“If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven”

Our Scripture reading in church yesterday included this passage from John 20:

19 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,[c] Jesus came and stood among them and said to them, “Peace be with you.” 20 When he had said this, he showed them his hands and his side. Then the disciples were glad when they saw the Lord. 21 Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, even so I am sending you.” 22 And when he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit. 23 If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you withhold forgiveness from any, it is withheld.”

via John 20 ESV – The Resurrection – Now on the first day – Bible Gateway.

(1)  We Lutherans believe that this passage teaches that Christ gives the Holy Spirit to the Church, which includes the authority to forgive sins.  This is exercised in vocation–that is, God acting through human beings–when the called pastor gives absolution during individual or corporate confession (the latter of which is part of every worship service).   After the individual or congregation admits their sins, the pastor says that as a called and ordained servant of the Lord, “I forgive you your sins.”

(2)  But that authority is not just given to pastors, but to the whole congregation, which has called the pastor to exercise this gift on its behalf.  But laypeople too can forgive sins and absolve those who confess their sins to them.  Again, it is Christ who forgives, but He applies that forgiveness through individual Christians.  (Isn’t that right?  Perhaps someone can explain the parameters.)

(3)  So when we forgive someone, according to this Scripture, that affects not only our feelings about the person who has wronged us.  Rather, that actually does something to the person that is recognized in Heaven.  (Right, Lutheran pastors?)

(4)  I know this sounds outlandish to you non-Lutherans.  But how else can you account for these verses (especially John 20:23)?  Do you think that only the Disciples were given this power?  Or what?

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  • SKPeterson

    Here’s a further explanation of the “progression” of the Office of the Keys”:

    That the great freedom of the Reformation is truly the liberty of the gospel is demonstrated first of all by the fact that in the New Testament the potestas clavium [power of the keys] is not conferred once but three times: Matthew 16 to Peter, John 20 to all the Apostles, and Matthew 18 to the entire ekklesia. These bestowals dare not be separated from each other. Neither may one place one into the foreground at the expense of the others and consider that the true form. And when Jesus gives to the twelve His commission to preach the gospel to every creature, and through Baptism to make disciples of all nations, when at the Last Supper He instructs them, “This do in remembrance of me!” then who are the twelve? They are the first to stand in the office of the ministry. From them proceeds the ministerium docendi evangelii et porrigendi sacramenta. But they are at the same time the church, the ekklesia, the representatives of this new “People of God” of the Last Days. Thus it is simply impossible in the New Testament to separate the office of the ministry and the church from each other. What is said to the church is said to the ministry, and vice versa. The ministry does not stand above the congregation, but invariably within it.

    Hermann Sasse, Letters to Lutheran Pastors VIII, July 1949

  • Eric

    Above Saase quote was also posted by Pastor Harrison Sarurday night on the Witness Mercy Life Together blog Saturday evening.

  • I guess the only real and conceivable objection that comes to mind is that it makes the church equal with God because of the way it is stated, and that it sounds quasi-Catholic in that it becomes the church (or whoever) that forgives instead of God.

  • Dan Kempin

    I don’t want to open a can of worms, (they are not on my diet, you see), but since you bring it up, I will pose the question for any who care to reflect:

    Is corporate confession and absolution in every worship service the best way to teach and practice our lutheran doctrine?

    Is corporate confession and absolution in every worship service even particularly lutheran?

    (What is the spiritual purpose of c & a, and does corporate c & a serve that purpose?)

  • Booklover

    This is what I love about this blog.

  • mikeb

    J. Dean @ 3

    Is ‘quasi-catholic’ a problem? I thought we believe in ‘one, Holy, catholic church’. Though we of the Augsburg Confession might not be in full fellowship with Rome, it doesn’t mean we have to avoid everything associated with them, especially when there is clear command in scripture.

    Who is forgiving sins? We or the pastor are, in the stead and by the command of God. Read the 1 John chs. 1-3 and consider the petition in the Lord’s prayer “forgive our sins as we forgive us those who have sinned against us” …

  • Tom Hering

    J. Dean @ 3. God forgives from heaven, but you find that forgiveness where He offers it – on Earth. In the words of His Book, the water of His Baptism, and the bread and wine of His Supper. In other words, through His Church. This is so you won’t forget that He Himself came to Earth to forgive our sins, as a real man dying on a real cross. Remember, too, that you yourself are a material creature, and that’s what you’ll be for eternity. God doesn’t want you getting too “spiritual,” thinking you’re something more than you are, and trying to ascend right up to the Throne. Someone else tried that, and got his butt cast down like lightning. 😀

  • SKPeterson

    Eric – I unashamedly copied this from Harrison’s blog. I just left the attribution to Sasse, without the HT to the good pastor.

    J.Dean @ 3 – If one reads the Lutheran Confessions, one will see that orthodox Lutheran doctrine on confession and absolution is very much in line with that of Rome. We Lutherans agree with the historical Catholic position of the confession and absolution of sins being within the Church as the representative of Christ; remember though, that it is Christ who forgives, but the Church and/or pastor who announces that forgiveness. Now, this also is tied up very much in the notion of contrition and repentance on the part of the sinner (which can be made or done individually or corporately). Another way to say it , is that our contrition and repentance is made in the confession of our sins before God. We then receive the absolution (justification) through the imputed righteousness of Christ’s blood shed upon the Cross, which is proclaimed by the pastor to the repentant sinner. However, we differ with Rome on the Office of the Keys being identified exclusively with the Papacy or with the pastoral office, and with the Roman doctrines surrounding the concept of satisfaction.

