Who Can Forgive Whose Sins?


So I logged on to the Mockingbird blog today and went searching for audio from their annual NYC Conference, seeing as it featured this year a Lutherany Presbyterian (Tullian Tchividjian) and a mainliny Lutheran (Nadia Bolz-Weber), which I thought would yield some interesting MP4age. The Mockingbirders are themselves low-churchy Anglicany Episcs,* as opposed to mainliny Episcs or Anglo-Catholicy Episcs, or for that matter continuing Anglicans, who can also be broken down into those who follow the “Affirmation of St. Louis” and Sydney Anglicans and evangelical Anglicans. A chart will be forthcoming to help with these distinctions but don’t expect it anytime soon because who has that kind of time.

I listened to this clip of the talk given by Bolz-Weber. It’s three minutes long, so put down the sausage and focus.

Did you listen? Now, put aside your feelings about Bolz-Weber’s ministry, whether women can/should be ordained, whether the ELCA is a legitimate expression of Lutheranism, how much turmeric is too much in a nicely balanced muttar paneer, etc. I want to concentrate just on what she said, specifically this:

“Jesus talked about forgiveness all the time. And he told people ‘Do this thing in my name,’ right? And so we have the authority to do this for each other in Jesus’ name.”

Do we? In the anecdote she relates just before this, she offered the forgiveness of sins as a “called and ordained minister of the Word” — don’t go there, I asked you nicely not to go there, get away from there now or I swear I will come to your home and break all best china. FOCUS.

Some questions come to mind (at least to my mind — you, on the other hand, may have this all worked out as you sit there posing decisively in your nicely blocked Hat of Authority and magisterial khakis):

(1) Do we, the laity, have this authority to pronounce the forgiveness of sins, in Jesus’ name, to a guilt-ridden person? 

(2) Does that guilt-ridden person have to be a Christian? Or does the Lutheran doctrine of universal objective justification cover even a non-Christian?

(3) Does the guilt-ridden person have to make an explicit confession of sins (even if, as the catechism notes, not every sin must be described or recounted)? Does the person have to be, in some sense, truly penitent? Or does he or she merely have to feel guilty or burdened in some way, and therefore be open to some “relief,” to receive the forgiveness of sins?

(4) If the person must confess their sins, and acknowledge them, presumably as sins and not mere “mistakes,” does this put a condition on the forgiveness of sins? And does mere confession cut it? Does the Lutheran construal of absolution insist upon some kind of contrition, regardless of its “intensity”?

I know the answers to some of these questions already, but I thought this would be a nice teachable moment for non-Lutherans.

This is from the “Brief Admonition to Confession,” which is attached to some editions of the Large Catechism. Hear Herr Luther (emphasis mine, because I’m always emphasizing stuff):

In the first place, I have said that besides the Confession here being considered there are two other kinds, which may even more properly be called the Christians’ common confession. They are (a) the confession and plea for forgiveness made to God alone and (b) the confession that is made to the neighbor alone. These two kinds of confession are included in the Lord’s Prayer, in which we pray, “Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us” (Matthew 6:12), and so on. In fact, the entire Lord’s Prayer is nothing else than such a confession. For what are our petitions other than a confession that we neither have nor do what we ought, as well as a plea for grace and a cheerful conscience? Confession of this sort should and must continue without letup as long as we live. For the Christian way essentially consists in acknowledging ourselves to be sinners and in praying for grace.

Similarly, the other of the two confessions, the one that every Christian makes to his neighbor, is also included in the Lord’s Prayer. For here we mutually confess our guilt and our desire for forgiveness (Matthew 5:23-24). Now, all of us are guilty of sinning against one another; therefore, we may and should publicly confess this before everyone without shrinking in one another’s presence. For what the proverb says is true, “If anyone is perfect, then all are.” There is no one at all who fulfills his obligations toward God and his neighbor (Romans 3:10-12). Besides such universal guilt, there is also the particular guilt of the person who has provoked another to rightful anger and needs to ask his pardon. So we have in the Lord’s Prayer a double absolution: there we are forgiven our offenses against God and those against our neighbor, and there we forgive our neighbor and become reconciled to him.

