This sermon was posted on Intrepid Lutherans today. It is an excellent description of the forgiveness of sins. The typical modern WELS interpretation of Jesus’ words from the cross, “Father, forgive them!”, is that God forgave all sinners their sins, right then and there, whether anyone ever believes in Christ or not. Hoenecke maintains the beautiful evangelical significance of Jesus’ words without falling into this modern error of separating forgiveness from faith in Christ.
Somehow, I suspect that the WELS leadership would still praise Hoenecke for this sermon, even while they would condemn me for preaching the same thing.
On Wednesdays through the Lenten Season this year (2013), we will be publishing sermons from Dr. Adolph Hoenecke (1835-1908), who is among the most important theologians of the Wisconsin Evangelical Lutheran Synod (WELS), and from Dr. Paul E. Kretzmann (1883-1965), a prolific author, educator, historian and theologian of the Lutheran Church — Missouri Synod (LCMS) and among the more significant figures of 20th Century American Lutheranism.
Last Sunday marked the beginning of the Fourth Week in Lent, also known as Laetare, and today, as we have the last four Wednesdays, we will yet again be hearing from Dr. Adolph Hoenecke.
To what end did Jesus submit Himself to the suffering of the Cross? To atone for the sins of mankind, that all men might have forgiveness. It was precisely this forgiveness for which Christ pleaded while on the Cross – not just for those seeking forgiveness, but even for those without a single care for their standing before God, for those who mocked Him, for those who betrayed Him, for those who delivered Him to be crucified, in short, for all of humanity – that all men might have forgiveness of sins. Indeed, it is to this end for which Christ, in His Office of High Priest, yet intercedes for us. If it is for all men that Christ intercedes, then it is also for each individual sinner, who, apart from God’s forgiveness stands before Him in the guilt of his sins, but upon whom, through faith, is pronounced by God, “Blessed are you whose transgression is forgiven, whose sin is covered.” This is The Fruit of Christ’s Passion. There is no one for whom Christ did not bear the guilt of sin and suffer its penalty, and there is no one to whom forgiveness is not offered in the Gospel. In the following sermon, Dr. Hoenecke explains.
A Sermon for Laetare
The Fruit of Christ’s Passion
by Dr. Adolf Hoenecke1
Text: And Pilate gave sentence that it should be as they required… And as they led him away, they laid hold upon one Simon, a Cyrenian, coming out of the country, and on him they laid the cross, that he might bear it after Jesus. And there followed him a great company of people, and of women, which also bewailed and lamented him. But Jesus turning unto them said, Daughters of Jerusalem, weep not for me, but weep for yourselves, and for your children. For, behold, the days are coming, in the which they shall say, Blessed are the barren, and the wombs that never bare, and the paps which never gave suck. Then shall they begin to say to the mountains, Fall on us; and to the hills, Cover us. For if they do these things in a green tree, what shall be done in the dry? And there were also two other, malefactors, led with him to be put to death. And when they were come to the place, which is called Calvary, there they crucified him, and the malefactors, one on the right hand, and the other on the left. Then said Jesus, Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do. (Luke 23:24-34)
“For if they do these things in a green tree, what shall be done in the dry?” These were the words our Lord addressed to the daughters of Jerusalem, who lamented Him as He was being led out to Golgotha mid mockery and scorn. The Lord designates Himself as the green tree. He had received that same designation centuries before in prophecy: “I am like a green fir tree. From me is thy fruit found” (Hos. 14:8). The Lord prophesied thus through the mouth of the Prophet Hosea. The same Prophet adds: “Who is wise, and he shall understand these things? Prudent, and he shall know them?” (v. 9). By nature no man is. But all praise be to God! He has bestowed this wisdom and prudence upon us, so that we recognize the fruit which Jesus brought forth when those things were done to Him, the green wood, the holy and righteous One, which should have been done to us, the unholy, unrighteous, godless ones, the dry wood. He suffered in our stead. Then the words came true: “And there shall come forth a rod out of the stem of Jesse, and a Branch shall grow out of his roots (shall bring forth fruit from his roots)” (Isa. 11:1). In this present Passion devotion, therefore, we shall refresh our souls with:
THE FRUIT OF JESUS’ PASSION
- It is a precious fruit.