  • Tom Hering

    SK, I’ll have to look this up, but don’t we reject the idea that absolution is a mere announcement, and affirm it’s actual forgiveness of sins, given in Christ’s stead, and with His okay?

  • TE Schroeder

    Dan @4

    I wonder the same thing. The concern is over 1) the impenitent who is in attendance who has just been absolved of sin(s) he is not sorry for and 2) the particularly grieved sinner who hears the absolution and thinks, “The pastor does not know what I did. He does not mean me.”

    Private Confession and Absolution addresses each of these situations better. The impenitent is told that his sins are retained. (Of course, he would not set up an appointment for Private C&A.) The grieving penitent hears the voice of Christ through the minister, “I forgive you” — and it must be YOU, because you are the only one here!

    That being said, I don’t know that abolishing the corporate Confession & Absolution is something that is wise, beneficial, or even possible.

  • Remember that we (Lutherans) are the REAL catholics. To think otherwise would be to agree with the counter-reformation. I like to describe us as the clearest voice in the choir of Christendom, not the only voice, but the clearest.

  • Tom Hering

    The concern is over 1) the impenitent who is in attendance who has just been absolved of sin(s) he is not sorry for and 2) the particularly grieved sinner who hears the absolution and thinks, “The pastor does not know what I did. He does not mean me.” – @ 10.

    In the first case, there’s absolution given, but no absolution received, because there’s no faith to receive it. In the second case, the fact that the sinner is grieved shows faith is there, but it needs to be strengthened. Private C&A would be very helpful. So would clear proclamation of Law and Gospel in the Divine Service.

  • Joe

    Amen Tom!

  • SKPeterson

    Tom – You are correct. There is actual forgiveness in the Absolution, not just the announcement. But the forgiveness flows from God down to the sinner. The pastoral office proclaims this in His stead and by His command – the combination of Word and Action in the Absolution. Sorry if my comments were confusing on this point; I was trying to point out that we still believe it is God who is doing the forgiving in the Absolution.

  • SK@8, if you mean by absolution that it is an announcement of forgiveness (i.e.-an echo of God’s pronouncement based upon evidence of faith and repentance), then I have no problem with that.

  • Dan Kempin

    Tom, #12,

    I’m not sure if you are arguing a point or just making a comment.

    Are you saying it is “ok” that the words of absolution are regularly offered to the impenitent, or just pointing out that such absolution does not benefit the hearer because of their impenitence?

    I wonder if such a practice of blanket spiritual care does not devalue the office of the pastor and ultimately cater to the hyper-personal culture that really makes forgiveness and absolution somthing that is “between you and God.”

    (That is to say, the words of absolution are meaningless if one has to judge whether they apply to one’s self. They are worse than meaningless, for they do not comfort the troubled consciences who fear that they may not be “penitent enough,” and they offer false comfort to the bold sinner who is being absolved rather than warned.)

  • Tom Hering

    SK, well … but …. yes and no. It’s more radical than that. It’s the pastor who’s doing the forgiving, and we, by faith, believe God concurs (agrees, approves, acts together) with the pastor’s forgiveness – because God’s Word says God does. “If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them …”

  • Tom Hering

    Are you saying it is “ok” that the words of absolution are regularly offered to the impenitent, or just pointing out that such absolution does not benefit the hearer because of their impenitence? – @ 16.

    Dan, the absolution isn’t an announcement that the sins of the whole world were forgiven in Christ (which they were, of course). It’s real-time forgiveness focused on the sins (“known and unknown”) that people in the Service actually confess (“upon this your confession”). Any sins held back from forgiveness (I haven’t sinned in this or that way!) remain unforgiven.

  • Dan Kempin

    Tom, #18,

    I’m still not tracking with the point you are making. Are you saying that corporate confession IS the best way to teach and practice lutheran doctrine, is NOT the best way, or are your just making a general comment on absolution? I don’t want to bug you if you are not really responding to my question (#4).

    But it sounds like you are saying that the pastor absolves blindly. He says the words, but doesn’t know anything of the person, their spiritual condition, or the sin that may trouble them. It is up to the HEARER to confess (not to anyone, but only in his heart) his particular sins, just as it is up to the hearer to know which sins are forgiven.

    So what, then, is the point of the pastor speaking any absolution at all? His words are not binding. They are only true “inasmuch” as you have (silently) confessed your sin and are not holding anything back. Why not just have a silent time for self examination?

  • Tom Hering

    Dan @ 19, first, the confession isn’t silent, it’s spoken aloud, within hearing of the pastor and one another.

    James 5:16 … confess your sins to one another …

    Second, I don’t know if corporate C&A is the best way, but it’s a good way. Anything involving the forgiveness of sins is good, wouldn’t you say?

    Third, yes, the pastor is blind insofar as he’s speaking to faith, which is unseen. How could it be otherwise, even in private C&A? The pastor has no way of proving anyone’s faith. He just accepts the confession of sins and of faith in Christ.

  • Craig

    Yesterdays sermon by Pastor Jeremy Rhode. Well worth your time:


  • Dan Kempin

    Tom, #20,

    The public confession is certainly spoken aloud, but it is also usually a general statement that “Yes, I am a sinner. I have sinned.” It does not confess anything specific. It does not confess the particular sin that may be troubling a person. We confess THAT we have sinned, but we do not confess WHAT we have done.

