What Gives the Pastor the Power to Absolve?

I am having trouble understanding how a pastor has the power to forgive or not forgive our sins. Where is the Office of the Keys found in the Bible? Did Christ give the Church this power and, if so, where is this found in the Scriptures?
K.L., Texas

The answer to your question is clearly explained in Martin Luther’s Small Catechism.

Luther defines the issue of confession and absolution as the exclusive authority Christ has given His church on earth to forgive the sins of those who recognize and confess their sins, who are truly sorry for them, and who rely on Christ’s promise of forgiveness for those who believe in Him as their Savior.

The section of Scripture cited to support this authority given by Christ to the church is John 20:22- 23. Here, having been raised from the dead, Jesus speaks these words to His disciples, whom He commissioned to carry His message of forgiveness to the world: “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive anyone their sins, they are forgiven; if you do not forgive them, they are not forgiven.”

Although the power to forgive sins (or not forgive them) always belongs to and remains with the church, Luther explains that when pastors called and ordained by the church to preach the Gospel and administer the sacraments on behalf of the church declare to penitent sinners that their sins are forgiven, they do this by the command of Christ, who granted this power to the church.

The pastors do this not by their own authority but rather by the command and authority of Christ on the basis of their call from the church to carry out this function. Consequently, their word of forgiveness is as valid as if Christ Himself, who has given the church that authority, were assuring the penitent sinners of their forgiveness.

Obviously, as Christ’s command indicates, when this declaration of forgiveness is pronounced, the pastor is not pronouncing forgiveness for those who fail or refuse to recognize their sins and acknowledge their need for forgiveness. It should not be forgotten that the section of the Small Catechism that deals with this matter bears the heading “The Office of the Keys and Confession (emphasis added). As Luther points out, confession involves two thingsnamely, acknowledging our sins as well as receiving “absolution or forgiveness from the pastor as from God Himself.”

17 thoughts on “What Gives the Pastor the Power to Absolve?”

  1. the last two Sundays, it has been the vicar who has pronounced the absolution. he has said, “as a called (no ordained) servant of God, I forgive………etc. Is this proper and right? thank you for response.

  2. My church recently had two sides of church pews turn to each other and give confession to the other side and then say I believe what was absolution. And then the opposite exchange made. There are no real conflict issues in this membership. I recognize we should confess sin to each other but to not receive specific absolution through the pastor gives me pause. Does this rise to concern that I should take my concern to the pastor.

    1. Hi Tony. This kind of question is loaded. Many people refer to the bible when Jesus heard from the Pharisees that “God alone forgives sins” and who is this man” ? Referring to Jesus. The great commission in 1 Timothy gives authority for pastors to forgive or retain sins “of the church”. Some people have trouble with pastors forgiving sins by Christ’s command and by His authority. The pastor is an agent representing Christ in the flesh. According to this belief, you or I or any other congregational attendee can forgive the sins “of the church”. That is a pastors job. You and I can and should forgive one another as Christ has forgiven us, but our authority does not extend to forgiving the sins of the church. I am not a pastor, but merely reflecting the training and education I have. That being said, you definitely need to go to your pastor and find out why he allowed this one side forgiving another thing in the first place. This is problematic.

      1. Meant to say neither you nor I rather than this:
        According to this belief, you or I or any other congregational attendee can forgive the sins “of the church”

  3. Colleen Wallace

    I have noticed a trend in some of the larger LCMS churches to allow all people to come up and receive communion without knowing whether or not individuals believe their actions are indeed sinful. Because they know nothing about an individual’s heart, they could be giving communion to a non repentant heart. I used to read an except in the bulletins that explained the church’s stance
    In communion, but now many have disposed of the paper bulletin in favor of big screens outline the course of the service. Because if that, people who have not been confirmed in the church h or are not familiar with the practices of the church, have no idea what the belief is.
    My question is: Why have some churches become lax in this regard, and what responsibility does a pastor bear with regard to the soul of those non-repentant individuals who take communion while living with a mortal sin—refusing to repent because they don’t even believe what they are doing is wrong?

    1. Colleen,

      Regardless of the size of the congregation, God has placed pastors in the congregation, and pastors will have to give an account of their service before God (Heb. 13:17). Furthermore, God told the prophet Ezekiel that if he refused to warn the wicked man of his sin, the man would die for his sin, but God promised to hold Ezekiel accountable for that man’s blood (Ezek. 3). God does not take the failure of a pastor to preach God’s law lightly.

      At the same time, it is also possible that the pastors may be unaware of the sin or that the parishioners have hidden or lied about their sin. In this case, the pastor continues to teach God’s Law and trusts in God to work through that Law to work repentance in the unrepentant.

      Your concern about unrepentant coming the Lord’s Supper is correct and godly. The Lord’s Supper is intended for those who repent of their sins and desire to do better. At the same time, it’s incumbent on us to put the best interpretation on events and, in the case of specific concerns, speak directly with those involved. It might be the case that we are misunderstanding the situation; and if not, then it’s helpful to the pastor if others are also speaking the truth of God’s Word into whatever the situation might be. But, we do so with gentleness and respect, seeking to win our brother back to the faith.

