized Congregations Launch Event" sponsored by the Division for Congregational Ministries, ELCA, and is a consultant to congregations on renewal and growth.
1. Quotes are taken from various synod and congregational newsletters.
2. For example, see Hebrews 11 and 2 Corinthians 4 and 5.
3. "The Augsburg Confession," The Book of Concord, CA 13:1, ed. Theodore G. Tappert (Fortress: Philadelphia, 1959), p. 35.