Besides this public, daily, and necessary confession, there is also the confidential confession that is only made before a single brother. If something particular weighs upon us or troubles us, something with which we keep torturing ourselves and can find no rest, and we do not find our faith to be strong enough to cope with it, then this private form of confession gives us the opportunity of laying the matter before some brother. We may receive counsel, comfort, and strength when and however often we wish. That we should do this is not included in any divine command, as are the other two kinds of confession. Rather, it is offered to everyone who may need it, as an opportunity to be used by him as his need requires. The origin and establishment of private Confession lies in the fact that Christ Himself placed His Absolution into the hands of His Christian people with the command that they should absolve one another of their sins (Ephesians 4:32). So any heart that feels it sinfulness and desires consolation has here a sure refuge when he hears God’s Word and makes the discovery that God through a human being looses and absolves him from his sins.

So notice then, that Confession, as I have often said, consists of two parts. The first is my own work and action, when I lament my sins and desire comfort and refreshment for my soul. The other part is a work that God does when He declares me free of my sin through His Word placed in the mouth of a man. It is this splendid, noble, thing that makes Confession so lovely, so comforting. It used to be that we emphasized it only as our work; all that we were then concerned about was whether our act of confession was pure and perfect in every detail. We paid no attention to the second and most necessary part of Confession, nor did we proclaim it. We acted just as if Confession were nothing but a good work by which payment was to be made to God, so that if the confession was inadequate and not exactly correct in every detail, then the Absolution would not be valid and the sin unforgiven. By this the people were driven to the point where everyone had to despair of making so pure a Confession (an obvious impossibility) and where no one could feel at ease in his conscience or have confidence in his Absolution. So they not only rendered the precious Confession useless to us but also made it a bitter burden (Matthew 23:4) causing noticeable spiritual harm and ruin.

In our view of Confession, therefore, we should sharply separate its two parts far from each other. We should place slight value on our part in it. But we should hold in high and great esteem God’s Word in the Absolution part of Confession. We should not proceed as if we intended to perform and offer Him a splendid work, but simply to accept and receive something from Him. You dare not come saying how good or how bad you are. If you are a Christian, I in any case, know well enough that you are. If you are not, I know that even better. But what you must see to is that you lament your problem and that you let yourself be helped to acquire a cheerful heart and conscience.

Moreover, no one may now pressure you with commandments. Rather, what we say is this: Whoever is a Christian or would like to be one is here faithfully advised to go and get the precious treasure. If you are no Christian and do not desire such comfort, we shall leave it to another to use force on you. By eliminating all need for the pope’s tyranny, command, and coercion, we cancel them with a single sweep. As I have said, we teach that whoever does not go to Confession willingly and for the sake of obtaining the Absolution, he may as well forget about it. Yes, and whoever goes around relying on the purity of his act of making confession, let him stay away. Nevertheless, we strongly urge you by all means to make confession of your need, not with the intention of doing a worthy work by confessing but in order to hear what God has arranged for you to be told. What I am saying is that you are to concentrate on the Word, on the Absolution, to regard it as a great and precious and magnificently splendid treasure, and to accept it with all praise and thanksgiving to God.

If this were explained in detail and if the need that ought to move and lead us to make confession were pointed out, then one would need little urging or coercion. For everyone’s own conscience would so drive and disturb him that he would be glad to do what a poor and miserable beggar does when he hears that a rich gift of money or clothing is being handed out at a certain place. So as not to miss it, he would run there as fast as he can and would need no bailiff to beat and drive him on. Now, suppose that in place of the invitation one were to substitute a command to the effect that all beggars should run to that place but not say why nor mention what they should look for and receive there. What else would the beggar do but make the trip with distaste, without thinking of going to get a gift but simply of letting people see what a poor, miserable beggar he is? This would bring him little joy and comfort but only greater resentment against the command that was issued.

