Some years back, I viewed Amadeus in the student lounge of the Assemblies of God college my friend was attending. In this film about Mozart, a Roman Catholic priest visits a lunatic asylum where Salieri, a court musician of mediocre talent, is pining away his last days. The priest seems sincere and has a good pastoral manner. Nobody reacts negatively to this character until he announces the purpose of his visit. He speaks the words “I come to offer you the forgiveness of God,” and the room explodes in mockery. Several students immediately point to their chests and say, “I come to offer you the forgiveness of God.” Their emphasis on the words I and God was meant to demonstrate the ludicrous arrogance of any man claiming to offer God’s forgiveness to another. This is considered by many to be the worst form of Roman Catholic arrogance. This opinion is by no means confined to the radical fringe of Protestantism. I remember the evangelical pastor of a church I used to attend saying that if any pastor of his denomination claimed to be able to forgive sins, he or she ought to be defrocked.
These opinions were familiar to me growing up. In fact, I shared them. It wasn’t that I had heard careful proof-texting for the evangelical position. The Roman position simply seemed absurd on the face of it. Human analogies sprang quickly to mind. “If Tom totals your car, I am in no position to forgive him for what he did to you. He must approach you himself.” Besides this, the Roman Church was well known for giving priests powers that didn’t belong to them. Not long ago, they were the only ones allowed to read the Scriptures. At one time they were immune from paying the civil penalty for crime. Why should it surprise us, then, that they would presume the divine power of forgiveness?
When I was later exposed to confessional Lutheranism, some surprises awaited me. Holy Absolution was yet another place where the Lutheran mode of reformation differed from that of most of American Protestantism. The reformation with which I was familiar could be summarized as “out with the old and in with the new.” In this view, the Reformation began with the discovery that the church was grossly corrupt and unbiblical in its practice. Reformation consisted in starting from scratch and learning what the Bible taught afresh, without looking for direction from the Catholic past. Soon, I discovered that while this characterized the Anabaptists, it differed from the more conservative Lutheran stance.
While the Lutheran Reformers were convinced that the medieval Catholic Church was guilty of gross corruption, their method was to carefully evaluate old practices. Where they were helpful to the gospel, they were retained. Where they were unbiblical and dangerous to the gospel, they were jettisoned. Where they were biblical practices corrupted by unbiblical additions, they were cleaned up. I had always assumed that absolution was an abuse in and of itself. The Lutheran Reformers saw it differently. They viewed it as a biblically grounded practice that had been abused. Their intention was to retain the practice purged of abuses. This mirrored their—and the other Reformers’—method of dealing with baptism and the Lord’s Supper. All considered these biblical practices that the medieval church had overlaid with superstition. The biblical practice was retained, but the abuses were eliminated.
The mere knowledge that there is more than one way to reform a church does not in itself answer the question of whether absolution is a sound practice. Nor does our knowledge that some Reformers taught the doctrine establish it. Still, it is helpful to remember the old proverb that abuse does not prohibit legitimate use. There have been obvious misuses of the practice of absolution (indulgence sales, for example). Yet this does not by itself prove there is no good use of the practice.
The Biblical Grounds
I was surprised to find out how biblical the grounds were for absolution. Yet some of the passages upon which it rested were familiar to me. In some cases I had ignored their implications, using the argument: Whatever this means, it can’t mean that (by that, I meant the obvious meaning of the text); that is just what the Catholics say, and they can’t be right. In other cases, I had been directed to the wrong portion of the text for my understanding of the doctrine.
One of the clearest passages on absolution is also the most often misread. It is not that the language is unclear, but that attention is paid to the wrong portion of the passage. Consider the healing of the paralytic, found in Matthew 9:2-8:
And behold, they brought to him a paralytic, lying on his bed; and when Jesus saw their faith he said to the paralytic, “Take heart, my son; your sins are forgiven.” And behold, some of the scribes said to themselves, “This man is blaspheming.” But Jesus, knowing their thoughts, said, “Why do you think evil in your hearts? For which is easier to say, ‘Your sins are forgiven,’ or to say, ‘Rise and walk’? But that you may know that the Son of man has authority on earth to forgive sins”—he then said to the paralytic—“Rise, take up your bed and go home.” And he rose and went home. When the crowds saw it, they were afraid, and glorified God, who had given such authority to men.
I am sure this passage is familiar to most readers. A good teacher ordinarily points out that Jesus establishes his authority to forgive through his miracle. We aren’t expected to believe that anyone who makes claims to forgive can do so. They must have divine authority. Jesus proves his divine authority by means of a healing. So far so good.
