April 8, 2018
When Jesus rose from the dead he proved that God the Father accepted his payment on the cross for the sins of the whole world. Everything that separated us from God and barred us from eternal life was destroyed. His resurrection is a shout of victory that rattles the very depths of hell. Jesus won. Our sins are washed away. Peace with God is made. Sinners now have access to heaven. And this is what Jesus says when he says to his disciples, "Peace be with you." This is the message of the mark of the nails and the spear; God's peace to you.
Jesus won a tremendous victory with his resurrection, but God desires to give us the victory. He does this when Jesus says to his disciples, "Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you withhold forgiveness from any, it is withheld." With these words Jesus places the victory of his resurrection from the dead and all the benefits that flow from it into the mouth of the Church. It is now Christ's Church, which is the sole possessor of the forgiveness of sins, which are the very keys to heaven. This is what Christ said to St. Peter in Matthew chapter 16, "On this rock I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven." (vss. 18-19)
Again St. Paul says this very thing in Ephesians chapter 2, that after God raised Jesus from the dead, "he put all things under his feet and gave him as head over all things to the church, which is his body, the fullness of him who fills all in all." (vss. 22-23) God has given Christ to the Church to be her head. The Church is Christ's body. Everything that belongs to the head belongs also to the body. This means, that the Church is the sole owner of Christ's victory over death, the forgiveness of sins, the very Gospel. This means that the only way to heaven is through the ministry of the Church.
People get uncomfortable with that language, because people often think that the Church is a human organization constructed by people. But the Church is not a man-made institution. Christ Jesus established his Church through his suffering and death on the cross. When I say that the Church is the sole possessor of the keys to heaven and only through the ministry of the Church can someone enter heaven, I am saying that only through faith in Christ's word can anyone be saved. And the Church is, by definition, where the word of Christ is preached in its truth and purity and where the Sacraments of Christ are rightly administered. Where there is the preaching of the forgiveness of sins through Jesus Christ and people who hear and believe this preaching, there is the Church. Where this word is absent, so also is Christ's Church absent.
Martin Luther wrote on this same text, "Christ places his suffering and resurrection in the mouths of his apostles and subjugates under them all the power of the devil and of hell, together with heaven and eternal life." Jesus has done all the work to save us! The benefits of Christ's resurrection are now given through the word alone, which means that they are received through faith alone. By placing all the power of his resurrection into the mouth of the Church, Christ has made it clear that your salvation does not depend on your good works or your ability to reform your life or on any amount of effort on your part. The only access you have to Christ's victory over sin, death, and hell is through his word. And the only way you can receive this victory is through faith in his word.
This should be of great comfort for you, because your salvation does not depend on shifting sand, but is founded on the rock of God's Word. God cannot lie. If he says that your sins are forgiven, then your sins are truly forgiven. This message has the power to bring comfort to even the most bereaved conscience, and even more than that, it has the power to give life to your mortal body.
Pastors ordinarily forgive sins, yet when a pastor is not available any Christian can speak the forgiveness of sins and it is true even before God in heaven, because Christ has given the power to forgive sins not to individuals, but to his whole Church. Yet, people object to the idea that ordinary men can forgive sins. Yet, it is not through the power of ordinary men that the sins are forgiven, but through the power of God himself. When Ezekiel prophesied to the bones, it was God's power working through Ezekiel's words that gave life and breath to the dried-up bones. And for this same reason, your Small Catechism teaches you that in the absolution "we receive forgiveness from the pastor as from God himself, not doubting but firmly believing that by it our sins are forgiven before God in heaven."
It is the chief duty of the Church to proclaim the forgiveness of sins for Christ's sake. And the pastor doesn't forgive sins only when he declares the absolution (whether privately or publicly). The pastor forgives sins when he baptizes and when he distributes Christ's body and blood in the Sacrament, and when he preaches the Gospel in his sermon. In the words of Baptism, the Sacrament of the Altar, and the preached Gospel is the very power of Christ's resurrection. And when you believe these words you receive all the benefits of Christ's victory over death, just as Jesus said, "If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven."
