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The Special Comfort of Private Absolution

Matthew 9:1-8

Nineteenth Sunday After Trinity

C. F. W. Walther

(Translated by Rev. Donald E. Heck)

Grace and peace be multiplied unto you through the knowledge of God, and of Jesus our Lord. Amen.

In our faithful Savior, dear Christian friends.

The Christian religion and the Christian Church is a religion and a Church of forgiveness. In both, the forgiveness of sins is the center around which everything revolves. While in every other religion the main point consists in giving directions for a pious and virtuous life, in the kingdom instituted by Christ the main point is the forgiveness of sins.

That he might win all men is the reason why the Son of God became a man and died on the cross. This was the real purpose, the real goal, of his work on earth. And after Christ by his life, suffering, and death had won forgiveness of all sins for all men, all further works, preparations, and institutions of Christ likewise have no other purpose but to bring all men to faith in the forgiveness earned for them, offer, give, and seal it to them.

First Christ had his Gospel written. He instituted the office of the holy ministry, that the forgiveness of sins in his name would be preached to all nations and at all times until the end of days. Whoever believes this Gospel preaching has forgiveness of sins, as certainly as God's Word is not a lie but the eternal truth. According to his Gospel, God demands no work or suffering on our part whereby we must pay for our sins ourselves or earn their remission. God alone wants to have the honor for the rescue of our souls and our salvation; he wants to give it to us all free of charge, without our merit and worthiness, out of pure grace and mercy.

Because Christ knows how depressed a sinner becomes, when he knows that he is a great sinner, and yet should firmly believe that he is still a child of God, he added Holy Baptism to his Word, as the seal to a letter. He did not only give the command: "Go ye therefore and teach all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost," (Matthew 28:19) he also connected to this command the promise: "He that believeth and is baptized shall be saved." (Mark 16:16). Baptism should be a visible pledge of that which Christ wishes to give all men. They also share in the forgiveness earned for them. If each baptized person believes, he can say: if Christ wanted to condemn me immediately, he just couldn't; he has made a covenant of grace with me and as confirmation of it he has given me a pledge, Holy Baptism. It is the first payment which he has paid me for my salvation. I can appeal to it in all temptation and doubts and even some day before his throne. I can say: I am baptized, Jesus; if I wanted to doubt that my sins are forgiven, I must call you a liar. With your baptism you have pledged me your grace. That is why you now absolve and save me.

My friends, Christ did not let even Holy Baptism suffice. In order that our faith can constantly renew the pledge of the forgiveness of sins, he instituted His Holy Supper. This holy Sacrament also has no other purpose than to provide a new strong support for our faith. Whoever has gone to Holy Communion can say: How dare I doubt whether I share in Christ's reconciliation, and whether my sins are forgiven? Christ has given me that very body which he offered God on the cross for the sins of the world, he has given me to drink of that very blood which flowed on Golgotha for the forgiveness of all! What more could Christ do to convince me that I also am one of the pardoned? All doubt must disappear.

However, Christ did not provide just enough to meet the bare needs of His redeemed, so that they could believe in the forgiveness of their sins. He really overwhelmed them with pledges of His grace. He has done superabundantly more than the human heart could ever pray for and understand. He has proved that He not only has mercy but that He, as the Scriptures say, is rich in mercy. Christ even permits His Church to say to every sinner in His name: "Be of good cheer; thy sins be forgiven thee." He has promised that such an absolution pronounced in His name will be valid in heaven, and that He will confirm it on the last day. Now since in today's Gospel Christ himself pronounces the absolution on one sick of the palsy, permit me to speak more to you on the special comfort of private absolution.

Scripture text: Matthew 9:1-8. And he entered into a ship, and passed over, and came into his own city. And, behold, they brought to him a man sick of the palsy, lying on a bed; and Jesus seeing their faith said unto the sick of the palsy; Son, be of good cheer; thy sins be forgiven thee. And, behold, certain of the scribes said within themselves, This man blasphemeth. And Jesus knowing their thoughts said, Wherefore think ye evil in your hearts? For whether is easier, to say, Thy sins be forgiven thee; or to say, Arise, and walk? But that ye may know that the Son of man hath power on earth to forgive sins, (then saith he to the sick of the palsy,) Arise, take up thy bed, and go unto thine house. And he arose, and departed to his house. But when the multitudes saw it, they marvelled, and glorified God, which had given such power unto men. [Return to top]

As you have heard, we have in this Gospel an instance of a private absolution; we are told how Christ not only in a general way announced grace to a penitent sinner, but how he particularized the forgiveness of all sins to the man sick of the palsy. Permit me, therefore, to speak to you today on:

THE SPECIAL COMFORT OF PRIVATE ABSOLUTION.

