I am currently commenting on the articles of the Apostle’s Creed. This is for my benefit as much as anything. These remarks are organized only because they are following the outline of the creed. So while they are not systematic, I hope they are not rambling either! I’m giving myself a refresher course and you’re invited to come along. And as you do I trust these few words may contribute something to your understanding of what it is to have faith in the God of Jesus.
“Forgiveness of sins? Who needs it? Certainly not me. After all, I have been wronged, insulted, the victim of endless forms of injustice. If anything I am the one who needs to do the forgiving.”
This sentiment voiced to me by a young man years ago is common. I have felt this way at times and you probably have too. When we in the churches throw the word of forgiveness around, as if the need for forgiveness is self-evident, it would be good for us to keep this in mind.
When Martin Luther writes of forgiveness in the Catechism he asks the question. ‘What are the benefits?” or, as we might say, ‘What good is it?, ‘What’s in it for me?” These are the right questions to ask because when the forgiveness of sins is proclaimed it is always to bring about something good, very good.
Luther uses two words to spell out the implications of forgiveness. Those words are “life and salvation”. This is not to say that both words do not have to do with each other. In a sense they complement and inform each other. But for the purposes of this brief examination let’s look at them separately.
Forgiveness is concerned with both the ultimate and the penultimate. When Luther speaks of forgiveness giving ‘life’, he is speaking of forgiveness in its’ penultimate form. Or, we could say ‘life’ for this world. We have all been in relationships that have been broken in some way. When this happens estrangement and a lack of reconciliation can become the living reality of that relationship. When the person or persons involved come up in conversation it is often in the context of accusation and bitterness. The broken relationship may be in the past but the hurts, disappointments, anger or bitterness have a way of following us into the present. The corrosive power of the broken relationship continues to work on the present.
Luther wants to speak to this limping sort of life that is chained, stuck to an unreconciled past. It is to our benefit to live in the context of forgiveness. God knows that the freedom to live in the present is largely dependent on freedom from the past with its’ disappointments and accusations. So, contained within the promise of forgiveness is the power that is able to free us for the present and opens the future.
It is your future that God is ultimately concerned with, your ultimate future. That is why the entire logic of the Gospel is predicated upon forgiveness. You or I may not feel the need for it, but our forgiveness is what Jesus specifically prayed for when He was dying on the cross. His death and forgiveness are forever linked. This takes us into the ultimate purpose of forgiveness.
Salvation is Luther’s second word and that brings us to the cross. On a hill outside an ancient city Jesus of Nazareth was executed as a common criminal. His crime was that He lived as if the world could actually be run on grace, on the love of God. That is why we are all implicated in His death. No, I was not there, and neither were you. But think about it. Do we dare to live as if grace and love are defining of life? Do we really want to? Do we love God and our neighbors as ourselves? So even though we were not in the immediate fellowship of those who actually condemned and killed Jesus, we do share with them and all humanity the fellowship of sin – the fellowship of those who reject love, who refuse to love as we would be loved.
This matters ultimately because you and I were created for love; love of God, neighbor and the self. That is our purpose. To live in any other way is to be in some sense subhuman. Even if we don’t normally think of love in these ultimate terms, we do care about it deeply. We all want love and those things that accompany it; friendship, understanding, acceptance, intimacy without pain. Even really evil people want these things in some form. Any kind of meaningful life is impossible without them. Yet, even though we want these things, and know others need them as well, we have a tendency to give hurt and rejection. This predisposition to distort, even reject the good in life is what the Bible calls sin. And this giving of hurt, this rejection of the good, of love, is ultimately a rejection of God, for God is love. The failure to love is finally a sin against God. That is why it is so serious. This broken relationship cannot be fixed by therapy, self-help or any of the other ways we try to address our estrangements. These are only temporary at best. Finally, sin takes us down the path of rejection to death. Only God can provide the forgiveness that frees us finally and completely from our failure to love and for our ultimate future, for salvation.
So, I confess my belief in the forgiveness of sins. In so doing I confess both my complicity in the lovelessness of the world and my trust in the forgiving love of God – and all its’ benefits – given for me in Jesus Christ for “life and salvation.”
“May the peace of God that passes all understanding keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus our Lord.“
Tomorrow: “The resurrection of the body…”