Video of Vespers is here. The sermon begins around the 35:05 mark.
In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Sometimes we get a little confused about the connection between confession and forgiveness. Because confession comes before the delivering of forgiveness, it’s easy to slip a bit and start to think that confession is the cause of forgiveness. We can easily slip into thinking that because I confess, I’m forgiven. And the general absolution doesn’t help us there, because it says “upon this, your confession,” which makes us think that the absolution comes because of the confession.
To be sure, confession comes before absolution. Those who aren’t confessing aren’t looking for forgiveness. And the one who isn’t confessing probably isn’t in the position of receiving forgiveness, either from God or from other people. But the fact that one comes before the other, and the fact that it’s only the repentant heart that will receive the forgiveness being delivered, doesn’t mean that the confession is the sufficient cause of that forgiveness. And even more than that, the forgiveness that is delivered in the absolution does come before confession, since it was accomplished by Jesus’ death and resurrection a long time before we were ever around to confess.
Think of David’s confession, both to the prophet Nathan in 2 Samuel 12, and his confession here in Psalm 51. Think how it would distort everything, including the forgiveness of God, if David’s confession is the cause of God forgiving him. Think about what David has done: it’s not just that he’s broken multiple commandments, including coveting his neighbor’s wife, stealing her from him, committing adultery with her, misusing the gifts of God as king of Israel, and murdering her husband, Uriah, by putting him on the front lines—not to mention making himself god in place of Yahweh by taking what he wants rather than what God has given him. Even more, there is nothing he can do to fix what he’s broken. He can’t undo the adultery; the child conceived in Bathsheba is the proof of that. The child dies; he can’t undo that. He can’t undo the murder of Uriah; he’s not coming back from the dead, at least, not until the last Day. David can’t fix any of it, no matter what or how he confesses.
If David’s confession is the cause of God’s washing him clean, then the extent of God’s forgiveness must be tied to the strength of David’s confession. Isn’t this how we measure penitence? By how sincere a person seems to be? By how convincingly they demonstrate that they sincerely repent and are heartily sorry? What would David be able to confess that would be convincing?
Confession is not proving that you’re really sorry (although the fruits of repentance might, in part, demonstrate that). Confession is not saying enough to prove you’re worthy of forgiveness. Confession of sin is one thing and one thing only: saying what God says about sin and sinners. After Bathsheba’s grieving for her husband is complete—I wonder if she even knew all of what David had done—David takes her for his wife, and she is pregnant with David’s son. David shows absolutely no remorse and his heart is so hardened against the Holy Spirit that he doesn’t even recognize that he’s sinned. He thinks he’s just going to go on with life, having successfully gotten away with and hidden his sin. Now he marries the grieving widow, and everything will be fine. Except 2 Samuel 11 says, “But evil was the thing that David had done in the eyes of Yahweh.” In Hebrew, “evil” is the first word in the sentence, emphasizing that God is not just going to let this go. This evil cannot stand, and time will not heal this wound.
Then Nathan comes and tells David a parable revealing his sin. But David is so blind and deaf that he decrees death for the man in the parable, though it is himself. His words speak the truth that he cannot see: that he deserves death for what he had done, let alone repayment of what he has taken. But he can’t repay it, because it’s over and done. The adultery is finished, and Uriah is dead. He had sinned against Bathsheba, against Uriah, but also against God. Evil in the eyes of Yahweh was the thing that David had done. So in response to David’s words that the man should both die and repay four-fold what he had taken, Nathan says, “You are the man!” What happens next is the proof that God has not forever taken His Spirit from David, nor cast him completely from His presence. David says, “I have sinned against Yahweh.”
No more hiding. No more pretending. No more covering up what he had done with greater and greater sin. God will not be mocked, and time does not forgive sins. Whereas before Nathan came, David couldn’t see his sin at all, now it’s all he sees: “My sin is always right in front of me” (Psalm 51:3; MT 51:5). To paraphrase St. Paul in Romans 7, David would not have known what it was to covet, steal, commit adultery, and murder if the Law, in Nathan’s mouth, hadn’t said: You shall not steal and commit adultery and murder. But sin, seizing an opportunity through the commandment, produced in David the knowledge of all of it. Evil in the eyes of Yahweh was the thing that David had done. And so he confesses: “Against You, and only You, have I sinned, and done what is evil in Your eyes” (51:4; MT 51:6). David speaks here the exact words that are said of God in 2 Samuel 11. This is the truth that God desires in the inward being.
