Forgiveness of Sins and the Pastoral Office

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?


About Rev. Paul L. Beisel

Graduate of Concordia Theological Seminary, Fort Wayne, IN in 2001 (M Div.) and 2004 (S.T.M.); LC-MS Pastor and Adjunct Instructor for John Wood Community College; Husband of Amy and father of Susan, Elizabeth, Martin, and Theodore.
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15 Responses to Forgiveness of Sins and the Pastoral Office

  1. Well done, Paul!

    We have been so Protestantized that when a lot of people hear what the Scriptures and the Confessions actually teach about the role of the pastoral office in the forgiveness of sins, it can sound downright foreign to them – even (if not especially) to lifelong Lutherans.

    Three years ago, I preached this sermon:

    and a lady visitor, a retired LCMS teacher, wanted to talk to me after the service. She was offended and irate. She felt that pastors were nice to have, but hardly necessary – as Lutheran schoolteachers, in teaching about Jesus, do the same thing.

    I told her that Scripture (the text I preached on) says not only that faith comes by hearing, but also asks how people can hear the Word of God “without a preacher.”

    Her response was “Show me that in the Bible.” I did. She said she had never read that before. I never saw her again. I got the impression that she felt like I was denigrating the laity and only trying to puff myself up. That’s always the risk when we preach and teach about the importance of the Office.

    Rev. David Petersen’s outstanding article in the latest Gottesdienst (Trinity 2009) Vol. 17, No. 2, page 11, addresses this:

    “If we are to be a sacramental church we must have a sacramental Ministry. But we have the same sort of fear of speaking too highly of the Office of the Holy Ministry, as though to do so were to deny or lessen the laity in some way. Those who serve in the Office are often embarrassed at the authority of their office. They sometimes downplay this authority and centrality in the Church in order to appear humble. Ironically, this serves not humility, but their own pride…. and robs the people they serve of the comfort that comes from the absolute certainty of God’s promises and gifts given in and through the Office.”

  2. I had a good discussion about this in Corpus Christi, TX, with Pr. Dale Byrnestad of Messiah. He had said that Christ gave the Keys to the Church, and the Church has given to the keys to its called pastors.

    This makes sense to me even from a practical standpoint. No one person can devote all the time necessary to master all the disciplines one has to use in their lifetime. I drive a car, but I don’t design it. I eat bread, but I have neither the land nor the know-how to grow grain.

    Just as mechanical engineers should be able to design because they master and apply the laws of physics and engineering principles, pastors should be able to master their knowledge of the Word of God and preach according to their given office. It’s simple economics. And there’s that divine institution thing…

    I rely on the judgments of people who were called to their particular offices and mastered their particular domains: math, physics, computer science, philosophy, etc. I rely on my pastor to give me Jesus.

  3. Dear Dan:

    I think there is a very real sense that this is true – pastoral ministry is a vocation in which the pastor is called to exercise the keys – which are indeed a gift to the whole church.

    The problem is how this has been interpreted in the LCMS – especially in light of the American view of democracy.

    It has led to a hire/fire mentality regarding pastors. It has also led to the idea of unordained “lay ministers” and laymen performing all the functions of the pastoral office. It has led to the “everyone a minister” theology (and to paraphrase The Incredibles: “When everyone is a minister, no-one is a minister.”

    Another analogy I find helpful is the presidency of the United States. Congress can pass a bill, and I can sign it just like Barack Obama. He has no “power” that I don’t have. I can sign a piece of paper just like he can. But he has something I don’t have, namely vocational “authority.” He and I can sign the same piece of paper – but by virtue of his office, a bill becomes a law. I simply don’t have the authority of the office to make that happen.

    I can attest that a law has been signed by my testimony. I can tell people about the legislation. But I don’t have the authority to carry it out – even though the office of the presidency, and its constitutional authority, belong to the American people as a whole.

    Similarly, the White House belongs to all of us. But I would not suggest trying to stroll in based on the fact that we Americans all have “the keys” as owners of the property!