- It is a fruit we all are to enjoy.
Pleasant and blessed indeed is the generation of the righteous! But the generation of the godless is utterly repulsive and terrifying! Now give good ear to the voice of divine wisdom: We all would belong to this repulsive generation of godless men, even at this time, just as we belong to it by nature and by birth. We would still have a heart as completely godless as it was at birth. Evil would be the purpose in our hearts. We would mock God and brazenly, nonchalantly despise His truth. We would go on through life living only to sin and the world, and thereby heap up the wrath of God for the day of judgment. We would be damned in the judgment and would be forced to accept hell as our lot. No righteousness before God and not a trace of piety would be found in us. In fact, in the whole wide world there would not be a single God-fearing and righteous man – if, friends in Christ, if there were not available that fruit of Jesus’ Passion which Jesus Himself, while hanging on the cross, called the forgiveness of sins.
If we have forgiveness of sins, then God no longer imputes our sin to us as making us guilty and subject to punishment; then we are men who no longer have any guilt in God’s eyes – in short, righteous men. Mark, then we are righteous not only in the sense of the world; not righteous as men count righteousness, or in the way in which men, let their fellows pass as righteous. Rather, we are righteous in the sense that God Himself regards us so, and acknowledges us as righteous in His eyes, having a righteousness that is valid before Him, a righteousness with which He finds no fault at all. If we have forgiveness, then we are righteous men who please God; men from whom He no longer can withdraw Himself, nor would, if he could; men whom He does not wish to see separated from Himself. They are men who have peace with God. In blessed communion they live with Him as dear children of the heavenly Father.
They, in turn, can also heartily love Him; they are able to find delight in Him and His commandments. For, since they have forgiveness, they have also received a new spirit, the spirit of sonship, the Holy Spirit who teaches them to cry: Abba, dear Father! Happy, indeed, are these righteous men! Their way is known to God. He Himself has gone before to show them the beautiful way that leads through tribulation into His eternal kingdom, through the cross into Paradise and its joys.
Then precious beyond all reckoning is the fruit of Jesus’ Passion, the forgiveness of sins! Whenever the Scriptures call a man blessed and speak of a state of blessedness, felicitate him on some glorious change that has taken place in him, it is always the forgiveness of sins which is the basis for such a beatitude, such a felicitation. Thus the Prophet Isaiah exults in praise of the exceedingly glorious condition of the Holy City, God’s Zion. He says that it is a secure abode, so that not one of its inhabitants would say in spite of all troubles, burdens, and tribulations: “I am sick.” Then He states the reason for this wonderful condition of the City: “The people that dwell therein shall be forgiven their iniquity” (Isa. 33:24).
Similarly, Zacharias addressed a wonderful song of praise to God at the birth of his son John. He praised the child because he was to go before the face of the Lord with whom redemption was to come. From his lips broke forth the glad cry: “And thou, child, shalt be called the prophet of the Highest: for thou shalt go before the face of the Lord to prepare his ways; to give knowledge of salvation unto his people by the remission of their sins” (Luke 1:76-77). Thus this believer bestowed the highest and most precious praise upon the forgiveness of sins, as he blessed his young child because it was to bring the people to the knowledge of salvation and forgiveness (Luke 1:77).
Paul, too, offered God the highest praises because of His gifts of grace, and he called the Ephesians happy men, because they were blessed with those gifts. Now the core and center of everything that he said is in these words: “In whom we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of sins” (Eph. 1:7). And to the Colossians he said: “And you, being dead in your sins and the uncircumcision of your flesh, hath he quickened together with him, having forgiven you all trespasses” (Col. 2:13). God has forgiven you your sins.
The Scriptures know of only one class of people to whom you can say in the full sense of the word: Blessed are you! You happy man! They are the ones whose sins have been forgiven. David says, “Blessed is he whose transgression is forgiven, whose sin is covered” (Ps. 32:1). David, indeed, knows of many treasures which God gives, of an abundance of God’s benefits, but when he wants to bestow the highest praises on the good that God does, he says: “Bless the Lord, O my soul, and forget not all his benefits; who forgiveth all thine iniquities” (Ps. 103:2-3).
