Valerius Herberger: A Sermon on the Forgiveness of Sins

The forgiveness of sins is the undeniable source of all blessed welfare of body and soul, possessions and reputation, and wherever you properly find the forgiveness of sins, you also receive and keep this noble treasure.

Valerius Herberger (1562–1627), the “Jesus-Preacher” as he was formerly called, was a faithful Lutheran pastor in the city of Fraustadt (now Wschowa) in a culturally German area of Greater Poland. He has been known in American Lutheranism mostly as the author of the hymn “Valet will ich dir geben” (translated by Miss Winkworth as “Farewell I Gladly Bid Thee”), a hymnic preamble to his last will and testament, as it were, from 1613, when in the midst of pestilence and busied by daily burials, he tended to the lowly Lutheran parishioners of Fraustadt with comforting sermons and bodily care. While in the composition of lyrics he never attained to the heights of renown scaled by his protegé and assistant, Johann Heermann, nor in various trials ever (perhaps) plunged to the depths of affliction endured by his twenty-year junior, Johann Gerhard, Herberger’s pious orthodoxy, by God’s grace, also benefited Lutherans far and near through publication of his comforting funeral sermons, Christological commentaries on the Old Testament, and “heart-postils” on the epistles and gospels of the church year—in the last of which he notably emphasizes heartfelt faith in Jesus, “of the Father’s heart begotten.”

Sentina peccatorum est radix omnium malorum;
Remissio verò peccatorum est fons omnium bonorum.
Sin and disgrace despoil both land and race,
but the forgiveness of sins is where every good begins.

In the name of our Savior Jesus Christ, who has all authority on earth to forgive the sins of all penitent hearts in the preaching of the Gospel and in the Holy Absolution, and also has all power to deliver those who love Him from every distress of body and soul and death; ever most blessed and adored with God His heavenly Father and the Holy Ghost, world without end. Amen.

My dearly beloved friends, today from the appointed Gospel we are to ground the article of the forgiveness of sins from our Creed on a right foundation, and to learn properly that sin is the cause and root of every evil on earth, while the forgiveness of sins is the undeniable source of all blessed welfare of body and soul, possessions and reputation, and wherever you properly find the forgiveness of sins, you also receive and keep this noble treasure. Now, that this may serve for the good, comfort, and benefit of us all, who are up to our ears in sin and misfortune, but especially for the praise and glory of our Lord Jesus, who in His blood has obtained for us the forgiveness of sins, from which all our welfare springs, let us heartily pray: “Forsake me not, O Lord, my God; be Thou not far from me. Make haste to help me, O Lord, my salvation” (Ps. 38). “For I will teach transgressors Thy ways, that sinners may be turned unto Thee” (Ps. 51). “Let me hear Thy grace in the morning, for I will hope in Thee. Declare unto me the way wherein I should go, for I long for Thee” (Ps. 143).

Hear with devotion the entire Gospel for this day as it has been written by the three evangelists, Matthew, ch. 9, Mark, ch. 2, and Luke, ch. 5.

The Lord Jesus entered into a ship, and passed over again out of the region of the Gergasenes, and came into Capernaum, His own city; and it was noised about that He was in a house, and straightway many gathered together, insomuch that they had not room even outside the door. And behold, certain men come unto Him, bringing to Him one sick of the palsy, borne of four, which was lying on a bed, and they sought means to bring him in and to lay him before Him. And when they did not find how they might bring him in because of the multitude, they climbed up, uncovered the roof where He was, and when they had broken it up, they let him down through the tiling with the bed, into the midst before Jesus. And when Jesus saw their faith, He said unto the sick of the palsy, “Be of good cheer, my son, thy sins be forgiven thee.”

And behold, certain of the scribes and Pharisees began to reason, “Why doth this man thus speak blasphemies? Who can forgive sins but God only?” And immediately Jesus perceived in His spirit that they so reasoned within themselves, and said unto them, “Wherefore think ye evil in your heart? Whether is easier, to say to the sick of palsy, Thy sins be forgiven thee; or to say, Arise, take up thy bed, and walk? But that ye may know that the Son of Man hath power on earth to forgive sins,” He saith to the sick of the palsy, “I say unto thee, Arise, take up thy bed, and go home.” And immediately he arose before their eyes, and took up the bed whereon he lay, and went home, and glorified God. When the multitudes saw it, they all marveled, and glorified God, which had given such power unto men, and were filled with fear, saying, “We have seen strange things today. We never saw it on this fashion.”

Encomion Evangelii—Praise of the Gospel.

The Gospel for this day is so precious, it cannot be sufficiently praised with words, let alone bought with money. Every word carries on its back a bundle full of teaching and comfort. When they are addressed with good courtesy, they yield up their weighty treasures. In the Gospel of St. Luke, the people say, “We have seen strange things today.”….

