By Aaron T. Fenker
Are you really forgiven? Has your heavenly Father truly forgiven you? Did Jesus’ death actually pay for your sins? Sure!
Then you sin . . . again. Then you think about that sin . . . again. Then you think about doing that sin . . . again.
Not so sure then, huh? You want to do better, but that doesn’t bring you any assurance that your sins are forgiven.
You Can Be Certain
You can know, without a shadow of a doubt, that you really are forgiven. How? Because Jesus sent His pastors to forgive your sins, that’s how! Whatever sin your pastor forgives, it really is forgiven. By your pastor’s Word of forgiveness “your sins are forgiven before God in heaven” (Small Catechism).
Your pastor’s word “is just as valid and certain, even in heaven, as if Christ our dear Lord dealt with us Himself” (Small Catechism). That’s exactly what Jesus says. “This is what St. John the Evangelist writes in chapter twenty: The Lord Jesus breathed on His disciples and said, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive anyone his sins, they are forgiven'” (Small Catechism).
I Have a Confession to Make
Now, when we confess our sins, we confess that we’re “poor miserable sinners”, that we’ve sinned in “thought, word, and deed,” that our “thoughts and desires have been soiled with sin.” But most of the time, we equate “sins” with bad things we’ve done.
That’s not all that sin is, though, is it? We all know that we have thoughts that we don’t want anyone to know about. How many friends would we have left then? We all have desires (lusts) we’re ashamed of. If anyone knew about those, maybe our moms and dads would still love us, but that might be it! And if we’ve acted on those desires, well, good luck! We might be alone then.
But you’re never alone, and that’s the problem! God’s omniscient—all knowing! He knows your thoughts. He knows your desires. He knows “the imagination of man’s heart is evil from his youth” (Genesis 8:21). He knows “out of the heart proceed evil thoughts, murders, adulteries, fornications, thefts, false witness, blasphemies” (Matthew 15:19). If we’re honest with ourselves, we know it’s true! We need Him to “Create in me a clean heart, O God, And renew a right spirit within me” (Psalm 51:10). And He does! His promise is that He “will give you a new heart and put a new spirit within you” and “will take the heart of stone out of your flesh and give you a heart of flesh” (Ezekiel 36:26).
What Happens in the Absolution?
He wipes your sin away. “As far as the east is from the west, So far has He removed our transgressions from us” (Psalm 103:12). Your omniscient, all-knowing heavenly Father, doesn’t even “remember your sins” (Isaiah 43:25) because of His all-knowing Son’s death and resurrection, which won forgiveness (Luke 23:34) and the opening of Paradise (Luke 23:46). It’s delivered in the forgiveness spoken by your pastor, as Jesus commanded and promised (John 20:22-23), and that absolution “cleanses us from all unrighteousness” (1 John 1:9)—unrighteousness of thoughts and desires included!
When we sadly give in to the temptation, the desire, we can’t wrap our minds around Absolution being for our desires, too. Your pastor is certainly there for you to forgive you when you’ve fallen into sin, when desires and temptations have overwhelmed you. He’s there to restore you “in a spirit of gentleness,” to help “bear one another’s burdens” (Galatians 6:1). He does this with the Absolution: forgiving your sins and the deep-seated desires that produced them.
But Wait, There’s More!
Yes, more! Absolution covers even more! What if you wanted to do something bad, really bad, maybe even horrible, but you didn’t actually do it? That’s great! By the power of the Holy Spirit, you’re a new man in Christ, created in Holy Baptism and sustained by the Spirit in the Word and Body and Blood of Jesus. God be praised! He answered your prayer to “lead us not into temptation.” The Holy Spirit truly has and continues to sanctify you (Third Article of the Apostles’ Creed). To God alone be the glory!
But I’m Just Not Feeling It!
What if it bothers you, though? I mean, you’re supposed to be happy, right? It’s a very good thing when temptation is ignored, when evil is avoided. It’s awesome! It should make you happy that it was. But you’re not. Why? Well, maybe you’re worried that people will judge you for it. If they only knew what you’d planned, they’d judge you, condemn you, disown you! So, maybe you lash out when people condemn that sin in others. That sin, along with all sins, should be condemned, but the truth is, you’re angry because you still feel like they’re really condemning you, right?
Or maybe you’re disturbed by the very fact that you even thought about doing something so awful. You know that everyone would tell you, “But you didn’t actually do it, so you don’t need to worry.” Maybe you tell yourself that, too, but that’s all just empty comfort. It won’t last. Whether your response is anger or despair, the underlying idea is the same: your works determine your forgiveness. You can make up for something you do, but how do you make up for an idea, a thought, a plan? You can’t. Think better thoughts, maybe, but that just gets you all mixed up!
So, What’s the Answer?
“Absolution, that is, forgiveness from pastor as from God Himself” (Small Catechism)—that’s the answer! That’s Jesus’ answer to the problem—the problem of sin, of sinful actions, of desires and temptations (whether you give in to them or not). It’s why Jesus sent you a pastor, to forgive your sins of “thought, word, and deed,” to forgive even your desires and thoughts that “have been soiled with sin.” Your pastor has the command, power, and authority to forgive your sins—all your sins! That’s Jesus’ promise to you! Are you really forgiven? Yes, your pastor is there to do exactly that.
Rev. Aaron T. Fenker is the pastor of Bethlehem and Immanuel Lutheran churches in Bremen, Kansas. He is also the dean of theology for Higher Things.
This article was originally published in the winter 2016 issue of Higher Things Magazine.