Last edited on 23/Oct/2021
The Bible’s Answer
Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, even so I am sending you.” And when he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you withhold forgiveness from any, it is withheld. (John 20:21–23, ESVUK)
When Jesus breathed the Holy Spirit upon his apostles, he conferred upon them the authority to forgive the sins of people, or to withhold forgiveness. This is known as the Office of the Keys, an office which is bestowed upon all men who are ordained as Christian ministers.1,2 Pastors exercise this function by Christ’s authority, through the Holy Spirit, not their own.
From Where Did the Office of the Keys Originate?
The Office of the Keys originates from St Matthew’s Gospel, when Peter declared to Jesus that he is the Christ, the Son of the living God. In Jesus’ response to this, he declared that he will give Peter the keys of the kingdom of Heaven:
And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven. (Matthew 16:18–19)
This promise was fulfilled by Jesus in John 20:22–23. The act of “binding” and “loosing” is similar to a key’s function of locking and unlocking things. The Bible and early Church Fathers teach that one of the things this refers to is forgiving sins or retaining forgiveness, in accordance with St John’s Gospel.3,4
Is Absolution from God or Man?
When Jesus instructed his disciples on church discipline, he showed how pastors exercise the Office of the Keys in these cases:
If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault, between you and him alone. If he listens to you, you have gained your brother. But if he does not listen, take one or two others along with you, that every charge may be established by the evidence of two or three witnesses. If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church. And if he refuses to listen even to the church, let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector. Truly, I say to you, whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven. Again I say to you, if two of you agree on earth about anything they ask, it will be done for them by my Father in heaven. For where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I among them. (Matthew 18:15–20)
Jesus emphasises two points here. First, if the sinner refuses to listen to the church, that is, to pastors and bishops, and as a result he/she is excommunicated, the church’s judgement is not merely from man—God himself has judged the sinner. The judgement pronounced on Earth has been pronounced in Heaven, too (because what is “bound/loosed” on Earth is “bound/loosed” in Heaven).
Secondly, pastors carry this authority because they are Christ’s ambassadors here on Earth, and Christ is among them in their decision. Therefore, when a Christian confesses his or her sins to a pastor, they are confessing them to Christ himself. When the pastor pronounces Christians who have truly repented absolved, this declaration of forgiveness is also from Christ himself.
Should We Keep Private Confession?
The Bible does not lay out clear directions for when or how often private confession to pastors should be done, but it is, nevertheless, a biblical practice that the church should keep (Augsburg Confession XXV 13).5 In fact, St James exhorts us to do so:
Therefore, confess your sins to one another and pray for one another, that you may be healed. The prayer of a righteous person has great power as it is working. (James 5:16)
It is true that we can confess our sins privately to God, or to Christian laypeople, and still receive forgiveness. But Christ has given the Keys of the Kingdom to pastors, and has especially equipped them to deal with these kinds of situations with care and sensitivity (1 Peter 5:1–3). Pastors are also bound by the Seal of Confession to tell no one about what has been confessed to them, which means that all people can be assured that what they reveal to a pastor is confidential, and that they are safe to confess their sins to Christ. Dr. Philip Melancthon wrote:
Confession in the churches is not abolished among us … Our people are taught that they should highly prize the Absolution as being God’s voice and pronounced by God’s command. The Power of the Keys [Matthew 16:19] is set forth in its beauty. They are reminded what great consolation it brings to anxious consciences and that God requires faith to believe such Absolution as a voice sounding from heaven [e.g., John 12:28–30]. They are taught that such faith in Christ truly obtains and receives the forgiveness of sins. (Augsburg Confession XXV 1, 3–5)7
- Does Baptism Save?
- Is Holy Communion the True Body and Blood of Jesus Christ?
- Did Jesus Rise from the Dead?
- Who Is the Holy Spirit?
- Engelbrecht et al., The Lutheran Study Bible, p. 1,825, footnotes John 20:22, 23.
- Hahn and Mitch, Ignatius Catholic Study Bible, p. 200, footnote John 20:23.
- Engelbrecht et al., The Lutheran Study Bible, p. 1,616, footnote Matthew 16:19.
- Hahn and Mitch, Ignatius Catholic Study Bible, p. 36, footnote Matthew 16:19.
- McCain et al., ‘Concordia: The Lutheran Confessions,’ 50.
Engelbrecht, Edward A., Paul E. Deterding, Roland Cap Ehlke, Jerald C. Joersz, Mark W. Love, Steven P. Mueller, Scott R. Murray, Daniel E. Paavola, Victor H. Prange, Robert A. Sorensen, Michael P. Walther, eds. The Lutheran Study Bible. St. Louis, MO: Concordia Publishing House, 2009.
Hahn, Scott, Curtis Mitch. Ignatius Catholic Study Bible: Second Catholic Edition RSV. San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2001.
McCain, Paul Timothy, Edward A. Engelbrecht, Robert C. Baker, and Gene Edward Veith, eds. Concordia: The Lutheran Confessions. Saint Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 2006.