Friday, September 28, 2012

Jesus and Justification

Is the doctrine of forensic justification an innovation of the Reformation?  Something that was formulated by Martin Luther as a result of his struggles with sin and an overly active guilty conscience?  A lot of digital ink has been used up at various blogs over the last several months on this question.  Those of Roman Catholic persuasion believe that Reformed Christians are overly forensic in their interpretation of this doctrine and thus are not being consistent with Jesus' teaching in the Gospels, not to mention that of the entire New Testament.  I'm not going to rehash the arguments here.  Rather, I want to offer up some relevant thoughts from John Fesko's book Justification - Understanding the Classic Reformed Doctrine.

Dr. Fesko shows that Scripture teaches justification is indeed forensic and a concept not foreign to Jesus.  Even though the doctrine is not fully explained in the Gospels, this shouldn't cause one to dismiss the apostle Paul's more extensive teaching. One can prematurely draw a wrong conclusion by requiring a fully developed doctrine from the mouth of Christ.  As J. Gresham Machen wrote in The Origin of Paul's Religion, Jesus for Paul was primarily not a Revealer, but a Savior.  So then, what one finds in chapter eight of the book is a section having to do with the law-court aspect of justification in which Dr. Fesko highlights Jesus' parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector to show Christ's own use of the term.  Fesko writes that justification
is about the verdict that God passes upon the person who stands in his presence, the verdict of guilty or innocent.  This theme of standing before the tribunal of God is found in the OT:  "Keep far from a false charge, and do not kill the innocent and righteous, for I will not acquit the wicked" (Ex. 23:7; Deut. 25:1; Prov. 17:15).  God will not acquit the wicked, which is why Paul explains that Abraham receives his righteous status by faith alone.  Moreover, God imputes the obedience, or righteousness, of Christ to Abraham.  This interpretation is also confirmed by Christ's use of the term "justification."
Christ explains in the parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector the nature of justification and how it relates to righteousness:
He also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and treated others with contempt: “Two men went up into the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee, standing by himself, prayed thus: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other men, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give tithes of all that I get.’ But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even lift up his eyes to heaven, but beat his breast, saying, ‘God, be merciful to me, a sinner!’ I tell you, this man went down to his house justified, rather than the other. (Luke 18:9-14)
Notice that Christ uses the parable against those who trusted in themselves, who thought they were righteous or innocent before God and loyal to the Torah.  In this parable Christ describes the Pharisee... in terms of the general commands of Torah: thievery, injustice, adultery, fasting, and tithing.  It is in these term of Torah observance that some of the Jews thought they were righteous.
Fitzmyer observes that this parable shows that Christ - recognized that righteousness in God's sight was not to be achieved by boasting or even by self-confident activity (either the avoidance of evil or the striving for good in the observance of Mosaic and Pharisaic regulations).  This saying about justification is important for it may reveal that the NT teaching about the matter is somehow rooted in Jesus' own attitude and teaching: One achieves uprightness before God not by one's own activity but by a contrite recognition of one's own sinfulness before him.  Hence, "the Pauline doctrine of justification has its roots in the teaching of Jesus."
For these reasons Paul makes statements like "a person is not justified by works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ: (Gal. 2:16), to counter the idea that a person is righteous by being obedient to the Torah.  By contrast, the tax collector who sought the mercy of God and the forgiveness of sins was justified before the tribunal of God... (pp. 237-240)

Thomas Cranmer's legacy...

A fascinating essay, Cranmer's Ambiguous Legacy by Diarmaid MacCulloch, looks at the woulda coulda shoulda had the Lady Jane Grey taken the throne instead of Queen Mary after the death of Edward VI, and thus leaving Archbishop Cranmer alive to continue the English reformation.  MacCulloch, a first-rate historian and scholar who authored the exceptional biography Thomas Cranmer - A Life, opens the article with the question, Archbishop Thomas Cranmer died at the stake in 1556, a martyr for the English Reformation; but did he die a martyr for the Church of England or for Anglicanism? Had he lived?  MacColluch:

