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Ask the Pastor

† Theological musings and answers to selected questions by a confessional Lutheran pastor.

19 September 2005

Confession and the Keys of the Kingdom

Q: “If you forgive the sins of anyone, they are forgiven....” Catholics maintain that this passage indicates that Catholicism and the right of confession was given to them. What does this passage really mean?

A: The Roman Catholic Church usually pairs this passage (John 20:22-23) with Matthew 16:13-19, where, after Peter’s confession of Jesus as the Christ, the Lord replied, “You are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it. 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”

They first claim that the “keys” of forgiving sins or holding them against a sinner were given specifically to Peter. Since they reckon Peter as the first pope, they then maintain that the authority to forgive or not forgive resides in the subsequent popes and in those clergy who’ve been ordained under papal auspices.

At first glance, the Matthew passage alone might allow such a narrow interpretation, since “Peter” sounds like the Greek word for “rock.” However, Jesus used different forms of the words as He distinguished between “Peter” and “this rock,” leading many to understand the “rock” not as Peter, but as the divinely inspired confession, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.”

Thus, first of all, Jesus builds His Church not on a man (Peter) but upon the bedrock of faith (Jesus is the Christ). Secondly, Peter received the binding and loosing keys on behalf of the twelve and the entire apostolic Church which would come into being following Christ’s resurrection.

Saint PeterIn John 20, as in Matthew 16, our Lord was speaking only with the apostles — those called to preach the Gospel and forgive sins on His behalf. In verse 22, He granted a special gift of the Holy Spirit, then said, “If you forgive the sins of anyone, they are forgiven; if you withhold forgiveness from anyone, it is withheld.”

Christ commissioned the apostles and their pastoral heirs to speak His words of reconciliation within His Church, on His behalf, for the sake of His people. Our Lutheran Small Catechism asks what our belief is regarding John 20:22-23, then responds, “I believe that when the called ministers of Christ deal with us by His divine command, in particular when they exclude openly unrepentant sinners from the Christian congregation and absolve those who repent of their sins and want to do better, this is just as valid and certain, even in heaven, as if Christ our dear Lord dealt with us Himself.”

Of course, while Christ specifically calls certain men to be His pastors and to speak publically on His behalf, He nowhere excludes all Christians from forgiving each other. Each of us has the blessed gift and duty of granting absolution to each other as we forgive those who sin against us.

For those not accustomed to hearing it, the pastor saying, “I forgive you all your sins in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit,” sounds like arrogant blasphemy. How can another sinful human being speak either to the assembled congregation or to individual penitent sinners in such manner?

We respond that today’s pastors, just as those in the days of Jesus and the apostles, don’t speak of their own accord, but as they are commissioned by Christ. Through the Church, the Holy Spirit calls certain men to preach, forgive, baptize, and commune. Like Peter and Paul, our pastors are also sinners who themselves need God’s rich grace. Pastors don’t forgive on Christ’s behalf because they are special people but because they hold a special office in Christ’s Church.

“Woe is me!” an honest pastor recognizes, with Isaiah. “I am a man of unclean lips,” living “in the midst of a people of unclean lips. (Is 6:5)” He is no arrogant overlord, but the humble servant of a gracious God. At Christ’s bidding, the pastor forgives and forgets his congregation’s darkest, most secret sins while knowing that his Savior has likewise forgiven his own most evil thoughts, words, and deeds.

Yet while remaining humble, the pastor boldly confronts known sin. As Paul wrote an earlier pastor, “Exhort and rebuke with all authority. Let no one disregard you. (Titus 2:15)” For the task of the Lord’s ministers remains constant — shepherding the Lord’s flock through this life into the life to come. Conflict, comfort, crisis, and care — these all and more are part of the faithful pastor’s duties. Even if he must use the “binding key” and hold an unrepentant sinner’s evil against him, the pastor prays fervently that the Lord might one day allow him to turn the “loosing key” and open heaven to one who finally admits his sin and seeks forgiveness.

Scripture quoted from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version™, © 2001 by Crossway Bibles.

Catechism quoted from Luther’s Small Catechism, © 1986 by Concordia Publishing House.

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Walter Snyder is the pastor of Holy Cross Lutheran Church, Emma, Missouri and coauthor of the book What Do Lutherans Believe.


Anonymous Andrew said...

I thought that in John 20 Christ is giving the Office of the Keys to the Church as a whole, not specifically to the Apostles as individuals. The distinction is that John sometimes (although not always) differentiates between "the disciples" (v19) and "the Twelve" (v24). If I remember right, JT Mueller makes this distinction in his Christian Dogmatics.

As such any Christian can pronounce absolution (as with Baptism any Christian can administer), even a hypocrite, as it does not depend on his effort but on Christ's words. ("Confess your sins to each other", says James, 5:16). Pastors of course are given the special calling by the Church to proclaim the Gospel, preach the Word and administer the Sacraments in the midst of the Church, and as such are the only ones who can say "By virtue of my office as a _called_ and ordained minister of the Word I forgive you all your sins", where a layman does not have such a calling.

Am I incorrect in this reasoning?

20 September, 2005 12:33  

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