Why does the Pastor say “I forgive you your sins?” Who does he think he is?
In Mark 2:7, the teachers of the Law rightly ask, “Who can forgive sins but God alone?” Only God has the authority to give this forgiveness. What they missed was that Jesus is God, but let us not forget that Jesus is also man. Because of this (the incarnation), we see that God is able to exercise His authority to forgive sins through human agency. In the Scriptures, God gives His forgiveness through the means of an actual human person speaking audible words. In 2 Samuel 12:13, the prophet Nathan declares to David that his sins of adultery and murder are forgiven. In John 20:22-23, Jesus gives to His disciples the authority to forgive sins. Why would Jesus give this authority to other men? So that we can actually hear Christ’s words of forgiveness spoken to us, and not just read or think them. A spoken word comes to us from outside of us; this gives us the assurance that our promise of forgiveness is not a vain hope, misguided feeling, or figment of our imagination. Christ has sent (Apostl-ed) His ministers into the world to disperse His forgiveness far and wide, in order that you may receive it. The Absolution spoken to us by the Pastor is simply a declaration that we have been forgiven through Christ. However, this declaration also does what it says. For example, at a wedding, a Pastor might say, “By the authority vested in my by the state of New York, I now pronounce you man and wife.” Legally, this pronouncement actually makes the couple a wedded family; it’s called “performative speech.” In the same way, God’s pronouncement of forgiveness, to you, through your pastor, actually gives the forgiveness it declares. God has given his church the authority, responsibility, and mission to bring God’s forgiveness to a hurting world, and thus it is by His authority that a Pastor says “I forgive you.” How can we be sure these words work? What if I don’t feel forgiven? Believe the words that Jesus says in Matthew 18:18, and Luke 10:16. The gift of forgiving sins, which is the “keys to the kingdom” (i.e. having our sins forgiven brings God’s kingdom to us), is given to the Church at large, and not just the pastors. However, when a congregation calls a Pastor to exercise Word and Sacrament ministry publicly on their behalf, we give him the responsibility, through Christ’s authority, to be Christ’s representative (symbolic) in this matter. So why does a Pastor say “I forgive you?” Because Jesus told him to, and we asked him to.