Archbishop Cranmer, living to his allotted three-score years and ten or beyond, could produce a third version of his two earlier Prayer Books of 1549 and 1552, in the light of friendly criticism from continental reformers whom he respected, like Peter Martyr, Johann Heinrich Bullinger and Calvin. He would be succeeded as archbishop by Nicholas Ridley or Robert Holgate, with energetic younger. reformers like Edmund Grindal ready to make their mark and pick up good ideas from the best reformed churches of Europe... 
Out in the parishes, metrical psalms in the style of Geneva would quickly have spread: these were the best secret weapon of the English Reformation, making its public worship and private devotional practice genuinely popular throughout increasing areas of the kingdom. This congregational music would also take over in the cathedrals, now devoid of choirs or polyphony, and with their organs (where they survived) used mainly for entertainment in the Dutch fashion...
England would have become the most powerful political player in the Reformed camp, with Cranmer a cordial if geographically distant partner with John Calvin. It is powerfully symbolic that it was Cranmer's son-in-law Thomas Norton who translated Calvin's Institutes into English, and Cranmer's veteran printer Reyner Wolfe who published it. With a Cranmer-Calvin axis, the profile of Reformed religion across the whole Continent would have been changed, and with the help and encouragement of Bishop Knox, the Reformation in Scotland might have followed a close path to the Reformed Church of England.
As MacCulloch notes, this was not to be.  The Roman Catholic Mary did take the throne. Cranmer, along with Ridley and Latimer, was martyred.  But MacColluch does go on to briefly survey what happened to the Church of England with the emergence of Anglicanism over the course of the ensuing four centuries.  He sums up what he understands to be Cranmer's lasting heritage:
Yet he spared the users of the Prayer Book the worst pomposities of humanism and the sprawling sentence constructions which are only too common in the English prose writers of the sixteenth century. He stands prominently amid a select band of Tudor writers from Tyndale to Shakespeare who set English on its future course...

He would not have known what Anglicanism meant, and would probably not have approved if the meaning had been explained to him, but without his contribution, the unending dialogue of Protestantism and Catholicism which forms Anglican identity would not have been possible. Beyond the concerns of Christianity, for all those who criticise his politics, or find his theology alien, Cranmer's language remains as the most enduring monument to Henry Vlll's and Edward VI's most faithful servant. Twentieth-century scholarship has reminded us just how fundamental is the structure of language to the way in which we construct our lives and our culture. Cranmer's language lies at the heart of our own English-speaking culture, which has now become so central to the destiny of the world.  
Read the whole thing.

Hat tip:  Anglicans in the Wilderness

Saturday, September 22, 2012

A Church or a clean club?

[A companion to this post from March 2012: Word and Sacrament - Gospel Sanctification]

I have a friend, an elderly English gentleman, who left the Anglican Church back in the 1960s.  He said that he finally had come to the conclusion that the Church of England was basically a clean club.  I don't think that was necessarily an accurate assessment of every parish in the Church, but what did he mean by that?  Maybe that the Church seemed to be made up of pretty decent people who, more or less, were doing pretty well with this Christian life thing.  That all was pretty good in the lives of the flock.  No big struggles with sin.  No bouts with doubts.  And that just didn't describe his life which was fraught with struggles and weaknesses.  The Church, in his eyes, seemed to be the place for the mostly-together-good people, a clean club.

So, what is wrong with that?  Well, there's nothing wrong with people doing OK.  But there is something wrong with the idea that the Lord's house is a place for people who are not that bad, people who are pretty good.  My friend's description of his church is a picture of how Christians, and people in general, tend to look on the surface.  Yet it's this surface image of a clean club which we protectively hold that minimizes the reality of our sinful natures and the sins that beset us.  Being a card-carrying member of a clean club short-circuits the need to hear God's unvarnished Law which exposes and magnifies our sin, leaving one with little thirst for the cleansing comfort of God's amazing grace declared in His Gospel.

Think of the incident found in Luke 7:
36 Now one of the Pharisees was requesting Him to dine with him, and He entered the Pharisee’s house and reclined at the table. 37 And there was a woman in the city who was a sinner; and when she learned that He was reclining at the table in the Pharisee’s house, she brought an alabaster vial of perfume, 38 and standing behind Him at His feet, weeping, she began to wet His feet with her tears, and kept wiping them with the hair of her head, and kissing His feet and anointing them with the perfume. 39 Now when the Pharisee who had invited Him saw this, he said to himself, “If this man were a prophet He would know who and what sort of person this woman is who is touching Him, that she is a sinner.”

Parable of Two Debtors

40 And Jesus answered him, “Simon, I have something to say to you.” And he replied, “Say it, Teacher.” 41 “A moneylender had two debtors: one owed five hundred denarii, and the other fifty. 42 When they were unable to repay, he graciously forgave them both. So which of them will love him more?” 43 Simon answered and said, “I suppose the one whom he forgave more.” And He said to him, “You have judged correctly.” 44 Turning toward the woman, He said to Simon, “Do you see this woman? I entered your house; you gave Me no water for My feet, but she has wet My feet with her tears and wiped them with her hair. 45 You gave Me no kiss; but she, since the time I came in, has not ceased to kiss My feet. 46 You did not anoint My head with oil, but she anointed My feet with perfume. 47 For this reason I say to you, her sins, which are many, have been forgiven, for she loved much; but he who is forgiven little, loves little.” 48 Then He said to her, Your sins have been forgiven.” 49 Those who were reclining at the table with Him began to say to themselves, “Who is this man who even forgives sins?” 50 And He said to the woman, Your faith has saved you; go in peace.”
Which debtor are we?  The one who owes a small amount or the one who owes an enormous debt?  Well, if you're like me, you do think of yourself as a sinner, but not that big of a sinner!  It's especially so because, hey, we've been Christians for quite a while.  We've made progress.  We've grown.  I've improved and am more acceptable than I use to be.  We think what we mainly need is, not the blood of the cross, but more grace and help to live as we ought.  The emphasis can become less and less on what our Savior Christ Jesus has done for us sinners and more on how we can grow to better live for God.

The Reformers were on to something; and that something was that we Christians are indeed very big debtors, in their words - miserable sinners.  They preached the Law in order to do much more than just inform Christians on how they were to live.  Rather, the Law was presented in order to reveal, within the hearers, sin as utterly sinful.  They also boldly proclaimed the reconciliation of sinners in Christ Jesus.  And sinners/saints having heard, looked with renewed faith to Christ alone as those reckoned righteous by God's grace.

In the incident above, Jesus was teaching what it means to be a Christian, not just what it means to initially get saved.  In other words, we are great sinners who have mercifully received a great salvation.  And, I don't think the apostle Paul was merely waxing eloquent when he declared near the end of his life to Timothy, Faithful is the saying, and worthy of all acceptation, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners; of whom I am chief (1 Tim. 1:15). We loses sight of this since part of what it means to be a sinner is to be one who denies or obscures his sin, in a clean-club sort of way.  Therefore, it falls to the Church, through the ministry of Word and Sacrament, to perpetually call believers to not dissemble nor cloak our [sins] before the face of Almighty God our heavenly Father; but acknowledge and confess them with an humble, lowly, penitent, and obedient heart; to the end that we may obtain forgiveness of the same, by His infinite goodness and mercy in Christ Jesus (Morning Prayer 1662 BCP).

So let's be done with clean clubs and take direction from Martin Luther who, in a letter to Spalatin, wrote:
Therefore my faithful request and admonition is that you join our company and associate with us, who are real, great, and hard-boiled sinners.  You must by no means make Christ to seem paltry and trifling to us, as though He could be our Helper only when we want to be rid from imaginary, nominal, and childish sins.  No, no!  That would not be good for us.  He must rather be a Savior and Redeemer from real, great, grievous, and damnable transgressions and iniquities, yea, from the very greatest and most shocking sins; to be brief, from all sins added together in a grand total.
Jesus Christ gave Himself to die on the cross to save real sinners with real sins.

Thursday, September 13, 2012

Reformed Liturgical Confession and Absolution

Concerning the forgiveness of sins, the last two posts (Here and Here) show that 'the power of forgiving or retaining sins is in the power of the gospel preached' and as Calvin noted, strictly speaking "Christ did not give this power to men but to his word, of which he made men the ministers."

So then, when the Lord's people publicly gather for worship, is it necessary to have a public confession of sin and absolution apart from the hearing of the Gospel in the sermon preached?  Isn't hearing the gospel and believing enough?  And, if there is to be a confession and absolution, how is it to be worded in order to reflect the biblical truth that forgiveness of sins comes through repentance and faith in Christ Jesus alone as proclaimed in that gospel and not by the word of man, even that of a godly minister?