      I hope this helps.

  4. It’s helpful to remember here that the Reformers held to the apostolic admonition to test all things and hold onto what is good, i.e. edifying. It has always been the position of the Confessions that we retain everything that is edifying if the scriptures do not contradict it, and never that we only do what is clearly affirmed in the scriptures. So while it is difficult to argue solely from the scriptures that Christians should confess to their pastor and the pastor pronounce absolution, it is clear that this was the practice from the beginning and as it fits with the scriptures and does not contradict them, the church should retain the practice.

    1. I John 1:8-10 8 If we claim to be without sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us. 9If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness. 10If we claim we have not sinned, we make him out to be a liar and his word is not in us. The “he” in this passage is not a Lutheran pastor but Jesus himself. No one needs a Lutheran pastor to absolve them of sin when they have Jesus, God himself, God in human flesh to do it for us.

      1. Harold.Karkoska

        Appreciate the very clear interpretation! We admitted we have sinned against God and it’s His son’s blood that cleansed us of all unrighteousness, not saying to ask God over and over to forgive us. I believe we need to admit although when we sin against God when we do miss the mark; but not for more righteous. We already ha e His righteous living in us

  5. So by the same token as Christ says at the last supper” this My Blood which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sin do this in memory of Me “ He gives the same power to His Apostles to change the bread and the wine into His Body and Blood , He did not say this represent My Body , no “ This Is My Body and My Blood”and when we eat this bread and drink this Cup we proclaim Christ’s dead!

    1. Peter,

      Thank you for the comment. Let me offer a few clarifications to ensure our language remains precise. The Lord bestows the authority to consecrate the bread and wine. The exercises this authority publicly through the office of the ministry; pastors therefore administer the Lord’s Supper. That is, they consecrate and distribute Christ’s body and blood. Further note: the bread and wine do not change into the body and blood of Christ. But in the Lord’s Supper, both body and blood as well as bread and wine are present. What is received in the mouth is both bread and body along with wine and blood.

      Just a few clarifications. And, indeed, you are correct: We proclaim Christ’s death as we partake of His Supper. Praise the Lord for His gifts!

  6. Actually, this contradicts what Luther himself said concerning “the keys.”

    Luther both taught and acknowledged:  The Pharisees certainly knew that forgiving sins is God’s work and belongs to Him alone… Sins are forgiven in two ways: First, sin is driven out of the heart and grace is poured in; only God does this. Second, the forgiveness of sins is proclaimed; one man does this to another. Christ, however, does both:  All people who are Christians and baptized have this power. so they can say, “Look, dear man! God offers you His grace and forgives all your sins. Be comforted, your sins have been forgiven… Our confidence and boast against sin is that I can say to my brother, who is stuck in the anguish and danger of sin: “Be cheerful and comforted, my brother, because your sins have been forgiven. Even though I cannot give you the Holy Spirit and faith, I can nevertheless proclaim this to you. (Luthers Work v. 79)

    So, then we clearly see in Luther’s own words the “privilege of man to reassure” forgiveness for sin is predicated solely upon Christ past work, not because of our “power” or authority to grant, but because of permission to declare the reality of what Christ already purchased with his blood, relegating the “power,” for lack of any better word, of the church and man to proclamation of what Christ already performed which indeed “squares with Scripture.”

    1. The word “power” isn’t the best word. Power is taken; authority is bestowed. Jesus bestowed authority upon the church to say “I forgive you.” He didn’t say “tell people that God forgives them,” but “I forgive you.” He says, “when YOU forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven.” This is key. This is the authority God gives to His church and through the church to the called and ordained servants of Christ who do everything on His behalf.

      Think about the Lord’s Supper, for example. In the Gospels, Jesus distributed the elements. But He gave the apostles the authority to “do this”, which includes both the distribution and the reception. Likewise, in the Absolution, Jesus says “do this” and gives authority to say “I forgive you in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.” It’s a very practical, comforting, and common thing, to say the least.

  7. I would like to receive more information on the power of a pastor to forgive sins. It is somewhat confusing to me. Where does he get that authority? Thanks!

    1. John,

      Thank you for asking for more information. First, review “Confession” from Luther’s Small Catechism. You can find a digital copy here: http://catechism.cph.org/en/confession.html. In this explanation, Luther does not say the pastor forgives from his own authority, but rather he forgives on the authority of Christ. Christ bestows this authority (and responsibility) to the church (which exercises it through her pastors) in John 20:19–23. Christ sends His apostles, and therefore also His church, to precisely this: to forgive sins in His name. It is for this reason that Lutherans have retained private Confession and Absolution as a good and God-pleasing responsibility of the church. You might also consider Lutheran Spirituality: Confession from CPH.

      And, I think you might have inspired an upcoming theme for LW. So, make sure you subscribe in print. We’ll try and address this in more detail there also.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Scroll to Top