Great Stuff — Gutachten: The Word of Forgiveness Spoken by a Lay Person

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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

About Norm Fisher

Norm was raised in the UCC in Connecticut, and like many fell away from the church after high school. With this background he saw it primarily as a service organization. On the miracle of his first child he came back to the church. On moving to Texas a few years later he found a home in Lutheranism when he was invited to a confessional church a half-hour away by our new neighbors.

He is one of those people who found a like mind in computers while in Middle School and has been programming ever since. He's responsible for many websites, including the Book of Concord,, and several other sites.

He has served the church in various positions, including financial secretary, sunday school teacher, elder, PTF board member, and choir member.

More of his work can be found at


Great Stuff — Gutachten: The Word of Forgiveness Spoken by a Lay Person — 17 Comments

  1. Simply put, God’s Word is always efficacious, both the Law and the Gospel, no matter who speaks it! I’ll go to the extreme: Even if Satan himself were to baptize someone in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, that baptism would be efficacious because the power to save always lies with God and His Gospel not the person speaking it or the person hearing it. It’s really that simple. How are these men getting ordained if they don’t know the simple truth of Romans 1:16? And if there are pastors who seriously don’t think the Gospel is efficacious when spoken by a lay person, are they still ordained?

  2. Glad to hear that people in my district are raising this question. While everyone should be bold in proclaiming God’s forgiveness, we should recognize that God gives us authorities for our own benefit.

  3. I confess, that this statement seems to leave the situation as obfuscated as it was, when the questioner raised it.

    And yet, it doesn’t address the clear and simple position of the Confessions, that the Apology lists Holy Absolution as a Sacrament, and that the Augustana clearly states that no one should publicly preach or administer the Sacraments without a regular call.

    If the matter were really just about what is efficacious versus properly ordered, the statement above works– but we are also concerned about God’s order. For example, no one doubts that an adulterer can efficaciously bring forth children by his neighbor’s wife, but we should all see that this is a horrible aberation of God’s order (and by extension, His Law.) Think of this in the local congregation, where a pastor has had to announce to a public and scandalous unrepentent sinner, that he is bound in his sins and may not approach the Sacrament of the Altar– but the one who is legitimately banned, says to the pastor, “Not so! My neighbor already released me, and his word of Absolution is equal to your Office of the Keys!” And so adultery reigns, with the efficacious Word, used out of God’s order.

    Funny how simple our Confessions are on this topic, and how much we have to play around with language to get out from under them.

  4. @Brad #3
    Your scenario is a paradoxical one: there you have the unrepentant and excommunicated sinner who, in order to be “released” by his neighbor, apparently has asked that neighbor to release him.

    I would take that to mean that that unrepentant sinner is actually no longer unrepentant, but repentant. Why else would he have asked for “release”? Just to go to communion and arrogantly snub the pastor and his holy office — why not just go to communion without that release for even greater effect?

    Maybe he asked for the release from God because he really saw the error of his way and, as in Luther’s scenario above, feared for his eternal life and asked a neighbor to absolve him?

    Indeed, when we believe in the damning power of the law, including the sentence of excommunication pronounced by the church, then we also should appreciate with gratitude what Luther wrote in the sermon on Matth. 18: that God placed forgiveness in every corner and every house where Christians live.

  5. @Holger Sonntag #4

    I used the extreme example to show the issue at root. I absolutely agree that the Keys are given to the entire Church, and in times of necessity, any Christian may become pastor to another. But Christ also gives an Office by which the Keys are to be normally exercised. When there is reasonable recourse to one who holds both the Office and the Keys, we should be following Christ’s Word on both counts… hence our Confessions’ emphasis on this point.

    I don’t mean to be vulgar in the comparison, but God’s gift of sex and His order of Marriage, seem to me a parallel. Any mature human being is capable of exercising sexuality, and in the case of necessity, may even do so without the norms of holy matrimony (ostensibly administering marriage to each other.) However, use of the universal gift of sexuality outside the created order of Marriage creates all kinds of problems, and ends up a violation of God’s Law. It seems to me, that separating God’s Order from God’s Gifts, is always perilous, and more often than not, destabilizing and sinful.

