We’re still on
In the fifth place, the Word of God is not rightly divided when sinners who have been struck down and terrified by the Law are directed, not to the Word and the Sacraments, but to their own prayers and wrestlings with God in order that they may win their way into a state of grace; in other words, when they are told to keep on praying and struggling until they feel that God has received them into grace.
Why have we been on this thesis so long? In today’s Lecture 18, Walther reminds us that
The ninth thesis, now before us, is really the central thesis in this entire series. Anyone who understands this thesis can rightly divide Law and Gospel; but any one who does not understand it will never learn the division by any other rules.
There is some interesting stuff in this lecture, an inspired Gospel opening (suitable for this incipient Christmas season), dismantling of Anabaptists similar to what we’ve been seeing, a quick interlude against ourselves (“Calvin was dissatisfied with Zwingli’s interpretation of the Lord’s Supper, but his own interpretation was also wrong”) and some very interesting Luther quotes on the concept of the Keys.
But I’m trying to push through here, in hopes we’ll reach sunnier climes, free of anti-Calvinist rhetoric. So for today’s quote, I grab from the bottom a few paragraphs that might give us some clues into the mystery of Lutheran Atonement: Objective Universal, but Subjectively Particular.
Luther insists on faith in the declaration of Christ: “Thy sins are forgiven thee,” To disbelieve this statement is tantamount to making Christ a liar. Though a minister pronounce the absolution to such a person ten times, it would not benefit him. We cannot look into people’s hearts; but that is not necessary at all; we are to look only in the Word of our heavenly Father, which informs us that God has absolved the entire world. That assures us that all sins have been forgiven to all men.
Query: Does this apply also to an impious scoundrel, who may be plotting burglary to-night, with the object of stealing and robbing? Indeed it does. The reason why he is not benefited by absolution is because he does not accept the forgiveness offered him; for he does not believe in his absolution. If he believed the Holy Spirit, he would quit stealing.
Another query: Is it right to absolve a scoundrel of this kind? Answer: If he is known to you as a scoundrel, it is wrong because you know that he will not accept forgiveness. Knowing this, you would commit a great and grievous sin by performing the sacred act of absolution for him and thus cast your pearls before swine. But absolution itself is always valid. If Judas had received absolution, his sins would have been forgiven by God; but he would have had to accept forgiveness. To obtain this treasure, there must be one who bestows it, and another who receives it. An unbeliever may imagine and even say that he accepts forgiveness, but in his heart he is resolved to continue his sinful life and to prefer serving the devil. Hence the true doctrine of absolution does not make men secure, but thoroughly and radically plucks them out of the devil’s kingdom. That is something altogether different from what moralists are doing when they put a white veneer on a black personality.
Luther’s remarks about faulty keys are directed against the abominable false teaching of the papists. When they are asked whether they absolve also scoundrels and what the benefit of absolution is in such a case, they reply that in such a case the key is faulty because it will not fit into that particular key-hole and the right key has not been furnished them. Our key is never faulty, because we only repeat what God has spoken. It is man that is at fault. If he is impenitent, he is not benefited by the application of the releasing key, but he only increases his damnation twofold.
Note Luther’s remark that we have the keys of heaven here on earth.
As to the so-called “inner forgiveness” on which fanatics insist as being a matter of chief importance, they never know whether theirs is really the inner, or heartfelt, forgiveness of the Holy Spirit or of their own spirit of fanaticism.
It is certainly true what Luther points out, viz., that on the Last Day many will be surprised when God will recount to them all the Sundays on which He stood ready to absolve them, while they would not believe Him and thus made Him a liar. They will see that they have often stood at the gate of heaven and refused to enter.
What Luther says about a King’s gift of a castle to a subject must be applied to absolution. In that act God really offers forgiveness to all, even to unbelievers and scorners of a gift which they think cannot be real it is because brought to them by a man like themselves. These deluded people do not consider that it is God Himself, not man, that does the forgiving. The minister may personally be a son of Belial, and yet he forgives people’s sins when he pronounces absolution to them. Why? Because what he does is done in the name and by the command of God. Oftentimes kings have sent out wicked servants with orders to their subjects, and these commands were just as valid as if the king had published them in person.
Rightly, therefore, Luther urges this point regarding absolution: “It is God’s command and word which the confessor speaks and the penitent hears. They are both in duty bound, as they love their souls, firmly and stoutly to believe this doctrine like any other article of faith.” Indeed, also the minister, in the act of pronouncing absolution, is in duty bound to believe that all sins of his clients are forgiven. If he does not do this, he is a sacrilegious miscreant, who dares to open his mouth to pronounce absolution, while in his heart he regards the whole action as a burlesque designed to fool the stupid masses.”