What is overlooked, however, is that when people glorify God, they glorify him for giving such authority “to men.” As Christians who know the identity of Jesus, it is easy to think that Jesus is proving here that he is divine and that his divinity is the reason he can forgive sins. This is understandable, yet it leads to problems. It would take a unique display of power to demonstrate the deity of Jesus. The resurrection is such a demonstration (see John 20:28; Rom. 1:4). A healing is not. Jesus’ disciples could heal. Did this prove them to be divine? Of course not.
The right principle to draw from this passage is that the ability to heal was a manifestation of divine authority. If an individual heals someone, he or she exercises an authority given from heaven. That healing is a manifestation of divine authority is supported by another passage in Matthew: “And he called to him his twelve disciples and gave them authority over unclean spirits, to cast them out, and to heal every disease and infirmity” (Matt. 10:1). If it is true that the ability to heal requires divine authority, and that the divine authority to heal can be used as evidence for the ability to forgive sin, then isn’t it clear that the divine authority to forgive might be transferable to other men? The people who witnessed the healing of the paralytic seemed to reason this way. What is ironic is that sometimes by direct statement and sometimes by implication, evangelical teachers suggest that the unbelieving Pharisees were better theologians than the believing crowds. The response muttered by the unbelieving Pharisees—“Who can forgive sins but God alone?”—is considered an example of good reasoning. That the crowds “glorified God, who had given such authority to men,” however, is considered an example of bad reasoning. Isn’t this a strange use of a passage? Where else are the Pharisees right and the believers wrong? Yet this is exactly the way the case is argued by so many.
Frequently, Mark 2:7 is quoted: “Who can forgive sins but God alone?” This passage, though, is a quotation of the unbelieving Pharisees. The full quotation is: “Why does this fellow talk like that? He’s blaspheming. Who can forgive sins but God alone?” If everything the Pharisees say is so true that their quotations in Scripture can be identified as the teachings of Scripture itself, then we have to say that the Scriptures teach that Jesus is a blasphemer too! Of course, this is unacceptable. The point is that the argument against absolution seems so self-evident to some that they are careless about whom they quote in their favor.
Of course, God is the only one who naturally holds the authority to forgive sins. The important questions are, “Could God authorize the use of that authority by others if he so chose?” and “Has he in fact done so?” I could understand a reader answering these two questions differently. It is possible to say that God could choose to authorize others to forgive sins in his name but has not in fact chosen to do so. But are we prepared to say that God could not give this authorization to others even if he so chose?
Protestants’ case for absolution must rest on passages and not on rational speculation. The following passage is an even clearer statement of the doctrine of absolution. (Although it is the clearest, I chose to present the above-quoted passages first, so that I could establish the grounds for the following passage to be taken according to its natural sense.) The passage is found in John, where Jesus appears to his disciples after the resurrection: “And when he had said this, he breathed on them, and said to them, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained’” (John 20:22-23). The first time I read this passage, I concluded that Jesus gave his disciples the authority to forgive sins. I showed the passage to another evangelical who explained it away by saying, “But it can’t mean that. That’s what the Catholics teach.” There was no real attempt to explain what the passage did mean. I was just told that the natural sense was ludicrous.
The fact that the Catholics teach a doctrine is no proof that it is false. Most would agree. We have to look to Scripture to determine whether a doctrine is true or false. But what happens when the Catholic reading is the natural reading of the text and the evangelical reading is not (or when there is no evangelical reading of the text!)? “That’s what the Catholics say” is considered a sufficient refutation. This form of reasoning has got to stop.
According to the natural sense of Scripture, God has given the authority to forgive sins to men. If we do not bring preconceived ideas to the text, then I believe this is what we must conclude. Of course, we will have questions and concerns. If God has granted this authority, then who possesses it? How are they obliged to use it? What if they misuse it? I worry about two classes of readers. First I am concerned about the reader who is so bound to preconceived ideas that he or she cannot see that God has granted to men the power to forgive sins. Second, I worry about those who accept any implications drawn from it too easily. The preferred reader is the one who accepts that God has granted men the power to forgive sins since Scripture so clearly teaches it, but remains a skeptic until convinced that a certain theory about how that forgiveness is to be applied is a scriptural theory. The early Lutherans held to this middle course. They had grown up in the medieval church, so they had better reasons than we to fear priestcraft. Yet they considered Scripture authoritative, requiring them to bow to its teaching even if it seemed in some way to uphold a practice that the Roman church had abused.
