If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven

This next section of Luther’s THE SMALL CATECHISM is controversial to non-Lutherans, though I wonder what they do with John 20:22-23. Confession and absolution is simply a personal application of the Gospel. It is very powerful in giving pastoral care to someone in need of God’s grace. Notice here the doctrine of vocation: in the pastor’s office, through which Christ is working, and in the consideration of what sins we should confess; namely, those we commit in and against our vocations. (Here I disagree with the translation: instead of “situation,” it should read “station,” a reference to how God places us in particular vocations as places of love and service to our neighbors.)

THE OFFICE OF THE KEYS AND CONFESSION
 
What is the Office of the Keys?
The Office of the Keys is the special authority which Christ has given to His Church on earth: to forgive the sins of the penitent sinners, but to retain the sins of the impenitent as long as they do not repent.
 
Where is this written?
The evangelist writes, John 20:22-23: “Jesus breathed on His disciples and said to them, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; and if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.’”
 
What is Confession?
Confession consists of two parts: one, that we confess our sins; the other, that we receive absolution, or forgiveness, from the pastor or confessor as from God himself, and in no way doubt, but firmly believe that our sins are thereby forgiven before God in heaven.
 
What sins should we confess?
Before God we should acknowledge ourselves guilty of all sins, even of those which we do not know about, as we do in the Lord’s Prayer. But before the pastor or confessor we should acknowledge those sins only which we know and feel in our hearts.
 
Which are these?
Here consider your own situation according to the Ten Commandments, whether you are a father, mother, son, daughter, employer, employee; whether you have been disobedient, dishonest, lazy; whether you have injured anyone by word or deed; whether you have stolen, neglected, wasted anything, or done any harm.

I have heard some rather amazing accounts of the effects of personal confession and absolution, of people being delivered from tremendous guilt, tremendous sins, and even demonic affliction. Does anyone have any experiences like that? (Pastors, of course, can never reveal what was said in a confession.)

About Gene Veith

Professor of Literature at Patrick Henry College, the Director of the Cranach Institute at Concordia Theological Seminary, a columnist for World Magazine and TableTalk, and the author of 18 books on different facets of Christianity & Culture.

  • womanofthehouse

    My husband, daughter, and I began attending a Lutheran church in January. One of my very favorite parts of the liturgy is the confession and absolution near the beginning. Hearing the pastor actually say that my sins are forgiven is so reassuring and comforting. There was a time in my life, way back when I was a new Christian in a broadly evangelical church, that I was racked with guilt over my sins~~and some of them were grievous~~and couldn’t believe that I was forgiven. How helpful it would have been for me to hear the weekly reminder that I was indeed forgiven. I think it would have saved me a lot of anguish.

    Just an anecdote from my own experience.

  • womanofthehouse

    My husband, daughter, and I began attending a Lutheran church in January. One of my very favorite parts of the liturgy is the confession and absolution near the beginning. Hearing the pastor actually say that my sins are forgiven is so reassuring and comforting. There was a time in my life, way back when I was a new Christian in a broadly evangelical church, that I was racked with guilt over my sins~~and some of them were grievous~~and couldn’t believe that I was forgiven. How helpful it would have been for me to hear the weekly reminder that I was indeed forgiven. I think it would have saved me a lot of anguish.

    Just an anecdote from my own experience.

  • WebMonk

    And it’s not controversial among Lutherans??? Maybe it shouldn’t be, but it most certainly is the source of arguments among some Lutherans too.

  • WebMonk

    And it’s not controversial among Lutherans??? Maybe it shouldn’t be, but it most certainly is the source of arguments among some Lutherans too.

  • Gulliver

    Perhaps it was Dr. Veith who stated that if private and public confession and absolution were practiced more in the church, there would not be such a great need for psychologists and other mental health experts.
    Among Lutherans who hold to the Book of Concord, the controversy is not about the power and effectiveness of absolution, which is the proclaimation of the gospel that Jesus has ransomed sinners by His death; but about who can pronounce it—pastors only or all believers in Christ as priests before God.
    If someone does not understand what the Bible says about original sin and its total corruption of the human nature, the need for hearing the words of absolution will not be as great or as appreciated.

