By Matthew C. Harrison
“Christ has created a consoling and blessed kingdom on earth when He says, ‘As my Father has sent me, so I send you.’ Here he has consecrated us all as priests for this purpose, that the forgiveness of sins be proclaimed one to another.” — Martin Luther
Luther’s thought above is permeated by the need for the Gospel to be brought to others near and far. Every Lutheran needs to read a bit of Luther. I’ve quickly translated a part of a deeply moving sermon from April 6, 1541, on Christ’s being sent and its profound ramifications for the church’s mission and everyday Christian life. Retaining and loosing sins is the church’s mission! It’s how the church is planted and built.
As you’ll see, speaking forgiveness to troubled consciences is the reason Jesus was sent by the Father. Jesus sent His apostles to speak His same words for His mission. The apostles “established and ordained” others to work with them and follow them. Pastors continue to speak forgiveness unto the end of the age, all sent by Christ. Finally, Luther says that every Christian is to speak forgiveness and absolution to his neighbor, family member, friend and acquaintance. Speak the Gospel of free forgiveness in Jesus. Give someone a Catechism; invite him or her to church. All this is how the Christ who was sent by the Father sends His Gospel to the far corners of the earth until the last day. Simple. Biblical. Apostolic. Lutheran. Missional.
This sermon illustrates the glorious abundance of God’s grace and precisely what Luther wrote in the Smalcald Articles:
God is superabundantly generous in His grace; First, through the spoken Word, by which the forgiveness of sins is preaching the whole world (Luke 24:45–47). This is the particular office of the Gospel. Second, through Baptism. Third, through the holy Sacrament of the Altar. Fourth, through the Power of the Keys. Also through the mutual conversation and consolation of brethren, ‘Where two or three are gathered,’ (Matthew 18:20) and other such verses (especially Romans 1:12). (SA III IV)
Luther’s sermon — April 6, 1541
(Translated by the Rev. Dr. Matthew C. Harrison)
Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, even so I am sending you.” And when he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you withhold forgiveness from any, it is withheld.” (John 20:21–23)
Jesus says, “You’ve seen what kind of office I’ve carried out on earth, that I was sent by My Father, that I should begin a spiritual kingdom against the devil, sin and the power of death, so that those who believe in Me may have eternal life. I have done this not for any secular government. Indeed, I was even murdered by the world and cast out by it. But now through My resurrection I have entered into glory so that I may reign eternally over all creatures at the right hand of God the Father. Therefore, I now send YOU also, that you would be My ambassadors, not concerning secular matters, but to carry out and exercise the very same office I carried out, to preach the Word, which you have heard and received from Me. This is an office by which people are saved from sin and death, people who feel sin and death and want help.”
Thus the apostles and their successors until the end of the world have also been made lords, and to them authority and power is given for the office, as great as was given Christ Himself, God’s Son. Against this office all the world’s power and rule are nothing (though it does not appear glorious before the world). For all the high and mighty, the lowly, the wise, the foolish, the holy, the unholy, none will obtain heaven and eternal life but through this office.
For all are rendered sinners. On earth and in the world, they find nothing but sin. The judgment is spoken to all to whom the apostles and their successors are sent. All with respect to their person and life are condemned sinners before God. One of two things must happen: either their sins are forgiven, and they recognize this and obtain forgiveness, or they must remain eternally bound in sin unto death and damnation.
Now in addition to the exercise of such power and regiment (the condemnation of the Law) there is another power, which is not human but divine. It is not given sword or weapons and is not mounted with harness and secular power. Rather, it’s a breath and says, “Receive the Holy Spirit.” This is so that the minister should know that such office and work come not from his own power, but from Christ’s power through the Holy Spirit, who will work through His office and work. So it is that it is called the Office of the Holy Spirit, who is given by Christ so that whether it indeed appears a weak sermon and not more than a small breath from a human mouth, such power is with it and under it that sin, God’s wrath, death and hell must all give way to it.
Although the power to forgive sins is God’s alone, we should also realize that He exercises and grants such authority through this external office, into which Christ has placed His apostles, and to them has mandated that they should in His Name proclaim the forgiveness of sins to all those who want it. Sins are not forgiven by human will and power, but by Christ’s mandate, to which He then adds the Holy Spirit.
This has not been done so that we may gape into heaven … and say, “Who can climb into heaven?” It is so we may be absolutely certain that the forgiveness of sins has been placed into a public office and word, so that we at all times may have it with us in our mouth and heart. There we should find the absolution and forgiveness. We know where such word, mandated by Christ, is preached and heard and that we are obliged to believe it, as if it were proclaimed by Christ Himself.
See, this is the authority, which — through this office of the apostle — is given to the church, which is far and away beyond all authority on earth. Without this, no one, however great and powerful he may be, shall come to God or have the consolation of faith or be freed from God’s wrath and eternal death. All the might and power, gold and possessions of all emperors and kings together cannot rescue a single person from the smallest sin.