Speaking in Christ’s Stead
That Jesus had the authority to heal and forgive sins, and could give that authority to others, is an established fact. The question remains: “How does this concern us?” So far, readers might be a little disturbed that the ability to forgive and retain sins is transferable but feel that the matter is still distant. Jesus told his hearers to do this, but can anyone else? If not, we are left with a curiosity, like Peter’s handkerchief in Acts. It was a strange thing to discover, and must have been useful at the time, but has little pertinence to us. Jesus’ hearers did many things we wouldn’t expect our own pastors to do.
Establishing the link between Jesus’ granting of authority in Scripture and authority in our day appears difficult to us even when we believe he did grant it. Part of the reason lies within us. Once we accept that this authority existed, it is easier to believe that the disciples once had it than it is to believe that someone might have it today. After all, eleven out of twelve disciples turned out well, and this authority may only have been given out after the bad one died. (I think it plausible that the disciples were able to forgive when they were first commissioned, though this is not required by the text.) The eleven were no doubt careful in their use of authority. But what if this authority was given to priests and a priest to whom I was assigned had it in for me? Could he really damn me? Who would dare do business with such an individual? It is easy to imagine some grouchy priest going through a day saying, “I retain his sins, and his sins, and her sins, and their sins…” What would this say of God if he managed things like this? It is bad enough to know that religious authorities, like other authorities, may become corrupt and arbitrary in their use of power. Who wants to believe that when this happens, God has placed his stamp of approval on the situation?
Again, however, we must understand what God has revealed before deciding what he can or cannot have said. I do not doubt that people’s fears of possible misuse are well grounded. But the same can be said of baptism and the Lord’s Supper. Their misuse is even documented in Scripture itself! Yet we do not abolish them for that reason.
It is important to reiterate that the Lutheran practice of absolution is primarily based upon Scripture. Consequently, Lutherans use a stronger form in pronouncing absolution than many Christians do. They sometimes say, “By the authority and in the stead of Jesus Christ, I forgive you your sins, in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.” This is acting in Christ’s place, with the understanding that he has explicitly authorized it. When the teaching of absolution is derived from somewhere other than Scripture, there will be a tendency to favor weaker expressions, often because the early church supposedly did. It may sound more Protestant to some to say “God forgives you your sins” than “…and in the stead of Christ, I forgive you your sins,” because it seems to leave the matter to God. In fact, it does not. If we didn’t have explicit authorization to do this in Scripture, even the weaker forms of speech would be presumptuous. But if we have explicit authorization (the words being “If you forgive the sins of any they are forgiven”), well then, why not use it? We are not to reason out for ourselves how strongly we ought to speak. We must have a clear word from God. If he authorizes strong speaking, let us speak strongly.
The Keys of the Kingdom
It is ironic that Protestants speak of the priesthood of all believers but deny what this entails. They teach that all believers are ministers, but nobody is a priest. In another article I have argued that teaching that all believers are ministers is like teaching that every sheep is a shepherd.1 But I do not deny to believers their royal priesthood. The power to forgive and retain sins is a priestly power. Here the Roman church is right. What the Lutherans did was to recognize that priestly powers belong to all Christians. Some Protestants abolished priestly powers, or at least the most notable ones.
Regarding absolution, Lutherans did not just argue from the doctrine of the royal priesthood that all believers were given the authority to forgive. There are reasons to believe so from the text. As Luther argued, the John passage says that when he gave out the authority to forgive sins, he breathed out the Holy Ghost on his hearers. Now it is not just ordained priests and ministers who have the Holy Spirit, but all Christians. If he did not limit the Spirit to the one group, neither did he limit the authority to forgive to them.
Does this mean that you and I can go around forgiving sins?
Yes, absolutely. In fact, it is our responsibility to do so.
But won’t that give people the wrong idea?
Only if we haven’t been empowered to do so. If we are empowered to forgive, then if people who are forgiven by us “get the wrong idea,” they didn’t get it from us.
Perhaps a comparison with the evangelical use of another passage might be helpful. In 1 John we are told, “If we confess our sins, God who is faithful and just will forgive us our sins, and cleanse us from all unrighteousness.” This is private confession directly to God. It is biblical, and Lutherans hold to it as well as evangelicals. Lutherans state that when people do this, they in effect pronounce absolution on themselves. Why? Because in order to benefit from the confession, I must believe God’s promise. I confess, I look to the promise, and then conclude, “I am forgiven.” This is a declarative form of absolution. If I do not conclude this, then I charge God with falsehood. Have I given myself the wrong impression? No.