  • Gulliver

    Perhaps it was Dr. Veith who stated that if private and public confession and absolution were practiced more in the church, there would not be such a great need for psychologists and other mental health experts.
    Among Lutherans who hold to the Book of Concord, the controversy is not about the power and effectiveness of absolution, which is the proclaimation of the gospel that Jesus has ransomed sinners by His death; but about who can pronounce it—pastors only or all believers in Christ as priests before God.
    If someone does not understand what the Bible says about original sin and its total corruption of the human nature, the need for hearing the words of absolution will not be as great or as appreciated.

  • Trey

    Webmonk is right there is a conflict among Lutherans over the Office of the Keys, mainly who has them. Some Pastors think they are given only and exclusively to the Pastor. They contend that through ordination that the Pastor posses Spiritual Power to forgive sins not through his calling. Basically, ordination is placed as a Sacrament. However, God does not institute ordination and it confers no forgiveness of sins as does Baptism and Communion. The correct view is that the Pastor administers the Office of the Keys for the Church and Christians (including the Pastor) may also administer the Keys. In John 20, Jesus is addressing not just the Apostles, but the “disciples”. John makes a distinction between the 12 and other disciples. In addition, Thomas is not present, which further demonstrates that the Keys were not given exclusively to the Pastor or Apostles, but to all Christians.

  • Trey

    Webmonk is right there is a conflict among Lutherans over the Office of the Keys, mainly who has them. Some Pastors think they are given only and exclusively to the Pastor. They contend that through ordination that the Pastor posses Spiritual Power to forgive sins not through his calling. Basically, ordination is placed as a Sacrament. However, God does not institute ordination and it confers no forgiveness of sins as does Baptism and Communion. The correct view is that the Pastor administers the Office of the Keys for the Church and Christians (including the Pastor) may also administer the Keys. In John 20, Jesus is addressing not just the Apostles, but the “disciples”. John makes a distinction between the 12 and other disciples. In addition, Thomas is not present, which further demonstrates that the Keys were not given exclusively to the Pastor or Apostles, but to all Christians.

  • CRB

    One problem that seems to arise re: private conf/absol. is when some insist that one *must* do this (not sure if the Roman Catholic church still makes this a requirement) as if to imply that the conf/absol. that goes on in the Divine Service is somehow not sufficient.
    True, the personal conf/absol. could “feel” more helpful to the individual simply because it is “private” but it certainly is no more effective than the same conf/absol. done in the Divine Service.

  • CRB

    One problem that seems to arise re: private conf/absol. is when some insist that one *must* do this (not sure if the Roman Catholic church still makes this a requirement) as if to imply that the conf/absol. that goes on in the Divine Service is somehow not sufficient.
    True, the personal conf/absol. could “feel” more helpful to the individual simply because it is “private” but it certainly is no more effective than the same conf/absol. done in the Divine Service.

  • WebMonk

    You guys are all mentioning the debates I’ve seen held on this, not just in Lutheran circles, but in a variety of different denominations. The other one I see pop up pretty frequently is whether the absolution is a reminder of something that is already in existence, or whether the statement is creating a fresh state of forgiveness.

    That’s one I’ve heard mostly in Lutheran circles. Most of the debates on the topic in non-Lutheran circles is on the usage, not the efficacy.

  • WebMonk

    You guys are all mentioning the debates I’ve seen held on this, not just in Lutheran circles, but in a variety of different denominations. The other one I see pop up pretty frequently is whether the absolution is a reminder of something that is already in existence, or whether the statement is creating a fresh state of forgiveness.

    That’s one I’ve heard mostly in Lutheran circles. Most of the debates on the topic in non-Lutheran circles is on the usage, not the efficacy.

  • kerner

    I think the reminder/fresh state of forgivenss debate is another example of us trying to apprehend God acting in eternity. It always gets murky when we do that. The same issue will come up when we discuss Holy Communion, which Lutherans also believe conveys forgiveness of sins.

    Are we forgiven at a particular point in time, and so are only reminded of it in confession and/or communion? Or are we being forgiven all over abain each time we confess and/or commune? And if we need to be forgiven afresh, then what happens if we sin after absolution but before we go back for more?

