THE OFFICE OF THE KEYS AND CONFESSION
March 29, 2017 Pastor: Rev. Lloyd Gross
THE OFFICE OF THE KEYS; YOUR PEACE WITH GOD
Welcome to the Fountain of Forgiveness! That's what the penitential season of Lent is all about. We have been meditating these past weeks on the Six Chief Parts of Christian Doctrine, as outlined in Luther's Catechism. This evening we come to the fifth, or what we usually call the fifth chief part. Actually it was not included at all in Luther's Small Catechism of 1529. Luther did write it, though not all at one time. It was Dr. Johannes Brenz of Strassburg who first took several of Luther's books and combined them into what we have today. He included it in his 1532 edition of the Catechism. As a result this chief part has two themes - the Holy Ministry and Confession for Absolution. These are really one because the Holy Ministry exists chiefly to absolve sinners. The Church of Rome identifies them as two separate sacraments. We do not use that term for them because Lutherans define Sacraments as having an outward, visible element. Ministers accomplish Absolution chiefly by preaching, and secondly through the practice of private Confession. Both of these are God's gifts to us sinners, to reconcile us to Himself, that is, to make peace with God.
True Confession is not what you read in the magazine by that name. It is recognizing all of your sins, hating them, and promising God that you intend to do better. For those who don't believe their sins are sins, such confession is impossible. No one is going to repent of what he thinks are good works. Since everyone is tempted to think this way sooner or later we preach the Law. But there is another question which tends to bother many Christians. We might put it this way: I know my sins are sins, I want to turn from them, and I believe that Jesus forgives me, but I seem to lack the intention to reform my life and let the Holy Spirit renew me. Private Confession was invented just for such people. Let us suppose that you know in your heart that you are willing to put off reforming for a long time. Therefore you just cannot tell God that you intend to do better. It seems false. Very well, tell that to the pastor. He will listen. You cannot hate your sins unless God grants it, and God gives you the pastor to help you get there.
What about secret sins? There are various levels of these. Please believe me when I tell you that you have some sins that are so secret you don't even know you have them. How is it possible to confess these? You can say with David in Psalm 19 Who can discern his errors? Cleanse Thou me from secret faults. God can forgive them without even making you aware of them. The other category is the sins you know about but nobody else does. You're ashamed of them, they may have some antisocial side to them, they may involve the thoughts and passions that lead to unchastity, in any case everybody has such sins. We get disgusted with ourselves because we're sinking beneath the dignity of a talking creature. God already knows all about these matters. By confessing them directly to Him you aren’t telling Him anything new. The pastor doesn't need to hear these. He won't tell, of course, but if you like the pastor you really don't want him to know these things. If you don't like him and want him to leave, telling him that stuff probably won't work either. You would be ashamed even if a pastor you didn't like knew that stuff. Think about that shame - it's a gift of God, reminding you that you need to repent.
In our text for this evening David complained that his reluctance to confess made him physically ill. He turned to the Lord and what a difference! God forgave his guilt. Do not conclude from this that confession heals physical ailments. Merely confessing to gluttony doesn't lose you any weight. Confessing to drunkenness doesn't repair your liver. Only God can make you healthy. If your behavior is making you sick, confession can help you see that. It can help you stop making it worse. But only god can heal you.
How do we know that the Absolution is real? The main text for that is Matthew 16. The Lord says to Peter, I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven. Dismiss right now that ridiculous notion that Jesus was making Peter the doorman in the life to come. Jesus was talking about the kingdom of grace which is here on earth. Nor did Jesus mean that the clergy of His Church had some kind of legislative authority, as if the binding and freeing had to do with man-made laws. It certainly was not His intention that the Church could permit what God expressly forbids. Pastors neither make rules nor set them aside. If the marriage ceremony requires a bride to "love, honor, and obey," don't ask the pastor to change that. He didn't write it, nor does he have authority to change it.
So what are the keys of the kingdom? They open and close heaven and hell. Believe me, that's far more serious than the wording of weddings. Your sins close heaven and open hell. By absolution the pastor opens heaven and closes hell. He does this by preaching the Gospel, by baptizing, by offering the Body and Blood of Jesus, and by Sacramental Absolution, especially in the context of private confession. That Gospel opens heaven and closes hell. The pastor's forgiveness makes heaven ready to receive you. It gives you peace with God. If the pastor refuses forgiveness, then he is preaching the Law because he considers you impenitent. So at bottom the Office of the Keys is simply the Law and the Gospel, convicting the sinner and absolving the penitent.
Absolution does not take away temporal punishment. When Aachan broke the covenant by taking some of the cursed spoils from Jericho, Joshua told him to confess and give glory to God. He was forgiven, but would still have to be stoned on earth. The Church is not the State. It forgives sins, but has no authority to change the social covenant. It is Caesar's place to remit civil penalties. The pastor serves the needs of your soul. Clemency for civil crimes depends on the judge.
Granted that the Office of the Keys is spiritual authority, how can a man have such authority? That's what the scribes wanted to know when Jesus forgave the paralytic. What was His answer? The Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins. Even the scribes knew that on yom kippur the high Priest would pour blood on the mercy seat, after which God would forgive sins. Jesus was both the Victim and the Priest. He fulfilled this when He shed his own blood on the cross, to be yom kippur for the whole world. When He had died and risen again He said All authority is given to me in heaven and earth. What could be more perfect, authority that is valid both in heaven and on earth! That is what He meant when He said I will give you the keys of the kingdom. Tonight we celebrate that forgiveness, and satisfy our thirst for righteousness as we drink from the fountain of forgiveness. AMEN.