Posted by: Johnold Strey | July 17, 2008

Luther on Forgiveness, Won and Received

I’ve heard the following question on more than one occasion: If Jesus won the forgiveness of sins for us on the cross, then why do we need to get forgiveness again in Holy Communion? It’s a good question, and probably one that’s asked because pastors and theologians, myself included, haven’t always been as precise and clear about forgiveness as we ought to be. This was brought to my attention in a phone conversation I had tonight with another WELS pastor. He pointed me to this quotation from Luther, taken from Against the Heavenly Prophets in the Matter of Images and Sacraments. A previous post, More from Luther on Biblical Interpretation, gives more information on this work. I cite these two paragraphs because Luther’s explanation gives a nice concise answer to the oft-asked question mentioned above. Note the distinction between Jesus obtaining or winning our forgiveness, and Jesus giving or distributing our forgiveness.

We treat the forgiveness of sins in two ways. First, how it is achieved and won. Second, how it is distributed and given to us. Christ has achieved it on the cross, it is true. But he has not distributed or given it on the cross. He has not won it in the supper or sacrament. There he has distributed and given it through the Word, as also in the gospel, where it is preached. He has won it once for all on the cross. But the distribution takes place continuously, before and after, from the beginning to the end of the world. For inasmuch as he had determined once to achieve it, it made no difference to him whether he distributed it before or after, through his Word, as can easily be proved from Scripture. But now there is neither need nor time to do so.

If now I seek the forgiveness of sins, I do not run to the cross, for I will not find it given there. Nor must I hold to the suffering of Christ, as Dr. Karlstadt trifles, in knowledge or remembrance, for I will not find it there either. But I will find in the sacrament or gospel the word which distributes, presents, offers, and gives to me that forgiveness which was won on the cross. Therefore, Luther has rightly taught that whoever has a bad conscience from his sins should go to the sacrament and obtain comfort, not because of the bread and wine, not because of the body and blood of Christ, but because of the word which in the sacrament offers, presents, and gives the body and blood of Christ, given and shed for me (LW/AE 40:213-214).

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