Gutachten: The Word of Forgiveness Spoken by a Lay Person

Two pastors in the Nebraska District requested the opinion of the Department of Pastoral Ministry and Missions of Concordia Theological Seminary on the following issue:

“There is considerable discussion and confusion in our district regarding the biblical and confessional position regarding the speaking of the Gospel by a member of the holy and royal priesthood.

Some in our district contend that according to the Scriptures and the Confessions only the men in the Holy Office speak an efficacious coram Deo Word of Gospel and that the unordained speak merely a word that gives information or that only makes an announcement. This position maintains that the Scriptures distinguish between forgiveness (coram Deo that only the clergy speak) and reconciliation (coram hominibus that those outside the Office speak).

Here is an example of what some are teaching. When a Christian wife says to her Christian husband who has sinned against her, “I forgive you. Jesus died for you,” this is only a coram hominibus reconciliation, not an efficacious word of forgiveness coram Deo, and that to contend otherwise is in violation of the Scriptures, in particular Matthew 16, Matthew 18, John 20, and the Lutheran Confessions.”

We address this issue fully aware of the reality of forces that have led to a diminishing of the Office of the Holy Ministry, including equalitarian movements and notions of entitlement reflected in the promotion of women’s ordination, assertions that “Everyone is a Minister” (Oscar Feucht), confusion of the Royal Priesthood with the pastoral office (for sources of this confusion see pages 1-16 of Timothy Wengert’s research in “The Priesthood of All Believers and Other Pious Myths” in Priesthood, Pastors, Bishops: Public Ministry for the Reformation & Today) and revisionist interpretations of AC 14.

I.​In attempting to evade the above-mentioned errors, we must be careful not to “over-correct.” The Office exists for the sake of the Word and not vice versa. The Word is not authorized by the Office but the Word authorizes the Office to speak so that forgiveness is delivered in Christ’s name and in His stead. The Word of the Gospel creates the church and God has so ordered His church. Note the Large Catechism: “Therefore everything in this Christian community is so ordered that everyone may daily obtain full forgiveness of sins through the Word and signs appointed to comfort and encourage our consciences as long as we live on earth” (LC II:55, Kolb/Wengert, 438). It is the Gospel, not the ministerial Office, that is the power of God unto salvation (Romans 1:16-17). Christ Jesus instituted the Office for the distribution of this salvation (see John 20:21-23). The Office is the instrument not the source of the gift. God is utterly abundant in His bestowal of the forgiveness of sins. Hence the Smalcald Articles: “We return to the Gospel, which offers counsel and help against sin in more than one way, for God is surpassingly rich in his grace: First, through the spoken word, by which the forgiveness of sin (the peculiar function of the Gospel) is preached to the whole world; second, through Baptism; third, through the holy Sacrament of the Altar; fourth, through the power of the keys; and finally, through the mutual conversation and consolation of brethren. Matt. 18:20, ‘Where two or three are gathered,’ etc.”(SA III:IV, Tappert, 310).

. The forgiveness of sins finds its certainty in the external Word. Wherever this Word is spoken the Spirit is at work to create faith in the hearts of those who hear it when and where it pleases Him (see AC V). This Word may not be fractionalized into parts, as though the pastor speaks only of forgiveness coram Deo and the layperson coram hominibus. The only forgiveness of sins that there is is from the Lord. Believers forgiven by God now forgive each other. Note Colossians 3:12-13; Ephesians 4:32. See also the Fifth Petition of the Lord’s Prayer in both Catechisms. Luther in Concerning the Ministry (1523): “There is no other sin than what any Christian ought to bind and absolve” (AE 40:35)

. Luther also guards against the splitting of forgiveness coram Deo and forgiveness coram hominibus in “A Brief Exhortation to Confession in the Large Catechism where he argues “Thus we have in the Lord’s Prayer a twofold absolution: both our sins against God and against our neighbors are forgiven when we forgive our neighbor and our reconciled with them” (K/W, 477). Citations from Luther abound. Note two in particular. First, from a sermon on Matthew 18:15-18 preached in 1537, Luther says that God’s forgiveness is poured out “in every corner, so that they not only find the forgiveness of sins in the congregation but also at home in their houses, in the fields and gardens, wherever one of them comes to another in search of comfort and deliverance. It shall be at my disposal when I am troubled and sorry, in tribulation and vulnerable, when I need something, at whatever hour and time it may be. There is not always a sermon being given publicly in the church, so when my neighbor or brother comes to me, I am to lay my troubles before my neighbor and ask for comfort…Again I should comfort others, and say ‘Dear friend, dear brother, why don’t you lay aside your burdens. It is certainly not God’s will that you experience this suffering. God had his Son die for you so that you do not sorrow but rejoice” (WA 47:297.36-298.14; quoted by R. Kolb, Martin Luther: Confessor of the Faith, 135). Second, from the Genesis Lectures (1542): “If you want to be absolved from your sins in this manner, go to your pastor, or to your brother and neighbor if your pastor cannot hear you; he has the command to absolve you and comfort you (AE 6:128).

. Forgiveness from God through the pastor (SC V/Office of the Keys) need not be made more certain by diminishing the Lord’s forgiveness on the lips of the fellow-believer. The pastor is called and ordained to exercise the Office of the Keys in the midst of the congregation. The word of forgiveness he speaks is not his own but that of the Lord Jesus. His ordination places him “under orders” to forgive and retain sin. At his ordination he vows never to divulge the sins confessed to him. Lay persons are to have the complete confidence that their pastor is doing what the Lord has entrusted to him. The laity are not called and ordained to this Office. All believers live in the stations which they are given in this life (vocation). In these stations, Christians live by faith in Christ and love for the neighbor. To paraphrase the sainted Dr. Kenneth Korby, the sin of the neighbor is God’s call to speak the Word of God to the neighbor. In this context all Christians proclaim law and Gospel, repentance and faith. The words they speak are not their own but Christ’s. His Word does its work wherever it is spoken; it is never merely informational. It is a lively Word of Spirit and life doing the work and accomplishing the will of the God who speaks it. Of this we need no guarantees. Questions of validity are misplaced.

Adopted by the Pastoral Ministry and Missions Department
Concordia Theological Seminary
Fort Wayne, Indiana
17 September 2009