The only wrong impression I might come to is that my sins are easy to forgive because they are insignificant. But this ignores the cross. God’s promise to forgive the penitent assumes that I am trusting that the forgiveness I receive is based upon Christ’s perfect payment on the cross. Apart from faith, I do not receive the benefit of the forgiveness, even if the forgiveness itself was valid.
The same is true of absolution however it is received, whether pronounced by myself, another Christian layperson, or a pastor.
So why go to another Christian if I can pronounce absolution on myself?
Because I might think I am being easy on myself just to feel better. If I hear the words from another, they may benefit me more and do more to strengthen my faith.
Then why go to a pastor if a layperson has so much to offer? For at least two reasons. First, the pastor is under the seal of the confessional. (Make sure your pastor understands and agrees with this before you charge ahead and tell him something that could be dangerous.) What is said to him is to be repeated to no one. If it is, he should be defrocked. This ensures greater safety to your reputation. If you have committed a serious crime, then he might strongly urge you to turn yourself in to the authorities, but he is under obligation to leave doing that to you. A layperson is in no such position. Second, when the pastor forgives, he does it not only as a representative of God but as a representative of the congregation. If the pastor says you are now innocent, then fellow members of the congregation are not to treat you as a guilty individual.
In the Lutheran church, only ministers absolve publicly, but this is for the sake of order in the church. As Luther says, if everyone tried to do publicly in the church everything they had the power to do, we would have chaos. If everyone in the congregation wanted to baptize a child just because they had the power to do so, and a thousand people rushed to the font to exercise their authority, the child would be drowned! Things work best when the laity are free to exercise their priestly authority in the world, since pastors cannot be everywhere absolution needs to be spoken. And when pastors alone absolve publicly, it is clear to the congregation who has been absolved.
The Historical Case
The historical case for absolution can argue in favor of the practice, but not so effectively against it. If the Scriptures back the practice, then an absence of the practice in the early years would cause us to wonder, but not to give up our doctrine. If, however, the early church always practiced absolution as we read about it in Scripture, then the burden of proof shifts. Not only do we have Scripture on our side, but the early church read the pertinent Scriptures the way we do.
The actual historical practice seems to have developed as follows. In the early church, the Scriptures I have mentioned in favor of confession and absolution were used to establish the practice of public confession before the congregation, followed by a public pardon. The Westminster Dictionary of Church History tells us, “Confession of sin as the first step was already traditional in the first century; the Didache speaks of ‘confession in church,’ presumably a public declaration (exomologesis) of wrongdoing.”2 This was practiced for a few centuries but then discontinued because of the problems it caused. The practice was discontinued in the Eastern Church in AD 390 and condemned by Pope Leo in AD 459. The problems that led to the abolition of public confession included scandal, gossip, and destroyed reputations. Perhaps it was also noticed that Matthew 18 set a precedent for sins being made public to as few people as possible. Whatever abuses auricular confession may have been subject to later, the reasons for establishing it were valid.
According to a Lutheran reading of church history, it is not the practice of auricular confession itself that is abusive, but specific additions to it. One of the worst additions is the teaching that confession is necessary to salvation. Pope Innocent III decreed that all who failed to go to confession at least once a year were guilty of mortal sin. In addition, the Council of Trent decreed that every mortal sin had to be confessed to be forgiven. These two elements of the Roman teaching, the necessity of confession and the necessity to enumerate sins, were rejected by the Lutherans even as they retained the practice.
Fear of Priestcraft
The chief fear that the doctrine of confession and absolution occasions is the fear of priestcraft. Just what will men do when they are invested with the power to remit and retain sins? This is an awesome power that in the wrong hands could do untold damage. The Roman church has historically had a tendency to ignore these dangers, and Roman writers scoff at accounts of priests abusing the confessional as Protestant propaganda.
In early Protestantism, attacking the confessional was an easy way to attack the Roman church. In his book The Reformation in the Cities, Harvard historian Steven Ozment documents how this was done in early Protestant tracts. Some of the accounts are humorous, making use of sexual innuendo and double entendre. (The priests were portrayed as dirty old men who made sport of seducing innocent girls, and asking them if they had committed indecent acts that they would never have imagined had they not gone to confession.)
The Lutherans retained the confessional but made it less onerous by making it optional. Confession was not mandatory nor were penitents required to enumerate sins. This changed the practice’s whole character. Sinners whose consciences were sore because of particular sins, and who had a hard time believing that God had forgiven them, could go and have a minister forgive them in God’s stead. While this forgiveness was no more genuine than the one they received after confessing privately to God, it might sink in more easily.
