The Pastor’s Office as a Life-Giving Tomb: A Case For Private Absolution
It is the words the pastor speaks that send the dead out alive.
A pastor’s office is no ordinary office. It is a tomb for the dead.
There, those crushed by their repeated slip-ups, beaten by their consciences, pierced by the sharp tip of their transgressions, and bled dry by the law’s constant demands are laid to rest. There, those dead in their sin are buried.
But, just as a pastor’s office is no ordinary office, neither is it an ordinary tomb. While the power of an ordinary tomb lies in its ability to hold the dead, this tomb sends the dead out alive. That is why those dead in sin are laid therein.
How can this be?
Was she a good person who made a few honest mistakes? Did he have an “in” with the man of God? Was their remorse great and their sin small? Did they promise to do better? Come to church more often? Worship more sincerely? Pray more fervently? Confess more earnestly? Give more generously? Did they convince the pastor, and by extension, God, that they could do better with a second chance?
No. The dead can’t speak for themselves. They can present no case, nor make any deal. And as the dead cannot defend themselves, neither can they raise themselves to life.
Then is it the location, or the building, or the furnishing? Does it contain holy furniture? Blessed with divine words? Infused with sacred power? Is it on hallowed ground?
No. These are common materials placed on common ground. No amount of pious incantation can render these objects extraordinary power. No human ability can make the ground holy.
Then maybe it’s the pastor in the office. Does their degree confer a special relationship with God or a secret knowledge about the spiritual realm? Does their position make them more blessed and so truly holier-than-thou? Do they possess an inner strength, power, or spirituality the rest of us lack?
No. The pastor is a sinner like you and me. They need forgiveness, grace, and Jesus’ righteousness like you and me.
Instead, it is the words the pastor speaks that send the dead out alive. These words claim to do what they say. They are words whose power and strength come from the living Lord who once was dead and then rose to life, turning an ordinary tomb into an extraordinary one. The living Lord, who commanded, “If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you withhold forgiveness from any, it is withheld” (John 20:23).
You see, it is not the holder of the office, nor the location or accouterments thereof, but the Word therein. It is the Word through whom all things were created (John 1:1–3). The Word who became human and lived among his people (John 1:14). The Word who became sin, though he knew no sin, that we might become righteous as he is (2 Corinthians 5:21). The Word who died in our place on the cross.
What are these words the pastor speaks? “And by the command of our Lord Jesus Christ, I forgive you your sins, in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.” (Luther, Small Catechism, V).
These are grace-filled words. A soothing song to stinging ears. A comforting blanket to shell-shocked sinners. These words speak God’s promise faithfully fulfilled. They do what they say. They bring God’s absolution and forgiveness. These words raise the dead to life.
It’s not the pastor’s own words or power, but God’s Word, Jesus Christ, who brings comfort and forgiveness to troubled consciences and more. For “where there is forgiveness of sins, there is also life and salvation” (Luther, Small Catechism, VI).
The Word, Jesus Christ, who stormed death’s door on that first Easter Sunday, now storms the door of the tomb of the pastor’s office. And like in that first Easter tomb, he does so, not from without, but from within.
The Word, who rolled back the first stone on the first day of the new creation, brings new life to the dead, to you and to me. Sin, death, and condemnation - our sin, death, and condemnation enter never to emerge again. Once dead, burdened, and enslaved, we walk out forgiven, free, alive, and redeemed.
This is most certainly true.