Thursday, May 17, 2012

Pastoral Absolution

My article from this week's Algona Upper Des Moines about the validity of public absolution:

Q:  When visiting a church on Sunday, I observed that the congregation began the service with a Confession of Sins, and at the end of that Confession, the pastor said to the congregation, “I forgive you all your sins, in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.”  Can the pastor forgive sins or only God?  Does the pastor also have the power to refuse to forgive sins?

The Confession described here is the opening element of services in many liturgical churches.  It functions in much the same way that private confessions do, but in this case, confession is done generally, as a group, with specific individual sins recounted only silently rather than named individually to the priest or pastor. 

Much like private confession, the pastor’s declaration of forgiveness is, in Martin Luther’s words, “just as valid and certain, even in heaven, as if Christ our dear Lord had dealt with us Himself.”  Even though this may be an uncomfortable thought for many individualistic do-it-yourself Americans, and even though all who trust Jesus have their sins forgiven, the idea that God desires to deliver forgiveness in specific ways, which involve pastors, also is Biblical. 

In Matthew 16, we see Jesus promise this authority to Peter, saying, “I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.”  In this case, Jesus promises that this authority will be given in the future, and makes the promise to Peter individually.  However, when Jesus fulfills this promise, as recorded in John 20, saying, “As the Father has sent me, even so I am sending you…  Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you withhold forgiveness from any, it is withheld,” He grants this authority not only to Peter, but to all of His disciples, and by extension to the pastors who would follow them in coming generations. 

This is not to say, however, that pastors may grant or withhold forgiveness according to their own whim or based on their own standards.  Instead, they are called to grant and to withhold forgiveness solely as a reflection of what God has already determined by God in heaven, which the Greek words John writes in these verses make clear.  In private confession, this means that pastors forgive those who acknowledge and repent of their sins, but withhold from those who refuse to acknowledge their sins or repent of them.  Since pastors are not capable of judging anyone’s heart, they must base their actions on what is declared or confessed by the person seeking forgiveness.  Likewise in public confession, the absolution is given under the assumption that those confessing are confessing sincerely. 

Additionally, pastors do not forgive sins as independent agents, nor do they have the power within themselves to forgive or withhold sins.  Instead, they have been called to a particular office to act on behalf of Jesus and His Church, and their authority to forgive sins is exercised in the congregation “in the stead and by the command” of Jesus, as is stated in the absolution itself.  Another way to say it is that when the pastor is forgiving sins, Jesus is forgiving sins; or that Jesus forgives sins through the pastor. 

So, it would not be possible for a pastor to improperly keep God’s forgiveness from getting to a person or to effectually grant forgiveness when the person was unrepentant.  If it would happen that a pastor were to attempt to act in violation of Jesus command or apart from the proper authority to do so, the warnings and promises of Scripture would still prevail respectively for the benefit of the repentant and the condemnation of the unrepentant, in spite of a mistaken or improper act of the pastor.

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