    Don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying that it is a bad practice. It’s a good reminder for those who are, more or less, healthy. But it doesn’t do much good for the two groups that TE Schroeder mentions in #10.

    Was corporate confession an ancient practice?
    Was corporate confession in Luther’s Deutsche Messe?
    Where did it come from in today’s hymnal liturgies?
    (Liturgical scholars, will you lend your aid?)

  • Dan Kempin

    Tom, #20,

    The pastor is not blind in private C & A. On the contrary, he sees far more than he would like to see. But that is the point. KNOWING the shame that threatens to overwhelm faith, the pastor bears witness that Christ came to save REAL sinners, and he testifies that the mercy of Christ is for the troubled sinner and that their shame is taken away.

  • J. Dean,
    where in Scripture do you get the idea from that if one forgives sins they are making themselves equal with God? of course the Pharisees believed that, but I see no where in scripture, except a quote from Pharisees that says no one but God can forgive sins. In fact I find commands to forgive sin all over scripture, not the least in the Lord’s prayer. There is also Matthew 18.
    But all that aside, is not God’s Authority his to do what he wants with? If he wants to give it to the church to use, how does the church using the authority he has given them make the church “or whoever” on par with God? He has made us ambassadors, ambassadors have authority, they are given it from those greater than them, it can also be taken back, of course God doesn’t take it back, at least not anywhere I can see in scripture. But we are merely ambassadors doing what he has asked us to do as his ambassadors when we forgive sins.

  • Right on Dan @ 23,
    That truly is the real power of Private Confession and absolution, that a Pastor hears real sin and forgives real sinners. Which is why Luther admonishes in the Small Catechism that we only confess sins that are bothering us in private confession and absolution. that is what it is therefore, that we can go to the pastor with those sins that are bothersome to us, that we possibly don’t think are forgiveable and so on.

  • helen

    J.Dean and Bror,
    The Pastor isn’t forgiving sin; he is God’s mouthpiece and the forgiveness pronounced by him in Holy Absolution is from God.

    Corporate C&A seems to be what we have got.
    It’s not what Luther had or was discussing; he assumed individual confession. It will take a generation of teaching to get us back to Lutheran practice, if that teaching is done.
    When I learned about C&A, decades ago, (and everyone else with me), we memorized the Small Catechism’s instruction on it, recited it to the Pastor and then he never suggested that we actually put it into practice.
    [And since, if our parents did, it was a big secret from us, we didn’t.
    I think they didn’t…same reason!]

    The Pastors who patiently keep regular posted hours for C&A may get a lot of reading done in the short term. But doing it, and teaching their confirmation classes to actually practice it before confirmation, may gradually turn the tide. It may even become a possibility for us “old dogs”!

    About what you get out of corporate Absolution: in the longer form, the Pastor asks, “Do you believe that the forgiveness I pronounce to you is God’s forgiveness?” If you are repentent and do believe that, you have it.
    If you say, “I have nothing to repent of”, then you cannot receive God’s forgiveness. (Nobody is as innocent as that!)

    Re forgiveness between individuals: we should of course ask forgiveness if we have wronged another person, or be willing to admit fault if another correctly says that we have wronged them.
    I would say, “I forgive you.” Or, “Will you forgive me?”
    I would leave it to the Pastor to invoke the name of God in forgiving.
    That may be right or wrong, but that is how I see it.

  • Dan Kempin

    Helen, #26,

    “The Pastors who patiently keep regular posted hours for C&A may get a lot of reading done in the short term. But doing it, and teaching their confirmation classes to actually practice it before confirmation, may gradually turn the tide. It may even become a possibility for us “old dogs”!”

    Thanks for the encouragement, Helen! At my congregation, my partner and I have established pastoral hours, and while the results are slow, they are very encouraging. I find it best to establish the hours as “visitation,” and sometimes the conversation allows me to lead someone to the power of personal absolution. (Plus,the time I spend reading and studying when no one comes is an added bonus.)

  • SKPeterson

    Bror @25 and Dan @ 27 – In reference to my and Tom’s previous posts, when you declare that you forgive the sins of the repentant sinner, how are we to understand that forgiveness? Is it not the forgiveness given to us by the work of Christ which you proclaim? I may be totally off base, but I think of the words of absolution to be akin to the words of baptism: the pastor says “I forgive you” in the same manner he says “I baptize you” – the pastor is the “vessel” of the means of grace granted by God, through which the Word is made physically manifest and real. God does the work; the pastor is part of the means, the deliverer of the message, so that faith may take it to heart and believe that one is part of the Kingdom of God and that one’s sins have been forgiven.

  • SK,
    It is God’s forgiveness and it would not be possible without the death and resurrection of Christ. After that I don’t much care how one understands it. The pastor is speaking what he has been given to speak on behalf of God. So is the Christian when he or she forgives.

  • Wonderful promise indeed!

  • Tom Hering

    Dan @ 23, I think you missed my point about blindness.

  • I think SK makes an interesting point (@28), though I’m not sure to what degree he intended to make it.

    Evangelicals (cf. @15) find distasteful the notion that there’s actual forgiveness in the announcement. At best, they will allow that it is an announcement of forgiveness — but that forgiveness, as it is understood, being wholly detached from the announcement.

    Does that remind you of anything else?

    To me, it smacks of their approach to Baptism and Communion. They just don’t like the way God, in his Word, attaches real forgiveness to physical things, whether water, bread, wine, or the words of a human being.

