Dear brothers and sisters,
Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.
“You threw me in a pit. You sold me as a slave. You told my father I was dead. Now, when I am finally in a position where you cannot overpower me, do you expect me to forgive you, to not take my revenge?” The account of Joseph's brothers coming to him after their father's death and pleading that he not punish them for all that they had done to him is not the cleanest example of confession and absolution that we have in the Scriptures, but it may be the most relatable.
I grew up with a sister four years older than I am, and she was a tough one. I was the soft one. So she tormented me in ways that older siblings do to the younger ones: teasing me to tears, physically pinning me to the ground, all of that kind of stuff. Being four years older and tough she dominated me quite easily, for a while. But children grow and if you know my sister today, you know that I grew significantly more than she did. There came a time when her intimidation lost all of its power over me, kind of like when Joseph rose to power in Egypt over his brothers and dad wasn't around anymore to temper the situation. So, of course, like Joseph I comforted my sister and spoke kindly to her heart. No, I picked her up and put her in the laundry tub and turned on the cold water.
It is obvious that Joseph's brothers came to him more out of fear than sorrow. They were afraid that Joseph would do what they would do, what I did and more. When we think of confession, we have the high expectation that it should be somewhat better than what Joseph's brothers managed. As the situation is recorded for us, they didn't say they were sorry for what they had done. They admitted that they had done evil against him, that they had sinned and their transgression was great, but they never indicated that they wouldn't do it again if given the chance, or even that they wanted to restore a loving relationship with their brother. They were simply motivated by fear and wanted to avoid suffering the way that they had made their brother suffer. They used the memory of their recently departed father to manipulate Joseph so that he couldn't exact retribution without feeling bad about doing so.
Their repentance left a lot to be desired, and so does ours. We don't want to confess our sins until we see that there is no other way out of the situation. We are motivated more by fear of punishment than by love for the one we have offended. When someone comes to us in a situation like this looking for forgiveness only because they are afraid of what might happen, are we ready to forgive them? We easily judge that their confession is inadequate. They are only sorry if we took offense and not because they said something insensitive. They are only sorry that there are consequences to pay and we are not even sure they acknowledge their guilt. And yet they ask for forgiveness and pardon.
In the Gospel reading, Peter asked Jesus a legitimate question, “Lord, how often will my brother sin against me, and I forgive him? As many as seven times?” (Matthew 18:21). Not only are confessions often lacking in sincerity and substance, but so is the forgiveness. We know that the ideal of forgiveness is to wipe the slate completely clean, but we cannot do it. Like Peter, as we speak the words “I forgive you,” we add another indicator to the negative data column beside their name. If we truly forgave them, we would never reach the maximum number of seven or seventy-seven, or seventy times seven, because with each declaration of true forgiveness the count would go back to zero.
We can't do it. We are wretched sinful creatures. We want to see some punishment. We want evidence that they are truly sorry and enough justice to ensure it. We can attempt to define differing degrees and stages of repentance from fear of being caught to making spontaneous restitution several times greater than the damage done, and everything in between. We know that our repentance has been all over the map in varying degrees, and we suspect that the one who sinned against us might be somewhere in there toward the lower end of the scale. But none of that measurement and calculation can help us at all, other than to know that we are imperfect in both owning up to our sin and in forgiving those who sin against us.
When Martin Luther wrote the section of the Small Catechism dealing with Confession, some people thought he left out part of the process. People were used to regarding confession as having at least three stages: the verbal confession of sins; the verbal word of forgiveness; and the outward act of restitution that would satisfy justice. If one of these pieces was lacking, then the forgiveness was not regarded as effective. In the Small Catechism we read: “Confession has two parts: first that we confess our sins and second that we receive absolution, that is, forgiveness...” (Luther's Small Catechism. V. i). In this way, the act can be complete even if we are not completely sorry and even if we are not completely sincere in our forgiveness.
How can that be? Because Confession and Absolution is not our act, but God's act in and through us. If it were simply our act, there would never be any certainty that we are free from those sins. We would always wonder if we were truly sorry or if had completely forgiven. At what point would someone be sorry enough? At what point would the forgiveness be genuine enough to count in the judicial throne room of Almighty God?
Confession and forgiveness can never be dependent on our sincerity because we lack it in full. Rather, it is based on God's love for us in Christ Jesus. Before we ever confessed a word of sorrow or repentance, Jesus Christ gave Himself to die on the cross in payment for every one of our sins. Satisfaction has been made in full. God is justified in forgiving us because the full penalty has been paid, whether we are completely and perfectly sincere in our confession or not.
Before Joseph's brothers had ever mistreated him in any way, God's plan of salvation was set and in place and unfolding through their very family tree. Their forgiveness would not be dependent on their fear or their failure, but in His work which meant that their evil would result in good. Not only did the LORD save many people through the famine, but through Jacob's offspring, descended from Joseph's brother, Judah, Jesus Christ gave His life as a ransom for many.
Confession has two parts: first that we confess our sins and second that we receive absolution, that is forgiveness. Joseph spoke words of forgiveness to his brothers. They didn't follow a precise formula like, “in the stead and by the command of my LORD Yahweh, I forgive you all of your sins.” We use a precise formula so that all doubt is removed and it is clear what is happening among us. But the LORD's love itself in Jesus' death and resurrection for sinners is the basis of the forgiveness that is spoken. If the pastor stumbles over the words, they are still effective. And so was the forgiveness Joseph gave to his brothers as he comforted them and spoke kindly to their heart.
The brothers confessed their sins, albeit mostly out of fear of just retribution. Joseph forgave them, not in a declarative formula but in kind words of comfort. And all was accomplished. The brothers were completely forgiven before God, even though both sides were not as sincere or clear as we might like. It is the same way when you confess your sins in a manner that leaves much to be desired and when you struggle to put into practical effect the forgiveness that you reluctantly give to others. It is all made effective through the love of God in the death and resurrection of our brother Jesus.
Our sins threw Him into the pit of death as He took our place under slavery to sin. His heavenly Father watched Him die upon the cross. His blood stained coat became the white robes washed in His blood that cover us with His perfect righteousness. As He rose again to the height of authority at the Father’s right hand, He bestows divine forgiveness upon us, even as we come with our reluctant repentance and incomplete confessions.
The LORD's forgiveness is complete and whole. Jesus' suffering and death was completely effective for all sins. He declared “It is finished”, knowing that the whole price had been paid in full for you to be completely and fully forgiven. There can be no question. You are forgiven. Your sins are taken away. There is no more payment needing to be made.
We live in this grace of Confession and Absolution. It is the unmerited love of God that signs and seals the deal, while we struggle with sincerity whether confessing or forgiving. It is this unfathomable grace of God that makes perfect forgiveness out of our imperfect confessions, which makes any forgiveness between you and your brothers and sisters possible in this life.
We can see that this divine action is of effect between us. We see the hard-hearted wanting to make things right to some extent. We see that people are moved from stone-cold indifference to a desire to ease the hurt inflicted. This is the love of God at work in us overcoming our fallen nature. This is His forgiveness of our sins spilling out in our relationships with others. It is far from perfect in the way that we deal with one another, but it is a start that will reach completion when we know His complete and total love for us face to face.
The peace of God, which passes all understanding, keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus.