Trusting in the Forgiveness of Sins
The Nineteenth Sunday after Trinity| St. Matthew 9:1-8| October 10, 2010
So he got into a boat, crossed over, and came to His own city. Then behold, they brought to Him a paralytic lying on a bed. When Jesus saw their faith, He said to the paralytic, “Son, be of good cheer; your sins are forgiven you.” And at once some of the scribes said within themselves, “This Man blasphemes!” But Jesus, knowing their thoughts, said, “Why do you think evil in your hearts? For which is easier, to say, ‘Your sins are forgiven you,’ or to say, ‘Arise and walk’? But that you may know that the Son of Man has power on earth to forgive sins”; then He said to the paralytic, “Arise, take up your bed, and go to your house.” And he arose and departed to his house. Now when the multitudes saw it, they marveled and glorified God, who had given such power to men. St. Matthew 9:1-8
I believe in the forgiveness of sins. So we confess. It’s right there in the Apostles’ Creed. But while Christians all over the world confess this, millions of them doubt that their sins are forgiven. They say they believe in the forgiveness of sins, but this remains an abstract doctrine that provides no personal assurance for them. This is often because they have been taught falsely.
It does no good to believe in the forgiveness of sins if you do not believe that your sins are forgiven. Forgiveness is a very personal matter – just as sin is personal. There is no such thing as corporate guilt. God says through the prophet Ezekiel, “The soul who sins shall die. The son shall not bear the guilt of the father, nor the father bear the guilt of the son. The righteousness of the righteous shall be upon himself, and the wickedness of the wicked shall be upon himself.” (Ezekiel 18:20) Personal sin entails personal responsibility and requires personal forgiveness if the sinner is to be set free from its consequences. And, as St. Paul reminds us, the wages of sin is death.
The evidence of sin is all around us. We can see it with our eyes. A paralyzed man lying on a cot is evidence of sin – not of his sin, but of sin. Surely, it was not a part of the world that God saw on the sixth day of creation and said that it was very good. Sickness is not good, even if God can use it to do good. In a sinless world there would be no paralysis. There would be no cancer, no heart disease, or any other kind of physical malady. The paralytic lying on a bed is clear visual evidence of sin.
Furthermore, when Jesus healed the paralytic of his paralysis he provided clear visual evidence that he had the authority here on earth to forgive sin. He said, “Son, be of good cheer; your sins are forgiven you.” The Bible scholars thought he was blaspheming. They didn’t say it. They just thought it. But Jesus could see their thoughts. He responded to what they were thinking. He said:
But that you may know that the Son of Man has power on earth to forgive sins”; then He said to the paralytic, “Arise, take up your bed, and go to your house.”
And then what happened? The paralyzed man stood up, picked up his bed, and went to his house. The visual evidence of sin was lying helpless on the cot. The visual evidence of the forgiveness of sin was walking on two healthy legs carrying his cot on the way to his house.
Jesus proved it. He didn’t just talk. He did. What he did confirmed what he said. He did miracles. The Bible calls them signs. The signs signified that his teaching was true. He claimed the authority on earth to forgive sins. He demonstrated the authority on earth to forgive sins. That ought to settle it, oughtn’t it?
Ah, but as God said through the prophet Jeremiah, “The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked; who can know it?” (Jeremiah 17:9) While Jesus did establish once and for all his authority on earth to forgive sins, this authority has been ignored, denied, and despised by men who think they know better than God how God should forgive sinners their sins. Many of these men have assumed influential positions in the Church and have thereby misled millions of Christians for hundreds of years, depriving them of the comfort that their Lord Jesus wants them to have.
Jesus claimed to have authority here on earth to forgive sins. Yet this forgiveness is withheld from those for whom it is intended. There are three false teachings that keep forgiveness away from sinners. The first false teaching defines sin away so that it no longer viewed as a threat. The second false teaching denies that God forgives us our sins through words spoken by a man. The third false teaching requires the sinner to make amends for his own sins before he can be forgiven.
Sin is defined away. If you are no longer a sinner you don’t need the forgiveness of sins. It’s not that sin is overtly denied. It’s ignored. Many churches today have simply stopped preaching about sin and repentance. Feelgoodism parades itself as the gospel. Even churches that market themselves as conservative and Bible-believing have replaced the gospel with some version of Norman Vincent Peale’s power of positive thinking. When people no longer think of such things as divine retribution against sinners they will no longer yearn for the forgiveness of their own sins. Instead of seeing sin within themselves that they should confess to God they see obstacles that they can overcome if they follow this or that program of self-improvement. When their sin is defined away, sinners won’t seek forgiveness.