Christ gives his Church the awesome authority to forgive sins. Yet, he also gives his church authority to withhold forgiveness. This teaching is even more controversial than ordinary people having authority to forgive sins. Of course, the authority to forgive sins comes from the same source as the authority to withhold forgiveness: Christ himself. And while many disagree with the practice of the church withholding forgiveness from openly unrepentant sinners, this is not a humanly-contrived practice, but an explicit command from Christ. And believe it or not, Jesus knows how to shepherd his sheep better than any of us.
Jesus says in Matthew chapter 18 that if a sinner refuses to listen even to the church, "let him be to you as a Gentile or a tax collector. Truly, I say to you, whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven." And St. Paul writes in 1 Corinthians chapter 5, "When you are assembled in the name of the Lord Jesus and my spirit is present, with the power of our Lord Jesus, you are to deliver this man to Satan for the destruction of the flesh, so that his spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord." (vss. 4-5)
From St. Paul's words we learn why Jesus gives the command to remove unrepentant sinners from the Christian congregation. Paul tells us it is "so that his spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord." The goal is always for the sinner to repent and receive forgiveness of sins. But if a sinner does not repent, he cannot receive forgiveness. Yet, if a sinner does repent, even if he has been removed from the congregation through excommunication, the repentant sinner should be welcomed back as a lost brother returning home, or as a son, who is raised from the dead (Luke 15:32). As St. Paul speaks of the same excommunicated sinner in 2 Corinthians 2, "For such a one, this punishment by the majority is enough, so you should rather turn to forgive and comfort him, or he may be overwhelmed by excessive sorrow. So I beg you to reaffirm your love for him." (vss. 6-8)
The other reason for removing openly unrepentant sinners from the Christian congregation is for the sake of the weak. "A little leaven leavens the whole lump.", St. Paul says. The church only has authority to remove openly unrepentant sinners, because none of us can see the hearts of individuals and we are forbidden to judge (Matthew 7:1). But openly unrepentant sinners hurt not only themselves, but others, by leading them into sin or scandalizing them, so that they flee from the church. So, the binding of sins to sinners, who refuse to repent not only benefits the sinner, so that he can repent and be forgiven. It also benefits the whole church by setting a good example.
The authority to preach the Gospel is the authority to forgive and retain sins. This means that it is the duty of the preacher of the Gospel to also preach the Law. Without the bitterness of the Law, the Gospel will be as appetizing as rich food to someone who's belly is ready to burst. St. Paul writes, "For apart from the law, sin lies dead. I was once alive apart from the law, but when the commandment came, sin came alive and I died." (Romans 7:8b-9) What this means is: apart from the Law, although sin is active in our members, it is hidden from our conscience. This is why St. Paul writes, "Apart from the law, sin lies dead." It is not that sin does not exist or that we don't sin. But rather, we sin without realizing the great danger we are in. But when the Law tells you what your sins are (for example, in the Ten Commandments), then sin comes alive in your conscience and burdens you greatly, so that, as Paul says, you die. You must become aware of your sins and their danger in order to receive the Gospel, which rescues from sin.
Pastors preach the Law, so that you become abundantly aware of the danger you are in; that you deserve to be punished in hell; that your sins separate you from the love of God. This preaching of the Law has the ultimate goal of you repenting of your sins, so that you can receive the forgiveness of sins through faith. The Law is also preached, so that Christians know that they do not have saving faith if they continue in sin without repenting. True faith causes Christians to constantly turn from their sins and seek absolution. This does not mean that Christians do not sin. It means that Christians constantly seek the remedy for sin, which is forgiveness from Christ through his death and resurrection.
The Gospel must predominate over the Law, because the forgiveness of sins is the primary task of the Church. This is why Christ placed his resurrection victory into the mouth of the Church. The Law is a servant to the Gospel, used to drive sinners to repentance by enlivening sin in their conscience. The Church does not preach the Law in order to drive people away from Christ, but so that they seek Christ, who alone offers safe-haven from their sins.
Christ won a great victory for you in his resurrection; a victory that gives you peace with God and eternal life. The only way for you to receive this victory is through faith. So, Christ put all the power of his resurrection into his Word and placed this word into the mouth of the Church, so that he might transfer his victory into your heart. Hear these words: Your sins are forgiven. These are not empty words, but words empowered by the very resurrection of Christ. They have Christ's authority and are true even before God in heaven and are believed by him and his angels. These words have the power even to raise your dry bones to new life. These words have the power of Christ's resurrection. And if you believe them, so do you. Amen.