    I think this debate is the result of looking at this all wrong. We are trying to pin God down in “time” when we debate this. God is eternal. His forgiveness is eternal. Which means we are forgiven at all times. So it should come as no surprise that one means of grace happens only once, while the others (God’s Word, confession and absolution, Holy Communion) happen over and over again. I don’t think we are justified “afresh”. I think we are justified continuously.

  • kerner

    I think the reminder/fresh state of forgivenss debate is another example of us trying to apprehend God acting in eternity. It always gets murky when we do that. The same issue will come up when we discuss Holy Communion, which Lutherans also believe conveys forgiveness of sins.

    Are we forgiven at a particular point in time, and so are only reminded of it in confession and/or communion? Or are we being forgiven all over abain each time we confess and/or commune? And if we need to be forgiven afresh, then what happens if we sin after absolution but before we go back for more?

    I think this debate is the result of looking at this all wrong. We are trying to pin God down in “time” when we debate this. God is eternal. His forgiveness is eternal. Which means we are forgiven at all times. So it should come as no surprise that one means of grace happens only once, while the others (God’s Word, confession and absolution, Holy Communion) happen over and over again. I don’t think we are justified “afresh”. I think we are justified continuously.

  • JonSLC

    CRB @ #5:

    Luther noted two problems with private confession in his experience in Roman Catholicism: 1) private confession was required, and 2) enumeration of specific sins was required. This made private confession a matter of law, not gospel. Later the Lutheran Confessions would encourage continuing private confession, but for the sake of the absolution. In other words, they liked the practice because it got the gospel to people in an additional way, not because it added a further burden (i.e., “Not only do I feel guilty because I’ve sinned, but I also feel guilty because I haven’t confessed properly!”). Private confession is to be encouraged for the sake of the gospel, not mandated for the sake of the law. I’d say the same for private absolution in addition to corporate absolution — not a law, but one more opportunity for a personal application of the gospel.

    WebMonk @ #6: “…whether the absolution is a reminder of something that is already in existence, or whether the statement is creating a fresh state of forgiveness.”

    Could we maybe compare absolution to a spouse saying, “I love you”? That’s both a reminder of a commitment made in the past and a real-time expression/giving of love.

  • JonSLC

    CRB @ #5:

    Luther noted two problems with private confession in his experience in Roman Catholicism: 1) private confession was required, and 2) enumeration of specific sins was required. This made private confession a matter of law, not gospel. Later the Lutheran Confessions would encourage continuing private confession, but for the sake of the absolution. In other words, they liked the practice because it got the gospel to people in an additional way, not because it added a further burden (i.e., “Not only do I feel guilty because I’ve sinned, but I also feel guilty because I haven’t confessed properly!”). Private confession is to be encouraged for the sake of the gospel, not mandated for the sake of the law. I’d say the same for private absolution in addition to corporate absolution — not a law, but one more opportunity for a personal application of the gospel.

    WebMonk @ #6: “…whether the absolution is a reminder of something that is already in existence, or whether the statement is creating a fresh state of forgiveness.”

    Could we maybe compare absolution to a spouse saying, “I love you”? That’s both a reminder of a commitment made in the past and a real-time expression/giving of love.

  • CRB

    JonSLC,
    I agree totally, but thanks for the reminder.

  • CRB

    JonSLC,
    I agree totally, but thanks for the reminder.

  • http://www.toddstadler.com/ tODD

    JonSLC (@8), “Could we maybe compare absolution to a spouse saying, ‘I love you’?” Yes, I like that. Given a quick once-over in my head, that seems to nicely parallel the issue of forgiveness. Thanks.

  • http://www.toddstadler.com/ tODD

    JonSLC (@8), “Could we maybe compare absolution to a spouse saying, ‘I love you’?” Yes, I like that. Given a quick once-over in my head, that seems to nicely parallel the issue of forgiveness. Thanks.

  • http://www.geneveith.com Veith

    It seems like the purpose and the results in both confession & absolution, as well as the sacraments, is to build up our faith. Thus, we grow in the Gospel. In our lives, our faith can dwindle, as we sin and fall into legalistic excuses or paralyzing guilt. Yes, our forgiveness, strictly speaking, occured when Christ dealt with our sins on the cross two thousand years ago. But we can never receive that message enough.

