Having confessed our sins is there a way to know that we are forgiven? The assurance of forgiveness comes from the pronouncement of the minister: “Your sins are forgiven.” If the confession of sin makes low-church evangelicals uncomfortable, the assurance of pardon makes them downright concerned. Can the minister really pardon sins? That is the real question we need to take up. The answer is both yes and no. The minister inherently lacks the ability to pardon sin. That is a prerogative of God alone because of the work of Christ applied to the believer. Therefore, the answer is no. Viewed differently, however, the answer is yes. God has entrusted the keys of the kingdom to the church so that “whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven” (Matt. 16:19). After breathing on the disciples Jesus said,
Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of anyone, they are forgiven; if you withhold forgiveness from anyone, it is withheld (Jn. 20:22-23).
The church, according to the New Testament, is not an appendage to the Christian life but is at the center of the Christian life. The church feeds, by Word and Sacrament; the church forgives sins; and the church, in discipline, declares your sins are not forgiven. The minister functions as the mouth of Christ and of the church. The power rests not in his person or charisma, but in the office itself. Consider a couple of examples with which we are altogether familiar and with which we are altogether comfortable: a wedding and a courtroom. When a minister declares that a couple is married—I now pronounce you husband an wife – or when the judges declares the defendant, “Guilty as charged,” they are then married and guilty, respectively. Before the minister spoke the couple was not married and after he spoke they were married. Before the judge declared the defendant guilty he/she was not guilty. The same happens every Lord’s Day when the minister declares, “Your sins are forgiven.” Historically the minister has done this with uplifted hands as a sign – very much like a gavel – that what is said is so.
This is what Calvin said in his Strasbourg Liturgy:
To all those that repent of in this wise, and look to Jesus Christ for their salvation, I declare that the absolution of sins is effected, in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.– John Calvin
So when you repent of your sins and look to Jesus Christ for your salvation, you can be assured that your sins are absolved in the deep mercy of God. From where does your assurance come? It comes from the very word of God spoken to you by the church through her appointed spokesman, the minister. When doubts creep in and Satan calls into question your forgiveness, hear the words of the gospel and hear the words of the minister, “Your sins are forgiven.”