Tonight I had an interesting conversation with some folks who were a little uncomfortable with the thrust of teaching this week at the camp. Basically we’ve been hitting hard the following things: The forgiveness that Jesus has won for us on the cross comes to us in Baptism, Communion, and Holy Absolution. These gifts are dispensed (ordinarily) through the Pastoral Office. Christ calls and sends pastors to forgive and retain sins, to feed Christ’s sheep with His Body and Blood, and to baptize in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
These nice people were confused, because they had been taught that (1) any Christian can forgive sins, and (2) we didn’t need to go through a pastor to receive forgiveness, but that we needed only to have faith, and pray for it.
During the course of our conversation, which was very amiable I must say, I simply pointed them to Luther’s Catechism question concering the words of John 20 (As the Father sent me, so I am sending you…): What do you believe according to these words? Answer: I believe that when the called ministers of Christ deal with us by His divine command…this is just as valid and certain, in heaven also, as if Christ our dear Lord dealt with us himself. They simply felt that I was skipping over the fact that faith is what brings us the forgiveness, not the pastor.
So then I pointed them to Romans 10. Yes: faith is the receiving hand by which forgiveness of sins is granted to us. Faith in Christ and nothing else. But Paul says: “Faith comes by hearing; and hearing by the Word of Christ.” “How can they believe unless they hear; and how can they hear unless someone preaches; and how can they preach unless they are sent?” I tried to point out that pastors are given for this reason: so that there may be a preacher, in order that they might hear, so that they might be able to believe in the Word of salvation. This does not seem like a difficult concept to me. Christ has given authority to certain men to forgive and retain sins. He has put His man in our midst so that we might be able to go to him and confess our sins and receive Christ’s forgiveness.
This is why the Church calls pastors: to do the work of preaching, absolving, baptizing, and communing. It’s not that one must hear the Word from a pastor to be forgiven, or to be saved. No one is saying that. People in the New Testament believed in Jesus without ever having met him or his apostles. “The rumor of him went throughout the countryside.” The Pastoral Office exists, has been instituted, so that Christ’s Word of reconciliation and salvation might be proclaimed.
As to the question of “Can any Christian forgive sins in the case of an emergency?” I would simply say that any Christian may and certainly should comfort a troubled soul with the Holy Gospel, which tells us that our sins are forgiven in Christ. Isn’t this expected of all Christians? But not all Christians have been given the authority to forgive and retain sins; not all Christians have been given authority to preach or administer the Sacraments. I’m quite comfortable saying this after many years of struggling with this very issue. There is so much confusion over this in our Synod. I wish that we could come to some agreement and consensus on it.
I don’t know if the people I spoke with were satisfied. They were genuinely thankful for the teaching that had been done this week. But they were concerned that there was such a strong emphasis placed on the role of the Office of the Ministry in the Church that the kids would come to think that they had to go to a pastor to confess and be forgiven. What a shame that would be! If it is not necessary for Christians to go to their pastor and receive the forgiveness of sins, then what in the world are we for?