    But that is what He did, isn’t it? Yes, it is God that forgives — remember this is Jesus talking in this passage. And yet, Jesus does not merely say, “Remind others that I forgave them”, does He? He could have, but He didn’t. No, He said, “If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them.” Clear as day … unless you just can’t accept it.

    I continue to be fascinated by Evangelicals’ aversion to God’s working through physical things. I mean, God did became flesh and made his dwelling among us, after all. Is it really that much of a surprise that a God who chose such a physical approach to the winning of our forgiveness would continue to impart that forgiveness physically to his Church?

  • Dan Kempin

    Tom, #31,

    Yes, I think I have been missing you all day. Help me out.

  • MarkB

    tODD @ 32, what a wonderful way to put it. It seems that some seem to get the old Adam involved in how to take what scripture says. In that they don’t just use their reason to determine if the Bible did say something. They use their reason to determine if it makes sense to them. The first use is a biblical approach to using reason to understand the bible, the second is not.

  • TE Schroeder

    I am wondering if someone wants to take up Dr. Veith’s question #4: “I know this sounds outlandish to you non-Lutherans. But how else can you account for these verses (especially John 20:23)?”

    I am genuinely curious as to how Evangelicals understand this. Any takers?

  • formerly just steve

    I’m a bit confused by some of the conversation as it relates to absolution for the impenitent. Corporate confession and absolution is one thing because the confession is not specific to the sin. But doesn’t human nature mean that we are all impenitent about something or another? We’re stubborn and sinful creatures, after all, and I think we’re fooling ourselves if we don’t think there are some things in our life that we refuse to admit we’re wrong about, if even only to God. Does that mean we are not forgiven those sins? If that is the case (and maybe I’m reading in too much of my own theological upbringing here), can we have unforgiven sins as Christians? Am I mixing categories here? Help me out.

  • Tom Hering

    Dan @ 33, it was just that a pastor can’t see faith – it’s invisible. He takes the repentant at their word, and forgives them.

    As to Luther and corporate Q&A, here are some statements from his Brief Exhortation to Confession (added to the 1529 LC, but absent from the 1580 German BoC).

    … all of us are debtors to one another; therefore, we should and we may confess publicly in everyone’s presence …

    … this public, daily, and necessary confession …

    Luther points to the Lord’s Prayer, “forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.”

  • Tom Hering

    Uh, C&A not Q&A. Sheesh. 😀

  • Dan Kempin

    Tom, #37,

    I agree, of course, that a pastor cannot see faith. He does not absolve “faith,” but sins, and how can he absolve a particular sin blindly? I am not saying that a general absolution for a general confession is bad, wrong, or inappropriate. But should a parishioner be brought low by a particular sin–whether in the struggle to avoid the sin or in the struggle to believe that it is forgiven–a general absolution is inadequate.

    Consider that the absolution is not for God’s sake, but for the sake of the sinner. The sinner must know and be reassured that GOD has forgiven them. (In the text of John 20, the greek verb is in the perfect tense, which denotes something that has happened in the past and continues to be true. “Whomsoever’s sin you remit, it (perfect tense) ALREADY HAS BEEN AND IS remitted.”) The pastor does not change the reality, but proclaims and testifies to the already existing reality of forgiveness.

    But how can a pastor testify to what he does not know? This is what I meant in speaking of “blind” absolution.

    What I mean is this: It is useless to be absolved of every sin but one, and an absolution from the pastor is useless to a troubled conscience if it does not absolve the particular sin that troubles them. While corporate confession is a good practice, this particular dimension of pastoral care (about which the confessions say a very great deal) has become almost entirely lost.

    I will not even touch on the need to rebuke sin and bind consciences . . .

  • Tom Hering

    Dan @ 39, maybe we’re talking past each other. In the same Brief Exhortation, Luther distinguishes different types of confession. (He also distinguishes these from Rome’s burdensome, obligatory practice.)

    1.) Confessing to God alone.
    2.) Confessing to our neighbor alone.
    3.) Confessing in the presence of one another (corporate).
    4.) Confessing in secret to a brother or sister in Christ (private).

    The last, private confession, “… comes into play when some particular issue weighs on us or attacks us, eating away at us until we can have no peace nor find ourselves sufficiently strong in faith. Then we may at any time and as often as we wish lay our troubles before a brother or sister, seeking advice, comfort, and strength.”

    (Luther wasn’t exactly a clericalist, was he? 😀 )

  • Abby

    I never knew that the power to retain sins was for laymen. I would be very afraid of that.

    When Jesus gave the Lord’s Prayer (Mt 6):

    “. . . and forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors,” . . .

    Then He repeats just one of the lines in the prayer:

    “For if you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you, but if you do not forgive others their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.” The specific repeating of this by Jesus makes it seem all the more important.

    Then in Mt 18: “Then Peter came up and said to him, ‘Lord, how often will my brother sin against me, and I forgive him? As many as seven times?’ Jesus said to him, ‘I do not say to you seven times, but seventy times seven.'” Which means unlimited, from what I’ve been taught.

    And then Mt 18:15-20 ” . . .If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault, between you and him alone . . .” Who does that? I don’t think I’ve ever had that happen. If something is known or suspected publicly people gossip among each other or maybe go tell a pastor. And usually nothing is done to handle it correctly just between the two.