    Again, I think our Confessions are crystal clear on this subject. When we have to go hunting for less clear writings, inside or outside the Confessions, to justify our divergence, I think we invite many unneccesary problems. Far better, I think, to simply live according to them… which is our voluntary subscription, after all.

  6. @Holger Sonntag #4
    I would take that to mean that that unrepentant sinner is actually no longer unrepentant, but repentant. Why else would he have asked for “release”? Just to go to communion and arrogantly snub the pastor and his holy office — why not just go to communion without that release for even greater effect?

    Last first: if he was excommunicated, he would stay that way until he spoke to the Pastor, and he would not be communed in that church.
    [“Down the road”, who knows?] 🙁

    If he were repentant, he should speak to the Pastor. (And it would be evident to the public also that his lifestyle had changed.)

    We give the Pastor responsibilities with ordination/installation. If you think Joe the Bartender can fulfill them just as well, why do you have a Pastor?

  7. @helen #6
    I did forget to mention that the congregation concurs in excommunications so nobody should get around one so easily as ‘cutting a deal’ with an individual.

  8. @Brad #5

    @helen #6
    Brad, first off, I’m glad you agree that in cases of necessity, every Christian may exercise the keys. Think of how many infants came into Christ’s kingdom of grace by means of an emergency baptism.

    I agree with you that, if there’s genuine repentance on the part of the excommunicated sinner, that needs to be made public as well — he needs to be received back into the church by the pastor in the name of the whole congregation / Church.

    And that’s exactly what Luther writes in the sermon the CTS opinion quotes.

    By the way, Luther’s writings are not “some less clear writings” somebody found on some dusty attic. When you read the Preface to the Book of Concord / Formula of Concord, you see that the 16th century confessions desire to be nothing other than summaries of Luther’s biblical theology. That’s why the Solid Declaration called him the chief teacher of our church.

    Also consider that in 1536/37 he wrote the Smalcald Articles (the sermon is from 1537). Read what it says there about the keys and the riches of God’s mercy, including a quote from Matth. 18, regarding the mutual conversation of the brethren.

    Yes, Hellen, agreed, he would stay excommunicated until the ban was “officially” lifted by the congregation. However, if he comes to genuine repentance and faith prior to that, e.g., by means of a fellow Christian absolving him, he would go to heaven if he died before the ban got officially lifted. And he should be a afforded a Christian funeral, if there are witnesses for this conversion.

    In other words, there’s a delay to the official church actions of excommunication and reinstatement to membership: those who are dead in their sins already are excommunicated. Those who have been brought back to life by the gospel (e.g., by a sermon in church or a law-gospel conversation at the house) are then received back into membership.

    True enough, we do give the pastor certain responsibilities. And as far as the whole of the congregation is concerned, “Joe the Bartender” may not fulfill them. However, if the eternal salvation of a soul in an emergency situation is concerned, every Christian may and even must speak. As Brad pointed out, that’s in the confessions too.

    In other words, what’s given to the one is not absolutely taken away from the other. Luther put it best: all have the keys, but not all may use them “publicly.”

    When I read Luther’s sermon mentioned above — (/beginning of plug) which I just translated for publication by Lutheran Press (end of plug/) — I see the great joy in him that Christ has provided the church so richly with his saving forgiveness: at church by the pastor; wherever there are Christians; whenever a sinner repents.

    Surely, Luther wasn’t about abolishing the pastoral office and crumbling it all into some “everybody a minister” soup. However, he was one who, throughout his life, vividly experienced the horrible pangs of consciences caused by the law and the temptations and assaults by the devil and hell itself.

    That’s why I think he was so glad about what he read in Matth. 18, even though he in 1537 (20 years after he started his work of reformation!!) still felt that excommunication, regarding sins of life (such as adultery), could not be begun in his congregation because he didn’t have the right people for it yet (they weren’t taking God’s word sufficiently seriously yet).

    I submit that most of our congregations today are worse off than Wittenberg’s St. Mary / All Saints.

    What does that mean for the practice of excommunication?

  9. Addendum: Also consider in this whole business the role of parents, both for imparting Christian instruction as well as for dealing with their children’s sins in law and gospel. That’s why Luther said: without the parents labors, the pastor can accomplish nothing.