Of the Third Point.

Quomodo et ubi fons omnium bonorum recte quæratur, inveniatur, retineatur—How and where the fount of all good bounties is rightly sought, found, and retained.

We know, accordingly, that sin is the root of all evil, and that conversely, the forgiveness of sins is a strong fountain and source of all necessary welfare in body and soul, goods and reputation. Now the next question is how and where a pious heart is to seek, find, and retain this desired fountain of salvation, that it may be free from all calamity and possess every delectable good. This is shown very beautifully in this Gospel account. Count it on five fingers: 

1. All to Christ.

(1) They all turn to Christ, one no less than the other. Some speculate and give counsel how they may come to Christ, others actively take hold of the work. Even though it hurts the patient, he does not cry, but rejoices that they are taking him with them. 

2. Only to Christ.

(2) They remain strictly and solely with Christ. Although they cannot immediately reach the door, they do not run off to another physician, but set up their ladders and climb up to the roof (for the Israelites all put flat pavements on top, which explains the law concerning battlements (Deut. 22) and break off tile by tile until they make the hole so big that they can let their patient down with cords before the feet of the Lord Jesus.

3. In ardent, visible, manifest faith.

(3) Their faith does not waver, otherwise they would leave this work undone. Likewise, their faith is manifestly visible in good works. Therefore the evangelists say that the Lord Jesus saw their faith. And He also exhorts the sick man to lively faith: “Be of good cheer.” This is the highest level of faith.

4. They listen for the Absolution.

(4) They hear with great diligence the Word of the Lord Jesus: “Be of good cheer, My son, thy sins be forgiven thee”; and rejoice heartily in the fact that the Lord Jesus has power on earth to forgive the sins of us men while we are living in the body.

5. They all follow Christ.

(5) Each and every person (excluding the spiteful scribes) do according to Christ’s will and pleasure. The Lord Jesus says to the sick, “Arise,” and he does so; “Take up thy bed,” and he takes it quickly; and “Go thy way home,” and he proceeds to do so at once. Besides this, he glorifies God, and all the people marvel and praise God. This is what must be done if one would seek and find the most blessed Fountain of all welfare, if one would have and hold the forgiveness of sins and all good fortune.

Applicatio.

1. All to Christ.

I. We must all run to Christ, no one must remain outside; for He has called us all (Matt. 1) and excluded none. It is not enough that other people have a heart for Christ. We too must love Christ ourselves with our own heart. “The righteous will live by his faith” (Hab. 2).

2. Alone to Christ.

II. We must remain only and solely with Christ, for in Him is the fountain of life (Ps. 36). “In the Lord is grace, and much redemption in Him” (Ps. 130). He alone can say, “I, even I, blot out thy transgressions, and remember not thy sins” (Is. 43). This saying is worthy fifty thalers, said the Lady Elizabeth, a countess of Nassau, on her deathbed. Although all manner of tribulations and attacks appear, do not be kept back nor separated from Christ. In the text, three hindrances arise: (1) At the door, there is a great crowd of people. (2) From outside, it is dangerous to climb. (3) Above on the pavement, there are many tiles and a firm floor of cast plaster. Yet the four men pay no heed to anything. In the same way, our way is often impeded, firstly, by the thronging world with its offensive examples. They spared Christ no nail of distress, or else held Him in contempt. Next, our flesh and blood begin to strain. They will not go when it comes to persistent prayer. They are like a climber who is to climb a mountain. Next comes the evil one himself, who casts many tiles of plaster in our way, especially the threefold and heavy tribulation: (1) you are not worthy; (2) who knows if you are in the number of the elect, (3) if you were going to be saved, it would have happened long ago. These are the sorrowful thoughts, de indignitate, de particularitate, de mora—of unworthiness, particularity, and delay. We must all break through the heavy plaster tiles and cast them aside, one after another. We must persevere, continue in prayer, and dig through past all heaviness of heart.

3. In true, visible, active faith.

III. Our faith must also be visible and active in praiseworthy works. Our faith must not waver, that the Lord Jesus may also see His joy therein. “It is impossible to please God without faith” (Heb. 11). For this reason the Lord Jesus wishes to have the highest degree of faith from the sick of the palsy. At a well, one  must have a bucket. Faith is the only proper, strong bucket that is able to draw from the blessed well of our fortune, namely, from Baptism, the forgiveness of sins which is pleasing to Him…

De aliena fide—On the faith of others.

