In Sunday’s sermon we took up the topic of Absolution.
In it, I attempted to answer the “why” question: if our sins are totally and utterly forgiven by Christ on the cross (and they are), then why should the pastor—or indeed any Christian—stand in the Savior’s place and say, “In the stead and by the command of Jesus I forgive you…”
If you want to hear my response to that question, one that I have been asked on multiple occasions, I encourage you to listen to the sermon. But in short my answer is this: we keep sinning, “like a dog returns to its vomit” (to use the unforgettably disgusting image of Proverbs 26.11), and so feel a fresh need for forgiveness. God has made provision for this with His gift of Absolution: the personal, present-tense forgiveness of Christ.
God’s faithfulness doesn’t waver; ours does. And so we need to hear, again and again, that His forgiveness stands.
But there’s another question related to Absolution: How?
Many find this question equally vexing, or even more so. How can a mere mortal say, as though speaking for God Almighty, “I forgive you your sins”? Doesn’t this just send us right back to the Pharisees’ objection to Jesus: “Who can forgive sins but God alone?”
When it comes to our Lord Jesus, the answer is plain: He is God, God-in-the-flesh, and so the objection was misplaced. When it comes to the pastor proclaiming Absolution, however, it would seem to be more applicable.
So, then, granting that there’s value to Absolution, how can a fellow Christian and human being stand in God’s place and forgive sins?
The straight-forward answer is: Jesus says so.
Yes, you heard that right. The key passage is in John 20, on the day of our Lord’s resurrection. He surprises the cowering apostles and announces His peace. Then this:
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 20:22–23 ESV).
This authority that Jesus gives to the apostles to forgive (and retain) sins is what is traditionally known as “the Office of the Keys,” which takes its name from a parallel passage in Matthew’s Gospel:
“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” (Matthew 16.19 ESV).
And again, a little later in Matthew: “Truly, I say to you, whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven” (Matthew 18:18 ESV).
Our Lutheran tradition is quick to assert that the Office of the Keys is not the property of clergy alone; it belongs to the whole Body of Christ. The Small Catechism sets the record straight:
The Office of the Keys is that special authority which Christ has given to His church on earth to forgive the sins of repentant sinners, but to withhold forgiveness from the unrepentant as long as they do not repent. (SC V)
The keys to the kingdom, in other words, jangle from the side of every baptized believer.
Well and good, you say—but still: how can that be?
Jesus says so. Fair enough. But that still seems to be such a stretch. How can I, as a simple Christian, presume to speak for God? I can hardly speak for myself most days!
Consider an analogy. When a nation sends an ambassador abroad, that ambassador is authorized to speak on behalf of his homeland. The ambassador is “deputized,” so to speak: made an authorized representative to stand in the stead of his sovereign.
This is what our Lord has done with the Office of the Keys, with the gift of Absolution. In Holy Baptism He anoints you with the Holy Spirit and “ordains” you into the royal priesthood. Now you have been authorized by God’s kingdom.
Notice, this is hinted at already in the passage alluded to earlier about the Pharisees objecting to Jesus. The Lord heals the paralyzed man, and the people are swayed. “When the crowds saw it, they were afraid, and they glorified God, who had given such authority to men” (Matthew 9.8). Of course, this authority belongs first and foremost to Christ—but He then delegates it to His disciples. To you and me.
What may only be implied in Matthew, though, is made explicit in 2 Corinthians.
St. Paul writes, “We are ambassadors for Christ, God making his appeal through us. We implore you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God” (2 Corinthians 5.20 ESV).
You catch that? We’re ambassadors for Christ. His authorized representatives. Sent out to speak His forgiveness on His behalf.
This is why a little clause in the Absolution uttered in the Divine Service is ever so important:
Upon this your confession, I, by virtue of my office, as a called and ordained servant of the Word, announce the grace of God unto 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. (DS III, LSB p. 185)
In the stead and by the command. I do not speak out of my authority, sanctity, or holiness. I speak at God’s behest and in accord with His will.
Someone will respond: “So can we force God’s hand? Can we forgive sins that God doesn’t want to, or retain them where He does?” I hope the answer to this one is obvious: no. Veto power always resides with the Most High.
But that doesn’t mean the Office of the Keys is insignificant or unimportant. On the contrary. You are an authorized representative of the King. He has called your pastor to proclaim Absolution publicly, true, but He has also called you to proclaim it whenever you have a brother or sister in need.
How can this be? As with so many things, the Lord says so—and that is enough.