09 September 2008

Forgiveness: Attitude and Acquittal

In the Holy Gospel Christ commands Christians to forgive from their hearts those who sin against them. Christians are to have the same forgiving attitude as God, whose forgiveness knows no limit (Matthew 18). Stern warnings are spoken by Jesus against the unforgiving heart, both in the commentary on the Fifth Petition of the Lord's Prayer in the Sermon on the Mount, and in the Parable of the Unforgiving Servant. This forgiveness, like God's forgiving attitude toward the world in Christ, is to exist regardless of any change or recognition of wrong doing on the part of the offender. It is in this sense, objective and unconditional. Individual Christians are commanded to have a forgiving attitude towards all, and are not commanded to retain sins.

The Church's forgiveness, that which is announced and declared chiefly through the Office of the Holy Ministry, is in some sense conditional. Christ does not command the disciples in John 20 to forgive the sins of the penitent and impenitent alike, according to the Small Catechism. A pastor could not in good conscience absolve someone who lacked a "broken and contrite heart." Not that a pastor can look into the heart, but if someone says he or she is "proud" of something they did and is not really confessing it as a sin, it would seem to suggest that there was no contrition. Another difference between the Church's forgiveness and that of the Christian heart is that the Christian does not wait for someone to ask for forgiveness before forgiving him from the heart. Typically, the Church forgives someone who asks for it. "Pastor, please hear my confession and forgive all my sins according to God's will."

This, it seems, reflects that theological principle that God both has forgiven the world from His heart on the basis of the atonement (objective justification), and yet, offers this forgiveness or divine acquittal to those who ask for it (subjective justification). In both cases, the foundation for the forgiveness is the same: the atoning death of Christ Jesus. Objective Justification has to do with God's total contentment with the world as it is in Christ, his forgiving attitude towards all regardless of whether or not they repent. Subjective Justification then has to do with the forgiveness that is pronounced and apprehended by faith.

Just some thoughts as the day begins.


Steven said...

I have never really thought of it (the difference between the attitude of forgiveness and the actual declaration of forgiveness being correlated to to objective/subjective justification) like this before.

Rev. Eric J Brown said...

On this I think it is of note to ponder the difference. The Pastor is given to the care of souls - specifically other people's souls.

I, as an individual, am to show forth unconditional forgiveness, so that my focus never waver from Christ and His forgiveness. What I receive is to flow through me, and when it does not, I know I am wrong and need to repent myself.

I, as a pastor, am to retain sins, so that those whose focus has wavered from Christ may be shown the seriousness of their sin, that they might repent of them and be restored to the faith.

Both these attitudes are designed to keep the focus on forgiveness - for myself I must always have forgiveness first and foremost - but for the wandering sheep under my care, I must occasionally give a sharp crack on the head to drive towards forgiveness.

wmc said...

I may be misunderstanding this post, but it seems to say that the Church actually forgives sins while Christians have a heart or attitude of forgiveness. In other words, Christians do not actually deliver or apply forgiveness, according to the original post.

Am I mistaken here?

Rev. Paul Beisel said...

This post was not meant to address the actual speaking of forgiveness on the part of individual Christians, but with Christ's command to forgive "from the heart." Of course, if someone comes to a Christian and begs for forgiveness, by all means a Christian should and hopefully will forgive that person. But regardless of whether or not someone turns and sees that they have offended me or not, I am still to forgive him "from the heart." I don't know, maybe I'm confounding the issue more. Just some thoughts based on the Parable of the Unforgiving Servant.

wmc said...

I'm glad to hear I was mistaken there. I almost thought you were saying that pastors actually forgive sins while Christians have a heart for forgiveness or some such thing.

A brother at our pastoral conference reminded me of Luther in The Babylonian Captivity speaking of the so-called "reserved cases":

"Let them [the papal bishops] moreover, permit all brothers and sisters most freely to hear the confession of secret sins, so that the sinner may make his sins known to whomever he sill and seek pardon and comfort, that is, the word of Christ, by the mouth of his neighbor." (LW 36:88)

Reformationalist said...