I believe what Luther is alluding to when he writes “besides the Confession here being considered” is the general, public confession made during the Divine Service and also made during the recital of the Lord’s Prayer.

What I glean from the “Admonition” is that (a) there is a “work” on our part, and that is to come forward, voluntarily, and confess our guilt; (b) absolution of a kind may be something offered by a “brother” (but perhaps only in extraordinary, and quite personal, circumstances, and not something to be bandied about on the bus, as Bolz-Weber would have it) ; and (c) even someone who wishes to be a Christian, i.e., is not yet baptized, may make confession and receive absolution. It is clear from here and other statements by Luther on the subject that the intensity of one’s contrition is irrelevant, presumably because we don’t ever really know ourselves to begin with.

But a confession must be made. It does not seem enough merely to feel “bad” about things you’ve done or mistakes you’ve made. The notion that you have sinned against God and are in need of forgiveness appears to be a sine qua non of Absolution.

There is also the “Yes, I called Bob an idiot — but I have proof!” kind of confession. Guilty, but with an explanation. Does that cut it? I mean self-justification is a side racket we all run, a multilevel marketing scheme of the soul.

What am I missing?


*Specifically as explicated in the works of Paul Zahl. I once remarked to a junior fellow at FIRST THINGS, an orthodox, low-church Episcopalian (yes they still exist), that if Zahl’s ecclesiology were any lower, he’d have to conduct services in a bomb shelter. His view of the sacraments is just left of Zwingli’s. I mean Quakers laugh at him. Good night, folks, I’ll be here all week, enjoy the veal piccata.


3 thoughts on “Who Can Forgive Whose Sins?

  1. You should rightly be skittish about what Bolz-Weber says here. On the one hand, the third paragraph of your quote from Luther does affirm that the laity have the authority to forgive sins, as a private matter, and not only those of a personal or extraordinary nature. The Office of the Ministry is chiefly for announcing the forgiveness of sins publically in worship in response to the confession of sins. One of the things that bothers Protestants the most about the General Confession and Absolution is that there is no individual inventory done there for the contrition of each attendee. The forgiveness of sins is just thrown out there wily-nilly, like a sower broadcasting seed over the field without any concern for the type of soil it is falling upon. Bolz-Weber seems to be conflating the two arenas. What might have been an appropriate use of the Keys in a private setting might not be the way to use them in the setting she describes (or on a bus).
    On the other hand, there has to be some “work” on our part, as Luther describes it. This “work” is really the working of the Holy Spirit through the Law to convince us that we are “poor, miserable sinners. How this desire for forgiveness is exhibited outwardly or expressed can’t be given a neat definition. Maybe the woman in the wheelchair’s actual words and attitude communicated “God, be merciful to me, a sinner” who had been told she was beyond grace. Maybe she is rejecting the Law’s judgement on her behavior. Bolz-Weber doesn’t give us enough information in her recollection of the actual encounter for us to make a call.
    The big thing, however, is that Bolz-Weber’s main point fails to take into account that we have also been given the authority to retain sins.


  2. An excerpt from


    Every passage in the New Testament that is about forgiveness for repentant sinners or discipline for unrepentant sinners is about the Office of the Keys. If someone is repentant, and a Christian says, “Jesus forgives you,” that Christian is, in a sense, exercising the “Office of the Keys.” It’s a “power” to forgive and retain sins that is given to *the Church*. It belongs to no individual Christian by virtue of their particular office. It is given by Jesus to Peter (Mat. 16:18-19), to the Christian congregation (Mat. 18), and to the Apostles (John 20:21-22).
    Rev. Robert O. Riebau

    My simple take is thus: if someone comes to me with a stricken conscience and confesses a sin(s), it is my duty as a Christian to share the grace and forgiveness of the Gospel and communicate their absolution.


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