The following is an example of an address delivered at a Confessional Service which was held before the Divine Service to help communicants prepare themselves for a worthy reception of our Lord’s Body and Blood.
It is a translation from our Synod's Magazin fuer Ev. Luth. Homiletik, vol. 46 (1922), pg. 338-340, written by W. M. Roecker
Behold, it was for my welfare that I had great bitterness; but in love you have delivered my life from the pit of destruction, for you have cast all my sins behind your back.
Isaiah 38:17 (ESV)
Dearly beloved penitents in the Lord Jesus!
The most horrible tyrant that there is on earth is sin. It has, without exception, bound all people, unmercifully robbed them of paradise, separated them from God, and delivered them over to Satan and eternal damnation. It would indeed have turned out this way for all people had our dear God in His unimaginable love and grace not had mercy upon us when He accepted His dear Son as the price for the whole human race and had Him endure bitter and disgraceful death on the cross. By this death on the cross the whole world is redeemed and reconciled with God. The death of Jesus Christ on the cross, therefore, calls to us with a powerful voice, “Be reconciled with God!” Moreover, our faithful God seeks out every possible way to assure us that He is reconciled with us and wants to be our dear heavenly Father. To that end, He has the sweet Gospel, the most gracious message of His mercy in Christ Jesus proclaimed to us. To this end He speaks to us the absolution through His called servants; to this end He leads us to His table of grace of the Holy Supper. Also we who today want to approach the table of the Lord, God wants to assure us of His grace and make us certain of the forgiveness of our sins. But this will only happen to us when we appear as worthy guests. Let me now therefore under God’s gracious help hold before you on the basis of our text: The proper confession of a worthy communicant.
1. his sinful misery
2. the deserved punishment
3. the divine mercy that has been experienced.
1. Behold, it was for my welfare that I had great bitterness, exclaimed King Hezekiah after God the Lord restored him to health from a severe sickness. But what was it that made him so hopeless? It certainly wasn’t just his bodily sickness and his seeming proximity to death, rather it was his sin. This made him miserable and without comfort.
Also with us, this must first of all be the case. We must, if we are to be worthy communicants, recognize our sinful misery. Only the one who recognizes the misery of his sin, can also have a longing for a Helper and Savior. We can only recognize this from the divine Law. Therefore looking at the misery of our sin, if we want to learn to say with Hezekiah: Behold, it was for my welfare that I had great bitterness, we must examine God’s Law and compare it with our thoughts, words and works. If we do it earnestly and sincerely, we will soon recognize how each individual commandment calls to us: You are a sinner! That is your true name! Do you want to deny that your heart often relies on something other than the true God? In healthy days, in days of good living, we often easily say: Lord, [Psalm 73:25-26 (ESV)] “Whom have I in heaven but you? And there is nothing on earth that I desire besides you. My flesh and my heart may fail, but God is the strength of my heart and my portion forever.” But how is it in times of trial, when truly everything around us staggers and falls, when the cross bows us to the ground for months or years and an always new cross comes to the fore? Is it then also so easy to repeat these words from the heart? Or, beloved, have we never misused the holy name of God but declared it in all our speaking with holy awe and reverence? Have we at all times held God’s word and its preaching as sacred, gladly hearing and learning it? Have we always thought good of our neighbor, wished him well and done good to him? No! We must rather confess that we have to lament our great misery of sin, that we are sinners.
2. We must also confess, moreover, that this sin is not a small and insignificant thing, but rather that by on account of it we earn God’s wrath and punishment. It says in our text: Behold, it was for my welfare that I had great bitterness; but in love you have delivered my life from the pit of destruction. In these words lies the confession that punishment follows sin. I had great bitterness means to have fear, thus here to have fear that one does not obtain comfort when the punishment for sin comes. And we must all confess this. It is indeed a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God which are stretched out to punish! The words the pit of destruction show how severe the punishment is. Yes, is the destruction of people, temporal and eternal. The one for whom sin is not taken away, there is no rescue; he perishes. Oh, such a one must suffer eternal torment and agony; must be in the company of the devil—in hell. And so deep is that destruction that no person is able by his own power to turn himself from it or even only contribute in the slightest that it be done away with. No, we must confess:
With might of ours can naught be done,
Soon were our loss effected. [LSB #656 st. 2]
“For my iniquities have gone over my head; like a heavy burden, they are too heavy for me.” [Psalm 38:4 (ESV) ] Thus it is said: “for me and my life, there is nothing on this earth” and "The best and holiest deeds must fail To break sin's dread oppression" [LSB #607, st. 2]
As certainly as we must confess this, so just as certainly we may not stop if we want to be worthy communicants, for even the greatest pain over sin and the clearest confession that we are worthy of punishment, does not at all make us worthy. Only the grace of God does that! Therefore it is important that we confess that we have experienced God’s grace.
3. Hezekiah says, I had great bitterness. His despair and great anguish, then, lay in the past. That’s how it must be if we are to be worthy communicants. We can no longer be despondent but rather we must already have found comfort. That we can only find with the gracious God. Therefore Hezekiah also says, but in love you have delivered my life from the pit of destruction. We have sinned against God, with Him alone we can find grace. How God wants to be gracious and merciful to us, we learn from the conclusion of our text: for you have cast all my sins behind your back. So that God could cast all our sins behind Him and forgive them, our Lord Jesus Christ took our debt upon Himself, suffered for them and blotted them out and reconciled the heavenly Father. This merit of Christ we grasp through faith and hold it fast. Whoever now has seized Christ and His merit can also comfort himself with grace. He can, in spite of all sin, hold firmly to God and say:
Though great our sins, yet greater still
Is God's abundant favor;
His hand of mercy never will
Abandon us, nor waver. [LSB #607 st. 5]
Behold, beloved, let us comfort ourselves with the grace of God, for we are reconciled with God and are worthy communicants. Then it follows completely from itself that we also show our faith in a God-pleasing walk.
May our faithful God grant in grace that all of us who draw near to the table of our Lord, appear as worthy guests and draw out of the glorious meal grace upon grace, forgiveness upon forgiveness until the Lord one day places us at his glorious heavenly table. God grant it. Amen.
W. M Roecker