Confession: saying the same thing. And because it’s saying the same thing as the Word of God, that Word actually works repentance. God creates repentance by His Word. But the cause of the forgiveness isn’t in David at all. It’s first and finally in the One against whom he has sinned. David’s sin is much: large, overwhelming, undeniable. To what does David appeal? To the greatness of God’s mercy and the greatness of His cleansing. David’s sin is always in front of him, but he prays that God would not always keep it in front of Him: Hide Your face from my sin and blot out all my iniquities. David cannot destroy or erase or ignore or get rid of the sin that’s in front of him. But as long as that sin is before God’s face, He must destroy it. Will God look at David’s sin and destroy him with it? Or will He look elsewhere, so as not to hold David’s sin against him? God is righteous in His speaking and pure and blameless in His judging. What God calls evil is evil. Whatever God does and says is righteous, regardless of what we think about it. The gift of God, of His Holy Spirit, is to say the same things He says and judge things the way that He judges them.
First of all, to judge as David does: I have sinned and evil are my actions, and I deserve to die, to be returned to dust and ashes. But more than that, because God’s justification in His condemning of sinners is not His goal. His goal is not to be justified in your condemnation. It is one thing that God is right in calling us sinners deserving of temporal and eternal punishment, though it’s impossible for sinners caught in their sin to see and believe it. Even so, let God be true and every man a liar.
But it’s entirely another thing, and far more unbelievable, to see and believe that God will be righteous in His steadfast love and mercy, in His washing and cleansing, in His deliverance from being guilty and His salvation. Because now the righteousness and justification of God comes not in His condemning of David and us according to His Law, but in something completely outside the Law: the righteousness of God through the faithfulness of Jesus for all who believe (Romans 3:21). God takes David’s sin with Bathsheba and his guilt in the blood of Uriah, and wraps up all that sin and iniquity and transgression and guilt in the flesh of the crucified Jesus, the son of David.
Here is the final and full right sacrifice by which God does good to the broken and contrite. By the guilt of David, God produces His own Son according to the flesh. And by the guilt of the shedding of Jesus’ blood, God opens wide His never-ending mercy, the cleansing and eternal fountain that washes clean those who are conceived and born in sin. David isn’t cleansed by his confessing. He’s cleansed by the One who would descend from Bathsheba’s second son, Solomon. And we are not cleansed by our confessing, but by the son of David according to the flesh and the Son of God according to His divinity. After Jesus received the sour wine from the hyssop branch, He said, It is finished.
So it is tonight. It is finished. Lent isn’t about going back before it was finished. Whatever the day, Jesus is the crucified One who is forever risen from the dead and cannot die anymore. You who have been washed in the holy baptism of Jesus’ own word and blood by the Holy Spirit, who have been sanctified, who have been justified—you don’t confess because something in God’s work and mercy is left undone. Your confession is saying the same thing about your sinful flesh that God says: until your return to dust and ashes, there is a sinner in you that needs to die in all his evil and sin and iniquity. But in the absolution, God delivers to you something that depends only and always on His Son, Jesus—His life and forgiveness and salvation, by which He cleanses you in the washing of water with the word. When you wash the ashes off your forehead, by which you remember the curse of Adam, that you are dust and will return to dust, remember even more that washing and burying and drowning of your sin in your baptism into Christ.
Your Father turns His face from your sin, and looks only at the face of His Son, so that on the last day, He will present you holy and blameless before Him, in the splendor of His holiness. Who are these? These are the ones who will come out of the great trouble of this world, with its sin, death, and devil. They have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb (Revelation 7:14). O God, restore to us the joy of Your salvation! Strengthen us by the Spirit who leads always to Christ! Open our mouths, and then we will sing Your praise! Let us, after the long Lent of this world, hear joy and gladness forever, in that eternal resurrection Day!
In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen. “And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 4:7, ESV). Amen.
– Pr. Timothy Winterstein, 3/1/22