  1. In What Respect it has Special Comfort, and
  2. How it Happens That This Comfort is so Often Misunderstood.

Lord Jesus Christ, you did not only win for us the forgiveness of our sins, but you also strive to make us partakers of the same. You, therefore, present many means to do this; oh, awaken us through your Spirit of grace, that we hunger and thirst for it; may we eagerly seek and use your means of grace revealed to us. Protect us from indifference and satiety in your spiritual, heavenly gifts, that we do not forfeit them and the salvation of our souls. You must do it, for flesh and blood cling to earthly things. Hear us we pray, and bless us today by the preaching of your Word for time and for eternity. Amen.

[1. In What Respect it has Special Comfort]

If we add to the story of our text what Mark and Luke relate, we learn the following. When the Gergesenes prayed Christ never to return, he sailed to the other shore of the Sea of Galilee and visited Capernaum again. Here, shortly before, he had miraculously healed the centurion's servant, Peter's mother-in-law, and others. Scarcely was it known that Jesus was again in the city than a great crowd gathered around him. Soon it was so great that many could not find room even in front of the house to hear His word. Now while they were listening, four men appeared, carrying one sick of the palsy. They wanted Jesus to help him. But since all avenues to the house in which Jesus was were crowded with people, it was impossible to enter with the wretched man. Yet this hindrance did not discourage the stretcher bearers and the sick man. They firmly believed that if they could only get to Jesus He would help. What did they do? With their burden they climbed up an accessible side to the roof of the house, broke the roof open, and lowered the bed with the sick man squarely in front of Jesus. And what did He do? When He saw their faith, He immediately turned to the man sick of the palsy and said: "Son, be of good cheer; thy sins be forgiven thee." From His words we perceive that Christ must not only have seen the faith of the man sick with the palsy, but He must also have perceived that first of all he needed comfort from his sins, that he was more concerned over his sins than over his sickness.

What does Christ teach us when He especially announced to this greatly worried sinner the forgiveness of his sins? Otherwise Christ in only a general way announced His grace to sinners. When, for example, in Luke 15, many publicans and sinners came to Him, He did not say to each individually: "Thy sins be forgiven thee." He told them the precious parable of the lost coin, the lost sheep, and the prodigal son, and added: "Likewise, there is joy in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner that repenteth." (Luke 15:10). And when Christ wanted to comfort the chief of the publicans, Zacchaeus, he merely said to him: "The Son of man is come to seek and to save that which was lost." (Luke 19:10).

Why did not Christ proceed the same way with the man sick of the palsy? Why was he not satisfied with the general sermon, that each repentant sinner can receive forgiveness? The reason for it is not difficult to find. The man sick of the palsy was so very much alarmed over his sins. They caused him more concern than his serious sickness itself; he needed special comfort. That we do not err in this conclusion, we see in the way Christ treated the woman who was a great sinner. When she drew near to Christ with a crushed heart, cried bitterly, wet his feet with her tears, and dried them with the hairs of her head, Christ again was not satisfied merely to say to this severely assailed soul in a general way that there is grace for all sins, but he especially turned to her and said: "Thy sins be forgiven thee." (Luke 7:48).

You see from this, my friends, that private absolution has a very special comfort for us sinners. It is true that private absolution is not the only means whereby God announces forgiveness. God already does this by the general preaching of the Gospel, by Holy Baptism, by the feeding and giving us to drink of the body and blood of his Son in Holy Communion; it is true that whoever in faith firmly relies on these three evidences of God's grace toward all repentant sinners has forgiveness of sins. He can that way be certain of it. But which Christian does not know from experience that the very ones who consider God's Word as true, yes, do not doubt in the least that God wishes to be gracious to all sinners if they believe, that they very often doubt whether they dare also comfort themselves with the general promise of grace?

