Forgiven Sinners Like You & Me

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As an heir of the Enlightenment, a child of the 60s, and later a nothing-but-the-Bible Christian, the idea of liturgy seemed to me as some kind of idolatry. So now here I am each Sunday in a preaching robe, leading our congregation in a liturgical Confession of Sin with such words as: “I, a poor, miserable sinner…” And then, under the covering of the office that the robe symbolizes, I speak words of the Absolution that include: “I forgive you all your sins…”

I recall with great shame an incident when I was a zealous young street preacher establishing an outreach in Brooklyn, New York. A well-known Presbyterian church graciously lent us their social hall to conduct our afternoon services. One day while sitting with the church’s minister, in my bold passion for God, I bluntly said, “I feel sorry for you.” All the outward religious trappings, the empty traditions. Where was love for Jesus in all this? I assumed, of course, that our own ‘traditions’ weren’t traditions at all, but straight out of the Bible. It’s amazing how pure you can be in your own eyes.

This encounter was long before I would painfully learn that the ‘sinners’ inside the church are as bad as those outside. Jesus’ story about the Pharisee and the tax-collector bears out the truth that we Pharisee-Christians are worse than garden-variety ‘heathens’. I like to play a little loose with the story and tell it as if it were about two church-goers today. It’s similar to the Cain and Abel story. They were both in a worship service when one of them became offended that his righteousness was found lacking.

When the apostle Paul wrote to the Philippian church he called all of his own moral, law-keeping zeal nothing but “dung” (the Greek word is not as polite). Some like to think he was referring only to his pre-Christian years. His arguments in Romans and Galatians, however, were aimed at the self-chosen, works-righteousness of Christians.

Paul’s earnest plea to God was that he be found in Christ not having his own righteousness, but to be clothed in the unearned, undeserved righteousness of Christ Jesus. That is no little prayer and no small job for a God who only justifies the ungodly (Romans 4:5). Good people need not apply.

Now as I step to the pulpit each Sunday I eagerly look forward to the Confession, to unloading all the pharisaical pretense I’ve managed to pick up during the week. (I know, it’s a nasty habit. I’m not proud of it.) I especially love to speak and hear the words of Absolution: “Almighty God in His mercy has given His Son to die for you, and for His sake forgives all your sins. As a called and ordained servant of Christ, and by His authority, I forgive you all your sins, in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.”

The forgiveness of sins that comes to us in the gospel is a reminder that if there is ever found in us a shred of righteousness, it is by grace alone. It is a pure gift from a Savior who gave His life for sinners like you and me.

David Sczepanski has been Pastor of Gospel Outreach Reformational Church since 1993. Recently the church moved its congregation and school to a newly-constructed building at 2845 St. James Place, Eureka. Sunday morning service is held at 10 AM.

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