Here's John Calvin addressing that first question concerning public confession of sin:
Seeing that in every sacred assembly we stand in the view of God and angels, in what way should our service begin but in acknowledging our own unworthiness? But this you will say is done in every prayer; for as often as we pray for pardon, we confess our sins. I admit it. But if you consider how great is our carelessness, or drowsiness, or sloth, you will grant me that it would be a salutary ordinance if the Christian people were exercised in humiliation by some formal method of confession. For though the ceremony which the Lord enjoined on the Israelites belonged to the tutelage of the Law, yet the thing itself belongs in some respect to us also. And, indeed, in all well-ordered churches, in observance of an useful custom, the minister, each Lord's day, frames a formula of confession in his own name and that of the people, in which he makes a common confession of iniquity, and supplicates pardon from the Lord. In short, by this key a door of prayer is opened privately for each, and publicly for all. (Institutes 3.4.2)
and...
Our first entrance into the Church and the kingdom of God is by forgiveness of sins, without which we have no covenant nor union with God. For thus he speaks by the Prophet, "in that day will I make a covenant for them with the beasts of the field, and with the fowls of heaven, and with the creeping things of the ground: and I will break the bow, and the sword, and the battle, out of the earth, and will make them to lie down safely. And I will betroth thee unto me for ever; yea, I will betroth thee unto me in righteousness, and in judgment, and in loving-kindness, and in mercies (Hos. 2:18, 19). We see in what way the Lord reconciles us to Himself by His mercy. So in another passage, where he foretells that the people whom he had scattered in anger will again be gathered together, I will cleanse them from all their iniquity, whereby they have sinned against me (Jer. 33:8). Wherefore, our initiation into the fellowship of the Church is by the symbol of ablution, to teach us that we have no admission into the family of God, unless by His goodness our impurities are previously washed away.
Nor by remission of sins does the Lord only once for all elect and admit us into the Church, but by the same means He preserves and defends us in it. For what would it avail us to receive a pardon of which we were afterwards to have no use? That the mercy of the Lord would be vain and delusive if only granted once, all the godly can bear witness; for there is none who is not conscious, during his whole life, of many infirmities which stand in need of divine mercy. And truly it is not without cause that the Lord promises this gift specially to his own household, nor in vain that He orders the same message of reconciliation to be daily delivered to them. Wherefore, as during our whole lives we carry about with us the remains of sin, we could not continue in the Church one single moment were we not sustained by the uninterrupted grace of God in forgiving our sins." (Institutes 4.1.20)
I doubt there are many who would argue against Calvin's reasoning here.  Certainly the practice had a long tradition in church history and was found in all the confessional churches of the Reformation - Lutheran, Reformed, and Presbyterian.  The thing I really want to look at, though, is how the reformers worded the confession of sin and absolution in their liturgies.  Or put another way, how did the reformed ministers of the gospel exercise the keys of the kingdom when it came to public confession of sin and assurance of pardon?  

As you'll see below, the power of forgiveness was anchored in the Gospel and not the minister.  One of the striking things in the following examples is that the minister offers absolution not to just anyone sitting in the pew, but only to those who repent and believe in the gospel.  Absolution is not merely a word proclaimed by the minister.  Rather, it is a sure and certain pardon offered and proclaimed by the minister to all who repent and believe in Christ Jesus for the forgiveness of their sins.  By the hearing of the Good News offered in Christ Jesus via the words of God's ordained minister of the gospel, the faith of the sinner/saint is engaged.  And it is through faith in Christ that forgiveness and mercy are received by the grace of God.