Therefore Paul also says that David had the same thought as he: only that man is truly happy and worthy to be called blessed whom God forgives his sins, to whom God no longer imputes his sin unto damnation. He says: “Even as David also describeth the blessedness of the man, unto whom God imputeth righteousness without works. Saying, Blessed are they whose iniquities are forgiven, and whose sins are covered. Blessed is the man to whom the Lord will not impute sin” (Rom. 4:6-8). To sum up: Throughout the Scriptures the “Blessed are they!” is applied only to those who have forgiveness of sins. Where there is forgiveness of sins, there is life and salvation.
But upon all who do not have forgiveness there is pronounced the “Woe unto you!” Their sins with their guilt continue to rest upon them. Sin remains upon them and continually draws God’s wrath down upon them. Sin remains upon them, with its punishment and damnation imputed to them. In fact, all sinners should and must speak thus: How can we live if we have no forgiveness? Our sin and iniquity lie upon us. Where there is no forgiveness of sins, there is death and damnation. Woe unto you! – in the full sense of those words – is, then, the verdict that descends on all who have no forgiveness of sins.
In the Scriptures these words: Blessed are you! are applied to men in various connections. “Blessed is that man that maketh the Lord his trust” (Ps. 40:4). “Blessed is he that considereth the poor” (Ps. 41:1). “Blessed is the man whom thou chastenest, O Lord” (Ps. 94:12). But in every case such men are meant to whom these words apply above all: “Blessed are they whose iniquities are forgiven!” Rom. 4:7 Of the man who has forgiveness, the “Blessed are you!” is spoken in its highest and most comprehensive sense.
The “Woe is you!” is likewise pronounced in various connections. “Woe unto him that buildeth his house by uurighteousuess” (Jer. 22:13). “Woe to him that increaseth that which is not his!” (Increaseth his goods with another’s Hab. 2:6). “Woe unto them that call evil good, and good evil” (Isa. 5:20). And there are various other Woes. But every “Woe unto you!” can turn at once into a “Blessed are you!” as soon as the God-less man finds forgiveness. For Jesus has borne the curse, the “Woe is you!” pronounced on the sins of all men, and thereby He brought it about that there is forgiveness of sins. Now the sinner can have forgiveness. Now all curses can be converted into benedictions of divine love, and every “Woe unto you!” into a “Blessed are you!”
Mark, that comes about in this way and this way only. If we did not have this glorious fruit of Jesus’ Passion, the forgiveness of sins, then no man could hear these words coming from the lips of God: “Blessed are you!” or “My blessing be upon you!” would comfort him in all his sufferings. No, “Blessed are you!” or “Be of good cheer!” would sustain him in death. Only a “Woe, woe unto you!” and nothing but “Woe!” would come to his ears. Therefore we say: What a precious Passionfruit the forgiveness of sins is!
Why have I said so much in praise of it? Dear friends, you know the reason: We do not account it nearly as precious as we ought. Or do we seek with great diligence this precious fruit, gained for us in the battle of many bitter sufferings? Do we not seek many other things much more eagerly? This lukewarmness and this appallingly low estimate of Jesus’ sufferings would be excusable if you were told, as is done from some pulpits: This sweet, precious fruit, this true fruit of life, is not for you all; for some it did not mature on the tree of the cross. But as true as it is that this fruit is indescribably precious, it is just as true that
He did not want to see us bear it. Therefore He suffered. Therefore, even in the midst of His sufferings, when He was already tasting them in their infinite bitterness, even then He cried out: “Father, forgive them.” What a love for sinners dwells in Christ! We have eloquent testimony to that in this petition for forgiveness, spoken from the depths of His sufferings. How ardent must be Jesus’ desire that sinners, even the worst of them, find forgiveness, since He is concerned about them in the midst of His own terrible sufferings and seeks to move the heart of His Father to be gracious toward the sinners!
For whom, then, did the Lord plead so fervently, so movingly, that this great, glorious treasure, this sweet, precious fruit of His Passion, might be given them to enjoy? Was it for Peter, who was deeply grieved? Was it perhaps for the weeping women? Was it, by chance, for the faithful who stood under the cross? Was it for John, the favorite disciple? No, dear friends in Christ! He pleaded for an entirely different group of people. Who would imagine it? What man could conceive it, if the blessed Word of Truth, the Gospel, did not go bond for the fact?
