Confession, Absolution, and the Spoken Word of Forgiveness

Jesus hug (548x316)Often, Christians are confused about a Pastor speaking God’s forgiveness to others.  Some (i.e., Protestants) say that only God can forgive sins.  Such a statement is true, but neglects how God chooses to bring His forgiveness of others.  This short theological pondering by Pr. Futrell may help someone better understand what God’s Word teaches.


Scripture teaches that when a Christian–pastor or layperson–speaks God’s Law and Gospel to another, it has the power of God behind it.  For the power of God’s Word isn’t based on the office or position of the one who speaks it, but the power of the Word itself.

If this is true, then why do our confessions use the word “keys” referring to a pastor absolving (AC 28, 5), and the words “mutual conversation and consolation” or “advice, comfort, and strength” (SA 3, 4; LC 6, 13-14) referring to one Christian speaking to another?  Why this distinction?

We know that in John 20:22-23, Jesus was speaking to His Apostles, whom John referred to as “the Twelve” (John 20:24).  So we don’t use John 20:23 as the Scripture passage referring to all Christians speaking God’s forgiveness to another.  The Bible itself doesn’t do this when you see to whom Jesus is speaking–and neither do our Confessions.

But looking at Scripture passages specifically written for all Christians (instead of Jesus speaking to His Disciples/Apostles), Scripture does show how all Christians may speak the Word of God to others.  Passages such as Colossians 3:13,16, 1 Peter 2:9, Ephesians 4:32, and Luke 6:37 show that all Christians may speak God’s word of forgiveness (even censure!) to another.  But what you won’t find is any hint that all Christians may retain the sins of others (which means retaining the sins of another is a cross that the pastor must bear).

So, how do all Christians forgive (and if needed, admonish)?   All Christians are to make a good confession of the truth, in teaching and correcting.  All Christians should praise God who called them out of darkness into His marvelous light.  All Christians should privately go another Christian who errs, and tell him of his error.

Every individual Christian has the spoken means of grace and its power, which is one way God works to create and strengthen faith.  And this is based on the Word; it matters not who is doing the speaking.  If this were not true, then only the Word spoken by the pastor would create faith.  Yet, God the Holy Spirit uses the confession of all Christians who speak His Word to others!

The only difference is how one speaks the Word.  A pastor forgives and retains sin according to His vocation as pastor; a layperson speaks forgiveness and censures according to his vocation.

Lutheran Service Book does a good job of showing the difference.  Page 151 of LSB has two columns below the confession of sin.  The left column is spoken only by the pastor.  The right column may be spoken by a pastor–or a layperson leading a service (such as an elder) if a pastor is not available.





  1. D J Fritz says

    It bothers me at our LCMS congregation where our Deacon reads on a regular weekly basis, the absolution (stated as forgiveness) to the congreation from the the words which are printed in the worship folder “…..forgives you all your sins. As a called (but then he omits the words and ordained) servant of Christ, and by His authority, I therefore…”. Could you help clarify this for me. Would it be better that we printed the second forgiveness passage that starts out, “In the mercy of almighty God, Jesus Christ, was given to die for us, and for his sake God forgives us all our sins.” We are into the call process at our church, however, we have an ordained minster on a one year fill-in contract while we pursue the call process. Is the pastor then that we have not a “called” servant either by virtue of the fact that he has not accepted a call to our congregation? I would like to know the answer to those two questions if possible? Thank you so much. This article above was very helpful.

    • Dear DJ,

      You wrote: “Would it be better that we printed the second forgiveness passage that starts out, ‘In the mercy of almighty God, Jesus Christ, was given to die for us, and for his sake God forgives us all our sins’”? In short, yes.

      In that case, when the other column is used (as a called and ordained servant of the word …), the liturgy teaches us that when one forgives on behalf of Christ in such a setting (as the shepherd of the flock), the pastor is called to speak God’s forgiveness to the flock. That’s why it says, “As a called and ordained servant of the word”; that means the pastor is to speak those words.

