Backstabbing. Betrayal. Offense. Trespass. It happens: In school, after you told your close friend (at least you thought) an embarrassing secret. Online, where someone decided to message others about you behind your digital back. At work, where your boss promised that you’d get that day off you wanted, but then at the last minute forces you to come in. In a relationship, where you caught your boyfriend/girlfriend flirting with someone else. In your family, where your parents told you they trusted you, but then you find them seemingly keeping track of everything you do. Or, on the flip side, when parents trusted their children to not do something, but then catch them doing it. It even happens at church, which is supposed to be a place of healing and trust, but then fellow members, or maybe even your pastor, seem to throw you to the wolves before hearing you out.
With experiences like this, it can be hard to trust anyone. When it happens, we’d like to just well up in the depression of the feeling of being betrayed. Whatever we do, we definitely don’t want to forgive.
But it is in forgiveness where the Church is found. God gave His Church on earth the power to forgive the sins of penitent and retain the sins of impenitent. In fact, it was after many in His small congregation of closest friends betrayed Him that Jesus gave this power. This is all surprising, but even more so is that the power of our forgiveness comes from the result of that betrayal: Jesus’ death on the cross. Jesus’ death on the cross was when the debts, trespasses, and betrayals of the entire world were paid and forgiven.
OUT OF CONTEXT
This doesn’t make much sense. When someone betrays us, if we are going to forgive them, we want them to do something for us first: We want them to pay for it. Then we’ll forgive them. In daily life, this attitude shows itself in making your friend prove to you that he/she is still trustworthy before you forgive them, or is shown by parents forgiving their children on the condition that they will never betray their trust in the same way again.
The popular conception of absolution is that only someone who is sorry and proves it deserves forgiveness. Not only is this the wrong way to view absolution, it is also dangerous. It’s a common misbelief that God forgives us for the same reason: if we confess our sins to God, then God will forgive us. Or just as common of a misbelief is thinking that the moment we first believe is when God forgave us. However, this turns our confession or our faith into the cause of justification. Then we’re left wondering “Have I confessed enough?”, “Was I sorry enough?”, or “Have I actually believed?”
Pulling confession and absolution from its proper context, believing that absolution is to only be given conditionally, actually pulls Jesus from it. It puts the emphasis on a person’s confession rather than Jesus’ absolution. Jesus forgave the whole world their sins in His death on the cross. This is why when we forgive the sins of another, they are forgiven. They aren’t forgiven because of their degree of sorrow or even because of their confession. They are forgiven because of Jesus.
Confession and absolution should be understood in context. We make confession in two ways: in general like we do in our worship services or in the Lord’s Prayer, or in private before the pastor or some other Christian. In either case we receive absolution, meaning that Christ Himself forgives us through the word of forgiveness given to us by the other person.
Confessing our sins has the purpose of making us aware of our great sin against God and our need for forgiveness. In absolution we hear that this forgiveness is truly given to us because of Christ.
Confession and absolution can also be understood in context with the rest of the Catechism. In examining our vocations in life, we see how we have sinned against each one of the Ten Commandments. We are forgiven not because we keep them, but because of Christ’s work shown to us in the Creed. Having confessed our sins, we acknowledge that we are in need of the forgiveness offered especially in the Lord’s Supper. Receiving absolution is returning to our Baptism, receiving again the promise of what we first received in Baptism: the forgiveness of our sins. When we do this, we also live what we pray in the Lord’s Prayer: “Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.”
What we translate as “trespass” in the Lord’s Prayer literally has the connotation of the aftermath of having a debt. When someone betrays us, it feels as if they have taken something from us (and maybe they even have), and so there is a debt. Regardless of what effect the sin caused and how large it was we are to remove and forgive that debt.
This can be hard because we look to words and actions and sometimes it might seem that whoever betrayed us isn’t sorry enough. After all, we can’t judge hearts. But again, the degree to which a person is sorry isn’t what we look to in order to forgive. We look to Jesus. But not just as an example; we look to Jesus who has already forgiven those who have trespassed against us. Christ died for them. He even died for the sin they committed against us. Seeing the other person as having been absolved by the blood of Jesus will help us to forgive. It still may be hard to do, but even in this situation, we can pray to God, “Father, forgive them,” and “forgive us…” knowing that God has forgiven them and will help us to forgive those who trespass against us.
Luther wrote that God’s promise to forgive is a “sign [that] can serve to confirm our consciences and cause them to rejoice. It is especially given for this purpose, so that we may use and practice forgiveness every hour, as a thing we have with us at all times” (LC III, 98).
Reverend Jeff Hendrix
Calvary Lutheran Church, Ulen, MN
Grace Lutheran Church, Crookston, MN