    The church has not taught this correctly. Or even practiced it. In order to forgive there needs to be confession? And if the person does not come to you to confess, then you need to go to confront them? This confrontation has not been taught or practiced in all of my church history. People are too afraid of each other to do this.

    And I have been in a pastor’s office with sins written on a piece of paper so that I could talk to him about them and he would not look at them and told me not to bring any more ‘lists’ of my sins in. And he counseled me according to ‘justification’ — which I needed. However, I didn’t confess anything which I thought I should do. Except privately to God or in church for public confession/absolution.

    Even without someone’s confession, I would forgive them in my heart. Wasn’t Martin Luther chastised by his confessor for confessing too much? (Just like Luther, there would be no end to our confessing — just what we know — and what about all that we don’t know?) But because of Luther’s serious guilt complex he was led to discover that the “just shall live by faith.” And that opened up the whole Reformation.

    I can’t conceive of retaining someone’s sins against me. I have always believed that I leave that up to God to judge. And I forgive in my heart. I forgive as I have been forgiven. I don’t know how else to do this.

  • @35. Right.
    I want to hear it too.

  • Bror (@42) and TE (@35), thanks to the wonder of the one-year lectionary (I think), you can read what Evangelicals had to say about this verse last year.

  • fws

    to all

    1) does God do the forgiving or the pastor?

    This question is asked because we have lost the concept of “office”. A judge or policeman has an office. when he says “**I**[arrest , sentence ] you” he is doing it “by the power invested IN ME by the state of [fill in the blank].

    So is it the pastor or God doing the forgiving? Correct Answer: yes!

    Christians have the office of priest. we are to interceed for others. that is prayer, and … forgiveness.

    2) Is a sin forgiven of a christian if he consciously or unconsciously refuses to repent of it? I say yes. Otherwise what good would the absolution be? How can we be certain that we have REALLY repented Tom? Or repented enough? Your view is really the catholic view that made confession a torture and necessitated the sacrament of last rites which was a final chance to repent……

    So what is wrong with what you said? it is this:

    the absolution does not depend upon what is in our heart.
    Forgiveness depends, alone! on trust in the Words of Christ and that they are true.

    We? We are all liars. Our repentence merits temporal and eternal punishment and damnation. We do not repent as we should.

    To say that Christ’s forgiveness depends, conditionally upon our act of repentence is a commonly held folk Lutheran error. Based on that error, I was taught that suicide was unforgivable. why? it was a sin that we would commit and have no chance to repent!

    this is a teaching from satan even if it has cropped up from time to time in Lutheranism.

  • fws

    the confessions talk, somewhere, about repentence having a “broad” meaning that is about the Law convicting us and then siezing the forgivness of the Gospel. and then there is a narrow meaning that is alone to turn and grasp the gospel.

    The Law part of repentence that is about turning from our sins is for our NEIGHBOR’S good.
    God does not need it in order to forgive us.
    And even pagans are required to repent in this way and can do so. And, being of the opinion that repentence is about what we can do or refrain from doing whether our heart is in it or not, non christians become either pharisees or despairing judas in repentence.

    The Gospel part of repentence that is about hiding even our best repentence in the Works of Another is something WE need, for without it, we will go to hell for repenting as poorly as we do.

  • Here’s John MacArthur’s take on John 20:23 from his study Bible:

    “This verse does not give Christians the authority to forgive sins. Jesus was saying that the believer can boldly declare the certainty of a sinner’s forgiveness by the Father because of the work of his Son if that sinner has repented and believed the gospel. The believer with certainty can also tell those who do not respond to the message of God’s forgiveness through faith in Christ that their sins, as a result, are not forgiven.”

    Okay, here are the objections in a nutshell:
    1.) Ministers/fellow Christians are not God, and therefore cannot discern whether or not a confession of sin by somebody is genuine as they cannot read the heart (I sincerely hope that my Lutheran brothers in Christ realize that there is such a thing as false repentance!). A minister can give false assurance by pronouncing forgiveness to an insincere confessor .

    2.) It takes away the basis of forgiveness from the cross of Christ and puts the basis on a minister’s pronouncement, thus making the confessor think that it is the minster and not Christ forgiving (and I have gotten this impression many times from Roman Catholics referring to their practice of confession). Whether or not you agree with that reason, you cannot deny that coming to such an erroneous understanding is possible.

    3.) That John 20:23 was an apostolic gift like tongues/miracles/healing and was not meant to be imparted to the entire church.

    Once again, if by absolution you mean to say “I am pronouncing you forgiven on the basis of Christ’s sacrifice on the cross,” then I have no problem with it. That’s really the essence of the gospel message, and no evangelical would deny that definition of absolution. That is the sense I gathered from reading C.F.W. Walther’s take on it, when he used the analogy of a king making a proclamation, and his servants-on the king’s authority-are running through the countryside, being deputized to speak on his behalf and simply echo his declaration (it’s been a little while since I’ve read the specific lecture, so I could be a little rusty on the retelling, but that was the essence of it that I recall).

  • fws

    j dean.


    your number 3: Jesus also gave this power to the church and not just the apostles. what do they do with that?

    the idea that it is an announcement and not the person doing the forgiving:
    if you give me a power of attorney and i exercise that power , then who is doing the exercising? What if I acted in a way that stepped beyond the authority you gave me? What if I was a bad and untrustworthy person, but exercised the power you gave me the way you intended. What then?
    secondly (and more importantly): when we speak God’s Word, is it merely an announcement like a man would announce something , or is it a creative word that literally does what it says? as in “let there be light” or ……”believe that you are forgiven” ? If you dont get this part J dean, then you would not have even the smallest clue what walther was driving at.