  4. Chad Myers says:

    First of all, as a Lutheran Revert to the Roman Catholic faith, I still hold a lot of love and good feelings in my heart for my Lutheran upbringing and cherish the traditions of Lutheranism. After having reverted to Catholicism, I saw that, at least where I was from, the way Lutheranism was being practiced was a scant shadow of its former dignity and glory. It had been so “protestantized” as Rev. Beane called it (great word). By that I mean much of the richness of Lutheranism had been “thrown away” because it seemed “too close” to the Catholic traditions (or that’s how I understood it). I’m aware of a growing movement by modern LCMS practitioners to sort of “rediscover” their own traditions. Just because Catholics do Confession and the theological justification for that is slightly different doesn’t mean Lutherans need to throw away their rich heritage also. Anyhow, the short of it is, I’m glad to see Lutherans not shying away from their own traditions because it may “appear” to be “too Catholic.”

    On the point of “Keys” — I feel this does a grave injustice to the import of the setting, the location, the context, the build-up, and especially the amazing historical significance of Christ giving Peter the Keys to Heaven. In Jewish history, and indeed many cultures of the time, for a king to give the keys to the kingdom to a steward was to give him essentially all power of the King for the period he retained those keys. It was always given to a single person, not a group of people.

    Christ’s meaning here, standing in Caesarea Philippi in front of the huge cliff/rock with so many temples and churches hollowed out of it, was no mere passing reference. He was very specifically and directly referring to Peter and not a more nebulous “all the pastors.”

    It’s also interesting that Rev. Beane appeals to the “authority” argument. If you appeal to the “vocational authority”, then you must logically end up at a single authority through which Christ imparted his power to his earthly steward/vicar. I say this because no other interpretation could fit into the context of the setting Christ chose and the general understanding the Jews standing before him would’ve had (given the time in history, Jewish understanding of hereditary rule, rules of royal stewardship, etc).

    I’m not as well versed on the context of Matthew 16 as I should be, but a great source of a thorough examination of the importance of Christ’s words here and the setting in which he chose to deliver them (Caesarea Philippi) is Stephen K. Ray’s book “Upon this Rock” [Amazon link:

  5. Chad Myers says:

    Quick follow-up: Please do not interpret my critical argument of “Keys” to be, in any way, a diminishment of the dignity, respect, and sacrifice that Lutheran Pastors exhibit. I commend you all for your sacrifice and dedication and I am honored to be able to leave a comment here and engage in charitable Christian discourse with you. I greatly respect the sacrifices you all have made!

  6. Bad Ice says:


    I think some kind of distinction needs to be made between the public loosing and retaining of sins and the forgiveness given by any Christian. I don’t believe every christian has been given the retaining key. But I do believe that every Christian has been given the right and duty to forgive.

    Every Christian has the right and duty to forgive otherwise what do you do with the Fourth Petition..”as we forgive those who trespass against us?” And how are Christians able to forgive seventy times seven if they are unable to forgive? And what about that terrible thing God will do to us if we don’t forgive our brother from our heart (mt 18).

    So somewhere along the line every Christian does have the right, duty and command to forgive sins.

    At least that’s what I would gather from the above verses.


  7. Chad Myers says:

    @Bad Ice:

    Every sin is a sin against God and, depending on the circumstance, another human or humans. To the extent a sin was committed against you, you should forgive the sin. Only God can forgive the sins committed against him. We have assurance of God’s forgiveness through the process of Confession through a validly ordained Catholic or Orthodox Priest (i.e. laying-of-hands through the Apostolic Succession from Peter to whom the keys of Heaven and the power to bind or loose was given).

    When Paul converted, he was told to go to Ananias (a Bishop/Episkopos ) who, after being sufficiently convinced that Paul was the real deal, ordained Paul as another Apostle/Bishop/Episkopos) through the process of laying of hands (Acts 9:12). The power granted by Christ flows through the Apostolic Succession via the sacrament of Holy Orders (whose physical sign is the laying of hands) as instituted by Christ as was the clear understanding of the Apostles (namely Peter and later Paul: cf Acts 6:6, 2 Timothy 1:6, 1 Timothy 4:4, 1 Timothy 5:22, Acts 13:3, Acts 14:22).

    By this authority, one can confess sins and the power granted to the Priest through the Bishop, can give proper absolution and the promise of forgiveness for the sin and the restoration of grace (should grace have been cast away via mortal sin: 1 Corinthians 6:9-10, Galatians 5:19-20).

    There still remains the thorny matter of the temporal punishment for the sin (i.e. if you knock down your neighbors fence, he may forgive you, but you still need to fix the fence).

