Yesterday, I received some very intriguing questions from a congregation member. They made me think quite a bit. I answered as best as I could, but thought I'd share with you as well. There is a lot to chew on, I think. The questions and comments by my member are in italics--copied by permission. My answer is in regular print.
Pastor: I just finished a book “Holocaust Survivor”. It’s a book about a young man who became a Rabbi before he was 20 years old. That was during the early part of WWII. Being a Jew he later was put into concentration camps where he was severely punished. He said that the only thing that kept him from giving up was that he believed that one day those who were dishing out the punishment would eventually be punished. He told of once when they were transported from one prison camp to another. They were put in overcrowded boxcars, shoulder-to-shoulder, standing room only. One night a lady gave birth. The baby was crying because of hunger and the severe cold. When they arrived at their destination they were hurried out of the boxcar and the baby was crying even more. One of the guards took the child by its feet and slammed its head against the side of the boxcar and that stopped its crying.
More and more I’m buying into what you are preaching. I can understand that Jesus died for that guard who slammed the child’s head against the boxcar, too. But I also believe there has to be repentance.
For years and years we used the (ALC Service Book and Hymnal) and during the public confession part the pastor would say, “As a minister of the Church of Christ, and by his authority, I declare unto you who do truly repent and believe in him, the entire forgiveness of your sins.
“On the other hand, by the same authority, I declare onto the impenitent and unbelieving, that so long as they continue in their impenitence, God hath not forgiven their sins, and will assuredly visit their iniquities upon them, if they do not turn from their evil ways and come to true repentance and faith in Christ, ere the day of grace be ended.”
The repentance one is the most difficult, and I am going to have to give you a slightly nuanced answer to it. Remember first, that we are not saved by any work that we commit--that includes repentance. You cannot turn repentance into a work. You just can't. Jesus' action even overcomes our un-repentance. My evidence: Jesus' own words from the cross, "Father, forgive them for they do not know what they do." Forgiveness for an unrepentant sin.
That being said, is the wording from the previous confession service wrong? No. Not in the least? Why? Remember, God does not condemn us to hell. It is God's desire to save everyone. Only those who choose separation from God receive it. If you do not repent of your sins as someone who has been exposed to Jesus and His action, then you are purposely choosing to separate yourself from God and remain estranged from Him. Thus, you are condemning yourself and still in your sin. This means the confession and forgiveness spoken in the previous hymnal is only, only mind you, for those who have professed to follow Christ. This cannot be pointed at those who are not Christian.
(This was the end of my emailed reply. I have a few further thoughts.)
I do believe we will somehow be held accountable for our actions, although I do not know exactly how this will take place. I don't know if we will be made to relive the event and then feel the pain we caused. I do not know whether or not we will stand before the Father in judgement and feel a deep sense of shame--so deep that it will inflict a terrible pain upon our hearts. I just don't know.
But what I do know is that the punishment we deserved fell on Jesus. That's one of the radical claims of Christianity. We proclaim:
"But he was wounded for our transgressions,
crushed for our iniquities;
upon him was the punishment that made us whole,
and by his bruises we are healed." Isaiah 53:5
Just as that little baby's head was crushed, so was Jesus'. Just as the German guard deserved to have his head crushed in return; Jesus took that punishment for that guard so that the guard would receive forgiveness and be reconciled to God.
This may be hard to accept because we like to say that one sin is greater than another. We like to think our smaller sins do not measure up to someone bashing an infant's head against a train car, but remember, Jesus equated anger with murder! Anytime we become angry with another, we commit murder!!
Why would Jesus equate the two?
I think it is because they have the same root cause: a sense of superiority. That German soldier believed he was superior to the Jews and that little baby. Whenever we become angry, we believe we are somehow morally superior to the one who we are angry at (I would never do something like that to anyone!). Whether it is moral, mental, or physical, the idea that we are somehow superior to another person leads us to anger, contempt, frustration, and the like. If we have no sense of humility or shame, atrocity follows.
This underscores the importance of grace and what Jesus did for us on the cross! For as I have proclaimed in my sermons--passed down to me from others--the Gospel does not allow you to have any sense of moral superiority at all. All have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God. All need Christ's redemption on the cross. Big sin. Little sin. No matter. It is the heart that counts, and all hearts are messed up in some way, shape or form.
Thanks be to God for Christ's work which redeems us all!
Also: In confirmation we were taught that gambling was a sin. Today it seems that gambling is so common place, raffles, football pots, scratch offs and casinos that most folks no longer regard that as being sinful. Where do we stand on that?
Secondly, gambling. I do not believe the ELCA has a position on this. I know our congregation does not. I personally do not regard gambling as a sin as I do not believe there is any biblical law speaking out against it. Are there other things to use one's money toward which are better than gambling? Absolutely. Would it be a sin for a person to gamble instead of putting food on the table? I believe so, strongly. Is it right for the state of Texas to have a lottery given that mostly poor people buy tickets? I don't think it is. There are better ways to get funds. Again, there are no biblical prohibitions or admonitions here, but I think I would be on firm theological ground here.