  10. Holger,

    I think there is much we agree upon here. And not to pick at nits, I would note that the introductory sections of the Formula of Concord, roots the following discussions and resolutions of error, first in Holy Scripture, the Creeds, the Augustana and its Apology, and then the other writings. In essence, to my reading, the Formula of Concord does not presuppose or impose all the writings of Luther as of equal confessional worth, though obviously, many of them are of great and enduring value.

    And so, the Augustana and the Apology make clear, what might otherwise have been misunderstood in misinterpreting Holy Scripture– Confession/Absolution is a Sacrament, and no one should publicly preach, teach, or administer the Sacraments without a regular call. Discussions of extremes or exceptions don’t over write that fundamental confession– or as might otherwise be said, we don’t build our theology on the exceptions, but on the rule. Else we find ourselves with the Enthusiasts and the Pietists, using the thief on the cross as reason to discard the necessity of Holy Baptism, or the Priesthood of all believers to discard the necessity of the Pastoral Office, etc.

    It has been my observation over the last decade or so, that one of our Synod’s fundamental problems, arises from the confusion we’ve created, by bluring the lines between God’s Gifts, and God’s Order. It boils down to a Law and Gospel dynamic, and I think we need to restore clarity on these kinds of issues.

  11. @Holger Sonntag #8
    I submit that most of our congregations today are worse off than Wittenberg’s St. Mary / All Saints.
    What does that mean for the practice of excommunication?

    It means that it’s almost never done.

    So there’s not much point in discussing whether a layman’s uncorroborated “forgiveness” would substitute for the absolution given by the Pastor in the name of Christ. One of the Pastor’s responsibilities is to prevent the unrepentant from communing to his own detriment. The Pastor has to do that from his own knowledge.

    I would say that if a layman attempted to “snub the Pastor” and demand communion as a right, the Elders should take that person “out to the woodshed”. Communion is a privilege which he would have forfeited by unrepentantly “snubbing” the Pastor.

    You’ve now carried the question forward to whether he would receive Christian burial if he died before speaking to the Pastor, and you’ve provided witnesses to his conversion, which would make that possible. That would indeed make “an extreme case” for the necessity of lay forgiveness. 🙂

  12. @Brad #10
    Note that AC XIV speaks of “public”. That’s also clearly Luther’s position. The reality that fellow Christians can forgive your sin in the home or at work is not ruled out thereby.

    @helen #11
    I don’t think there’s something like “lay forgiveness” (or pastoral forgiveness, for that matter). As we all know, no one can forgive sin but God. So, whenever there is forgiveness bestowed, it always comes from God, is always for Christ’s sake, always comes by means of an audible word — whether that word is then concretely spoken by the pastor or a fellow Christian is immaterial.

    What “corroborates” it is in every case God’s own mighty word, not some office someone may or may not hold. Otherwise, we’ll fall back into the Romanist error where you have to have the sacrament of order for all the sacraments bestowed to be “valid.”

  13. @Holger Sonntag #12


    I do note the word “public,” and I also note that the Roman Confutation and the Apology for the same Article, presume a fundamental understanding of the Pastoral Office in harmony with historic Christian orthodoxy. While every Christian is called to forgive the one who sins against us (cf. The Lord’s Prayer,) the normative exercise of the Keys is by the one to whom the Office has been confered. Only in the most exceptional of circumstances, is the Office Christ established, to be circumvented.

    Likewise with Baptism and Communion, and Preaching.

  14. @Holger Sonntag #12
    What “corroborates” it is in every case God’s own mighty word, not some office someone may or may not hold.

    I think you may have misunderstood me. If a case proceeded as far as excommunication (by the Pastor, the congregation concurring), the Pastor would need something more than the guilty party’s ‘assertion’ that he had been forgiven by his neighbor and was thereby free to commune.
    The Pastor has used the binding key; he needs a reason to use the loosing key before this episode is over and done with.

    To be sure, God’s own Word is involved, but the notion that a single layman can cancel an excommunication is a novelty at best, and an error otherwise.

    I see now that the post immediately previous may have said it better.

  15. @Brad #13
    True enough.

    I’d just say that the “normative” exercise is by the one who uses the keys scripturally. Ordinarily that should be the pastor.

  16. @Holger Sonntag #16
    Indeed. And it is a far cry from upholding appropriate practice under normal circumstances to question the *efficacy* of the Word of God when spoken under extraordinary circumstances ….

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