Martin Bucer's 1539 Liturgy:
Public Confession of Sins
Make confession to God the Lord, and let everyone acknowledge with me his sin and iniquity:  Almighty, eternal God and Father, we confess and acknowledge unto You that we were conceived in unrighteousness and are full of sin and transgression in all our life. We do not fully believe Your Word nor follow Your holy commandments. Remember Your goodness, we beseech You, and for Your Name's sake be gracious unto us, and forgive us our iniquity which, alas, is great Amen.
Public Absolution of Sins
This is a faithful saying, and worthy of all acceptance: that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners. (1 Tim. 1:15)
Let everyone, with St. Paul, truly acknowledge this in his heart and believe in Christ. Thus, in His name, I proclaim unto you the forgiveness of all your sins, and declare you to be loosed of them on earth, that you be loosed of them also in heaven, in eternity. Amen.
From 1539 used by John Knox in Scotland and John Calvin in Geneva -
Confession of Sins:
Almighty God, eternal Father, we acknowledge and confess to you that we were born in unrighteousness. Our life is full of sin and transgression; we have not gladly believed your Word nor followed your holy commandments. For your goodness’ sake and for your name’s sake, be gracious unto us, we pray, and forgive us all our sin, which is very great. Amen.
Let each of us come before the face of the Lord, confessing our own faults.
Silent Prayer of Confession
Assurance and Absolution
This saying is true and we should believe it: that Christ Jesus came into the world to rescue sinners. He himself bore our sins in his body on the cross, that we might be dead to sin and alive to all that is good. To all those who repent, therefore, I proclaim to you the forgiveness of all your sins, in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.
The Strasbourg Liturgy of 1545
Public Confession of Sins
My brethren, let each of you present himself before the face of the Lord, and confess his faults and sins, following my words in his heart:
O Lord God, eternal and almighty Father, we confess and sincerely acknowledge before Your holy Majesty that we are poor sinners, conceived and born in iniquity and corruption, prone to do evil, incapable of any good, and that in our depravity we transgress Your holy commandments without end or ceasing; therefore we purchase for ourselves, through Your righteous judgment, our ruin and perdition. Nevertheless, O Lord, we are grieved that we have offended You, and we condemn ourselves and our sins with true repentance, beseeching Your grace to relieve our distress. O God and Father, most gracious and full of compassion, have mercy upon us in the name of Your Son, our Lord Jesus Christ. And as You do blot out our sins and stains, magnify and increase in us day by day the grace of Your Holy Spirit; that as we acknowledge our unrighteousness with all our heart, we may be moved by that sorrow which shall bring forth true repentance in us, mortifying all our sins, and producing in us the fruits of righteousness and innocence which are pleasing to You, through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
Public Absolution of Sins
Let each of you truly acknowledge that he is a sinner, humbling himself before God, and believe that the heavenly Father wills to be gracious unto him in Jesus Christ.
To all those that repent in this way, and look to Jesus Christ for their salvation, I declare that the absolution of sins is effected, in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
1662 (same as 1552) Book of Common Prayer -
Holy Communion
General Confession:
ALMIGHTY God, Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, Maker of all things, judge of all men; We acknowledge and bewail our manifold sins and wickedness, Which we, from time to time, most grievously have committed, By thought, word, and deed, Against thy Divine Majesty, Provoking most justly thy wrath and indignation against us. We do earnestly repent, And are heartily sorry for these our misdoings; The remembrance of them is grievous unto us; The burden of them is intolerable. Have mercy upon us, Have mercy upon us, most merciful Father; For thy Son our Lord Jesus Christ's sake, Forgive us all that is past; And grant that we may ever hereafter Serve and please thee In newness of life, To the honour and glory of thy Name; Through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
Absolution:
ALMIGHTY God, our heavenly Father, who of his great mercy hath promised forgiveness of sins to all them that with hearty repentance and true faith turn unto him; Have mercy upon you; pardon and deliver you from all your sins; confirm and strengthen you in all goodness; and bring you to everlasting life; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
Hear what comfortable words our Saviour Christ saith unto all that truly turn to him.
COME unto me all that travail and are heavy laden, and I will refresh you. St. Matth. xi. 28.
So God loved the world, that he gave his only-begotten Son, to the end that all that believe in him should not perish, but have everlasting life. St. John iii. 16
Hear also what Saint Paul saith. This is a true saying, and worthy of all men to be received, That Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners. 1 Tim. i. 15.
Hear also what Saint John saith. If any man sin, we have an Advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous; and he is the propitiation for our sins. 1 St. John ii. 1.
1662 (same as 1552) Book Of Common Prayer -
Morning Prayer
DEARLY beloved brethren, the Scripture moveth us, in sundry places, to acknowledge and confess our manifold sins and wickedness; and that we should not dissemble nor cloak them before the face of Almighty God our heavenly Father; but confess them with an humble, lowly, penitent, and obedient heart; to the end that we may obtain forgiveness of the same, by his infinite goodness and mercy. And although we ought, at all times, humbly to acknowledge our sins before God; yet ought we chiefly so to do, when we assemble and meet together to render thanks for the great benefits that we have received at his hands, to set forth his most worthy praise, to hear his most holy Word, and to ask those things which are requisite and necessary, as well for the body as the soul. Wherefore I pray and beseech you, as many as are here present, to accompany me with a pure heart, and humble voice, unto the throne of the heavenly grace, saying after me;
A general Confession to be said of the whole Congregation after the Minister, all kneeling.
ALMIGHTY and most merciful Father; We have erred, and strayed from thy ways like lost sheep. We have followed too much the devices and desires of our own hearts. We have offended against thy holy laws. We have left undone those things which we ought to have done; And we have done those things which we ought not to have done; And there is no health in us. But thou, O Lord, have mercy upon us, miserable offenders. Spare thou them, O God, who confess their faults. Restore thou them that are penitent; According to thy promises declared unto mankind in Christ Jesu our Lord. And grant, O most merciful Father, for his sake; That we may hereafter live a godly, righteous, and sober life, To the glory of thy holy Name. Amen.
The Absolution, or Remission of sins, to be pronounced by the Priest alone, standing; the people still kneeling.
 ALMIGHTY God, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who desireth not the death of a sinner, but rather that he may turn from his wickedness, and live; and hath given power, and commandment, to his Ministers, to declare and pronounce to his people, being penitent, the Absolution and Remission of their sins : He pardoneth and absolveth all them that truly repent, and unfeignedly believe his holy Gospel. Wherefore let us beseech him to grant us true repentance, and his Holy Spirit, that those things may please him, which we do at this present; and that the rest of our life hereafter may be pure, and holy; so that at the last we may come to his eternal joy; through Jesus Christ our Lord.
The people shall answer here, and at the end of all other prayers,
Amen.