With only a word
But who can possibly describe what an unspeakable, powerful and blessed consolation this is, that a person with a word to another person can open heaven and close hell? For in this gracious kingdom, which Christ established by His resurrection, we do nothing other than open our mouths and say, “I forgive you your sins, not on my account or of my own authority. I do this in the stead and in the Name of Jesus Christ.” For He did not say, “You shall forgive sins on account of yourself.” He said, “I am sending you, as the Father has sent Me.” I Myself have not done it out of self-choosing or self-counsel. I am sent by the Father. And I give you the very same mandate, good until the end of the world. This is so that you and all the world know that such forgiveness or retaining of sins does not happen on the basis of human power or authority, but on the command of the One who sends you.”
This is not only spoken to those who are preachers or minister of the church [Prediger oder Kirchendiener], but also to all Christians. One person may console and speak the absolution to another who may be in need, in the throes of death. So when you hear such a word from me — “Your sins are forgiven” — you hear that God will be gracious to you and help you in the face of sin and death and render you righteous and eternally blessed.
“Yes,” you say, “you have indeed spoken the absolution to me, but who knows whether it is certain and true that God has forgiven my sins?” … You need to be instructed from God’s Word so you can say, “It’s not the preacher or any other person who has absolved me. It’s not the pastor who has commanded me to believe this, but God has spoken it and done it through the pastor, of which I’m certain. For my LORD Christ has commanded and declared, ‘As the Father has sent me, so I send you.’” There He makes those to whom He gives such an order all alike in the mission [Sendung] because they are all sent by Him to do and carry out what He was sent by the Father to do — that is, to loose and retain sins. There it sticks and that’s it. Otherwise, without such a command, absolution would be nothing. …
When the pastor or someone else begins to console you, not in a worldly way, nor for any monetary gain, but just because he sees that you are deeply troubled by the terrors of conscience and death, and he says to you, “Let it all go. Let everything on earth go: money, possessions, all human activity and life. Just pay attention to this one thing,” your heart is in a great state of anxiety, and it wonders, “How will I be rid of my suffering, misery and evil conscience? How can I be rid of the threats of Moses’ law?” Here I say to you, listen to the one who speaks this way to you. I tell you in the Name of the LORD Christ, who died for your consolation, believe and be certain that your sins are forgiven, and death will not harm you.
Yes, dear friend, you say, “How will you prove it?” Answer: Christ our LORD said to His disciples and to all of Christianity: “I command you and tell you and urge you to forgive sins or retain them. What you now do you are not doing of your own accord. You do it on the basis of My command and promise, so I am doing it Myself.” No, a pastor [Pfarrherr] or preacher [Prediger], as your curate of souls [Seelsorger], or even an individual Christian in such cases, is mandated and sent to console you. And so you are absolutely obliged to believe that person, because he seeks nothing but your soul’s eternal salvation. Indeed, it is as though Christ Himself were standing there and speaking the absolution to you. …
So don’t say: “Where will I find this? Shall I go to Rome or Jerusalem?” No. Even if you had a golden ladder — if it were possible to climb to heaven itself — nothing would come of it. You must rather proceed this way: Look to Christ’s Word and mandate when He says, “I am sending you,” etc. It as though He were saying, “I must first come to you by the will of My Father on account of the Gospel and proclaim to you the holy sacraments and deliver the absolution, just in case you would try to come to Me in a different way. But now I will not be physically present in all places in the entire world, nor always visibly present with you. So I am doing what My Father has done. He took a tiny speck of the earth, namely, Israel, and He sent me that I should be a preacher. There I wandered through Galilee and Judea, and I could dispute, preach the Gospel, console poor sinners among the Jewish people, heal the sick, raise the dead, etc.”
Behold, that was the work Christ had been sent by the Father to do. There He lets himself be found not at the home of partiers and pigs, not with Annas, Caiaphas and other ‘holy’ rich, wise people; but among the blind, lame, deaf, dead and deceived — poor, troubled lambs, whom He helps in body and soul [Leib und Seele]. He brings them the most precious treasure, which nobody has, much less can give, namely, righteousness and eternal life. He speaks of this in this text and tells you to do likewise and in all places wherever you go:
“I send you so that you should run, as My ambassadors, through the entire world. For this purpose, next to and after you, place and ordain others who run and preach and do exactly that, for which I was sent by the Father and I sent to you, to the end of the world. And I will always be present, that you should know that it is not you who are doing it, but I through you.”
From this mandate we also have the authority to console troubled consciences and to speak others free from sin, and to know that where we carry out such an office, it is Christ Himself who does it. Therefore, every Christian should hear the pastor and preacher not as a man but as God Himself, whether he speaks from the pulpit or in person. Thus he can be certain and may not doubt that he has the forgiveness of sins. For Christ has established it by His resurrection, that whether a called minister of the church [Kirchendiener], or another person in case of distress or need, speaks an absolution to his [or her] neighbor who is afraid and desires consolation, that is as valid as though Christ had done it Himself. For it happens at Christ’s command and in His Name. …
Christ has created a consoling and blessed kingdom on earth when He says, “As my Father has sent me, so I send you.” Here He has consecrated us all as priests for this purpose, that the forgiveness of sins be proclaimed one to another.
(Translated from Martin Luther, Dr. Martin Luther’s Sämmtlische Schriften: Kirchen-Postille, ed. Dr. Joh. Georg Walch, St. Louis Edition [St. Louis: Concordia, 1882], 753–69.)
Posted Jan. 30, 2023