    As for controversies over the pastor/lay matter of who can deliver absolution, it seems like both sides often neglect the doctrine of vocation. Christ is in vocation, including that of the layman in particular circumstances. Meanwhile the pastor acts not by virtue of his ordination, as such, but by his call, which his congregation extended to him. Thus, “as a called and ordained servant of the Word,” he acts “in the stead of and by the command of Jesus Christ” to forgive our sins.

  • http://www.geneveith.com Veith

    It seems like the purpose and the results in both confession & absolution, as well as the sacraments, is to build up our faith. Thus, we grow in the Gospel. In our lives, our faith can dwindle, as we sin and fall into legalistic excuses or paralyzing guilt. Yes, our forgiveness, strictly speaking, occured when Christ dealt with our sins on the cross two thousand years ago. But we can never receive that message enough.

    As for controversies over the pastor/lay matter of who can deliver absolution, it seems like both sides often neglect the doctrine of vocation. Christ is in vocation, including that of the layman in particular circumstances. Meanwhile the pastor acts not by virtue of his ordination, as such, but by his call, which his congregation extended to him. Thus, “as a called and ordained servant of the Word,” he acts “in the stead of and by the command of Jesus Christ” to forgive our sins.

  • FW

    We christians have lost the sense of “office.”

    we understand perfectly how this works in civil society. take judges for example. when they robe and speak in the courtroom in their official capacity, they say “in the name of the people of the state of california, I find you guilty as charged (or innocent!) and I sentence you to…”

    notice the first person. note that office involves several things: (1)that someone is publicly set apart and known rather officially to carry a public charge or set of duties. (2) the official only has authority within his charge and when he is acting officially. ie when a judge issues a verdict that is unconstitutional or does not follow the law, then his acts are null and void. (3) he can use the first person when rendering the works of his office. (4) even with the use of the first person, it is understood that his authority is derived not innate or infused into him personally because he took an oath of office ( or was ordained in the case of pastors).

    that all being said, when a pastor says “do you believe that the forgiveness I speak is God´s forgiveness” there is a real comfort in knowing that even if that pastor is found to be a rank unbeliever later on, his forgiveness is binding and valid. This would not be quite as certain for an individual christian (who´s absolution is every bit as valid and efficatious as a pastor´s…). what if that christian was found later to be no christian? but in the case of a pastor with an office, his official acts are valid and efficacious quite independent of his faith or lack thereof.

    So why does this all matter? The exact SAME forgiveness is offered in baptism, the lord´s supper, private confession with a pastor, forgivness given by a fellow christian, hearing or reading those words of forgiveness. all the same forgiveness.

    I like the analogy of a spouse saying I love you. Maybe that spouse has a mate who has trouble believing that they are loved truly. so that spouse might say “I love you” with flowers, small acts of kindness, love notes, music, candy… and maybe just one of those forms of “I love you” will hit home and really bring that beloved to trust that they are loved.

    the love was there all along.

    or a good teacher who has various ways to explain to or convince a student the same idea.

    There is a powerful difference of course: Actions speak louder than words we say. this is probably true for humans.

    But with God, words ARE actions. the universe came into being with a word of God. the cosmos was redeemed through the Word of God – Jesus our Lord. So the word of God not only convinces or communicates like human words. The word of God (contained in and connected to, in command and promise, in baptism, the holy supper, holy absolution) actually and really transmits, offers, conveys, actualizes, the very thing it says.

    Think of the sacraments like an aqueduct carrying forgiveness from that cross of 2000 years ago to you, by name, here and now.

    so there are two issues. (1) what was won for us 2000 years ago and (2) how it gets effectively and actually applied to us today.

    christians generally agree on (1) or they wouldn´t be christian. The disagreements come with (2).