It was for the soldiers who had crucified Him, and pierced His hands and feet, and had then raised Him up. Had they perhaps done it with a feeling of pity? No, with unfeeling cruelty, with mockery and scorn. “And the soldiers also mocked him.” (Luke 23:36). These were the men for whom He pleaded most fervently. It was for the redemption and salvation of these men that He felt such concern, men who did not even care about redemption and life, but mocked Him. But not they alone are meant. There was Pilate, too, who had delivered the Lord to the soldiers; there were the Jews, the mob who had shouted: “Crucify, crucify him!” (Luke 23:21). And there were also the elders and scribes, who had goaded and prodded until Jesus was hanging on the cross.
The proof for that is found in Peter’s address: “(Ye) killed the Prince of Life. Now brethren, I wot that through ignorance ye did it, as did also your rulers” (Acts 3:15-17). Truly, this goes far beyond man’s capacity to think and feel. Happy are we, dear friends, that we sinners were not entrusted to the hands of men, but into the hands of the sympathetic High Priest. He prayed for all, for the evildoers, for His bitter enemies, for the base blasphemers and mockers of His sufferings. Surely, friends in Christ, that gives us courage. Can anyone still think that he is not to receive the sweet, precious fruit of forgiveness as his secure possession? Who would give up hope of gaining it because he is an unusually bad sinner? Oh, fix your eyes on those for whom Jesus prayed – the very worst evildoers!
But, we ask, did Jesus hang on the cross only for these soldiers, for these Jews? He hung there also as your High Priest. You will not doubt that. Then His petition must also embrace you. He prayed on the cross for the evildoers, including you and me and all men. He prayed in true, heartfelt love. And He still prays. Now He prays, sitting at the right hand of the Father. “And if any man sin, we have an Advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous.” (1 John 2:1). We have an intercessor who pleads earnestly, urgently, fervently for us with the Father. It is Jesus who is righteous, yea, who has paid the debt for us, has borne all sin for us. Therefore He now asks this of God as His holy right: Forgive, for to this end have I borne all suffering.
Is His prayer heard? How can there be any doubt of that! But we have plain evidence of it, to give us great comfort. Once more recall Peter’s sermon: “Repent ye therefore and be converted, that your sins may be blotted out” (Acts 3:19). Behold, this is an answer to the highpriestly prayer on the cross: Forgive, for they know not what they do. Surely, that also implies: Father, help them out of their ignorance so that they learn to know Me. Grant that there be time for Me to have My Gospel preached to them, so that they come to faith and find forgiveness, so that My blood and sufferings may, by all means, avail for them. And this preaching of the Gospel was the sure testimony that His prayer was heard, the sure testimony that these people were actually to find forgiveness. Therefore Peter also says: “Repent ye and be converted, that your sins may be blotted out.” That is God’s will of grace.
Now, you also have this Gospel. Don’t you see that forgiveness is surely meant for you? Why do you hesitate? Simply receive it by faith. Therefore be diligent in hearing the Word of forgiveness. Let this actually come true in you:
Forgiveness then shall be the song
I will employ my whole life long.
(Tr. a W. H. F.)
May God help us all in that holy resolve.
- Hoenecke, A. (1957). Glorified in His Passion (W. Franzmann, Trans.) Milwaukee: Northwestern Publishing House. (Original work published in German, 1910.). pp. 57-68.Note: Dr. Adolf Hoenecke (1835-1908) is among the most important theologians of the Wisconsin Evangelical Lutheran Synod (WELS). He, along with Johannes Bading (d. 1913), led the WELS out of pietistic indifferentism and unionism into strong confessional Lutheranism, was one of the founders of the the old Synodical Conference, and is credited with being the first German Lutheran to author a complete Lutheran Dogmatics in America – Evangelical Lutheran Dogmatics – recently translated into English and available from Northwestern Publishing House. For more information about Dr. Hoenecke, a fairly detailed biography written by Professor August Pieper in 1935, can be found at the following link: The Significance of Dr. Adolf Hoenecke for the Wisconsin Synod and American Lutheranism