  8. Rev. Paul L. Beisel says:

    Here I agree with Scaer, the Elder: The forgiveness required by Christ in the Lord’s Prayer is not the Office of the Keys. Christ commands all Christians to forgive their brother (see the part following the Lord’s Prayer) from their heart (i.e. have a forgiving attitude towards them; not hold a grudge; not hold their sins over their head, etc.) Here he is not speaking of “that special Church power which Christ has given to His Church on earth to forgive the sins of repentant sinners, but to retain the sins of the unrepentant as long as they do not repent.” Notice that one is to forgive from the heart *even if the person never repents!*. This is what it means to live as a Christian.

    The authority of the Church (i.e. Pastoral authority) is the authority of the keys, which open and close heaven. This is a completely different thing. Thus Luther says that every Christian *becomes their neighbor’s pastor* in the case of an emergency, in which case one needs no other Call than the need of his neighbor. Ordinarily, however, this is not how Christ has ordered things. Baptism, absolution, etc. are valid not because of the pastor’s Call, but because of the Word. But only pastors have been given that authority to be Christ’s spokesmen.

  9. Dear Pete:

    We Christians are to forgive – but only those with authority to speak on behalf of God can offer God’s forgiveness.

    An analogy might be this: a person who has been assaulted may forgive his attacker, but that won’t keep the person out of jail. Only someone with the authority to issue a pardon can do that.

    There are different kinds of forgiveness. The office of the keys is how God deals with us. When we forgive one another personally, we speak for ourselves – and yes, we are to do that.

    Dear Chad:

    Obviously we Lutherans differ with the official positions of RC and EO churches regarding the validity of our priestly and episcopal orders.

    In the 1970 Lutherans and Catholics in Dialogue IV: Eucharist and Ministry, there was a thoughtful theological exchange between Roman Catholic and Lutheran theologians regarding our ordinations and Masses. Page 209 has a thoughtful essay by A.C. Piepkorn that impressed the RC participants of the dialogue to unanimously recommend that the Vatican recognize Lutheran orders as valid.

    Rome never acted on the recommendation.

    As Piepkorn demonstrates, the ancient episcopal succession has gaps in it, and the apostolic succession is preserved at times in Church history through presbyterial (rather than episcopal) succession – which is how American Lutheran orders are typically transmitted (whereas Lutherans in parts of Scandinavia, Africa, Russia, and the Baltics have preserved episcopal succession).

  10. Rev. Paul L. Beisel says:

    One other thing on the Lord’s Prayer, 5th Petition: Notice the language of this petition: Forgive us *our* trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against *us*. We don’t say, “Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who sin against each other.” Jesus’ words following only address the sins committed against us personally. He is saying that every Christian is required to be just as forgiving as God is towards those who offend them. He gives no one authority in this prayer to forgive sins or retain sins as a called servant of the Church.

    If John sins against me, then I should, indeed must forgive him from my heart. I have no choice in the matter. Jesus commands it! “Unless you forgive your brother from your heart, neither…” This is true whether or not John ever recognizes his error and comes to me to apologize or not. If he does, then I certainly ought to say, “Of course I forgive you.” But this is not the same as receiving God’s forgiveness. If John were to say, “Now that I am reconciled to you, I still feel in my conscience as though I must also be reconciled to God for this.” In this case, John should go to the one who has been sent for this purpose: to be the dispenser of God’s forgiveness. As a Christian, however, I could and ought to comfort him with the words of the Gospel. This is not the same as absolving him “in the stead and by the command of Jesus Christ.”

  11. Bad Ice says:

    Paul, Chad, Hollywood,

  12. Bad Ice says:

    Paul, Chad, Hollywood,

    I appreciate your responses. I have church in a bit and will be incommunicado for awhile since I am leaving for vacation after Divine Service. So I will read, mark…and digest some good food and spirits for the next week. So I am not ignoring what you have written. Gotta go.


  13. twissted_sisster says:

    ‘not all Christians have been given authority to preach or administer the Sacraments’

    So when I see a lay member of the congregation assisting the Pastor with Holy Communion, am I to assume the Pastor has also been given the key to deputize this lay person?

  14. Rev. Paul L. Beisel says:

    You can assume whatever you want. If this is to be done, I think that it must be (1) a man; (2) a recognized leader, elder of the congregation; (3) he should be vested; (4) it should be a recognized office within the congregation: pastoral assistant, or some such thing. Of course, then, that sounds like “assistant pastor.” It’s best, in my opinion, just to have pastors preaching, giving the sacraments, absolving, etc.

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