Anyone whose sins YOU forgive

In John 20, after rising from the dead, Christ gives his disciples authority to forgive and retain sins. Now, you can read this however you want, but you cannot argue with the fact that those present were Christ’s called servants. You simply cannot argue with this. Nor can you argue with the fact that in Matthew 28, when Jesus gives the command to make disciples through baptism and teaching, those present were…you guessed it…Christ’s called servants. And yet, whenever the subject of the Office of the Keys is brought up, and the question of “who holds the keys to the kingdom of heaven” is raised, many voices can be heard trumpeting the idea that every Christian has the keys to the kingdom of heaven. There is usually a lone voice that says, “Well, Christ did give the keys to Peter and the other apostles, which by extension would mean all ministers of the Word,” but that is quickly shouted down. Apparently, pastors are the only people in the Church who do not have the keys.

I recently conducted an experiment on Facebook. I posted a status that said, “I wonder how many people in the pews realize that their pastors hold the keys to the kingdom of heaven.” I didn’t say that other Christians don’t, or that the Church did not possess the keys, I only said that I wonder how many realize their pastors hold the keys. And sure enough, it was not long before someone said, “The keys are not exclusive to pastors…every Christian has the keys to the kingdom of heaven.” Is it wrong or sinful now to say that pastors hold the keys to the kingdom of heaven? Surely if every Christian holds the keys to the kingdom of heaven, then Pastors do too? Why is it so offensive to the ears of Christians to hear someone say what our Catechism says: “I believe that when the called ministers of Christ deal with us by His divine command, it is just as valid and certain, in heaven also, as if Christ our dear Lord dealt with us himself.”

What are people worried about? Are they worried that if they actually admit that pastors hold the keys to the kingdom of heaven, that means that they might have to seek God’s Word from them, that they might have to actually look to their pastors for absolution? What a terrible thing indeed! I find it amusing that Lutherans are quick to say that every believer or the Church holds the keys to the kingdom of heaven, but slow to say that this authority belongs to their pastors. I see very little evidence in the Scriptures that suggests that every Christian, regardless of calling, has authority to forgive and retain sins in the name of the whole Church. I see Christ’s called servants (the Apostles) being told to preach, baptize, administer the Lord’s Supper, etc. I see these same servants being told to forgive sins and withold forgiveness. I see this authority being handed on to other pastors like Timothy. That is what I see in the Scriptures.

I think one of the reasons Lutheran pastors have struggled to get people to seek them out for absolution, or for God’s Word, is this very thing–we are afraid to see them as holders of the keys of the kingdom of heaven. And I think pastors themselves are afraid of this too. Just my opinion.


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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17 Responses to Anyone whose sins YOU forgive

  1. A tangentially related rant:

    Pastors who have a side job are called “worker-priests.”

    Laypeople love to talk about being a member of the “priesthood of all believers.”

    Now, imagine a full-time pastor referred to (or referring to himself) as “Priest.” Can you imagine the howls of protest?

    Why is it that full-time pastors are the only ones who AREN’T priests?

  2. Chad Myers says:

    They’re worried that if the pastor/keys is emphasized, it’ll be dangerously close to the Romish position. Or stated differently, it proves too much.

    You’re also leaving out a few distinctions because Christ said this only to his Apostles and those Apostles had the clear understanding that authority didn’t pass to *all* Christians, but those in leadership positions and only those leaders who were ordained through laying-on-of-hands through a clear succession from the authority of the Apostles.

    Christians can’t have it both ways, either everyone has it or the Apostles and successors have it. Scripture is quite clear and repeatedly demonstrates (in the Gospels, Acts, and Paul’s letters) that only the Apostles and their rightly ordained successors have it.

    By making the argument that Pastors have it, you’re essentially making the Romish argument and non-Papist Christians have bad allergic to that line of reasoning.

  3. I like to think of it as the Lutheran argument. You know, the whole, “When the called ministers of Christ deal with us by His divine command” bit. I’m convinced that several generations of pastors just ignored the fifth chief part when teaching their catechism classes.

  4. Lawrence says:

    Part of the issue is grasping the concept of the difference between a called pastor, and just generally being called by Christ, to minister.

    Here is our dilemma:

    In effect, a given pastor has no more authority over us than any other man, except for our signature on a congregational roster giving the pastor that authority. If the pastor’s authority over me as church leader is based on my signature then his authority over me stems from me, not from God. So it is on my own authority that he may judge me, (or excecute church discipline), as the case may be.