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

The Power of the Keys...

Regarding John 20:23 and Matthew 16:19 on the forgiving and retaining sins and binding and loosing, John Calvin explains what that power is and how it is exercised:
This command concerning remitting and retaining sins, and that promise made to Peter concerning binding and loosing, ought to be referred to nothing but the ministry of the word. When the Lord committed it to the apostles, he, at the same time, provided them with this power of binding and loosing. For what is the sum of the gospel, but just that all being, the slaves of sin and death, are loosed and set free by the redemption which is in Christ Jesus, while those who do not receive and acknowledge Christ as a deliverer and redeemer are condemned and doomed to eternal chains? 
When the Lord delivered this message to his apostles, to be carried by them into all nations, in order to prove that it was his own message, and proceeded from him, he honored it with this distinguished testimony, and that as an admirable confirmation both to the apostles themselves, and to all those to whom it was to come. It was of importance that the apostles should have a constant and complete assurance of their preaching, which they were not only to exercise with infinite labour, anxiety, molestation, and peril, but ultimately to seal with their blood. That they might know that it was not vain or void, but full of power and efficacy, it was of importance, I say, that amidst all their anxieties, dangers, and difficulties, they might feel persuaded that they were doing the work of God; that though the whole world withstood and opposed them, they might know that God was for them; that not having Christ the author of their doctrine bodily present on the earth, they might understand that he was in heaven to confirm the truth of the doctrine which he had delivered to them.
On the other hand, it was necessary that their hearers should be most certainly assured that the doctrine of the gospel was not the word of the apostles, but of God himself, not a voice rising from the earth but descending from heaven. For such things as the forgiveness of sins, the promise of eternal life, and message of salvation, cannot be in the power of man. Christ therefore testified, that in the preaching of the gospel the apostles only acted ministerially; that it was He who, by their mouths as organs, spoke and promised all, that, therefore, the forgiveness of sins which they announced was the true promise of God; the condemnation which they pronounced, the certain jndgment of God. This attestation was given to all ages, and remains firm, rendering all certain and secure, that the word of the gospel, by whomsoever it may be preached, is the very word of God, promulgated at the supreme tribunal, written in the book of life, ratified firm and fixed in heaven. We now understand that the power of the keys is simply the preaching of the gospel in those places, and in so far as men are concerned, it is not so much power as ministry. Properly speaking, Christ did not give this power to men but to his word, of which he made men the ministers.
 (Inst. 4.11.1)

Friday, September 7, 2012

How are sins forgiven?

Over at the Jason Stellman thread at Green Baggins, I was asked by a Roman Catholic commenter, "How do you know God forgives your sins?"  Why the question?  Not being Roman Catholic and thus not availing myself of a priest in order to confess my sins and receive absolution, he truly wanted to know how I could be sure that my sins were forgiven. The whole thing hinges on the difference between Protestant's and Rome's understanding of the verses from John 20:21-23 which reads,
So Jesus said to them again, Peace be with you; as the Father has sent Me, I also send you. And when He had said this, He breathed on them and *said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, their sins have been forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they have been retained.”
From these verses it's taken by Roman Catholics that Jesus gave the apostles the sole authority to hear the confession of sins and to forgive those sins.  And that that power has been transferred from the apostles through the laying on of hands, solely, to ordained Roman Catholic bishops and priests down through the centuries.  Thus, no confession given to an ordained Roman Catholic priest, no absolution of sins.

So in reference to the apostles, the question is, are Jesus' words referring to confessors who hear and absolve sin or to those who preach the gospel for the forgiveness of sins?  In other words, how are sins forgiven?  In order to be forgiven of one's sins by God, must one confess his sins to a priest?  Or does God grant forgiveness to those who approach Him directly, believing in Christ alone for forgiveness, trusting solely in the mercy of God proclaimed in the gospel?

