Sermons : 2015 : April 12, How Can a Pastor Forgive Your Sins? - John 20:19-31

How can a pastor forgive your sins? It’s often a question asked by those outside of Lutheranism. Sometimes, a pastor can tell this is a burning question by the number of surprised expressions he sees when he pronounces the absolution toward the beginning of the service. A common gut reaction to these words is to think that only Jesus can forgive sins. How can anyone else claim this authority?

The Reformation which began Protestant denominations occurred some 500 years ago, but issues like these show that the embers of that once raging fire are still burning in the hearts of Christians . At the center of this ongoing debate is the question as to whether or not Jesus extends the authority to anyone else. It’s an important question to answer, especially if you find yourself standing in a congregation where the absolution, as it’s called, is publicly proclaimed in this fashion.

And so we must begin our discussion in the only place where all discussions on theology can begin and end, the Holy Scriptures. And on this second Sunday in the season of Easter, we find our Gospel reading to be John 20:19-31. It’s the first resurrection appearance that Jesus makes to His disciples. He’s already appeared to Mary Magdalene and now He appears to the 12, or rather, the 11 or the 10 because Thomas is not there.

And so Jesus comes to them in bodily form, appearing, it says, through locked doors. And John says in verse 20, “They saw the Lord,” with an emphasis now on the the. Jesus renders the traditional Jewish greeting of shalom to them, meaning peace. He shows them His hands and feet to establish that it really is Him. Remember on Easter, I said everything that led up to His death was a series of exclamation points which emphasized that He really was dead. Well now today, you get a series of exclamation points the other way— that He really is alive.

And so there are three important points that are established among His disciples in these initial verses. First, Jesus is raised from the dead; second, His resurrection is a bodily one and third, the disciples are now referring to Him as the Lord . And upon these statements which emphasize both His divinity and humanity, Jesus then breathes on the Ten and says, “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of anyone, they are forgiven; if you withhold forgiveness from anyone, it is withheld.”

Now there isn’t much in the way of elaboration here, but what we do know at the very least is that Jesus has now granted the use of His authority to forgive sins to these ten men. In other words, this power that’s always associated with Christ is now extended to ten others. And so what exactly does this mean and is this transition something that should be embraced or feared?

King Henry IV became King of the German people at the age of 7 in the year 1057. This time in the church was characterized by increasing tensions between secular and churchly authorities with each constantly interfering and politicking in the realm of the other. Much of the controversy surrounded the ownership of land as bishops acquired increasing control of territory when church members died and left their property to the church. In the 1070’s, when Henry was older, he overplayed his hand in addressing this controversy by declaring the pope’s power to be illegitimate and nominating his own bishops.

In response, Pope Gregory VII excommunicated King Henry. And in realizing the impossibility of ruling his Christian land as a church declared unbelieving King, Henry enlisted the help of a local bishop and made what became the walk to Canossa. In a palace there, Pope Gregory VII was waiting and tradition says that King Henry stood outside his window barefoot for three days in the snow before Pope Gregory would absolve and reinstate him.

The church of the Middle Ages obviously saw John 20 as a blank check handed to the clergy from Christ to use this power of absolution without limitation. And for many, many years, that is exactly what the church did. The power to absolve sins became a political tool in the hands of corrupted clergy who disregarded Christ’s previous words to the disciples of not lording their authority over others as the Gentiles were doing.

And so the question should be asked, how do we get from Christ assigning this authority to the Ten Disciples to it also being seen among the clergy? Well theologically, this passage is not the only one in scripture which speaks to this extension. In Matthew 16, the disciples are told they will be given the keys to the Kingdom of heaven and whatever the bind on earth will be bound in heaven and whatever they loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.

And so this extension of authority has been understood as far back as we know as Christ sharing His authority to forgive sins with His bride, the church. So that what Christ speaks and what His church speaks are one in the same. For what kind of household would a husband and wife have if one said one thing and the other said the opposite? You would have a divided household and all those who entered would be left in confusion.

But this office of the keys as it has come to be called after the word used in Matthew 16, is not just about authority. It’s also about comfort. Absolution is an audible proclamation of the work of Christ on the cross personally applied to the guilty conscience. We might be tempted, especially in light of King Henry, to focus on the sins being retained part, but there is an intended comfort here that comes when sins are forgiven. This proclamation is normally done publicly in church, but can and has often been done individually in private confessions in contexts when Christians have no longer been able to bear the crushing weight of their own guilt.

Now maybe you don’t feel guilty over your sin. Maybe you have become so confident that guilt no longer even crosses your mind. Is that a good thing? Arrogance leads to taking sin lightly and dismissing God’s judgment quickly. Arrogance also leads to tolerance for yourself and for others and we’re sure seeing a lot of tolerance for all of the wrong things in our world today.

In Acts 20:28, God says that the Holy Spirit has appointed overseers to care for the church of God. These overseers are shepherds who oversee the church and the spiritual care of God’s people and they act on behalf of Christ and in His stead. Now similarly, in Romans 13:1ff, God extends His authority in a different realm to the civil government. When the government puts people to death in either an act of justice or protection, it functions in the stead and by the command of God. Similarly, when the pastor pronounces the absolution in the service or privately during confession, he acts in the stead and by the command of God. In scripture, God extends His authority to certain authorities in this world who act on His behalf.

Now, the pastor does not bear this authority in and of himself nor can he dispense or withhold it based on his own feelings or aspirations as we saw with Pope Gregory. Rather, He is called by Christ to act on His behalf to proclaim forgiveness to those who repent of their sins and to withhold forgiveness from those who do not. When the pastor acts accordingly and in step with the word of God, he is not speaking his own words or dispensing his own forgiveness, but rather he is speaking that which Christ has given him to speak and delivering that which Christ has given to him to deliver. In this way, the church and her Lord are unified proclaiming the same message of salvation, which personally assures all people who believe that they have been forgiven their sins now and into eternity.

And so the authority to forgive sins is retained exclusively by Jesus, but our Lord extends this authority to those public servants who come in His Name— just as He extended His authority to the disciples to cast out demons in Luke 9:1 and to heal the sick in Acts 3:6. In this way, the called servants of Christ continue doing our Lord’s work here on earth among the people of God until the day He returns in all power, glory and honor. In His Name. Amen.


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