Forgiveness from Christ to all who believe

Sermon for Trinity 19

Ephesians 4:22-28  +  Matthew 9:1-8

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It’s the 19th Sunday after Trinity. Because of differing patterns in numbering the Sundays after Trinity, it so happens that the last time we celebrated Trinity 19 here at Emmanuel was on an October Sunday in 2012, three days before a critical vote was taken that has had lasting effects on our congregation.

I looked back at the sermon I preached on that day, and I give thanks to God that His Word did its work: it convinced some, and it convicted others. And I continually thank God for His faithfulness, for His truth, for the clarity of His Word, and for the simplicity of His Gospel: that all men are sinners, and are justified solely by faith in Christ Jesus, who loved us and gave Himself for us, as a ransom for all.

We have yet another example of that clear teaching in today’s Gospel: of God, in the Person of Christ Jesus, forgiving sins, and proving that He has the right and the authority to do it.

When we add the story as it’s recounted in St. Mark’s and St. Luke’s Gospels, we get the whole picture of what was going on that day in the city of Capernaum. Jesus was staying in a house, and when the people of the city heard that He was there, they flocked to the house, filled it and were even crowding together around the door, so that no one else could get in.

Four men showed up, carrying a fifth man who was paralyzed and lying on a makeshift stretcher. They couldn’t get in; they couldn’t make their way through the door, through all the people. But they were determined to get to Jesus. So the four men climbed up on top of the house, pulled their paralyzed friend up, made an opening in the roof over the area where Jesus was, and then lowered their friend down to get him near Jesus. What a scene it must have been!

That took faith on the part of those five men. You don’t go through all that trouble to get close to Jesus because you don’t know Him, because you think He’s unmerciful, unkind, or unable to save. In all three Gospels, the writers are careful to note that “Jesus saw their faith.” He saw it because He was the Son of God who knows what’s in every man’s heart. He also saw it because it was evident in their behavior. He saw that they trusted in Him to be a merciful and kind Savior.

Where had such faith come from? As always, it came from the good report about Jesus that they had heard. And surely also from hearing His own preaching there that day, to the extent they were able to hear from a distance. That’s all it takes to create saving, justifying faith: to hear that Jesus is the good and merciful Savior sent from God to deliver poor sinners from sin, death and the devil.

Seeing their faith—not seeing their good works, not seeing their good character, but seeing their faith. The paralytic is the perfect symbol of the inability of sinners to help themselves, to move even a single muscle to help themselves. They can’t. They can’t do anything. Even faith is a gift worked by God’s Holy Spirit through the Gospel of Jesus as the kind and merciful Savior who gives the forgiveness of sins, life and salvation to all who look to Him for help. Seeing their faith, Jesus spoke to the man and said, Son, be of good cheer; your sins are forgiven you.

Now someone actually made the argument to me recently that the paralytic didn’t believe in Jesus when he was first lowered down through the roof, that the paralytic was an unbeliever, and only became a believer after Jesus forgave him his sins, that when it says that Jesus “saw their faith,” it was only the faith of the four other men that Jesus saw, not this one, even though that’s nowhere to be found in the text.

On the contrary, when it says that He saw “their” faith, it clearly includes the paralytic, or else the paralytic wouldn’t have let these men drag him up on a roof and lower him down into a house full of people, to be healed by a man in whom he didn’t believe. Nor would Jesus have called him “son” if he weren’t already a believer, because, as it says in John 1, as many as received Him, to them He gave the right to become children of God, to those who believe in His name. Nor would Jesus have pronounced forgiveness upon this man, if he were an unbeliever. This is the same Jesus who said, For the Father judges no one, but has committed all judgment to the Son, that all should honor the Son just as they honor the Father…Most assuredly, I say to you, he who hears My word and believes in Him who sent Me has everlasting life, and shall not come into judgment, but has passed from death into life. That’s what the forgiveness of sins is, the declaration by God that you shall not come into judgment. You’re not going to hell. You shall not be condemned for your sins. I release you from them. You are not an enemy of God, but a child of God. I declare you to be righteous in God’s sight. You are justified.