In verse 21 Jesus says, "as the Father sent Me, I also send you."  He, the Apostle and high Priest of our confession, connects His sending by the Father with the sending of His apostles.  Their mission is to be a continuation of the apostolic, redemptive mission of Christ by being, not confessors, but witnesses of Jesus' finished work of the cross.  Looking at Luke 4:16-21, we see the inauguration of Jesus' ministry:
16 And He came to Nazareth, where He had been brought up; and as was His custom, He entered the synagogue on the Sabbath, and stood up to read. 17 And the book of the prophet Isaiah was handed to Him. And He opened the book and found the place where it was written,
18 The Spirit of the Lord is upon Me,
Because He anointed Me to preach the gospel to the poor.
He has sent Me to proclaim release to the captives,
And recovery of sight to the blind,
To set free those who are oppressed,
19 To proclaim the favorable year of the Lord.”
20 And He closed the book, gave it back to the attendant and sat down; and the eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on Him. 21 And He began to say to them, “Today this Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”
Jesus says He came to "preach the gospel... to proclaim release to the captives," i.e. bring good news.  How?  By the proclamation of Himself as the Son of God and in His death on the cross and His resurrection from the grave.  The proclamation of that Act is how captives, believing that good news, are released from the bondage of sin's guilt and shame.  But again considering the sending of the apostles, is the role of confessor previewed in Jesus?  To answer that, it's helpful to look at Luke 24:45-49, since this passage immediately precedes the events that unfold in the Acts of the Apostles:
Then He opened their minds to understand the Scriptures, and He said to them, Thus it is written, that the Christ would suffer and rise again from the dead the third day, and that repentance for forgiveness of sins would be proclaimed in His name to all the nations, beginning from Jerusalem. You are witnesses of these things.  And behold, I am sending forth the promise of My Father upon you; but you are to stay in the city until you are clothed with power from on high.”
In those last days before His ascension, Jesus opened up the Scriptures to the apostles in order for them to understand the good news of his death and resurrection of which they would speak and point to.  They were witnesses to His death and resurrection and were being sent by Jesus to preach that witness, and those two things uniquely qualified them to proclaim repentance for the forgiveness of sins in His name.

Now turning to Acts 2:37, where we find the first mention of forgiveness of sins after the coming of the Holy Spirit:  Peter said unto them, "Repent, and each of you be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins."  A few verses later we read that "all those who believed were together..."  So the first example of forgiveness of sins being offered by the apostles is Peter preaching the gospel for the forgiveness of sins.  Forgiveness of sins is connected to repentance, belief, and baptism.  No mention of confession to a priest or an apostle!

In Acts 3, we again see Peter as he preaches the gospel.  In his message he declares (verses 19, 26), 'Therefore repent and return, so that your sins might be wiped away, in order that times of refreshing may come from the presence of the Lord... God raised up His Servant and sent Him to bless you by turning every one of you from your wicked ways.'  A few verses later in Acts 4:4, Luke writes 'But many of those who had heard the message believed...'  Sins are "wiped away" as sinners repent and believe the gospel message they heard.  Peter's role is that of a preacher of the gospel.

A little later in Acts 5:27-32, standing before the Council, Peter and the apostles give a defense of their preaching Christ as Messiah:
When they had brought them, they stood them before the Council. The high priest questioned them, saying, “We gave you strict orders not to continue teaching in this name, and yet, you have filled Jerusalem with your teaching and intend to bring this man’s blood upon us.” But Peter and the apostles answered, “We must obey God rather than men.  The God of our fathers raised up Jesus, whom you had put to death by hanging Him on a cross. He is the one whom God exalted to His right hand as a Prince and a Savior, to grant repentance to Israel, and forgiveness of sins.  And we are witnesses of these things; and so is the Holy Spirit, whom God has given to those who obey Him.
The apostles stated that they must obey God rather than man.  And that obedience was to proclaim the gospel of Jesus Christ who died on the cross, whom God raised and exalted as Savior, by Whom repentance and forgiveness of sins be granted to Israel.

Finally, in Acts 10:43 we read Peter addressing the household of Cornelius, "Of Him all the prophets bear witness that through His name everyone who believes in Him receives forgiveness of sins."  While Peter was still speaking these words, the Holy Spirit fell upon those who were listening to the message.  Peter is bringing forgiveness of sins by proclaiming th gospel of Christ.  And that gospel includes the promise of forgiveness of sins to everyone who believes!

I could go on, but the point is clear.  We see no examples in Acts wherein the apostles present themselves as confessors for the forgiveness of sins or that forgiveness of sins is dependent upon a sinner confessing to an apostle.  If in John 20:23, Jesus' final mandate to the apostles was that sins were to be forgiven through them as confessors, then one would certainly expect some apostolic example of that in what followed.  Rather, what we see is that the power of forgiving or retaining sins is in the power of the gospel preached by the apostles.  To those who received and believed their message of Jesus crucified and risen, their sins were forgiven.  To those that rejected their gospel, their sins were retained.