    I’m not questioning the role of pastor, here, just stating an argument…

    … because the issue isn’t so much about holding the Office of the Keys. The issue is about how we use “the Keys” in context of forgiveness, or not forgiveness.

    Nobody compains when pastor uses “the Keys” to forgive.

    We only complain when pastor uses “the Keys” to not forgive.

    … and in this, are we really okay with not forgiving people?

    … as in judging them unrepentant?

    It is the judgment aspect of this that people struggle with.

  5. So much for “Divine Call.” I suspected people in the LCMS believed as much, but I’m shocked to hear someone actually say it. I suppose I shouldn’t be.

  6. Lawernce says:

    I’m making an argument, of course, given the belief in “Divine Call” isn’t specifically the issue.

    The argument I pose comes from the Lay-man/person side of the aisle of Christians who have not completed a seminary curriculum.

    In this context, the Onus falls on the seminary graduates we identify as being “called” to clear up the issue.

    And Pr. Beisel is respectfully striving to do just that.

    But the answer, “just because I’m called”, which is what many pastors offer up (LC-MS or not), doesn’t help explain anything. (Note that Pr. Biesel isn’t making this claim here, either.)

    A Christian called to minister to his fellows may opt not to forgive a sin. In so doing that sin is not forgiven by that person. However, it doesn’t exclude the person from seeking forgiveness from Christ. And it doesn’t bar the person from aspects of congregational fellowships. Nor does it bar that person from exiting a congregation they no longer feel welcome in. People judge this as church-hopping, and in some cases it is. But if you come to the conclusion the Holy Spirit is directing you to some other fellowship, then who’s to say that you are wrong in changing fellowship?

    When a pastor choses not to forgive, per his instruction at seminary and authority of congregational office, he can disconnect the person from aspects of fellowship. In this there is are two aspects, one of unforgiveness, and one of punishment.

    In this, the Office of the Keys which we afford to Pastors is often greater than what we afford to ourselves. Or, is it that we are actually striving to lessen the authority of the Keys to everyone? And don’t like it when the Pastors refuse to agree?

    Now, if the pastor is in the stead and by the command of Christ, by what example of Christ judging/punishing someone do we pattern his/our actions to judge?

    Did Jesus judge the two thieves on the crosses with Him? Or did He simply offer them forgiveness? And when the one rejected Him, did Jesus pursue condemnation? No, Jesus only responded to the repentant thief. Jesus never rescinded His offer of forgiveness to the other thief.

    When we choose not to forgive someone we bring the weight of God Himself upon our shoulders in context of the Father’s omnipotent perfect judgment. Those among us we feel called to do this carry a heavy responsibility when we stand in the stead and by the command of God the Father.

  7. Lawernce says:

    Quote: Pr. Biesel: “I think one of the reasons Lutheran pastors have struggled to get people to seek them out for absolution, or for God’s Word, is this very thing–we are afraid to see them as holders of the keys of the kingdom of heaven. And I think pastors themselves are afraid of this too. Just my opinion.”

    The Keys of the Kingdom are a heavy burden.

    And yes, we are afraid. Afraid of condemnation and separation from communion fellowship in context of the church discipline if we’re not deemed repentant enough.

    This is what we all fear, regardless of denomination.

    So we go to our Evangelical congregations, hear the words of forgiveness, and rely on our hopefully repentant relationship with Christ to suffice. Both respecting and fearing the Office of the Keys.

    It is our fear (usually irrational) out of the respect for the weight of the Office that often drives us to be shy about approaching the Office.

  8. Lawrence says:

    A serious question:

    Are Matthew’s words an instruction, or are they a warning?

    Our forgiveness of others is a reflection of Christ’s forgiveness of us. In this light our forgiveness of others reflects back upon us the forgiveness we receive from Christ.

    What then is reflected back upon us when we chose not to forgive?

  9. Rev. Paul L. Beisel says:

    I think this is a common mistake that people make: confusing the forgiving attitude all Christians are required to have toward those who sin against them, and the forgiveness that is given to someone in the name of the Church, the Office of the Keys. When a Christian does what the Lord’s Prayer commands, “…as we forgive those who trespass against us,” this is not the Office of the Keys. This is a Christian being a Christian. This forgiveness is not conditional upon another’s repentance. We are to forgive our brother from the heart, regardless of whether or not he acknowledges his guilt.