Which true Christian has not often experienced the thought arising in his heart, when he reads that those great sinners, David, Manasseh, Peter, and others, received forgiveness: "Yes, if I were a David, a Peter, if my repentance were also as deep as theirs, then I dare say I would also believe"? Which true Christian has not thought, when he read or heard that God wants to show mercy to all, that he loves the whole world and sent his Son: Yes, I dare say God wants to save me, but have I not by my sins shut myself out from his universal grace? Which true Christian has not experienced that he was moved to tears when the riches of divine mercy was described to him, the friendliness of Christ, his shepherd's faithfulness toward the lost sheep, his ardent longing for the salvation of even the greatest sinner: Oh that I could believe that God has such ardent longing for also my salvation!? Does not the thought and wish often arise in even the most experienced Christian: Oh that Christ himself would come to me and say especially to me, as to the man sick of the palsy: "Do not doubt; thy sins be forgiven thee!"?

Is it not a great comfort, therefore, that Christ said to the apostles and consequently to his whole Church: "Whosoever sins ye remit, they are remitted unto them"? and, "Verily I say unto you, whatsoever ye shall loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven"? If a Christian, relying upon that word, receives private absolution, would he not be lifted above all doubts? Must he not say that if forgiveness is announced to him in Christ's name, it is just as if Christ himself came down from heaven and said it to him with His own mouth? Must he not call Christ himself a liar, if he still does not want to believe that his sins are also forgiven? What greater comfort can there be than when someone says to us: "Your sins are forgiven you, since Christ has declared that this is valid also in heaven"?

Here is an example. The citizens of a city revolted against their king, were finally conquered, had to flee. At first all of them were condemned to death, but later the king published a decree in which all were granted full pardon. Trusting such a general pardon, the majority returned without a worry. But suppose that the ringleaders had committed several murders. Would they not think: Perhaps we are not included in the pardon? Would it not be especially consoling if they were to receive a separate pardon, one drawn up especially for them, in which the assurance would be given them that they were also included among the pardoned? Undoubtedly. So you see, that it is of special comfort for a Christian who is worried because of his sins, if he hears not only the word: "All believing sinners can be of good cheer," but also: "You be of good cheer; your, yes, your sins are forgiven you."

Read the confessions of experienced Christians and you will find all this confirmed by them. Luther writes in his sermon which he preached against the enthusiast Carlstadt, when the latter wanted to abolish private absolution: "Our God is not so stingy that he had left us only one absolution and only one word of comfort for the strengthening and comfort of our conscience. ... While we must have much comfort, as we battle and stand against the devil, death, and hell, we must permit no weapon to be taken from us, but our armor must remain complete and the comfort given us by God must remain unmoved. For," Luther adds, "you still do not know how much care and work it is to battle with the devil. ... I would long ago have been overcome and put to death by the devil, if confession would not have preserved me."

Luther writes in the following manner in his writings on guarding oneself against Zwingli's teaching and teachers: "If thousands upon thousands of words were mine, I would rather lose all than let the Church lose the least little bit of this confession. ... But because the enthusiasts are secure and know nothing of sadness and temptations, they lightly despise this medicine and comfort."

Yet we find such testimony not only in the private writings of the best scholar we have from God; the entire Lutheran Church concurs in her public confessional writings. For example, we read in the 11th Article of the Augsburg Confession: "Of Confession they teach that Private Absolution ought to be retained in the churches." We read in the 12th Article of the Apology: "We also retain confession on account of the absolution which is God's Word by which the power of the keys frees us from sins. Therefore it would be against God to remove the absolution from the churches. Those who despise the absolution do not know what forgiveness of sins is, or what the Power of the Keys is." Finally we read in the third part of the Smalcald Articles: "Since absolution or the Power of the Keys is also an aid and consolation against sin and a bad conscience, ordained by Christ (Himself) in the Gospel, Confession or Absolution ought by no means to be abolished in the Church, especially on account of (tender and) timid consciences, and on account of the untrained (and capricious) young people, in order that they may be examined, and instructed in the Christian doctrine."

You see, my friends, the whole Lutheran Church speaks that way. Are we not reasonable in asking how it happens that the comfort of private absolution is so often misunderstood? To answer this question, permit me in the second place to add a few words.

[2. How it Happens That This Comfort is so Often Misunderstood]

My friends, it would be most unfair to lump all opponents of private confession and absolution into one group. The stern words which Luther used against those who did not want to know anything about it are not to be applied to all who are still prejudiced against it today. For at that time private confession was in existence and they wanted to abolish it. Today it has almost fallen into disuse and they want to re-establish it. These are different circumstances.