My brother William, your Luther citation makes me a little nervous; it doesn't sound like something that we'd find in the Genesis Lectures, for example. But, being the irenic soul that I am (cough, cough), I'll even embrace that statement from the Babylonian Captivity, understanding that there is in his explanation of his own comment the clear indication that Christians should share the comfort of Scriptural passages with one who uncovers his troubling, secrets sins to them. That is not, in my understanding of things, the same thing as a Pastor saying, "I forgive you all your sins, in the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Ghost!"

Now, it is true that forgiveness is forgiveness. But it is equally true that pastoral absolution, especially private absolution, address the lingering doubts and fears that even the "mutual admonition and encouragement" does not resolve in the mind and heart of the the troubled penitent. I think that the distinction in Lutheranism, in particularly in English-speaking Lutheranism, between a "declaration of forgiveness" and a "pronouncement of forgiveness" (this distinction being evidenced respective treatments of confession of sins in TLH, p. 5 and TLH, p. 15.



Rev. Fr. Robert W. Schaibley, SSP

Fr. Timothy D. May, S.S.P. said...

On the other hand, when the prevailing notion among the laity is that the pastor cannot forgive sins (for example, the general absolution in the liturgy) because only Christians can forgive sins then it is good and proper to teach and practice that "by His authority" the pastor does indeed forgive sins. Otherwise the people are misled against teaching that is Scriptural and catechetical. (In an (over-?)reaction to Rome I hear many "conservative" Lutheran Christians deny that the pastor has any right or duty to forgive sins). Then it is not surprising when some call the liturgy a "show."

Rev. Paul Beisel said...

The Pastor speaks for the whole Church when he forgives the sins of those who repent and retains the sins of those who do not repent.

When he says to someone that sins against him personally, "Hey, brother, I forgive you," he is not speaking this forgiveness as a servant of the Church but as a Christian. Same with a layman. Christ commands every Christian, pastors and laymen, to have a forgiving heart towards those who sin against them personally, and to be reconciled to the one who has sinned against them.

Generally, it is given to pastors to forgive someone for sinning against someone else. This is what I mean by the "Church's forgiveness." In the case of emergency (i.e. when no pastor may be obtained) and someone needs to have his conscience relieved, then in that case any Christian becomes the person's pastor and speaks on behalf of Christ and the Church: "I forgive you all your sins in the name of the Father..."

Ordinarily pastors are Christ's authorized spokesmen, and are called to forgive not in their own name, but in Christ's name the sins of those who seek absolution. Laymen are not called to do this, but may in the case of emergency, since the power of forgiveness is in the Word and Promise of the Gospel.

There is a difference between a Christian's forgiveness and the "Church's" forgiveness in this way: I may tell John that I forgive him for calling me a bad name. But in this, only he and I are reconciled. If he, in addition, wishes to be reconciled to God, then he should also seek God's forgiveness from his pastor, or, in the absence of his pastor, any Christian. In one sense, I suppose, one could say: "John, I forgive you for calling me an ass. Do you also desire God's forgiveness? Then my dear brother, I say to you, in the stead of Christ, I forgive you your sins. Go in peace."

Or, for instance, if my wife comes to confession to her pastor (me--not that I am advocating this), and says, "Pastor, please hear my confession in order to fulfill God's Word...I have been unforgiving of my husband..." the pastor speaks not as her husband but as a representative of Christ and a servant of the Church and says: "I forgive you all your sins..." But as her husband, he should also say, "My dear, I forgive you for your lack of forgiveness."

Rev. Paul Beisel said...

Perhaps I should have said that ordinarily, if a person is having a crisis of conscience, and a pastor cannot be obtained, any Christian can comfort the person with the Word of God and his baptism and remind them of the death and resurrection of Christ. My opinion though is that only called and ordained pastors ought use the words: "I forgive you all your sins in the name of the Father and of the Son..."

wmc said...

The Pastor speaks for the whole Church when he forgives the sins of those who repent and retains the sins of those who do not repent.