The second false teaching denies that God speaks words of forgiveness through the mouth of a mere human being. “Only God can forgive sins!” they piously assert, as if they are giving all glory to God and don’t wish to insult God by claiming for men what only God can do. But they are insulting God. They are taking issue with his only begotten Son who said as clear as day, “The Son of man has authority on earth to forgive sins.” And Jesus did not take this authority away from this earth. Just the opposite. Jesus died on the cross to take away the sin of the world. After he rose from the dead and before he ascended into heaven Jesus breathed on his disciples and said, “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.” Who is going to argue with Jesus?
But people insist on doing just that. Most protestant churches deny that God forgives us sinners through words spoken by men. Whereas the Bible teaches that God gives us forgiveness of sins in Holy Baptism, in the Lord’s Supper, and in the absolution, they insist otherwise. They say that the sacraments are just signs that God is gracious but that they don’t really bestow what they signify, that they don’t actually give the forgiveness of sins. Thus, the sacraments are stripped of their power and consolation.
How can water wash away sins? How can bread and wine be the body and the blood of Jesus, given and shed for the forgiveness of sins? How can a sinful man speak words that convey to us the forgiveness of sins? Human reason cries out: “It cannot be!” In this way man corrects God. What our fallen and sinful human reason says becomes the standard for the teaching. Christians are deprived of the comfort and assurance that the means of grace provide. That the Son of Man has power on earth to forgive sins becomes purely theoretical because they don’t know where and how he actually forgives sins. So they manufacture various religious experiences designed to provide them with the peace they seek.
The third false teaching affirms that God does indeed give us forgiveness of sins through words spoken by a man but that you cannot know you are forgiven unless you have made a sincere act of contrition or penance. You must do your part. You must do what you can do to make it right. Only then are you permitted to believe that you are forgiven. Can you be sure you are forgiven? No, because God’s word doesn’t settle the matter for you. You do. But you’ll never know if you’ve done enough.
Our Lord Jesus wants us to be sure that our sins are forgiven. He did not submit himself to the law of God, offering his holy life in obedience all the way to his sacrificial death on the cross, bearing all of our sins, in order to leave us in doubt concerning the forgiveness of our sins. He healed the paralytic to prove his power to forgive sins right here on earth where we sinners need it. Here we live. Here we sin. We are faced with the demands of the Ten Commandments and we see our sins. We have rebelled against authority. We are guilty of hatred, lust, greed, and covetousness. We have sinned against God by thought, word, and deed. Here we mourn our failures and return to God in sorrow and contrition. Here it must be that we can listen to words from God that actually convey to our hearts the forgiveness of sins we so desperately need.
Three things must go together. Then and only then can we have the assurance that our sins are forgiven. They are the vicarious satisfaction of Jesus, God’s Word, and our faith. Jesus satisfied God’s law for us. He did so vicariously, that is, as our substitute. All that God’s commandments required of us he did and he did it perfectly. Thus he won forgiveness for us.
The forgiveness that Jesus won for us he gives to us in his gospel and sacraments. The gospel that we hear, the washing with which we are washed, the Supper of his body and blood that we eat and drink, and his spoken absolution are his word to us here on earth where we live. We don’t look for forgiveness in heaven because we cannot leap up to heaven and get it. We don’t look for forgiveness in our own satisfactions because we cannot satisfy the demands of God’s law – only Jesus can and only Jesus did. We don’t look for forgiveness by defining sin away as if by putting our heads in the sand we will be safe from the vengeance of God.
No, we look for forgiveness where Jesus has located it and in these precious means of grace we put our trust. Yes, we trust in our baptism. We trust in the gospel we hear. We trust in the Lord’s Supper. We trust in the absolution.
Oh, no! That cannot be! We can just hear the objections. You should not trust in rites and ceremonies. You should trust in Jesus!
Well, that sounds pious enough, but brothers and sisters in Christ, what does it mean to trust in Jesus? Does it not mean that we are to trust in what he says? What he says, not what we imagine. And what does Jesus say? Jesus says the Son of Man has power on earth to forgive sins and Jesus says that Holy Baptism washes away sins and Jesus says that his holy Supper gives us forgiveness of sins and Jesus says that he absolves us in the absolution spoken by his ministers. Jesus says. So we believe. Jesus earned forgiveness for us by shedding his blood for us. Jesus gives forgiveness to us in his gospel and sacraments. By trusting in these precious means of salvation, our faith receives from Jesus the forgiveness we need. Amen