    Pastors, on the other hand, are called to forgive the sins only of PENITENT sinners–those who seek the Lord’s forgiveness and are repentant. Forgiveness is withheld from the impenitent, as long as they do not repent. No Christian is given the authority to not forgive the person who sins against them. The Office of the Keys is that “peculiar CHURCH power” which unlocks heaven to repentant sinners and locks it for the unrepentant.

    Until we clear up this confusion, we will always get this wrong.

  10. Lawrence says:

    Thank you.

    On one hand we are taught (required?) to forgive, but are not required to forgive someone for something they are not actually sorry for.

    On the other hand we ordain specific people to be able to judge when a person is improperly penitent, for the very purpose of holding back forgiveness. And in this we find ourselves duty bound to evaluate, judge and “unforgive” those people.

    Honestly, too many pastors/churches approach confession from a position of judgment rather than forgiveness. And people fear approaching confession when there is a chance the pastor might deem them unrepentant.

    And this is often where Church Discipline takes a wrong turn.

    Discipline isn’t just about following orders because someone threatens us with punishment. Or threatens us with a guilt trip of sin.

    True Discipline (self discipline) is about doing the right thing because it is the right thing to do. And in that, obeying instruction is the right thing to do.

    Pastors who know the difference and avoid counseling-via-guilt-trip are true Pastors.

    I’ve dealt with both.

    My sins (a specific sin) has been both condemned and absolved by different LC-MS pastors. So I don’t know if I’m condemned or saved. So I look to Christ first, and His Grace for forgiveness.

  11. Rev. Paul L. Beisel says:

    Lawrence, a pastor does not try to determine if someone is “really repentant.” I’m not talking about cases where someone sins and comes to confess it to the pastor. IN that case, repentance is assumed. The pastor absolves. Heaven speaks through the mouth of the servant of Christ.

    The binding key comes in when someone in the church is an “open and unrepentant” sinner. He is not sorry for his sins, and does not trust in the forgiveness of Christ. It is unlikely that this person is seeking out absolution from the pastor.

    I think you are not understanding this. Sorry if I am not explaining it clearly enough.

  12. Lawrence says:

    I follow. Very clear. Thank you.

    I’ve spoken with two different pastors about my situation, form the same seminary, graduated the same year. One offered judgment, the other absolution.

    One felt it his duty to find fault and judge accordingly, baring me from communion. And basically telling me it is now up to me to take the appropriate next step toward repentance/reconciliation.

    The other felt it his duty to absolve and offer me assistance it taking the next step, and welcomed me to communion accordingly.

    In context of church discipline, which pastor is correct?

  13. Rev. Paul L. Beisel says:

    Without knowing the particulars of your situation, it is hard to say who is right and who is wrong. We generally define repentance as (1) contrition (sorrow over our sins) and (2) faith, namely, that we believe that God forgives sins for Christ’s sake.

    Now, having been absolved, a person ought to bear fruits in keeping with repentance. Hence, Christ’s words: “go and sin no more.” Fruits of repentance are seen in the story of Zacchaeus, who gave back what he had taken four-fold.

    The absolution is not conditional upon the fruits, but fruits should follow genuine faith. “Works serve our neighbor and supply the proof that faith is living.” The person who does not bear fruit reveals a dead faith, and without faith in the words of Absolution, we do not receive the benefits of it.

    My point about the fact that pastors hold the keys of the kingdom of heaven was simply to say that people who wish to be absolved, who long for grace, who desire to hear the heavenly verdict that their sins are forgiven, ought not be afraid to go and hear that word from their pastors.

  14. Lawrence says:

    I follow. I have no dispute with your position.

    The pastor I have issues with didn’t seem to think that verbal contrition was enough. He wanted to see some physical action associated with it as proof.

    Believing that God forgives sins for Christ’s sake was never in dispute.

    Thank you for visiting with me.

  15. Lawrence,

    Was the physical action connected with the cessation of the sin itself (e.g., man confesses adultery, but doesn’t break off the relationship)?

    Pr. Esget

  16. Another consideration: Was/is the sin habitual (e.g., an addiction/repetitive behavior of some type)?

    If you’d like someone to talk to about it, please feel free to call me at church: 703-549-0155. Ask for me by name (Pastor Esget), or you won’t get through the protective shield wall of my wife/secretary!

  17. Lawrence says:

    I will consider your offer to call. I suppose it would not be wise to discuss the details without risk of saying too much in this public forum, but I can say it wasn’t an issue of adultery.

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