Here note in passing what is to be regarded of the faith of others and of believing prayer, since the text implies it. The faith of your fellow Christians does not help you personally to have salvation nor the forgiveness of sins. If the sick of the palsy is to have the forgiveness of sins, life, and salvation, he must be comforted personally and believe personally; the four men would not help him to that end. The wise virgins cannot lend their oil (Matt. 25). The righteous will live by his faith (Hab. 2). What a believing heart can do, however, by his believing prayer and devout sighs, is to move God at last to have mercy on others also, and to change his heart toward them out of grace, to give them saving faith, and to appear with desired help in their time of need. For this reason, a pious bishop once said to the believing Monica, when she was so bitterly weeping because her son Augustine had fallen into error: “Impossibile est ut tantarum lacrimarum filius pereat—It is impossible that a son for whom so many believing tears have been shed, should perish. You will see, God will soften your son’s heart and bring him to the true faith.” Behold, what did the believing prayer of Monica achieve? How readily Augustine corrected everything that he had neglected a while in his youth!

Usus hujus doctrinæ—Use of this teaching.

This is necessary to know for the honor of common prayer of believing Christendom. It is not in vain, as properly shown by the account of Peter who was released from prison by it (Acts 12). It is also very comforting to know for all believing godparents who are invited to the Baptism of Christians’ infants. Remember, pious godparents: when you bring a little infant to Baptism, have these thoughts: “Dear Lord Jesus, behold, we are bringing unto Thee a spiritually palsied child. It lies in the bonds of its sin. It is as at Capernaum when the four men lowered a patient on a bed to your holy feet, and your little patient lies also on a pillow in its baptismal gown. Oh, say to it, “Be of good cheer, My son, My daughter, My child, thy sins be forgiven thee,” that it may be freed from its sins, and also be able to go home to the fellowship of Thy Christian church, and finally take its step into life everlasting.” From such a believing prayer a godly Christian child will afterwards benefit all the days of its life. Therefore make sure, dear parents, that you invite such godparents for your little houseplants as will be able to pray devoutly.

4. We must not despise the Absolution.

IV. We must remember that the Lord Jesus has power to forgive sins on earth, and accordingly, we must confess on earth, and not avoid the Absolution on earth, and not die without the Absolution on earth. In purgatory there is no salvation; from hell there is no redemption. Augustine says, “Nolle confiteri arrogantis est, nolle communicare inoboedientis est—He who is ashamed to confess is an arrogant fellow, but he who is ashamed to go to the Lord’s Table is a disobedient knave.” Note well the words “on earth.” For just as here the Pharisees oppose these words, so there are still many self-grown saints who snort at the notion of forgiving people’s sins on earth in the preaching of the Gospel and in the confessional chair. This is why we emphasize Christ’s words: “But that ye may know” (not doubt, but believe certainly) “that the Son of Man has the power to forgive sins.” Know that the Lord Jesus has full power both to forgive our sins at the right hand of God and to do so also on earth through His appointed stewards, messengers, legates, deputies, or attorneys, according to His established ordinance (Matt. 16; 18; John 20). This is the privilegium, or right, of the confessional chair in all evangelical churches.

Summa omnium absolutionum—Sum of all absolutions.

But note in passing how the Lord Jesus so artfully summarizes all absolutions, with whatever specific words they may be performed: “Thy sins be forgiven thee.”—This is, briefly put, the dialectica: “Be of good cheer, My son.” This is the rhetorica. So says Luther very expertly when he gives instruction to a young preacher as to how he should expound today’s Gospel. Nil potest dici brevius et simul plenius—Nothing can be said more briefly and yet more fully. It is impossible to say it more comfortingly, pleasantly, and sweetly. “Be of good cheer,” do not doubt, do not despair, do not lose hope, this is most certainly true, and a precious, worthy word. You shall never be put to shame with your faith. You can boldly live, pray, suffer, and die upon it. “My Son,” God is your loving Father (Ps. 103). Your name is written in heaven (Luke 10), in the Book of Life, yea, in God’s hand (Is. 49). You are in the canone sanctorum, the fellowship of the holy elect children of God. No father, no mother can be more favorable to her child than God is to you (Is. 49; 66). “Thy sins be forgiven thee.” You can cheerfully say, “Grace has come to me also” (1 Tim. 1). Even if you were the grandfather of all sinners, like Adam, even if you were chief among all sinners, as Paul says, yet there is no fear for your salvation. “Thy sins,” in plurali, in the plural, no matter how many they are, no matter how serious they are, even if they include bloodguiltiness (Is. 1). “Thy sins,” indefinite, unnumbered, for God’s mercy is without number. It is as great as He Himself is (Sir. 2). This is the cooling poultice for afflicted hearts who have a secret wound in their conscience, of which they do not like to tell anyone in the world. The ancient doctors of the church say that there is seldom a man who does not have a blot on his conscience, or a hidden wound, which is difficult to heal. It always starts to bleed again. The man thinks, “If only this had not happened, the rest would be easily prayed away.” Yet the learned think that St. Paul also suffered such with his heavy case, and that meant the same thing with his “stake in the flesh,” because nothing else is known about him. In such cases, it is beyond all measure comforting that the Lord Jesus has promised grace to repentant hearts in plurali indefinite, in the plural and without number. “Thy sins be forgiven thee,” utterly without price. You need no money (Is. 55; Acts 4). You do not need any purchased writ of indulgence. God is not so miserly with His grace as the pope in Rome is, to whom Emperor Friedrich II had to pay thousands times a thousand ducats for Absolution. What would become of us poor people? 