How can Jesus do that? As the naysayers there grumbled within themselves, “How dare He forgive a man his sins! Only God can forgive sins!”

That’s true. So understand the full import of this sentence. Jesus is claiming to be God. He is claiming to be the One to whom all flesh must give an answer before the judgment, the One before whom every knee must bow. He is claiming to be the One who can open the doors of heaven, and also the One who can sentence sinners to hell. He is claiming to be the One who determines the fate of every human being. So listen to Him!

On what basis does God forgive sins? He hasn’t kept His reasoning a secret from us; He has revealed it clearly in His Word. God forgives sinners from this solid basis: that He has, by grace alone, transferred the due punishment for their sins to Another, to a divine-human Substitute of God the Father’s own choosing, to His Son Jesus Christ. The Lord has laid on Him the iniquity of us all. Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!

To whom does God forgive sins? He hasn’t kept that a secret, either. He forgives sins to the one who, in repentance, seeks refuge in Christ, who flees to Him in faith as the Throne of Grace, where God has already punished sins, where God has promised always to be merciful. Faith lays hold of Christ and receives everything that belongs to Christ. Sinners are justified and forgiven by means of faith, as that which lays hold of Christ.

All this was too much for the Pharisees who were there that day for the forgiving of the paralytic. They didn’t believe Jesus was the Christ. They didn’t believe Jesus would be the sacrifice for sin. They didn’t believe Jesus was authorized to speak God’s word of forgiveness. So He proved it. He proved to them that He had the authority on earth to forgive sins by doing another thing that only God can do. He spoke health into the paralyzed body of the forgiven man. He spoke and it was. And everyone was amazed—not only by Jesus’ power over palsied limbs, but also by that which was proved by the outward healing of the man, that God had also placed the authority to forgive sins—to open heaven and to shut the gates of hell—on earth, in the word of Jesus.

As you know, there is nowhere on earth where you can find Jesus preaching anymore, no housetop you can open to lower a friend down to where He is. Did the authority to forgive sins ascend to heaven with Him after His resurrection? No. The risen Lord Christ, the Judge of all, left that authority here on earth, and you know the familiar passage from John 20, when Jesus breathed on His disciples and said, Receive the Holy Spirit! If you forgive the sins of any, to them they are forgiven. If you retain the sins of any, to them they are retained.

Here’s a little explanation that was added to the Catechism soon after it was published, still included in many Lutheran catechisms: I believe in what the called ministers of Christ do among us, by His divine command—especially when they exclude public, impenitent sinners from the Christian congregation, and when they absolve those who repent of their sins and are willing to mend their ways—that it is all as valid and certain in heaven also, as if our dear Lord Christ did it Himself.

Stop and think what a treasure Christ has left on earth within His Christian Church in this ministry that was established by Christ. Called ministers preach the Gospel by Christ’s command, and all who believe are forgiven. But even more personally, called ministers baptize by Christ’s command. They baptize the one who comes to them or who is brought to them in faith, and they apply the waters of forgiveness and salvation to that person. And called ministers hear the confession of those baptized Christians who want to hear Jesus speak forgiveness to them, and they absolve them in the stead of Christ. And called ministers administer the Sacrament of the Altar to baptized Christians, too, pronouncing forgiveness upon each one who receives the body and blood of Christ. It’s all just as real as it was the day the paralytic was lowered down through the roof. Heaven is opened to penitent sinners, and the gates of hell are closed shut.

Has God already forgiven and justified all men? That was the question that divided this congregation five years ago. And the answer remains: No! But has Christ earned forgiveness and justification for all men, does He want all men to be forgiven, and does He really offer that forgiveness here in this ministry of the Word? Absolutely! Take comfort in that truth. And let us continue to make it our church’s purpose—our life’s purpose—not only to believe it, but also to confess it before the world and to proclaim it far and wide. May God both strengthen our faith and bless our confession of it! For Jesus’ sake. Amen.

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