The man put away his book and started chatting with the passenger next to him. After a while he asked, “So what is it that you do?” The passenger, who happened to be a Lutheran pastor, replied, “I forgive sins!”
How do you like his answer? There are many who would take issue with it. “Only God can forgive sins,” they might say. “No one—not even a pastor—has the power to forgive sins.” But that isn’t exactly true. Pastors do have the power to forgive sins. This power does not come from inside them, as if pastors are somehow holier than others. Nothing about the pastor makes the forgiveness of sins effective. Rather, the power is from God.
A pastor is called by God through the congregation he serves to forgive their sins. That is his primary responsibility. Of course, he must convict and instruct through the preaching and teaching of the Word. Yet, his central calling and so too his highest joy is to distribute God’s forgiveness through the proclamation of the Word and the distribution of the Sacraments.
The pastor is a sinner like anyone else, but God calls him to be a mouthpiece for Him. Jesus could send the holy angels or some other creature to do this (remember Balaam’s donkey?), but He chooses to use sinful men instead. He said to His disciples, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to Me. Go therefore” (Matthew 28:18–19). Only a little while before this He had said to the same men, “As the Father has sent Me, even so I am sending you…. 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 20:21–23).
This means that when a pastor points out the sin of the members he serves, they should listen to the Law as if Jesus were speaking directly to them. And when he announces the forgiveness of their sins, they should recognize this as the very Word of Christ (Luke 10:16). The absolution spoken by the pastor in the divine service emphasizes this: “I, by virtue of my office 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 our Lord Jesus Christ I forgive you all your sins, in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.”
The pastor forgives sins “by virtue of my office,” and “in the stead and by the command of our Lord Jesus Christ.” He does not do this by virtue of his own person or authority. To make this point even clearer, Lutheran pastors wear vestments. The white gown symbolizes the covering of the sinner with Jesus’ righteousness and the holiness of the work of Christ carried out through the pastor. The stole around his neck illustrates the yoke he bears as a called servant of Christ. These things remind God’s people not to focus on the man, but on the office through which he delivers the forgiveness of sins.
So it is proper for a pastor to summarize his work with, “I forgive sins.” God has indeed “given such authority to men” (Matthew 9:8). And what a gift this is! When you hear your pastor speak the absolution, remember that Jesus is the one who commands him to do this. Jesus wants you to know that because He fulfilled the Law for you and died on the cross in your place, your sins are most certainly forgiven!
Reverend Peter Faugstad
Parkland Lutheran Church