Some time ago, I was given an assignment by a good friend from church who has encouraged me in my blogging. A couple months back, she turned to me after Holy Absolution and asked, “Would you please write a post on the biblical basis for a Pastor to forgive sins on behalf of Christ?” Since she was raised in a non-liturgical Christian tradition and my childhood roots are in Catholicism, this seemed like a fair question and a good blogging assignment. “Sure,” I said with a smile.
While I really appreciated the question and wanted to give the answer justice, I found myself paralyzed, both from a lack of time devoted to blogging and a deficiency of biblical reference knowledge. I knew, vaguely, that Christ had sent the apostles, during the Great Commission, to make disciples of all nations, which I assumed implied the forgiveness of sins. However, the text from Matthew actually doesn’t mention absolution or forgiveness directly:
Now the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain to which Jesus had directed them. And when they saw him they worshiped him, but some doubted. And Jesus came and said to them, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.” (Matthew 28:16-20)
Although forgiveness isn’t explicitly mentioned, the nature of discipleship is to spread the Good News that Christ paid the penalty for our transgressions and through baptism we are united to him and clothed in his righteousness. The fact that our sins are forgiven is fundamental to the Christian understanding of salvation through Christ’s perfect sacrifice. Still, I needed to find the verse where Christ authorized priests and pastors to forgive sins on his behalf.
Fortunately, the wisdom of Fr. Rolheiser provided me a great roadmap to discuss this topic. In Forgotten Among the Lilies: Learning to Love Beyond Our Fears (have I mentioned how wonderful this book is?!) Rolheiser cites John 20:23 as the text that has traditionally been interpreted to authorize “the institution of the sacrament of reconciliation,” (pg. 166). This passage of John recounts when Jesus appears to the disciples:
On the evening of that day, the first day of the week, the doors being locked where the disciples were for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them and said to them, “Peace be with you.” When he had said this, he showed them his hands and his side. Then the disciples were glad when they saw the Lord. Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, even so I am sending you.” And when he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you withhold forgiveness from any, it is withheld.” (John 20:19-23)
The word Jesus uses here echoes the Great Commission, in that he’s sending the disciples out to teach the world the Good News. He’s is extending his mission to the disciples, calling them to be his representatives in the world. As Christ came to the world to represent God the Father, so the disciples are to stand in his stead. The main purpose of their mission is to forgive the sins of others by making them disciples through Holy Baptism.
In his Small Catechism, Martin Luther also cites John 20:23 as the biblical authority for pastors pronouncing the forgive sins on behalf of God. In response to the question, “What is Confession?” Luther states: “Confession has two parts. First, that we confess our sins, and second that we receive absolution, that is, forgiveness, from the pastor as from God, Himself, not doubting, but firmly believing that by it our sings are forgiven before God in heaven,” (Small Catechism, pg. 26).
In catechism classes, our Pastor has often explained that he stands in the stead of Christ, only in the specific sacramental parts of the liturgy when he proclaims God’s word of absolution, performs baptisms, and presides over Holy Communion. I looked up the Lutheran Church – Missouri Synod’s explanation on Confession and Absolution, which, after also citing John 20:23, states:
Sometimes visitors in a Lutheran service of worship are surprised to hear in the general confession and absolution our pastors saying: “Upon this your confession, I, as a called and ordained servant of the Word, announce the grace of God to all of you, and in the stead and by the command of my Lord Jesus Christ I forgive you all your sins in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.”
Our Lutheran Confessions help us to understand why our pastors speak this way: “It is not the voice or word of the man who speaks it, but it is the Word of God, who forgives sin, for it is spoken in God’s stead and by God’s command,”(AC XXV.3).
Furthermore, it’s important to note that the rite of Holy Absolution does not actually forgive our sins. Salvation comes through the sacraments of Holy Baptism and Holy Communion. Holy Absolution is a rite to provide comfort to the citizens of Christ’s kingdom by reminding them that their sins were previously absolved in Baptism and through the Lord’s Supper.
Hopefully I’ve illuminated the biblical basis from which the liturgical churches have justified absolution being proclaimed by pastors. It’s not absolution from a man, but rather the Word of God which pronounces the forgiveness of sins through Christ.