“Oops, I did it again.” “I slipped up.” “I screwed up.” “I relapsed.” Here you have a few of the ways in which we acknowledge sinning. They tend to minimize sin. They make sin a slight fault, an error in judgment, a mistake. Not good, but, you know, not the end of the world or anything.
The Bible doesn’t minimize the sins of a Christian: “The dog returns to its vomit.” It’s no small, slight thing to sin, especially when you’re a believer in Christ. The apostle John says in his first letter, “No one who lives in him keeps on sinning.” Yet the same apostle says, “If we claim to be without sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us.” These two claims seem to contradict. “The Christian doesn’t keep on sinning.” “You know you sin!” Our psalm does something similar, “Let them not return to folly,” the sons of Korah sing. Yet in verses four to seven the singers plead with God to restore them again, to revive them again, to grant them salvation…again! Because they’ve sinned.
Some speculate that the Spirit gave these words sometime after the return from exile. Some events hinted at in the psalm point to the time of Nehemiah, Haggai, and Malachi. Verse one talks about God showing favor to the land and restoring Israel’s fortunes, a possible reference to the return of exiles under Ezra, Nehemiah, and Zerubbabel. Verses two and three recall God forgiving sins and setting aside His wrath. Through the prophet Jeremiah the LORD said, “You will seek me in captivity and find me.” Verse twelve talks about harvesting land again, which might refer to the end of a famine God sent during the time of Haggai, because the people cared more for building their homes than rebuilding God’s Temple.
And yet, despite that, the people did it again. They slipped up. They screwed up. They fell back into the old ways. They relapsed. They returned to their vomit. They kept on sinning. And they know, as we know, what a fearful thing it is to be a sinner in the hands of an angry God. We think of the earth opening up to swallow rebels. We think of poisonous snakes bringing death. We think of plagues of flies and locusts and rivers of blood. We think of the death of the firstborn. We think of the eternal fires of hell, prepared for the devil and his angels, but opened for humans too.
So they did what any sinning Christian would do. They tried to go back in time. “Lord, remember when you favored us?” They talked to the Lord about the exodus from Egypt, about conquering the Promised Land, about sending judges, about returning from Babylon and Persia. “Remember that, Lord?” “Remember how you forgave their sins, Lord?” They mentioned Egypt, Mt. Sinai, the various stopping points in the desert, the banks of the Jordan, the walls of Ai, the time of the judges, and even the rivers of Babylon.
But going back in time doesn’t really do the trick. It doesn’t erase the present sins. We need present help for our present sins. Because our souls stand in present trouble of future damnation. Here we discover why it’s such a good thing to be a part of the Christian Church. Because in this Christian Church we live with the paradox of sinner and saint. I don’t sin. I do sin. I shouldn’t want to sin. I do want to sin. I am something new and different and righteous and just! I am something old and typical and immoral and guilty. Christ died for my sins long ago. I need Christ’s death for my sins right now!
And so the sons of Korah sang, “Restore us again! Revive us again! Grant us your salvation again!” They looked to the past, but appealed to God in the present: “What you’ve done before, do again, o God our Savior!” And then what did they do? They listened for a sermon from the LORD. And what did God preach? “He promises peace to His people, his saints.”
This is the Christian difference. God didn’t just act in the past. If He did, then we’d be left to wonder about the present. No, God continues to act. He established a place where what He did in the past continues to get done in the present. In the exact same way. Well, okay, not exactly. Christ suffered, died, and rose again, once for all. What He did doesn’t get redone, represented or resacrificed. There are no do-overs or mulligans. And yet still, that past event reverberates into the future, our present. What do we confess in the Creed about God the Holy Spirit? “I believe in the forgiveness of sins.” Luther explained it. “In this Christian Church He daily and fully forgives all sins to me and all believers.” Daily and fully. Note those two words.
Daily. What God did in the past, He does in the present, on a continual basis. Daily even. Because it remains true: we sin. We return to folly. Daily. We need what Christ did over and over and over again. Daily. And God the Holy Spirit gives it over and over and over again. Twice in the Large Catechism Luther addressed this: “The work of redemption is done and accomplished. Christ has acquired and gained the treasure for us by His suffering, death, resurrection, and so on. But if the work remained concealed so that no one knew about it, then it would be useless and lost. So that this treasure might not stay buried but be received and enjoyed, God has caused the Word to go forth and be proclaimed.” And again: “Everything, therefore, in the Christian Church is ordered toward this goal: we shall daily receive in the Church nothing but the forgiveness of sin through the Word and signs…. So even though we have sins, the grace of the Holy Spirit does not allow them to harm us. For we are in the Christian Church, where there is nothing but continuous, uninterrupted forgiveness of sin.”
Notice that the means and method of doing this daily work remains consistent: “God has caused the Word to go forth. We shall daily receive in the Church nothing but the forgiveness of sin through the Word and signs.” Just as Psalm 85 said, “I will listen to what God the LORD will say.” And He says what we need to hear. He says, “I forgive you.” He says Christ died for you. He sends the Holy Spirit to announce that to you, to give to you again the treasure of forgiveness.
Not just daily, but fully. God’s forgiveness isn’t half a thing. It’s the whole thing, every time. As you receive the waters of Baptism, you hear your pastor say, “The Almighty God – Father, Son, and Holy Spirit – has forgiven all your sins.” As you confess your sins in the Divine Service you hear your pastor say, “I forgive you all your sins.” As you receive Christ’s body and blood you hear your pastor say that it’s “for you.” For your sins. All of them. And it’s God at work, as Psalm 85 says, “You forgave the iniquity of your people and covered all their sins. You set aside all your wrath and turned from your fierce anger.” The lips of the pastor become the lips of the Holy Spirit, doing His work, on His behalf, by His authority – daily and fully forgiving your sins. When you need it. Because you need it. Luther spoke of this as he explained the Fifth Petition of the Lord’s Prayer: “Let no one think that as long as he lives here he can reach such a position that he will not need such forgiveness. In short, if God does not forgive without stopping, we are lost.”
But you’re not lost. Because God speaks good words about His past favors. Because God speaks good words about His work of forgiveness in the suffering, death, and resurrection of Christ. Because God speaks a good word about His forgiveness through Christ of you and your sins. We believe in the forgiveness of sins. We know that the Holy Spirit of God has this gift to give daily and fully. We need what the Spirit has to give. Come, Holy Spirit, let us hear what the LORD proclaims: Peace to His people, to His saints! Amen.