In a religious atmosphere of ever-changing liturgies and free-for-all worship, I considered the importance of our constant liturgy. In the wisdom of the church, the liturgy was composed from various passages in Scripture. As it brings us the words of immortality, it also teaches our hearts. If your church uses a printed bulletin and not the hymnal, you may or may not have known this. What better words to hear and give back to God than the words that He first spoke to us?
Emanating from this commonly known liturgy among Lutherans is the holy wisdom of God from beginning to end. The Church’s choice of Scripture and its organization show what follows as the nature of God’s grace in Confession and Absolution. (The Liturgy will be in bold and can be followed beginning on page 184 of the Lutheran Service Book.)
In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Some pastors say, “We make our beginning in the name of….” However, it is not us beginning anything, but God being called to serve His people. God begins His work in His name and the congregation responds “Amen,” meaning, “yes, yes, it shall be so.” It is as Paul reminds those in Phillipi, “And I am sure of this, that he who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ.” Invoking the name of God sets this service apart in the same way that God’s name set us apart in Baptism. His name marks each Christian as one redeemed by Christ the crucified. This name marks the Divine Service as one centered in Christ for the deliverance of the Gospel in Word and Sacrament.
To confess one’s sins is not easy. It goes against the fibers of our corrupt nature. It is terrifying to confess that one has knowingly and unknowingly transgressed the Law of God. The Law of God is holy and the transgressor stands condemned by it. The sinner is devoid of confidence to stand before God and confess his sins because it is sin that damns him. All are in need of confidence to enter the holy places of God in order to stand in His presence. This is why a short reference to Hebrews 10:22 is placed following the invocation and before the confession of sins. This verse is the ending of the sentence started in verse 19. Read it all (Hebrews 10:19-22).
The pastor has invoked God to be present before the congregation, and yet the congregation has, without a doubt, lived a sinful life. It needs the one mediator between God and man, Jesus Christ. Without His atonement, the sinner has no hope to stand before God and live. The author of Hebrews speaks the truth of Christian confidence to enter the holy places by the blood of Jesus. The pastor speaks a themed response from Hebrews 10:20 to instruct the heart and build an eager expectation that each will have his sins forgiven for the sake of Jesus Christ. Beloved in the Lord. Let us draw near with a true heart and confess our sins unto God our Father, beseeching Him in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ to grant us forgiveness.
The words which follow are from Psalm 124:8, spoken by the pastor, “Our help is in the name of the Lord.” The name given to us in Baptism now aids us in confession. We are reminded that God has descended to humanity in mercy and joins Himself to us suffering the curse on our behalf, so that we become the recipients, in faith, of forgiveness and, on account of His resurrection, we too shall rise and live for all eternity. He has come to aid, rescue, redeem, and deliver us from the evil age brought on by our sin. No greater help is given to mankind than that which came by grace from the God who made all things. The congregation responds in faith, “who made heaven and earth” (Psalm 124:8). The God who spoke all things into being, now speaks to His children who confess to Him their sins.
Psalm 32:5 tells the Christian what he is to expect from God. The pastor says, “I said, I will confess my transgressions unto the Lord.” By the hope given to all men in Jesus Christ, the congregation responds, “and You forgave the iniquity of my sin.” When the congregation responds “and you forgave the iniquity of my sin,” there is no mistaking the grace of God. His love comes to the penitent as a sure thing on account of the merit and righteousness of Jesus Christ. God does not forgive our sins because of our confession, but on account of Christ’s atonement for sin. This provides the certainty we could not otherwise have if forgiveness was on account of our confession. (On a related note, this does not mean that one is to remain impenitent and refuse confession of sins for that is living contrary to the Spirit.)
God’s grace because of Christ is established clearly in our words of confession. …and I pray you of your boundless mercy and for the sake of the holy, innocent, bitter sufferings and death of Your beloved Son, Jesus Christ, to be gracious and merciful to me, a poor, sinful being. We can offer nothing to God which would turn away His anger from us. We beat our breasts and plead for the blood of Jesus Christ. The confession of sins is done with the expectation of forgiveness. It is not at all a negative thing to know that after this confession the pastor will speak the words of forgiveness (absolution) commanded by Christ.
As is referenced in the hymnal, this word of absolution directs us back to Jesus’s words in John 20:19-23. Jesus sends out the disciples, now Apostles, to publicly and privately forgive the sins of the penitent and to withhold forgiveness from the impenitent as long as they do not repent. “…I, by virtue of my office, as a called and ordained servant of the Word, announce the grace of God unto all of you, and in the stead and by the command of my Lord Jesus Christ I forgive you all your sins in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.” In the word of absolution, God deals with us through the pastor He has sent to the congregation. The pastor’s forgiveness is God’s forgiveness; it is just as valid and certain as if God were dealing with us Himself in heaven. With absolute certainty, God’s public servant delivers to all present what Christ won on the cross in His propitiation for sin– forgiveness.
The declaration that we are justified freely for Christ’s sake is sealed in the name of God which is our help– Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Confession and Absolution are both centered in the name of God. This not only expresses the boundless nature of God’s grace, but these words sincerely and actually give it. Confessing our sins would lead us to utter despair because of condemnation if it were not done in the hope of salvation through Christ. The baptized one comes in the name of the Lord for help because of his sins. In the name of the Lord, he finds help. In the name of the Lord, the sinner receives God’s grace in the forgiveness of his sins. The response to such a great magnitude of love can be nothing short of “Amen!”