On the Lips of a Man
Ash Wednesday
14 February 2018
Ash Wednesday should remind us of our sin, but all the more bring us the consolation of the gospel in the forgiveness of sins. Our work is repentance. God's work is forgiveness. He forgives not because our confession is valuable or that our work of confession is meritorious. No, He forgives solely for the sake of Christ our Lord, who bore our sins in His body on the tree of the cross. Indeed, the whole life of the Christian is a life of continual confession. Our Lord Jesus commands a life of confession when he says, "Repent and believe the gospel" (Mk 1:15)! The imperative verb "Repent!" that Christ uses in this text implies repentance is a never-ending discipline for those who believe the gospel. Luther says that the prayer the Lord Jesus gave to His church brings us to confession whenever it is prayed, bringing with it a twofold blessing, an admission of my trespass against my neighbor and the confession that our Father waits with open arms to confer on us absolution, running out to greet us (Lk 15:20) with forgiveness and compassion falling upon our neck. How horrifying it would be to bear the burden of our own sin without the freeing gift of confession and the proclamation of the forgiveness of sins from the merciful God.

Despite this, many people suffer with sins that they cannot shake. We all know what it's like when in a quiet moment we have a flashback to some transgression that haunts our conscience; a PTSD of the soul. We are confronted with our shame and embarrassment. There is a sense of unreality about it; could I really have done such a thing to the detriment of my soul and as offense against the all-holy God? But when it comes before our memory again we gasp and put our hands over our mouth, tears well up, our chest tightens, and we feel our heart beating wildly. We stand before God unmasked, a naked sinner. "O God, have mercy on me a sinner" (Lk 18:13)! Our God desires to hear our confession. Has He not commanded our repentance? Will he turn away from us? Never! Confession of our sin lets God be who He wants to be for us; the God who desires to have mercy by blotting out my transgressions, washing me thoroughly from my iniquity, and cleansing me from my sin (Ps 51:1-2).

A person who feels a particular transgression burdening him in this way may come to a Christian brother for the blessing of confession and absolution. This brother too is a sinner who also knows this burden (1Co 10:12). Our pastors are just such brothers to sinners. This is why God calls men into His church to be His ministers to sinners like them. They are sympathetic to the sufferer, just as God's Son is, as it is written in the Letter to the Hebrews, "For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin. Let us then with confidence draw near to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need" (Heb 4:15-16). What greater need does a sinner have than to be assured of God's mercy in the midst of his weakness? This is why the Lutheran Church has retained the practice of private confession and absolution. It can only be carried on where there is absolute confidence in the power of the Word to deliver the goods of justification. The pastor is delivering God's forgiveness to those who are suffering because of a particular sin. Such a person goes down to his house justified (Lk 18:14). Where a doctrine of justification does not exist private confession and absolution assuredly dies. Where this doctrine of justification sets sinners free, the people seek the pronouncement of forgiveness on the lips of a man.

Rev. Dr. Scott R. Murray
Memorial Lutheran Church

   Martin Luther
"We have in the Lord's Prayer a double absolution. There we are forgiven both our offenses against God and those against our neighbor, and there we forgive our neighbor and become reconciled to him.

"Besides this public, daily, and necessary confession, there is also the confidential confession that is only made before a single brother. If something particular weighs upon us or troubles us, something with which we keep torturing ourselves and can find no rest, and we do not find our faith to be strong enough to cope with it, then this private form of confession gives us the opportunity of laying the matter before some brother. We may receive counsel, comfort, and strength when and however often we wish. That we should do this is not included in any divine command, as are the other two kinds of confession. Rather, it is offered to everyone who may need it, as an opportunity to be used by him as his need requires.

"The origin and establishment of private confession lies in the fact that Christ Himself placed His absolution into the hands of His Christian people with the command that they should absolve one another of their sins (Jn 20:21-23; Eph 4:32). So any heart that feels its sinfulness and desires consolation has here a sure refuge when he hears God's Word and makes the discovery that God through a human being looses and absolves him from his sins. So notice then, that confession, as I have often said, consists of two parts. The first is my own work and action, when I lament my sins and desire comfort and refreshment for my soul. The other part is a work that God does when He declares me free of my sin through His Word placed in the mouth of a man. It is this splendid, noble, thing that makes confession so lovely, so comforting." 

Martin Luther, Exhortation to Confession, 12-15
Psalm 51

Have mercy on me, O God, according to your steadfast love; according to your abundant mercy blot out my transgressions. Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity, and cleanse me from my sin!

For I know my transgressions, and my sin is ever before me. Against you, you only, have I sinned and done what is evil in your sight, so that you may be justified in your words and blameless in your judgment. Behold, I was brought forth in iniquity, and in sin did my mother conceive me. Behold, you delight in truth in the inward being, and you teach me wisdom in the secret heart.
Purge me with hyssop, and I shall be clean; wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow. Let me hear joy and gladness; let the bones that you have broken rejoice. Hide your face from my sins, and blot out all my iniquities. Create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a right spirit within me. Cast me not away from your presence, and take not your Holy Spirit from me. Restore to me the joy of your salvation, and uphold me with a willing spirit.

Then I will teach transgressors your ways, and sinners will return to you. Deliver me from bloodguiltiness, O God, O God of my salvation, and my tongue will sing aloud of your righteousness. O Lord, open my lips, and my mouth will declare your praise. For you will not delight in sacrifice, or I would give it; you will not be pleased with a burnt offering. The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise.

Do good to Zion in your good pleasure; build up the walls of Jerusalem; then will you delight in right sacrifices, in burnt offerings and whole burnt offerings; then bulls will be offered on your altar.
Collect for Ash Wednesday
Almighty and everlasting God, You despise nothing You have made and forgive the sins of all who are penitent. Create in us new and contrite hearts that lamenting our sins and acknowledging our wretchedness we may receive from You full pardon and forgiveness; through Jesus Christ, Your Son, our Lord, who lives and reigns with You and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever. Amen.

For all those burdened by particular sins, that they would seek the counsel of a brother, and after unburdening their soul receive the proclamation of holy absolution

For all physicians who are working to serve their many patients suffering from the season's diseases, that they would be upheld in their office as as they bring succor to those in need

For all those working to renovate and repair homes ravaged by Hurricane Harvey, that they would not despair as the work progresses but wait patiently as a sign of patient waiting for our heavenly home

Memorial Lutheran Church
© Scott Murray 2018
Memorial Lutheran Church, 5800 Westheimer Rd., Houston, TX 77057
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