  • formerly just steve

    fws, #44 and 45, thank you. I was hoping I was misunderstanding the debate. If my forgiveness depends on my ability to repent of every sin, I am hopeless.

  • fws

    j dean @ 46

    the believer can boldly declare the certainty of a sinner’s forgiveness by the Father because of the work of his Son if that sinner has repented and believed the gospel.

    The Lutheran Version :

    1) The sinner can cling to the Promise offered in the words of forgiveness because they are spoken by Christ himself.

    2) The sinner is commanded by Christ himself to believe these words even if the one saying them is a total unbeliever.

    3) The sinner is commanded by Christ to cling to and trust in these words especially when the sinner is full of doubts that he really and sincerely has repented or even has faith.

    4) The sinners proof that this forgiveness is intended for him personally , by divine election no less, is found in the fact that he was personally baptized in the the name of the Blessed and most Holy Trinity.

    J Dean, confess that you are a liar about your faith, repentence and your entire being in thought word and deed, your mind, body and very soul.

    Then trust that that God simply cannot lie, and that the forgiveness spoken to you, personally, in your Baptism, then must be true. Hold God to his Promise to you there!
    God wishes you to do exactly that.

  • fws

    formerly just steve @ 48

    you dont go far enough!

    you deserve punishment here on earth and eternal damnation for your repentence. you cannot repent as God demands it to be done.

    Man reasons that we can keep God’s Law by first disciplining ourselves to think the right way, and then have our right thinking govern our actions, such as repentance.

    God demands that we do that. But he also demands that we do it with our entire heart, spontaneously, without any effort or even having to think about it. And the most important part of repentence is to fear, love and trust in God more than anything else.

    Instead our heart viciously places its fear, love and trust in anything but God. This is why there is a constant and total war going on, in each of us, even in pagans, between our reason where God has written his moral law, and the deepest emotions of our heart.

    we would do something totally different following our hearts if the Law written in our reason was not constantly correcting and accusing our hearts. And , in our Old Adam, we resent God as a cruel taskmaster for that. Just when we think we are doing everything right, our conscience comes along and demands more. Until it literally kills us in the process.

    only in the regenerating waters of Holy Baptism can we receive a new heart and new emotions that agree with the Law written in our Reason. Only baptism can end that war that is in us in a way that no amount of will power, self discipline and effort could ever wring out of us!

    In Christ, alone , we are free because we are hidden in the Works of Another and so , for that precise reason, the Law can no longer accuse us. And only when the Law can no longer accuse us, can God become an Object of Love and we can then , as a fruit of that, start to love his Law as well.

  • fws

    the part of repentence that is about what we can think, or say or do is about us and our neighbor,
    it is not about us and God at all.
    It is a turning from our selves, to the needs of our neighbor.
    And we will never get this part right ever.
    So we need , and desperately so, the second part of repentence.

    The part of repentence that is about us and God is about nothing we can do.
    It is a turning from our work to the Work of Another.

    it is God who works both parts of repentence. the first part he extorts out of us by the Law (luke 18 and the antinomian judge) and the second part he gives us freely as a pure gift apart from anything we can do.

  • FWS, thank you for the answers!

  • J. Dean, @ 46
    I wish I had more time today to carry on this conversation with you. But MacArthur’s commentary there is what I hate about commentaries. The tend to fall into one of two traps, especially when they don’t sermonize like Luther’s, they tell you what is painfully obvious from the text, in which they arn’t that helpful, or in this case, they say the exact opposite of what is in the text and are therefore dangerous to the Christian faith. I don’t care what hoops he jumps through, he betrays a bias against that which Christ expressly states. Reading scripture this way, well it renders it meaningless. That said, of course all forgiveness is possible only because of Christ’s death on the cross, that is the fount of forgiveness. That doesn’t mean that Christ hasn’t given disciples the power to forgive. We have to take Christ’s word seriously here. He does give the disciples this power. And we don’t have to read hearts either. Jesus doesn’t ask them too. There is an objectivity to this, that shall not be undermined by any other ifs than the one Jesus gave to the disciples, and those ifs confer authority directly to the disciples, “If you forgive they are forgiven.” Jesus word’s are not qualified here in any manner that would warrent MacArthur’s revision.

  • larry

    “Remember that we (Lutherans) are the REAL catholics. To think otherwise would be to agree with the counter-reformation. I like to describe us as the clearest voice in the choir of Christendom, not the only voice, but the clearest.”

    To add to pastor Spomer’s statement, this was clarified for me once in the book “Lutheran Difference”, great book by the way. Paraphrasing: it is an error to think of the medieval church as “roman catholic”, the RC church officially came about after Trent and its cursing of the gospel. Thus, what we see today called the RC church is really just another heterodox church. The church orthodox continues by its orthodoxy, not some “pass down” or “trail of blood” or some other theory.

