Over Christmas break, I had the privilege of sitting in the lecture hall and listening to the lectures of a dead 16th century professor. The professor’s name was Dr. Martin Luther.
It was actually me just reading Dr. Luther’s lectures to his seminary students covering Paul’s letter to the Galatians. His students transcribed his lectures using Latin shorthand. Luther read over the transcripts to make sure they were accurate. 21st century translator Haroldo Comacho translated the notes in modern day English in a way that seems like you are right there with Luther’s students listening to the latest lecture.
Luther’s lectures make you bathe in the Gospel of God’s free grace. If you wonder what it means to be “Gospel-centered” read Luther’s commentary on Galatians. For Luther, the Gospel is central to every aspect of the life of the believer—even friendship. Luther writes,
When the mind is overwhelmed with terror and feelings of sin, it cannot conceive there is hope. But hope is that God is merciful and will forgive sins on account of Christ. The mind only judges that God is angered toward sinners and that He accuses and condemns them. At this point, faith must lift up once again this afflicted and anguished conscience, as Christ said, “Where two or three are gathered in my name” (Matthew 18:20).
However, if there are no faithful brotherly hands to comfort such a depressed and defeated soul with and through God’s word, then hopelessness and death will follow. It is a dangerous thing for someone to be alone. “Woe to him who is alone when he falls,” says the Preacher, “and has not another to lift him up” (Ecclesiastes 4:10). Therefore, those who put together the regulations for those monks who live in solitude have been the occasion for many to fall into hopelessness…
For if man separates from the companionship of others for a day or two to exercise in prayer (as we read about Christ, who sometimes would go alone into the mountain and was in prayer all night) (Luke 5:15-16), there is no danger in that. But when a person is compelled continually to live a solitary life, that’s the devil’s own device, for when someone is tempted and is found alone, that person is not able to get up on his own, no, not even at the slightest temptation. – Martin Luther
Luther’s insight is important because in every age, there is the danger of losing the Gospel—even in friendship. Think about those weekly meetings you have with close Christian friends. You call the session “Accountability.” There is absolutely nothing wrong with accountability. You will be held accountable for your sins on the Last Day (2 Corinthians 5:10). But your account before God will be dripping with the blood of Jesus. Perhaps, we should call those sessions “Absolution” since we will be gloriously reminded once again that all of our sins have been forgiven by Christ’s sake in the presence of all the redeemed. In this article, we are going to explore Luther’s idea of Christian friendship in order to reform how we think community should be.
The Danger of Being Alone
For Luther, being alone should not be the norm for a Christian. Though it is permissible to be alone in prayer or meditation for a couple of days, excessive time away from others is dangerous for one’s soul. Excessive seclusion is dangerous for two reasons according to Luther. First, the heart and mind of the believer is fallen. Due to indwelling sin, the heart and the mind fails to perfectly embrace the Gospel’s promise of eternal life through Christ. Nobody perfectly believes the Gospel. Our hearts tend to run back to the Law to justify ourselves before God. God wrote the Law on our hearts when He created us (Romans 2:14-15) unlike other creatures in order that we would glorify Him and enjoy Him forever. But after we sinned in Adam, we don’t have the ability to do that which is original sin). But our sin makes us think we can. The mind recognizes we fail and sin against God in thought, word, and deed. Then the heart falls into hopelessness and despair since we are resistant to the grace of God. The fallen heart can not conceive of a God who describes Himself as “a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness” (Exodus 34:6).
The second danger of being alone is the temptation of Satan.
Your adversary the devil prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour. – 1 Peter 5:8
In Zechariah 3:1, Satan tries to accuse Zechariah before the throne of God. James 4:7 tells us to resist the devil in the context of how God is merciful to forgive our sins. Perhaps he tries to tempt us to think that God does not give grace to the humble (James 4:6). How Satan comes to tempt us is a mystery. But we know he wants to devour us by getting us to think God is not merciful and gracious and abounding in steadfast love for us. He wants us to think God is not good, wise, or loving in His sovereignty over our suffering. He wants us to think suffering is God’s wrath against our sins. He wants us to think our sins exceed Christ’s mercy and that no one would stay by our side if we confess our sins. We are not powerful enough on our own to defeat our sin and Satan. Depression and hopelessness will reign.
The Failure of Moralism
Luther calls out the unbiblical spiritual discipline of living in a monastery as a monk as insufficient for regaining our assurance of salvation. Luther, above all people, knew the malnourishment the monastery was to his soul. There is not enough praying, confessing, fasting, or physical punishment he could do to know he was righteous before God.
