Authority to Forgive

I am just returning from the Mockingbird Spring conference in NYC, where I heard Nadia Bolz-Weber give a talk. Of course, I should be doing a whole conference review, and maybe I will. However, she told some extremely powerful stories that hinged on confession. Confession is of course a HUGE part of my idea of living in light of the gospel, so I was keenly interested. She talked about doing confessions with people, and I have really been thinking that I wanted to implement something like this. So this has prompted me to explore the idea that a church minister – a pastor, rector, priest, what-have-you, could receive someone’s confession and to proclaim absolution. At first it seems ridiculous to me – who has authority besides God to forgive?

5 When Jesus saw their faith, he said to the paralyzed man, “Son, your sins are forgiven.” 6 Now some teachers of the law were sitting there, thinking to themselves, 7 “Why does this fellow talk like that? He’s blaspheming! Who can forgive sins but God alone?”
Mark 2: 5-7

Indeed, who can forgive sins but God alone? The answer, which is undisputed even by Jesus, is no one. Why? Consider this: suppose someone had just run up to you and shot you in the back. As you lay there bleeding, and your shooter is standing there holding the smoking gun, suppose some stranger ran up, turned to the shooter, and said, “I forgive you!” Would you not say, “Hey! Wait a minute! You were not injured! It isn’t your place to forgive – it is mine! He shot me!” Then suppose you, the injured one, turned and told the shooter, “he can’t forgive you, but I can. I forgive you.” That sounds great, except for one thing. Our shooter did not transgress YOUR law. He transgressed the state’s law. If a policeman came up at that moment, he would rightly say, “you idiots may forgive this scoundrel, but I’m hauling him off to jail.” Forgiveness in a way belongs to the injured party, but ultimately it belongs to the sanctioned executor and judge of the law. Ultimately, this is God.

Now, this is probably pretty clear and simple stuff. The question at hand is whether or not a minister of the gospel can hear a confession and offer forgiveness. The answer is, of course not. Not really. Not on our own. We are the random stranger who came along and offered the shooter forgiveness. It isn’t our place.

In the course of my trade work I develop documents which require clients’ signatures. I need authoritative agreement that a proposed project has been accurately described in the document. For one of our clients, the big cheese was unwilling to sign off, so I suggested that he delegate his signing authority to someone he trusted to understand the document and sign it intelligently in the company’s interest. So, he signed a document handing authority for signature over to a trusted employee within his own organization. In the same way, Jesus has risen from the dead and has ceded authority to us to forgive:

19 On the evening of that first day of the week, when the disciples were together, with the doors locked for fear of the Jewish leaders, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you!” 20 After he said this, he showed them his hands and side. The disciples were overjoyed when they saw the Lord.

21 Again Jesus said, “Peace be with you! As the Father has sent me, I am sending you.” 22 And with that he breathed on them and said, “Receive the Holy Spirit. 23 If you forgive anyone’s sins, their sins are forgiven; if you do not forgive them, they are not forgiven.

John 20:19-23

We see here a bestowal of authority. We do not become as God, but we do become the emissaries or the representatives of God’s interests. Our main task, apparently, as emissisaries, is to forgive people. Jesus has died for our sins and has risen from the dead, and has torn the veil which kept us out of the holy of holies. So He has sent us as the Father sent Him – on a mission to administer forgiveness! So why not? This is my own personal great joy, and this administration of forgiveness is the making of great stories. God, lead us to the deeply downtrodden, and grant us the courage and the remembrance to use our God-given authority to declare Your forgiveness with power over people! We are a forgiven people commissioned and empowered to grant forgiveness. So I intend to use this more and more to administer forgiveness to people who need it badly in Jesus name.

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