Yet even after seeing that the Bible teaches confession and absolution, some might still worry. How will it be for me if I start going to confession? Personally, I have found the practice helpful if I have particular past sins that weigh on my mind. If after confessing directly to God, I find that these sins still come to mind, I have found that taking them to private confession keeps them from coming back to torment me. On the other hand, I have not found the practice of going weekly to be helpful, at least as far as I am conscious of this. Weekly confession made me feel as if the forgiveness was wearing off over the course of the week. I felt forgiven on Wednesday nights after confession, but felt as if I had to be careful on the freeway on the weekends. This was not what I was taught, but when I saw how the practice was affecting me, I eliminated weekly confession.
Two groups will fault me for this account. First, the more evangelical party will suggest that the fear of mortal sin I experienced was part-and-parcel of the practice of confession. “This is how Catholics think,” they will say. “Why should you be surprised if acting like a Catholic makes you think like a Catholic?” On the other hand, the Catholic party will suggest that my decision to leave off the practice when it did not leave me “feeling more forgiven” was too subjective. If valid forgiveness is offered, that is all that matters. So why do I take a middle course?
I believe that absolution exists for the sake of my conscience. God does not need my confession to forgive me. But hearing the gospel addressed individually to me and my particular sins is helpful to my faith. The practice of confession and absolution is not to be taken as yet another thing we need to do to be saved. It is another way of delivering the gospel we have already heard and received.
This being so, it is my own “Roman” conscience that concocts a fear of absolution wearing out during the week. Yet I have found that the confessional can actually be a place where consciences are de-Romanized, as pastors challenge their parishioners to stop thinking of their sins the way Roman Catholics do (at least at their worst). But, likewise, if absolution exists for my benefit, if I see the opposite of the intended result coming from it and leave feeling less forgiven, then it makes sense to discontinue the practice. It grants a valid forgiveness to be sure. But if it exists to strengthen faith, and my faith is not, in fact, strengthened, then it is not working for me, however valid it might be.
I view going to confession similarly to going to the doctor. It beats operating on myself, especially when I need major surgery. But if I find that the lesser treatments do more harm than good, I as the patient am in the best position to know what is best. This really is a middle course between a Catholic “trust everything the doctor tells you even if you feel like it’s killing you” philosophy and an evangelical “I’m my own surgeon” credo.
I have gone to confession.3 Have I lost all fear of priestcraft? No. I still do not know the limits of pastoral power as it is practiced in my church, and I am uncomfortable about the idea of its misuse. I do not laugh at evangelicals who have this fear. I do not consider them ignorant for their fear of the unknown. But I am convinced that confession and absolution is a biblical sacrament. I have seen its value. I don’t doubt it can be misused. I still have a lot to learn about how these powers are to be regulated in a congregation. To anyone who thinks these powers in the hands of men could be dangerous, I say amen. But I am still convinced that God has given these powers to men, and that they can be used for the good of the church. Further, I believe that all would benefit from a deeper investigation of the nature and history of the practice. We can make more intelligent decisions about our own involvement with it if we know facts and not propaganda.
I hope readers will be convinced by the Scriptures to recognize that God has been generous in the ways he has chosen to convey the forgiveness of sins. What I have argued for does not make it harder to be forgiven, since the practice is not mandatory. Rightly understood, it can only make it easier. The Reformation did have a case to make concerning Catholic abuses of this practice. However, we lose something dear if in our anti-Roman crusades we throw out the keys of the kingdom along with the chains of bondage. There is an evangelical practice of confession and absolution we need to recover. God’s voice of freedom should be echoing out of as many mouths as possible.
Rick Ritchie is a longtime contributor to Modern Reformation magazine. This article appears in the recently released book The Reformation, Then and Now: 25 Years of Modern Reformation Articles Celebrating 500 Years of the Reformation, edited by Eric Landry and Michael S. Horton (Hendrickson Publishers, 2017).
- "Every Sheep a Shepherd?" Modern Reformation 6, no. 2 (March/April 1997): 28-33. (I must credit pastors Kenneth Korby and William Cwirla for much of the material contained in this article. They are not, however, responsible for any of its shortcomings."
- Westminster Dictionary of Church History, ed. Jerald C. Brauer (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1971), 645.
- I write of my experience, not to suggest that everyone will find the same to be true for themselves. I don't know how lifelong Lutherans experience this sacrament. But it may be helpful for evangelicals who have not experienced this but are convinced that it is scriptural to read the experience of someone else.