  • larry

    Having moved in from the outside in, to Lutheranism, this was one of the last parts I really dealt with. I can tell you first hand that “private confession and absolution” is inexpressibly wonderful. I went out of there wanting to kick up my heals and do anything for anybody. That was one of those “new” Gospel moments for me not too long ago. I’d been dealing with PC/A for some time, and the flesh, especially if one comes from other backgrounds, just can’t get over “this sounds like works/punishment”. In fact all the sacraments and C/A seem that way when you come from another background. It’s the hardest hill to get past.
    Why? Mainly because that’s the way its perceived and we believe it. It HAS to be taught as rich Gospel or no one will come to it.
    I’d been wrestling with it for over a couple of years and this lent our pastor did a wonderful series through the penitential psalms and Luther’s catechism. The “big items” that jumped out to me and made me want to go, as opposed to resist, was how he kept telling us that dare never to make it this “torture chamber” (have to go) and that the basis for going is knowing we will receive forgiveness. It’s not as if God “didn’t see X coming and needs to RE forgive you” but that we so do not believe it constantly – we gravitate back away from believing our forgiveness, the old man never stops and neither does the devil.

    So the basis is the forgiveness. Next he pointed out how the pastor is bound by oath and duty to never reveal what was confessed. He emphasized, “and never means NEVER…even if it is the highest crime in the land…the pastor who reveals the confessional must immediately be removed for he shows himself to be a hireling and not a shepherd of Christ’s sheep”. That emphasis really got to me, this is serious from the pastor’s side too! And then he explained why in such a wonderful way, because by doing so, revealing, he puts the sheep in grave danger of not believing the forgiveness of God and that by the pastor doing this he communicates that God’s forgiveness is such that God remembers rather than does not remember one’s sin. He put real emphasis on it this way, I love the way he stated it, “The pastor’s ear is the graveyard of your sin, buried with Christ, and the pastor cannot exhume what God will never exhume or bring up again and has literally forever forgotten. So what goes in his ear is dead forever, never to be brought out again.” The whole key is as the shepherd of Christ’s sheep he is to forgive as God forgives, and his forgiveness, authorized, is in fact God’s forgiveness such that when forgiven it is God saying, “I forgive you”, and the whole communication right down to the graveyard language is to proclaim this reality as real (because again, we don’t believe it naturally and fight against it).

    That made me want to run to private confession. Eventually I did my first and it was wonderful, I literally felt like a new man, like a HUGE burden had been lifted.

  • larry

    That’s the ole heterodox fast shuffle, “…IF that sinner has repented and believed the gospel” (and variations).

    So that one either despairs, “can’t seem to find I have enough to be sure” or “I” do find out this ‘evidence’ and say I have repented and believed enough to meet the demands of the “IF”. Note how the “IF” demands, just like the Law. It’s not a large word or term but in that one term is packed a return to law and works righteousness called “grace, gospel, Christ, spirit, etc…” It’s all simply a return to “Rome Sweet Rome” or never having really left.

    So you get at first, how do you know, “Well I believe in Jesus alone”. OK, then later in the doctrine the rabbit pops out of the hat “…IF that sinner has repented and believed the gospel”. Well, then, how do YOU, not me, know?

    But if you ask such, “how they know they have actually “repented and believed (enough, rightly, not fooling themselves)” to meet the demand of the “IF”, you will be deafened by the crickets and frogs.
    There’s really no need for me or anyone to “read someone’s heart”, the scriptures does that already for everyone without exception and says of it that “the heart is desperately wicked above all things, who can know it”. The reply then comes, “but that’s before conversion”. OK, that’s wrong but lets go with that for a minute, the question is again ‘how do YOU YOURSELF know which side of this conversion fence YOU are on (where the rubber meets the road, YOU YOURSELF, not some theory or theological punt or doctrinal giggle cession about the ‘other guy over there’, but YOU YOURSELF. Somehow one crossed the conversion fence to get to the green grass on the other side by passing Scriptures exegeting of one’s heart. How does one know they didn’t fake it if the condition of the fallen heart at day 1 pre-conversion is so wicked and deceptive you cannot know it? The Law cannot be evaded here. One has to know objectively how one in particular is truly really converted or not in the present reality and/or when that happened to know if they have “repented and believe”. And that’s never answered. If it cannot be answered then all assertions that one is a Christian and was baptized at the right time (post conversion only as a believer for this is what “repented and believed” means according to the doctrine) is just a self deluding hoax.

    In fact according to the doctrine of the heterodox churches no single heterodox person, according to their doctrine, can give prove they are Christians whatsoever, according to their professed, confessed and taught doctrines. If you press to hard on this in addition to crickets and frogs you will get a verbal smoke and mirrors misdirection show.

    When its really just a simple question, “How do YOU know”, that a Christian SHOULD be able to answer. In fact a Christian MUST be able to answer that in order to be confessing anything Christian at all.

  • John MacArthur’s study bible: “Jesus was saying that the believer can boldly declare the certainty of a sinner’s forgiveness by the Father because of the work of his Son if that sinner has repented and believed the gospel. The believer with certainty can also tell those who do not respond to the message of God’s forgiveness through faith in Christ that their sins, as a result, are not forgiven.”
    So the only key we can really use is the binding key. The loosing key is morphed by J.M. into an “assurance of pardon”. But the binding key is retained. This is twisted. I’ve seen this from so many evangelicals and reformed that it boggles the mind. I’ve seen this approach to John 20 in action for over 30 years. Never again.

  • larry


    Precisely! It misses the point, and Christianity, completely. Men are not condemned because they deny Moses but the Son (Luther), because they fail and resist to be creatures that receive (i.e. original sin). And nothing is more receptive than absolution (i.e. the Gospel). Put in opposition is the theologies of glory that “see” (an active sense) and activity versus the theology of the cross that “hears” (a passive sense) and faith (utterly receptive/passive). This is why and how even “Jesus the example”, “baptism the sign of the inward reality”, “the sign of the LS pointing elsewhere” become idols. I.e. they are taught to be seen and ultimately thus immitated (this is how Aristotle works). That is direct opposition to pure reception of a Word spoken to and for you that faith only hears.