This is an excellent way of saying it, in my opinion, and beautifully underscores the "public" nature of the office of the holy ministry. The pastor speaks publicly on behalf of the whole church, or as Walther put it, "im gemeinschaftswegen." One recalls the Bugenhagen formula for public absolution, which said, "In the stead of Christ and of this congregation...."

wmc said...

On the other hand, when the prevailing notion among the laity is that the pastor cannot forgive sins (for example, the general absolution in the liturgy) because only Christians can forgive sins then it is good and proper to teach and practice that "by His authority" the pastor does indeed forgive sin

That notion would fail logically.

1. Christians can forgive sins.
2. The pastor is a Christian.
3. Therefore, the pastor can forgive sins.

The issue is office, not the quality or quantity of forgiveness.

Fr. Timothy D. May, S.S.P. said...

Nothing is said here of quality or quantity of forgiveness. Forgiveness is forgiveness. Retention of sins is retention of sins.

The pastor forgives because he is a believer. However, his Christianity, nor his power to forgive, does not arise from the people, the community or the population. The Scriptural order is Christ, Apostles, etc. This order (or authority from above), though unpopular, does not equate with Christians not being able to forgive sins of one another. The congregation may expect the pastor to forgive their sins, but the pastor forgives their sins not because they are more in number than he and expect this from him but because he is given the command and authority to forgive their sins. When a pastor hears laypeople or fellow pastors say that a pastor cannot or does not forgive sins, as in the general absolution (this applies as well to private absolution) this is of concern for two reasons: 1) This is what he has been given to do by Christ and they either do not see nor accept that. 2) They are unintentionally, or intentionally, implying that he is not a Christian. Thus, when the pastor absolves the congregation in the liturgy this does not mean that now, the congregation cannot forgive one another during the week. Rather, it means freely received, freely give.

wmc said...

Actually, when people say that God does not forgive sins through the pastor, they are denying that God works through means, and therefore reveal themselves to be Schwärmer who rely on feeling forgiven.

Those I know who make this argument are really arguing against the mistaken notion that the pastor has some exclusive monopoly on forgiveness. It's not difficult to turn an either/or into a both/and. They're just accustomed to thinking in terms of either/or.

Fr. Timothy D. May, S.S.P. said...

This is, I think, what is going on too. Well-stated summary and analysis. Thanks!

Rev. Eric J Brown said...

I think Pastor Cwirla might be neglecting part of an approach to people's rejection of the pastor's - church's - Christ's forgiveness. I don't think it's just that people must be playing part of the swarm when they deny that pastors can forgive - it's not a matter of looking towards feelings - but it can also be a matter of intimidation.

This is the line of thought I have found. "If the pastor can forgive - then the pastor, when he does, is speaking the Word of God. It means when he says, "Thus sayeth the Lord" - well. . . (assuming correct doctrine), God is speaking through that man. That means. . . I ought to listen, I ought to respect this fellow. It means that there is a right and wrong way to believe and teach about Christ. . . oh no! What if I've been wrong or rude. . . what if I don't even like my pastor, what does that say about me?"

Sometimes the denial of the ability of man to speak God's forgiveness is about an enthusiastic approach - but there are times when it's just a matter of people being freaked out by the implications of authority. Sometimes a pastor asserting his duty to publicly preach and forgive sins sounds to the sinful ear like law - because if God would speak to them, it is assumed that it is bad, because if someone is going to assert authority it must be to do them harm. Thus the wreck that sin and it's fear brings upon people!

wmc said...

Sometimes the denial of the ability of man to speak God's forgiveness is about an enthusiastic approach - but there are times when it's just a matter of people being freaked out by the implications of authority.

I wholeheartedly agree. People fear "authority" because they hear "power" rather than "permission." (exousia = exestin - it is permitted). This divine permission to speak forgiveness in the Name of God is often turned into a power to control. Gospel authority is gracious permission, but it is too often heard or used as law power over another.

I think this being "freaked out" by the implications of authority is why some pastors refuse to wear vestments that set them apart in their Office, or refuse to use the pulpit, which is a symbol of authority.