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Please explain: How are pastors able to forgive sins?

How are pastors able to forgive sins?

I’ve been told, “How dare you!” a few times in my life, most of them shamefully deserved. But this time was different.

It felt like a normal Sunday worship service. Everything seemed to go smoothly, but after the service, someone angrily confronted me, saying, “How dare you!”

Naturally, I replied, “How dare I what?”

She said, “How dare you say, ‘I forgive you all your sins’? Only God can forgive sins.” Then she walked off in a huff, never to return.

That happened a long time ago. But what sticks in my mind to this day is not that I said, “I forgive you all your sins,” but that she said, “How dare you!” What did she mean when she said that?

How dare I!

I can only guess what she meant. If she meant, “How dare you act like some co-redeemer of God? How dare you think or talk like you are the one who seals the deal on forgiveness?”—I agree with her. How dare I!

How can I as a pastor—how can any Christian—assume to be equal to the Son of God who died on the cross for the sins of the world, declaring, “It is finished”? How can we do better than the Father who raised his Son from the dead, saying, “Yes, it is! It is finished indeed!”? It is clear: “No one can redeem the life of another or give to God a ransom for them—the ransom for a life is costly, no payment is ever enough” (Psalm 49:7,8). But God in the flesh can—and has! “In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of sins, in accordance with the riches of God’s grace” (Ephesians 1:7).

Maybe she meant something else. Maybe she meant, “How dare you, a rotten sinner just like us, stand up in front of us and forgive us?” And if she meant that no sinful human being, let alone a pastor, is worthy of forgiving anyone, I agree with her. The insanity of my sin can’t help but make me cry, “What a wretched man I am!” (Romans 7:24). My guilt knows the superlative of who I truly am: “the worst of sinners” (1 Timothy 1:16). In that context, how dare any of us forgive anybody!

But then, isn’t the indignation misplaced? If we are that rotten—and we are—why would God even forgive us? It doesn’t take any imagination to hear God saying of us, “I have seen these people, . . . and they are a stiff-necked people. Now leave me alone so that my anger may burn against them and that I may destroy them” (Exodus 32:9,10). The devil is also in our ear, saying, “You know who you are. What makes you think God would forgive you, of all people? How dare he!”

If those are the things the woman meant, I wish I could have told her, “You’re right. How dare I.” I also wish I could have reminded her what God did with his indignation toward our sin. He took it out on his Son. Listen to Jesus from the cross: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Matthew 27:46). This is the cry of the cursed—for us—in our place. This is what it means that he was delivered over to death for our sins. This is how and why God says to each of us, “I forgive you.”

Think how often you need to hear those three words. As often as possible! Then you understand why Jesus said to his disciples on Easter Sunday, “If you forgive anyone’s sins, their sins are forgiven; if you do not forgive them, they are not forgiven” (John 20:23). What greater message could come from Easter? And what greater message could come from God’s servants to God’s people? This is how and why a pastor says each Sunday, “As a called servant of Christ and by his authority, I forgive you all your sins in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.”

How dare I not!

A faithful pastor sees Jesus’ words in John 20:23 as a duty or charge that Christ has given him and all Christians. He humbly understands that when he says, “I forgive you all your sins,” he is simply acting as an ambassador or spokesman of God’s forgiveness. That’s why he emphasizes, “As a called servant of Christ and by his authority.”

But more than seeing the announcement of forgiveness as a duty or charge, a faithful pastor will cherish it as a gift and privilege. When a pastor says, “I forgive you,” he is not taking any authority that isn’t his to take. He is using the authority that Christ has given him to share God’s saving and life-changing grace with his people. Then it’s not, “How dare I!” but “How dare I not!”

How dare a pastor not forgive people their sins when they ask for forgiveness? This is why a pastor does the work he does. The primary purpose of his call is to proclaim the good news of the gospel and forgive sins, not in his name but in the name of the only true God—Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

I wonder if the woman who said, “How dare you!” would argue with that. I wonder if she’d back down from her indignation and say, “Okay, I hear you. But do you have to say, ‘I forgive you all your sins’? Can’t you say, ‘I assure you that your sins are forgiven’?” Sure. But is it any different? Doesn’t a pastor have to have the same authority to say, “I forgive you,” as he does to say, “I assure you that you are forgiven”? Ah, semantics. But semantics misses the powerful point of John 20:23.

The pastor doesn’t seal the deal when he says, “I forgive you.” Jesus’ resurrection does.

I want to remind you again when Jesus said, “If you forgive anyone’s sins, their sins are forgiven” (John 20:23). On Easter. Why would Jesus specifically give his disciples this charge on the day he rose from the dead? How could he not! It is for forgiveness that Christ came and died on the cross. But “I forgive you,” even from Jesus, has no power or meaning without his resurrection. No, the pastor doesn’t seal the deal when he says, “I forgive you.” Jesus’ resurrection does.

On that same triumphant day, Jesus said, “As the Father has sent me, I am sending you” (John 20:21), meaning, “As the Father has sent me to win forgiveness, so I am sending you to give the forgiveness I have won.” How could we keep such comfort from God’s people? We can’t!

The whole purpose of being a called servant of Christ is to forgive those who repent. This is our gospel command. It’s driven by our risen Savior’s redeeming love. As pastors, we dare not do otherwise. Ask anyone who humbly receives this forgiveness. They would agree because “I forgive you” is exactly what they needed to hear. And they know exactly where it came from—from Christ alone. But they are so grateful to hear it from their pastor.

Author: Daniel Baumler
Volume 111, Number 07
Issue: July 2024

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This entry is part 1 of 54 in the series please explain

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