Good works can never satisfy God. There is not enough forsaking of sin we can do in order to be righteous before Him (Romans 3:20). This is why mere accountability is not enough. True friends call out each other’s sins, but they do not leave each other there lest they become “overwhelmed with excessive sorrow” (2 Corinthians 2:7).
Moreover, individual spiritual disciplines cannot bring us out of hopelessness. A practice does not have that power. But Jesus does! But unfortunately, we tend to put our trust in our practices rather than Jesus because they are about our performance and not Christ’s finished work.
These have indeed an appearance of wisdom in promoting self-made religion and asceticism and severity to the body, but they are of no value in stopping the indulgence of the flesh. – Colossians 2:23
The Triumph of Absolution
As Luther says, our greatest hope is that “God is merciful and will forgive sins on account of Christ.” We cannot know the grace of God by nature. The only thing we can know individually by nature and reason is His Law. Then, when we look into the mirror of the Law, we see God’s righteousness and our sin. Reason can only testify to God’s judgement against our sins. The only way humankind can know the grace of God in Christ is by His special revelation in the Scriptures. How did you become a Christian? Someone preached to you (Romans 10:14).
Your Christian life began by someone preaching to you the forgiveness of sins that Christ offers and it continues that way. You should have Christian friends around constantly telling you how your sins are forgiven and that you should lift up your downcast soul. This is the practice of absolution.
The Biblical Basis of Absolution
Luther mentions how God blesses this practice when he quotes Matthew 18:20.
For where two or three gather in my name, there am I with them. – Matthew 18:20
While this passage is about church discipline, absolution is in view since the purpose of church discipline is to restore the brother or sister to fellowship. Moreover, what precedes this passage is the parable of the lost sheep. God desires to find and restore our wayward heart, not cast it away. He desires us to be reconciled to Him. This is why He calls us to be ambassadors of Christ and make God’s appeal to the world on His behalf (2 Corinthians 5:18-20).
Jesus commissioned his disciples by saying, “If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you withhold forgiveness from any, it is withheld” (John 20:23). As Protestants, we get uneasy about someone absolving another of their sins because of how Romanism abused this practice. The abuse is that Romanists require more than repentance and faith in Christ in order to be absolved. This is contrary to Scripture since it commissions us as ambassadors. A good ambassador proclaims the exact word of the king. An enemy of the king proclaims a message contrary to the king. That double agent commits treason and is worthy of death. It’s a fearful thing to abuse the practice of absolution.
The Character of the Absolver
The character of the one who absolves is this:
The saying is trustworthy and deserving of full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am the foremost. But I received mercy for this reason, that in me, as the foremost, Jesus Christ might display his perfect patience as an example to those who were to believe in him for eternal life. – 1 Timothy 1:15-16
The only one worthy to absolve sin is the one who considers him or herself the chief of sinners. Moreover, it is the one who recognizes that we are all equal at the cross. He or she should not be scandalized by another’s sins since he knows that he has thought, spoken, or done worse. This person recognizes that we have all been loved by the same Love, covered with the same Blood, clothed with the same Righteousness, and have an equal inheritance with the Father.
The Message of Absolution
The medicine that the one who absolves to the wounded soul is this: “Christ came into the world to save sinners.” No matter how dark and deep your sin is and how broken you are, Jesus came to fix you. He came to overwhelm our sins by His blood and righteousness. Your sin cannot outrun the grace of God just as you cannot out run the east and the west (Psalm 103:12). Jesus cares about His glory so much that He will not allow your sin to thwart His mission:
All that the Father gives me will come to me, and whoever comes to me I will never cast out. For I have come down from heaven, not to do my own will but the will of him who sent me. And this is the will of him who sent me, that I should lose nothing of all that he has given me, but raise it up on the last day. For this is the will of my Father, that everyone who looks on the Son and believes in him should have eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day. – John 6:37-40
Christ will not fail you; He will save you since He has intimately bound His life with yours. Your suffering is not God’s wrath but what He ultimately means to produce hope in us since “we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ” (Romans 5:1-5). Satan can no longer accuse us since God has forgiven us all our trespasses, “by canceling the record of debt that stood against us with its legal demands. This he set aside, nailing it to the cross. He disarmed the rulers and authorities and put them to open shame, by triumphing over them in him” (Colossians 2:14-15).
This is the message that Christians should proclaim to their Christian friends. Friends do not let friends go without Christ.