Forgive Us Our Sins
What does this mean?
In the small catechism, Martin Luther says, “We ask in this prayer that our heavenly Father would not regard our sins nor deny these petitions on their account, for we are worthy of nothing for which we ask, nor have we earned it. Instead we ask that God would give us all things by grace, for we sin daily and indeed deserve only punishment. So, on the other hand, we, too, truly want to forgive heartily and to do good gladly to those who sin against us.”
See, I don’t think we actually believe that. It doesn’t matter how often we recite Paul in Ephesians 2:8, saying “For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God.” I don’t think it matters how often we say that, because the rest of your life you are inundated with other conflicting messages that are much more attractive than that one. So I really don’t think any of us are good enough to truly believe it. Instead of messages of grace we’re told: You are enough … You deserve it! … God will bless you because of your faithfulness.
These messages can be found in everything from advertisements to memes and viral messages on social media to old-fashioned Bible commentaries and commentators on the TV, and they sound so dang attractive and they resonate with us so deeply that we end up trying to believe both what the Bible says and what our culture says at the same time. Yes, we are saved by grace through faith… but also I am enough! Yes, it’s not my own doing but it is the gift of God… but also I deserve it! We believe these things even though they are contradictory and, at the end of the day, the one that will win out is the one that I can control and feel good about, which is the idea that the solution to the world lies in me; that I am enough; that I am what the world needs. We might believe that grace stuff in the religious sphere of our lives but that sphere doesn’t hold a candle to what we are inundated with between Sundays.
Because of this cultural battle unfolding inside of us our pleas for forgiveness become prayers for partial forgiveness: Lord, forgive me my sins—you know, those one or two things keeping me from being completely and wholly awesome.
See, here’s the real problem with asking for only partial forgiveness: It’s weak and it treats religion like the fix for an otherwise pretty-good you. I mean, if I’m partially good and partially bad, then it stands to reason I could just become a better person—perhaps little by little. Then, I might begin to believe that I need that forgiveness less immediately than that other person down the street—you know, that real sinner. Once we enter into the world of comparison—both with others and even with ourselves—faith no longer becomes a life or death matter. Then it’s basically over—we can pack up the church, go home, and let McDonald’s and Victoria’s Secret do the evangelism.
Forgiveness is so central to our faith that any softening of it risks throwing out the baby Jesus with the bathwater.
But this is a difficult thing to preach because it’s so counter-cultural; it’s literally saying the exact opposite of what the TV advertisers know will get you to buy things. No weight loss commercial is going to tell you that you are 100% sinner and 100% saint. They’re going to talk about controlling that sinner and making you more of a saint, and you’ll believe them, even though more often than not their claims will leave you disappointed. The sad truth is that most preaching is less believable than marketing, even though marketing puts an unrealistic best light on things that rarely matches up to reality. Yes, go buy that $200 metal bar to attach above your door and pretty soon you’ll be rocking a six-pack full of abs… and your complexion will probably improve too, don’t ask why… It’s still easier to believe that than the promise that by grace you have been saved because radical grace means a tacit acceptance of something about yourself that you are super scared of admitting. (You know what it is?) You aren’t enough. You are NOT enough.
You’re dirty, rotten sinners who need a big, fat Jesus to take away your sins, and you are desperately—DESPERATELY—in need of confessing your inadequacy to yourself and receiving a real awareness of your forgiveness.
See, you might think the way to unite the world is to inspire all people to let out their inner goodness, to inspire people to be who they were created to be, and you may feel that this is the key to an egalitarian, peaceful society, but let’s be honest: This is make-believe. Conservatives and liberals, you both have your make-believe. Conservatives have their make-believe that everybody has an equal footing if we just remove the government from their lives. Well, liberals also have their make-believe that the secret to a better world is lifting people up and making them better. Both have a grain of truth; both fall into the same category as advertisements that get you to react according to your baser desirers.
Have I offended everybody yet? I mean, isn’t this the perfect day in the park for getting offended?
I’m sorry, but grace is offensive.
Grace means that all receive the same reward, like the workers in Parable of the Laborers in the Vineyard. Not only does everybody receive the same wage—those who worked all day and those who worked just a few minutes—but, if that’s not enough, Jesus goes out of his way to make sure we know that everybody else knows exactly how blatantly unfair it is. Everybody will know what everyone else gets, which is precisely enough. We don’t trust true forgiveness because it’s not fair, because we don’t trust other people, and we also don’t trust ourselves—though we may not be self-aware enough to realize it.
Grace is offensive because it is for the worst of all sinners, and the worst of all sinners is always ME. There is no other, because when I start to consider who may be worse than me I prove that by the very act of comparing myself with them I am worse. I am 100% sinner; not 50; not even 99. 100%.
Grace is offensive and counter-cultural and forgiveness is all we have. So, today, as we sit out in the beauty of God’s creation the reason I preach this message (and not something fluffier) because it is also the only message that frees us. We receive grace not by virtue of our trying but by virtue of our letting go—letting go of the messages that tell us we need to be better, that we are enough, and that we could be so much more. No, you aren’t enough because you are dead without grace. But with grace? Oh, that’s a different story.
You are saved by grace through faith; not through confession and forgiveness; but forgiveness is where the realization of that salvation happens. And you simply cannot know forgiveness without being punched in the gut by grace. Accept who you are—a sinner saved by grace. I’m not sure how strongly you’ll believe it—what with this world full of more attractive messages begging for your attention—but it will change you if you do.
You are saved by grace. Forgiven. Free.
That’s something I can get behind on a beautiful day at Lake Bronson.