      That your deacon has to adapt the liturgy to fit your situation should, in some way, alert the congregation that something “not quite right” is taking place. The better choice would be to use the other column where God’s forgiveness is declared.

      However, this does not take away from the forgiveness that each Christian may speak to another. But that is done in the vocations where God places us. God places a “deacon” to be a pastor’s assistant, which is what a deacon is. Thus, he should not be speaking as the pastor, for he is not the pastor but a deacon. If and when your deacon is ordained as a pastor, then he may speak as the pastor.

      In the same way, a pastor preaching does not take away from you as a layperson being called to proclaim and confess Jesus in your everyday vocations. After all, Jesus says, speaking to all in His Church, not just the Twelve, the Apostles, “to let your light shine….” But this does not include preaching to the congregation as a pastor (using the shepherd-flock pattern Jesus and Scripture uses). After all, Jesus tells His Apostles to “feed His flock,” but nowhere does Jesus say, “Flock feed yourself.”

      As Christians brought into the Royal Priesthood, we are all equal, whether men or women or pastor or layperson. But that doesn’t mean that we are all called to do the same things. Instead, we do our tasks in the places where God has placed us. Being ordained places one in the pastoral office to perform pastoral functions.

      Remember that Jesus instituted the pastoral office, which we see lived out in the New Testament. Deacons are in an office the Church created to assist pastors. So, their roles may vary, depending on how they are to assist the pastor. But a deacon acting as the pastor is bad but, sadly, such often takes place in our synod today for various reasons.

      DJ, after sharing this with you, to honor the 4th Commandment (honoring those whom God has placed in authority over you), you should deal with this issue honoring those authorities. Your deacon may not even know that he’s doing something wrong (after all, he probably has the “blessing” of the district). So, don’t be too hard on him. He’s trying to serve God, just as you are. Often, we do what is wrong out of ignorance. However, he probably realized, looking at the liturgy, that’s he’s not ordained, and so he removed that part of the liturgy.

      Since the liturgy is the Church’s, he doesn’t have the authority to remove that. But then that’s another ball of wax, and it will just open a bag of worms in our current context. So I would just speak to the deacon in a tactful way and ask that the congregation (if you are an elder and may speak for the congregation in such a way) prefers not to change the liturgy. For if he doesn’t change the liturgy, and he is to remain honest, then he will have to use the other column.

      If you have further questions, please call. But I do have a couple of conditions. Please do not call me if you are, in some way, trying to “get around” dealing with people in your congregational setting as you should. That would be sinful and I don’t want to take part in such a sin. Also, please recognize that I am not your pastor and I do not want to speak as if I am.

      God’s blessings to you.

      Pr. Rich Futrell

      • D J Fritz says

        Thank you for putting that in perspective. We could use the other second column for the Deacon and still use the first column for our interim pastor? Our present pastor I guess is not exactly “called” since he is on “contract” to us while the congregation is going through the call process; however he was “called” when he was ordained so in that sense would he be the “called” and ordained servant? That confused me a little and maybe still does, however I am in no way trying to get around dealing with people at all, but didn’t want to ask a question to the board of ministry if the answer was obvious. Your admonition is just and fair and duly noted. I wouldn’t do that, I promise.

        • DJ,

          A pastor is a pastor in Christ’s Church. That’s what ordination confesses and that’s why the one ordaining a man into the office is a bishop (the tradition in the Church about the time of Ireaneaus) or others presbyters (Lutherans went back to the Church’s earlier form of presbyteral ordination after Rome’s bishops refused to ordain Lutheran pastors). So, you are correct in saying that your interim pastor is a pastor of the Church. The call gives the location of where he is to serve.

          Although a contract goes against our understanding of the call, he is still your pastor for the time being. So, if he chooses, he may use the pastoral absolution language.

          Pr Rich Futrell