Sunday, August 26, 2012

Does absolution obscure Christ's mediatorial role?

I received the following question which I think deserves a response since it is so commonly asked:

Hey, I just started watching your video "Just and Sinner: What is the doctrine on the two kindoms?" And you mentioned that if someone were to commit a crime to someone else, and they went to the pastor for forgiveness, then it was then the pastor's job to forgive them. Now I was wondering how that perspective matches with I John 1:9 "If we confess our sins, He is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness." And I Timothy 2:5 "For there is one God and one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus".

It is a common objection to our practice of pastoral absolution, that it obscures the role of Christ as sole mediator, placing the pastor in Christ's role. However, I don't think this is the case.

First a distinction needs to be made between a Lutheran and Roman view of ordination. In Roman Catholic theology, ordination is a sacrament. When the priest is ordained, there is an ontological change; there is indelible mark placed into the individuals character. He is declared an "alter Christus", meaning "another Christ." The man who is ordained then becomes a priest, and is able to offer sacrifices up to God on behalf of the congregation and re-present Christ's sacrifice during the mass.

In a Lutheran view of ordination, there is no indelible mark placed on the individual. Ordination is not a sacrament and there is no special grace thereby received by the one ordained. However, ordination is a divine call. It is a call from God, enacted through the church which places one into a specific office in the church. In this office one is to preach the word an administer the sacraments. The pastor's calling is not higher than other essential roles in the church, it is merely different. Thus all roles in the body of Christ are significant and no one needs to be placed above another as if a pastor is on a higher spiritual plane than other members of the church. But because of the divine nature of the call, the pastoral office should not and cannot be usurped by the laity, and the pastor should not usurp the role of the laity either.

It's clear that the Roman and Lutheran views of ordination are different. What Luther feared about the priesthood laying claim to aspects of Christ's own unique priesthood was done away with during the Reformation. However, Luther still promoted the pastoral office as one in which God acts to forgive sins. Does this not still make the pastor a co-mediator?

Think about what a mediator is. A mediator is a go-between, acting in an intercessory role between two parties. Technically, if you pray for someone else, you are acting as a mediator. If my brother falls into sin and I pray for his repentance and forgiveness, I am interceding before my brother, being a mediator between him and God. The point is that Christ has a unique mediatorial role which does not negate other mediators in a lesser sense. In the instance of confession and absolution, I don't believe that Christ's mediatorial role is being violated. This is apparent in the fact that Christ himself commands it.

Look at the following two texts:

"I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven." (Matthew 16:19)

"If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you withhold forgiveness from any, it is withheld." (John 20:23)

John commands his disciples, the leaders of the first century church, to forgive sins. He does not tell them to talk about the forgiveness of sins, or tell them where to receive the forgiveness of sins; rather, Jesus commands the actual forgiving of sins by his disciples. All contemporary evangelical interpretations of this text try so hard to twist its clear meaning. Looking at them was one of my primary reasons for becoming a Lutheran. The texts are simply so clear.

Remember that it is the same John who writes the epistle wherein he commands personal confession to God for forgiveness, who also writes of the forgiveness that the disciples could offer those in the church. The two concepts are not mutually exclusive. God does forgive sins through confession in prayer. However, he has also instituted a means by which the forgiveness that we receive can be heard and received visibly. This does not mean that Christ is obscured, but that when the minister proclaims forgiveness, it is the act of God coming through the pastor to bring forgiveness. It does not point us away from Christ's mediatorial role but points us to the one who continues to be our intercessor, assuring our salvation.

It is not the pastoral office that makes the word effective. It is not that the pastors words and actions have magical powers. Rather, it is the word itself which is effective, the minister is merely a means to bring that word to people's ears, and forgiveness to sinful saints.


Peggy Pedersen said...

From Luther's catechism: 266 "How should we regard the absolution (forgiveness) spoken by the pastor? We should receive the pastor's absolution as from God Himself, not doubting, but firmly believing that by it our sins are forgiven before God in heaven. 'It is not the voice or word of the man who speaks it, but it is the Word of God, who forgives sin, for it is spoken in God's stead and by God's command.'" (Augsburg Confession XXV 3)
It is by the grace and merit of Christ that we are forgiven by our Father in Heaven. God grants us this assurance by His spoken Word from the lips of our pastor to silence the accusation of our conscience and the Accuser of the Brethren. As always, His Word accomplishes what it says. Holy Absolution is a great gift and treasure of the Church. It is the embrace of our God to us, the prodigal son, who come with "I have sinned against You" on our lips but have our Father's "I forgive you and restore you to fellowship with me" poured into our ears. Thanks be to God!

Mike Edwards said...

When the Scriptures tell us to "confess your sins one to another" how would/does that differ than the confession/absolution from the pastor?

1. Can the same forgiveness be obtained?

2. If we do NOT confess our sins (let us say as Baptized Christians part of a local Congregation) then what repercussions may come of that (From the Lutheran perspective given in this post)


Mike Edwards said...


Jordan Cooper said...


There is certainly a sense in which every Christian should confess to other people, not only ministers. However, there is something unique about the leadership of the church, who following the promise given to the Apostles, stand in the stead of Christ proclaiming his forgiveness.

We don't expect Christians to confess every single sin. That would be impossible due to the pervasive nature of sin. Justification is received through faith and we can't make Confession into some kind of a work where someone has to make sure that they have confessed enough sins to receive forgiveness.