From God's Heart to Yours
Matthew 18:15–22 (ESV) Jesus says, “If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault, between you and him alone. If he listens to you, you have gained your brother. But if he does not listen, take one or two others along with you, that every charge may be established by the evidence of two or three witnesses. If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church. And if he refuses to listen even to the church, let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector. Truly, I say to you, whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven. Again I say to you, if two of you agree on earth about anything they ask, it will be done for them by my Father in heaven. For where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I among them.” Then Peter came up and said to him, “Lord, how often will my brother sin against me, and I forgive him? As many as seven times?” Jesus said to him, “I do not say to you seven times, but seventy-seven times."
When a man is ordained into the Office of the Holy Ministry, John 20:21-23 is read to him in order to emphasize that the Lord, working through the Church, is giving him the authority to exercise the Office of the Keys—that is, the authority to forgive sins and to withhold forgiveness publicly. Our Lutheran Confessions express this: “Our teachers’ position is this: the authority of the Keys (Matthew 16:19), or the authority of the bishops—according to the Gospel—is a power or commandment of God, to preach the Gospel, to forgive and retain sins, and to administer Sacraments. Christ sends out His apostles with this command, ‘As the Father has sent Me, even so I am sending you…Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of anyone, they are forgiven; if you withhold forgiveness from anyone, it is withheld’ (John 20:21-23)” [Concordia, Augsburg Confession 28.6].
The Lutheran Confessions teach that pastors are successors to the apostles insofar as their calling is to proclaim the Gospel and give out the Sacraments, just as the apostles did. The Lord calls pastors “to forgive the sins of repentant sinners, but to withhold forgiveness from the unrepentant as long as they do not repent” (Small Catechism, Office of the Keys). It is also true that we should confess our sins to one another and forgive each other, and that any layperson can pronounce forgiveness upon another person who is feeling burdened by the weight of his sins. But pastors are specifically set apart by the Church to do this, as the Small Catechism says, “I believe that when the called ministers of Christ deal with us…this is just as valid and certain, even in heaven, as if Christ our dear Lord dealt with us Himself.”
It is comforting to know that we have pastors who are available to pronounce forgiveness to us when we are troubled by our sins. Jeremiah 17:9 says, “The heart is deceitful above all things.” When I look into my heart, I see only sin and death, which can lead me to despair. On the other hand, my heart can deceive me into thinking that my sins are not a big deal. The blessing of having a pastor to call us to repentance and to be available to pronounce forgiveness to us is that we do not have to focus on what is inside of us—our sinful hearts—but on the Lord’s heart as it is revealed in the forgiveness of sins.
We can certainly get comfort from reading about the forgiveness of sins in the Bible, but particularly for deeply troubled sinners, pastors have experience helping them find comfort in times of need. The main point is that we are not to look inside of ourselves for forgiveness, but outside, to where God's Word points us—to Baptism, Absolution, and Holy Communion—rather than focusing on whether or not we have enough faith in our hearts.
Prayer: Father of mercies and God of all consolation, before You all hearts are laid bare and no secrets are concealed. Open the lips of Your children that they may not hide their iniquity and so waste away in deceit, but in truth acknowledge their sin and receive Your word of absolution. Guide Your servants in the Office of the Holy Ministry, by Your Word and Spirit, to rightly discharge this holy office with faithfulness and mercy, wisdom and compassion. Guard the door of their lips that they never utter what is divulged in confession and, by the word of pardon that You have placed on their lips, grant that those whose bones have been crushed by the weight of Your wrath might be restored with the forgiveness purchased by the blood of Your Son; through Jesus Christ, our Lord. Amen.