Now the first reason why even many honest Lutherans these days dread private confession and absolution is that they view the arrangement partly as something new, partly as a return to papal usages. This reason, however, does not hold water. As we have seen from the Confessions of our Lutheran Church, this arrangement is not something new at all. Private confession was already in use long before the rise of the papacy and continued in all Lutheran congregations of all lands up to the last century. Only a few enthusiasts had overthrown it. Only when the rationalists, that is, the preachers of reason of the new times, got the upper hand in the Lutheran churches was private confession abolished and the general confession introduced in its place.

A second reason why so many oppose it is this: So many no longer believe that the Christian Church has the power on earth to forgive sins. Many have become like the Pharisees, who, when they heard that a man forgives sins, think in their hearts: "This man blasphemes God," for "who can forgive sins but God only?" They either do not believe God's Word at all, or they do not bear in mind that forgiving sins in one's own name and in the name of God are two different things. To be sure, only Christ could pronounce absolution in his own name, for God said only to him: "Sit thou at my right hand." But the servants of the Church can remit and retain sins in God's and Christ's name, for Christ himself has commanded them to do it. St. Paul says: "Now then we are ambassadors for Christ, as though God did beseech you by us; we pray you in Christ's stead, be ye reconciled to God." (2 Cor. 5:20). In another place the same apostle writes to the Corinthians: "For if I forgave any thing, to whom I forgave it, for your sakes forgave I it in the person of Christ." (2 Cor. 2:10). What further proof do we need?

A third reason why many misunderstand the special comfort lying in private absolution is this. They do not really feel their sins. Many say: I do not need it; I can comfort myself enough with the general absolution. But is it not possible that a true Christian is at times so oppressed by his sins, just as well as a Luther, that he would gladly hear the words: "All thy sins be forgiven thee"? Or do we today actually have such strong Christians as they sought for in vain at the time of the Reformation? Do not men just these days lack a strong faith more than anything else? Oh certainly everyone who wants to be easily satisfied in respect to his comfort should examine himself whether this contentedness actually arises from strength of faith or whether he does not really think this because he can easily disregard his sins! That thoughtless Christians desire no private absolution is, of course, no wonder. Their wounds do not smart, therefore they do not especially desire soothing balm. But supposing a Christian actually were so strong that he does not need the particular assurance of the forgiveness of his sins. Should he not for the sake of those who do need it use it at times, so that they would be enticed by his example to hurry to this gift of grace?

A fourth reason why many do not want to use private confession no doubt is occasionally this one. It was not introduced correctly into the church the first time. At that time private absolution was pronounced for the most part only upon those who had been gross sinners and repented. They say, is not each Christian free to use or not to use man's arrangements which were made in the Lutheran Church for seeking private absolution before partaking of Holy Communion? That is true. This is part of Christian liberty. No Christian should and can be compelled to use it. But a different question is whether that which one has the power to use or not is also of benefit. Ask yourself that, my dear Christian.

Finally the fifth reason why so many in our day are prejudiced against the use of private absolution is that they suppose that a detailed confession of their sins must always precede it. They say, should I reveal the secrets of my heart to a man, in whose experience or honesty I may have absolutely no confidence? Must I not fear that a dishonest father confessor might abuse my confession?

We answer thus. We never demand that a special confession of sins precede a special absolution. Did not Christ absolve the man sick of the palsy without such a confession? Was it not sufficient that he came to him as a poor sinner with a believing heart? You see, also a servant of Christ will never demand a single confession of sins. This is also forbidden in clear words in the Symbols of our Church, for we read in the 25th Article of the Augsburg Confession: "But of confession they teach that an enumeration of sins is not necessary."

Thus my friends, I have shown you the great comfort which lies in the full use of the Office of the Keys. I have further shown you how the objections which are usually raised against it are actually insignificant and groundless. I therefore say to you: "Prove all things; hold fast that which is good." (I Thess. 5:21). Ponder further on what was said in the fear of the Lord. But consider also this: Many eyes are turned upon us, who have the reputation of pursuing the goal of a true Lutheran congregation more earnestly than others. Our responsibility is therefore great. Perhaps thousands will imitate us. Whatever we today let fall of the old salutary usages of our fathers, that our children will search for again even less.

I have done what is my duty; I would be a traitor to our church if I would not have raised my voice on also this point. Now do what God demands of you. His Holy Spirit guide you and me in all truth to salvation through Jesus Christ. Amen.



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