  • FW

    We christians have lost the sense of “office.”

    we understand perfectly how this works in civil society. take judges for example. when they robe and speak in the courtroom in their official capacity, they say “in the name of the people of the state of california, I find you guilty as charged (or innocent!) and I sentence you to…”

    notice the first person. note that office involves several things: (1)that someone is publicly set apart and known rather officially to carry a public charge or set of duties. (2) the official only has authority within his charge and when he is acting officially. ie when a judge issues a verdict that is unconstitutional or does not follow the law, then his acts are null and void. (3) he can use the first person when rendering the works of his office. (4) even with the use of the first person, it is understood that his authority is derived not innate or infused into him personally because he took an oath of office ( or was ordained in the case of pastors).

    that all being said, when a pastor says “do you believe that the forgiveness I speak is God´s forgiveness” there is a real comfort in knowing that even if that pastor is found to be a rank unbeliever later on, his forgiveness is binding and valid. This would not be quite as certain for an individual christian (who´s absolution is every bit as valid and efficatious as a pastor´s…). what if that christian was found later to be no christian? but in the case of a pastor with an office, his official acts are valid and efficacious quite independent of his faith or lack thereof.

    So why does this all matter? The exact SAME forgiveness is offered in baptism, the lord´s supper, private confession with a pastor, forgivness given by a fellow christian, hearing or reading those words of forgiveness. all the same forgiveness.

    I like the analogy of a spouse saying I love you. Maybe that spouse has a mate who has trouble believing that they are loved truly. so that spouse might say “I love you” with flowers, small acts of kindness, love notes, music, candy… and maybe just one of those forms of “I love you” will hit home and really bring that beloved to trust that they are loved.

    the love was there all along.

    or a good teacher who has various ways to explain to or convince a student the same idea.

    There is a powerful difference of course: Actions speak louder than words we say. this is probably true for humans.

    But with God, words ARE actions. the universe came into being with a word of God. the cosmos was redeemed through the Word of God – Jesus our Lord. So the word of God not only convinces or communicates like human words. The word of God (contained in and connected to, in command and promise, in baptism, the holy supper, holy absolution) actually and really transmits, offers, conveys, actualizes, the very thing it says.

    Think of the sacraments like an aqueduct carrying forgiveness from that cross of 2000 years ago to you, by name, here and now.

    so there are two issues. (1) what was won for us 2000 years ago and (2) how it gets effectively and actually applied to us today.

    christians generally agree on (1) or they wouldn´t be christian. The disagreements come with (2).

  • FW

    all of scriptures and all acts of God towards us exist solely to bring us to christ, bring us to trust in Him, trust that we truly ARE forgiven, and keep us with him and the whole church in the one,true faith.

    So ask the question of any teaching,order of service, doctrine whatever: “how does this strengthen my trust that I am truly forgiven? how does any of those things make christ increase and me decrease?

    whatever does not work towards this discard, at least as something churchly. those things may have practical value, but don´t confuse them as being proper works of the church. they are not.

    if a teaching or churchly act does not work towards and support this sole end (trust in christ and his forgiveness), then what is happening is contrary to God´s will, or at least outside of the authority christ gave to the church and outside of what he commissioned the church to do.

    It is really that simple.

  • FW

    all of scriptures and all acts of God towards us exist solely to bring us to christ, bring us to trust in Him, trust that we truly ARE forgiven, and keep us with him and the whole church in the one,true faith.

    So ask the question of any teaching,order of service, doctrine whatever: “how does this strengthen my trust that I am truly forgiven? how does any of those things make christ increase and me decrease?

    whatever does not work towards this discard, at least as something churchly. those things may have practical value, but don´t confuse them as being proper works of the church. they are not.

    if a teaching or churchly act does not work towards and support this sole end (trust in christ and his forgiveness), then what is happening is contrary to God´s will, or at least outside of the authority christ gave to the church and outside of what he commissioned the church to do.

    It is really that simple.

  • http://www.toddstadler.com/ tODD

    FW (@12), I also liked the parallels you drew between a judge acting in his office and a pastor doing so (in light of the discussion here). Thanks for that.

  • http://www.toddstadler.com/ tODD

    FW (@12), I also liked the parallels you drew between a judge acting in his office and a pastor doing so (in light of the discussion here). Thanks for that.

  • http://www.geneveith.com Veith

    What a good and eloquent explanation, FW! The judge analogy–such as how the judge uses the first person in the acts of his office–is perfect.

  • http://www.geneveith.com Veith

    What a good and eloquent explanation, FW! The judge analogy–such as how the judge uses the first person in the acts of his office–is perfect.


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