Lecture 17 again; Walther discusses Absolution:
The Protestant churches, so called, which are outside of the pale of the Evangelical Lutheran Church, know nothing of the true way to forgiveness of sin by means of the Word and, in general, through the means of grace. This is evident, in particular, from their rejection of absolution as pronounced by the minister from the pulpit, or in general and private confession. These so-called Protestant churches assert that of all Protestant churches the Lutheran has really been reformed least; for, they say, it still retains much of the leaven of the Romish Church. For proof they cite the gown worn by our ministers when officiating, the wafers used by us instead of ordinary bread at Communion, the crucifix and the lights on our altars, the liturgical chanting of our ministers at the altar, signing persons with the holy cross, and bowing the head at the mention of the name of Jesus. All these matters are innocent ceremonies, on which our Church does not condition man’s salvation here or hereafter, but which it will not permit to be pronounced sin. For no creature has the right to declare something a sin which God has not declared such. Anything that God has neither commanded nor forbidden is a matter of liberty. But the aforementioned churches go a step farther when they assert that the worst papistic leaven and the most abominable remnant of the Papacy in the Lutheran Church is absolution.
Their charge is grounded, first, in their ignorance of what we really teach concerning absolution. They have made an absolute caricature of our doctrine. They are not conscientious enough to investigate the meaning we connect with absolution. They are not so honest to inquire of us what we mean by absolution, but behind our backs they slander us, calling us papists, who would lead our poor people back to Rome. As a rule, these people imagine we teach that by the rite of ordination a minister becomes endowed with a certain mysterious power, which enables him to forgive sin. They imagine we teach that absolution is a privilege of the minister, so that, while sins are forgiven when an ordained minister pronounces these words: “Thy sins are forgiven thee,” these words would be without effect when pronounced by a layman.
Now, everybody knows that such is not our doctrine, but that it is the doctrine of the papists. They could get the information even from our Small Catechism that our doctrine is entirely different; for it states, in the Fifth Chief Part, concerning the Office of the Keys, that the power to forgive sins has been given to the Church on earth; for it says: “The Office of the Keys is the peculiar church power which Christ has given to His Church on earth, to forgive the sins of penitent sinners unto them and to retain the sins of the impenitent so long as they do not repent.” Mark this phrase: “peculiar church power”! It means that the power has been given, not to the preachers, but to the Church. The preachers are not the Church, but only servants [ministers] of the Church. If they are Christians, they belong to the Church, but not if they are not Christians. In that case they are mere hewers of wood and drawers of water for the sanctuary like the Gibeonites in the Old Testament. If they are Christians, they are joint owners with others of the Office of the Keys; however, the keys do not belong to the preachers exclusively, but to the Church, to every individual member of the Church. The humblest day-laborer possesses them just as well as the most highly esteemed general superintendent. Our Church has plainly stated this fact, among other things, in a remarkable story told by Augustine. We read in the Smalcald Articles (Mueller, p. 341; Trigl. Conc.,p 523) : “In a case of necessity even a layman absolves and becomes the minister and pastor of another, as Augustine narrates the story of two Christians in a ship, one of whom baptized the catechumen, who after baptism then absolved the baptizer.”
Once upon a time two persons were traveling in a ship, one of them a converted Christian, the other a pagan. They formed an acquaintance. The Christian proclaimed the Gospel to his new acquaintance, and by the operation of the Holy Spirit the pagan became a believing Christian. Suddenly a fearful tempest arose. Death was staring the passengers in the face, as everybody despaired of being saved. The former pagan’s one supreme wish was that he might receive Holy Baptism before going down into the water, while the Christian was craving for absolution. In this predicament the Christian proposed to the pagan a plan by which both their wishes could be fulfilled: he would baptize the pagan, and the pagan, having been made a Christian, would then absolve the Christian. The plan was carried out, and when they had safely weathered the storm by the protecting providence of God and reached land, the bishop to whom their doings on board ship were reported did not pronounce them invalid, but both the baptism and the absolution were acknowledged to be valid.
[…Walther gives another analogy] Suppose an entire city in a rebellious uprising had formed a conspiracy against its sovereign lord, had slain the king’s son, and all the citizens had forfeited their lives. Suppose the king’s son to advance beyond the limits of the parable to which I am referring — had come to intercede for the rebels and had induced his father to pardon the rebels, to issue a signed manifesto of amnesty, which the son would undertake to announce to the rebels, either personally or by messengers, assuring his father that the rebels would then again become good and grateful citizens and loyal subjects. Suppose the king would yield to his son and, while remaining quietly in his castle, would send out messengers to read in every street the document of amnesty, crying to the rebel citizens, “You have been pardoned!” — to those very citizens who a few days ago had tremblingly viewed themselves as beaten and expected soon to be executed. What would you think of these rebels if they were to say to the messengers: “We do not believe you; the king will have to come himself and make the announcement to make us believe it”? That would be unparalleled impudence. In the case assumed no one would be so reckless; every one would be glad when the messengers approached him with the royal document, signed and sealed, and would read the proclamation: “Herewith I pardon all rebels. I want them to accept this pardon and become good citizens, as they used to be.”
Suppose, furthermore, the messengers did not reach every place, but others who had heard of the pardon were to go into every nook and corner and spread the news, — their announcement would be just as much a decree of pardon as what the messengers were proclaiming. For the pardon would be valid, not because of a special authority of the messengers for offering it, but because the pardon had been decreed, engrossed, and sealed, because, in a word, it had been confirmed and promulgated in the king’s name and by his order.
Now, the case of all mankind is identical with that of those rebels. We are the rebels; our heavenly Father is the King from whom we have revolted, and the Son of God has done everything that was necessary to induce our heavenly King to pardon us. A Lutheran minister, when announcing the forgiveness of sins, or absolving a sinner, does nothing else than communicate to him the intelligence that Christ has interceded for him in his sorry plight and that God has restored him to favor. Moreover, the Lutheran minister does this by order of Christ.