  • Abby

    “. . . the pastor is bound by oath and duty to never reveal what was confessed. He emphasized, “and never means NEVER…even if it is the highest crime in the land…the pastor who reveals the confessional must immediately be removed for he shows himself to be a hireling and not a shepherd of Christ’s sheep”.

    “The pastor’s ear is the graveyard of your sin, buried with Christ, and the pastor cannot exhume what God will never exhume or bring up again and has literally forever forgotten. So what goes in his ear is dead forever, never to be brought out again.”

    “The whole key is as the shepherd of Christ’s sheep he is to forgive as God forgives, and his forgiveness, authorized, is in fact God’s forgiveness such that when forgiven it is God saying, “I forgive you”, and the whole communication right down to the graveyard language is to proclaim this reality as real (because again, we don’t believe it naturally and fight against it).”

    It is not easy to find a pastor who knows/believes this. Maybe they didn’t take this class at seminary? I have often wanted to find a Catholic priest who would hear me this way. But I have not done it. So Corporate Confession/Absolution it is.

  • Joanne

    If you request a Lutheran Pastor to hear your confession, he is bound by his clerical vows he made at his ordination to hear it. He cannot refuse without doing damage to his ordination. Just as he cannot divulge the content of your confession as he also vowed at his ordination. His whole grasp on his office is based on those vows.

    Now, as with everything, the catholic (common) church has turned Confession into a rite with a liturgical component. (see LSB 292) Photocopy that and take it with you when you go to your pastor. Put it in his hands and say, let’s go into the church and do this right now. (I mean this for the reluctant pastor, not the pastor who is waiting, vested in front of the altar for you to arrive.)

    And lastly: “Do you believe that my forgiveness is God’s forgiveness?” “Yes.”

    You know that or those sins that have bother you for years, like a sister that won’t and hasn’t talked to you in 10 years, like the problem you’re having keeping away from the porn sites on your PC. You know you’ve been forgiven every Sunday in a general, wholesale type of way.
    Well, it bothers you, so speak up into that graveyard of sins ear of the pastor. When he forgives you, the whole church forgives you and all the other pastors forgive you, and a key is turned in heaven that releases the bonds of those sins that were holding on to you. This realization that you finally told somebody about those burdensome sins and they got specifically absolved on earth, throughout the whole church, and in heaven is powerful stuff and it will give you emotions when the anvil is lifted off your heart and you will feel it. I cried at my first private confession when the pastor forgave me. “Do you believe that my forgiveness is God”s forgiveness?” “Yes. sob, sob, sob.”

    And then should anyone throw those sins in your face you can say or know that my pastor knows and has forgiven me, which was God’s forgiveness, and all the church’s forgiveness. You cannot confront me or accuse me of officially forgiven sins.

    And then you realize that you will be telling the pastor every week about your sins. It makes you think twice about doing the wrong thing in you life of Christian sanctification, when you realize you’ll be telling the pastor what you did. That realization can keep you away from porn sites just because you definately don’t want to have to confess that again.

    “Do you believe that my forgiveness is God’s forgiveness?” “Yes.”

  • Joanne

    When Lutherans define what is a sacrament (i.e, a mystery) we look for institution by Christ (The Anointed One), then we look for a physical element like water, bread, wine, then we look for promises attached to and the forgiveness worked through the act.
    Lutherans often think of Confession/Absolution (i.e. The Office of the Keys) to be a mystery, making it 3 Lutheran mysteries, instead of just 2 (Baptism (washing), and The Lord’s Supper.
    The one point missing with Confession/Absolution is the physical element. However, when you’re kneeling before the pastor (a fellow human being), and he puts both his hands on your heard, and his voice speaks the words of forgiveness, that’s certainly one of the most physical things we do in church and it will feel very personal and up close.
    I wish C/A were a clearcut sacrament/mystery, because then it would be much harder to ignore it. Christ didn’t go into great detail when he commanded and established C/A (The Keys); he didn’t say to put your hands on the penitents head; he didn’t give us the exact words to say; but he did command each apostle present to “do it.”
    Can it be that the man himself, in his office, is the physical element in C/A? The pastor adds and invests this rite with the human touch, and the human voice, and the human image (God’s image?). C/A is very physical, you could be embarrassed by how physically close this rite puts you to the Pastor. To say that C/A lacks a physical element, just doesn’t seem right when the rite itself is so very physical. So, I’m one of those who comes down on the sacrament/mystery side of the conundrum. For me, it’s OK to say that God uses the pastor himself as the physical element in C/A. Your mileage may vary.
    I hope by now you are beginning to see how different Lutheran Confession/Absolution (The Office of the Keys) is from the average practice of Confession in a Romanist church. Rome goes for anonymity between confessor and the penitent with no touching at all. Not just their doctrines are garbles about this mystery, but their practice is too.
    In German the terms are Beichtfather (father confessor) and Beichtkind (child confessee). It’s personal and physical. Luther’s best friend, Bugenhagen, the one Cranach put in his painting about Lutheran C/A, was also Luther’s Beichtfather and Luther was his Beichtkind.

  • Joanne

    Beichtvatter, EXcuse me. I need a better editor than me.