Sunday, February 18, 2007

"I Forgive You All Your Sins" - Can You Really Say That?

As I prepared for our latest Bible study on the Office of the Keys, I knew that the biggest sticking point with some would be those words: "I forgive you...." How can a pastor forgive anyone his sins? Only God can forgive sins! That's true. But why must the "I forgive" be in opposition to "God forgives"?

I liked the explanation of this point put together by the editors of the Higher Things magazine (Winter 2006). After noting that the pastor speaks these words in conjunction with "by virtue of his office" and "in the stead and command of Jesus Christ," as well as "in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit," they then go on to note the following:

"Those words make clear that the pastor isn't the one forgiving your sins. He doesn't say, 'I'm Bert, and I forgive you in the name of Bert. If anybody says you're not forgiven, tell 'm Bert forgave you.' Effectively the words say, 'I'm no one, but I've been called to the office of pastor. I'm here to tell you what Jesus says. And Jesus says to you, 'I forgive you all your sins.' That's why I tell you that you're forgiven in God's name, not mine.' (25)

I find it interesting that the Orthodox priests do not use the direct form of the Absolution that the Lutheran pastor utilizes. Given their high view of the "office," I would have thought that this would be natural. But, as I understand it, they use a more passive approach. Interesting.

Perhaps it seems to some that we are putting words in Jesus' mouth. Or how can we claim that Jesus is actually saying "I forgive"? This is a good question and the implications of how one answers says a lot about how one views the real presence of Christ. I suspect that many Evangelicals, for all their talk of Jesus, believe more in a real absence than a real presence. Traditionally the Reformed church has made a distinction about where the real, physical presence of Jesus is since his resurrection. They claim that it "remains in heaven." John Calvin could therefore talk about communing spiritually in heaven instead of partaking of the real Christ here on earth.

So, if you're not comfortable with the real presence of Christ here and now, then you naturally wouldn't be comfortable with thinking He was active in such a direct, personal way as to say "I forgive."

At any rate, when Jesus said "He who hears you hears me," He was commissioning his apostles as ambassadors with the authority of one who speaks for another. Dr. Harold Senkbeil in his book Dying to Live, the Power of Forgiveness, compares the pastor's authority in this case to that of a power of attorney. That was helpful for me. I remember when I had a PA for my mother before she died. I literally spoke in her place as if I was her. I could make medical decisions, sell her house, do anything she would do by her own voice and hand. That's the authority the pastor uses. He is not forgiving anyone by his own authority. He is acting in the official stead of his master who authorized him to do so.

So, the "I" in "I forgive" is Christ, not me, or Bert, or Sam, or Peter, or Jim, or Dave, get the point. What a wonderful thing to know that Jesus still speaks to us. What a comfort to know that He forgives MY sin. It's a living Word after all, not a dead letter.


jaacren said...

I undestand your analogy with a pastor's statement of "I forgive" to a power of attorney. However, where is the scriptural authority for a pastor to act in Jesus' behalf? In 1 Timothy scripture states that there is only one mediator between God and man and that is Jesus. In using the analogy of a pastor and a power of attorney, a power of attorney gives the holder the authority to act in that person's behalf. Where is the scriptural authority to act on the behalf of Jesus?

Anonymous said...

Why don't they just say...As it is written in the scriptures, Jesus said and now I forgive your sins, and leave it at that?