[As a side note, the binding and loosing passage in Matthew 16:13-19 can be understood similarly, as it is consistent with the above.] 

Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Joined to Another...

A Roman Catholic commenter in the ongoing discussion at Green Baggins attempts to explain the nature of a believer's relationship to Christ and how that relationship is affected when a believer sins, at least according to Rome.  He begins:
When we are baptized, we are united to Christ in His death (per Romans 6:3). From there, we are initiated into Christ and we need to develop our relationship with Him. This is similar to a husband and wife on their wedding day. Their relationship isn’t completed on that day, it’s just beginning from that day forward, a couple needs to nurture and foster their relationship and grow in love. So it is with us and God. We need to foster our relationship with God from the day of our Baptism until the day we die.
This analogy breaks down almost from the beginning. When a man and woman are married they are indeed fully married (assuming consummation). Nurturing that relationship does not make them more married or, if they fall short of the standard of love, suddenly single. From day one, they are completely “married” before God and man as if they had been married faithfully for forty years. Yes, they learn to love each other more and more and grow more fully into the purpose of marriage. But even a violation of that marriage covenant by one or the other doesn’t, in and of itself, negate the marriage, nor end that bond.

He continues:
By living a “Life in the Spirit” we will be justified. However, if we choose our will above God’s will. If we reject what the Spirit is asking us and say, “no thanks, MY way is better… “ Then we are living in a spirit of rebellion. We are NOT living a life in the spirit and we lose our justification for we are no longer “In Christ.” At that point, we need to return to the Body of Christ and ask for forgiveness. We need to acknowledge our sins and enter back into the Body of Christ and continue living a Life in the Spirit for it’s only in Christ that we are saved. Outside of Him, there is no salvation.
As with marriage, likewise with our union in Christ. We were sealed in Him by the Holy Spirit, “joined to another.” Our sinning doesn’t sever that union, nor remove us from the body of Christ. For the ground or basis of our union in Christ is the provision of his sacrifice for our sins, by which we are justified through simple trust, receiving it as a free gift. He has removed the basis for our guilt through His blood.  If left to our ability to "live in the Spirit" as a means of justification we would then have no answer to the dilemma at the end of Romans 7:
21 I find then the principle that evil is present in me, the one who wants to do good. 22 For I joyfully concur with the law of God in the inner man, 23 but I see a different law in the members of my body, waging war against the law of my mind and making me a prisoner  of the law of sin which is in my members. 24 Wretched man that I am! Who will set me free from  the body of this death?   
Thus the exclamation of Paul, “There is therefore now no condemnation to them that are in Christ Jesus.”
Having been united to Christ through faith in His finished work of redemption, we are no longer under law but under grace, i.e. joined to another, our Savior. To put that burden back on us, would make redemption no longer a gift of grace, but a work of law.  As Paul writes:
Now to him that worketh, the reward is not reckoned as of grace, but as of debt. But to him that worketh not, but believeth on him that justifieth the ungodly, his faith is reckoned for righteousness. (Rom. 4:4-5)
So then, our sin doesn’t sever us from Christ, for that would undermine God’s very purpose of reconciliation, in that it would remove us from the very cure of our disease, Christ crucified:
Wherefore if any man is in Christ, he is a new creature: the old things are passed away; behold, they are become new. But all things are of God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ, and gave unto us the ministry of reconciliation; to wit, that God was in Christ reconciling the world unto himself, not reckoning unto them their trespasses, and having committed unto us the word of reconciliation. We are ambassadors therefore on behalf of Christ, as though God were entreating by us: we beseech you on behalf of Christ, be ye reconciled to God. Him who knew no sin he made to be sin on our behalf; that we might become the righteousness of God in him. (2 Cor. 5:17-21)
Be reconciled to God. How? By putting all our trust for removal of sin and the acquiring of righteousness in His Son alone, who was “made to be sin on our behalf; that we might become the righteousness of God in him.”  Not just initially upon first believing for our justification, but continually in our sanctification, we are to look to the blood of Christ for cleansing from sin.

Our marriage bond to the Lord is based solely on the finished work of God’s reconciliation in Christ. He chose us. He sought us. He paid the price for our redemption. He called us. And by His Spirit effected faith and repentance in us, joining us to Himself. “What God has joined together, let no man put asunder.”  In other words, do not devise a man-made system of reconciliation which, in effect, would separate believers from the good news of God's reconciliation of sinners in Christ Jesus.