For God, to speak Is to Do: The Pastoral Care of Souls
The practice of confession and absolution provides an excellent case study to see what happens when God’s word of law and God’s word of Gospel are confused or inverted. Luther saw three fundamental problems...
Penance: Pride and Uncertainty
The medieval practice of Confession developed to require an act of satisfaction to be performed after the absolution was pronounced. “Say ten hail Marys,” for instance. The problem is that any satisfaction that I must do after the Absolution tends to teach that the Absolution is only a precursor to the real action of my satisfaction. When this happens, spiritual pride and spiritual uncertainty are the certain results. Pride, because I have done something to advance my spiritual state. Uncertainty, because I can never be sure I have done enough.
Pastor: Forgiver or Judge?
In the Church of Luther’s day, the pastor’s role was to determine whether the penitent had repented enough to merit the absolution. Thus, he became a judge. If he judged you were not fully repentant, he prescribed spiritual exercises to get you there. If he judged you were repentant enough (nobody is fully repentant, after all) then he would simply tell you that you were already forgiven. Either way, his words had no real effect on your forgiveness. He could only judge and label what you had already accomplished on your own.
When Luther understood the thrust of the Gospel, he came to understand the pastor not as judge but as the mouthpiece of the creative voice of God. Just as God’s Word CREATED the entire universe just by speaking. So also God’s Word CREATES righteousness when it is spoken by Christ through the office of the Ministry. “Whosoever sins you forgive, they are forgiven them...” (John 20:21) means exactly what it says because of Jesus’ promise: “He who hears you, hears Me.” (Luke 10:16).
Jesus: Player or Spectator?
Closely related to the previous point is the question of what Jesus is doing during all of this. Is He sitting around and patiently waiting for you to get sorry enough to obtain what He won for you on the cross? That’s the way most Christians think about conversion and forgiveness.
Luther understood that Jesus is never a spectator in the forgiveness of sins. But He is always the player. Jesus’ work of forgiveness did not end when the atonement was completed on Calvary. There, the one sacrifice for the sins of the world was “finished.” But the work of creating faith and distributing His blood bought salvation is not left to the second team. After all, that’s why He rose from the dead bodily... so that He Himself might be the one who bodily comes through the preaching of the Church to create faith in you and to personally forgive your sins.
When Christ is no longer a bench warmer but is back in the game, our victory is certain even while our pride is moved from our own efforts to Christ alone.