Encomion et utilitas Absolutionis—Praise and use of the Absolution.

This is a treasure above all treasures! If we are God’s sons and children, how will He not hear us? Think, it would cause me endless wonder if a child did not have the power to speak to his father, if a pious father did not hear his dear child. If we are to be of good cheer, the word is Confide, trust. How shall my heart stand in doubt?

The Word to me more sure shall stay,
Although my heart say only nay.

The devil may babble about our sins as he will. In the Absolution, we have obtained clear forgiveness of all sins. Luther, in difficult tribulations, used to take comfort in these words: Absolutus sum—I am absolved. Mathesius reports that he often directed the evil one in difficult trials to his father confessor, saying, “I have been absolved by my father confessor. Leave me in peace. You can take the matter up with him.” We absolved Christians are ready at any moment for a blessed death, for we have the true, powerful indulgence on the parchment of our heart, sealed by the Holy Spirit. We have a true “paid in full” for our debts. God is an honorable Lord; He will not call upon a debt a second time. The laying-on of hands is like an exchange of hands with God whereby the forgiveness of our sins is solemnly pledged. Thereupon we go our way in peace.

5. We must obey Christ.

V. Finally, there must also be the resolve in us to be good, to conform our life according to Christ’s will insofar as we will partake of the spring of all welfare in Christ and keep this treasure. 

Surge—Arise.

The sick man arises when Christ has forgiven his sins. He takes his bed and goes his way home. Do the same yourself. When you have received the Absolution, arise in the name of Jesus Christ from your stinking filth of sin and polluted pillows of the devil. Do not remain wallowing in the mud like a pig. Do not act like dogs that lick up again what they have vomited up. From what you have repented of once, guard yourself your whole life.

Tolle. Abi in domum tuam—
Take up. Go into your house.

Furthermore, be diligent to take up a new life. Carry away from Christ’s sight all that may smell vile to Him. Go in humility to the Most Worthy Supper. Receive the great pledge of His salvation with a joyful heart, and go your way into the house of devout Christendom, into the house of your appointed office. Remain in your calling. Do not leap over your bounds. Do not willfully stroll around in the streets of sin, of the perverse world, lest a worse thing befall you (John 5).

Marvel. Glorify God.

Marvel at God’s works of grace, as the multitude does in the Gospel. Say with King David, Ps. 8, “What is man, that Thou art mindful of him?” Praise and glorify God (Ps. 50; 103; 2 Chr. 20), and you will rightly seek, rightly find, and rightly enjoy the noble treasure of the forgiveness of sins, the blessed fountain of your temporal and eternal happiness. 

Summa Praxis. Summary application.

Summa summarum. Summary of everything: If you are godly and penitent, you are acceptable. If you are wicked, “sin lieth at the door” (Gen. 4).

Thus you have heard (1) whence there arises all this evil in every corner of the world. Sin and disgrace despoil both land and race; (2) how we may be rid of it: the forgiveness of sins is the source of all salvation; and finally (3), how we must act so that we may find the desired well of fortune. Therefore “if ye know this, blessed are ye if ye do accordingly” (John 13). Then you will be free from all calamity and partake of all necessary welfare in body and soul, and through a blessed death go home into eternal life, where you will truly see strange things, where you have never seen it on that fashion, and will praise and glorify God without ceasing. Amen.

Closing Benediction.

The Lord Jesus, who has power on earth to forgive sins, grant that we may guard ourselves diligently from sin, as from the detestable, noxious, poisonous root of all evil, and that we may every day and moment with repentant hearts seek the noblest treasure, the forgiveness of sins, as the certain source of all necessary welfare of body and soul, and accordingly run all of us to Christ, remain only and solely in Christ, break through all tribulation, not waver in the faith, not neglect the Absolution on earth, but have a true resolve to obey Him, and to glorify God, that we too may hear the comforting word, and feel the power in our heart: “Be of good cheer, My child, thy sins be forgiven thee”; and so in the life of the body depart from sin for a new conduct, and by a blessed death be freed from all evil, and finally at the Last Day rise with joy from our grave, and go our way into our true heavenly fatherland, where we will glorify God forever, and see far stranger things than the citizens of Capernaum see in the Gospel for this day. Amen. Amen.

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Matthew Carver

Matthew Carver is a translator and independent scholar based in Nashville, Tennessee.

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