In the comments to my previous post, the question arose as to whether laypeople were permitted to share the gospel “neighbour to neighbour”, given Luther’s insistence that the ministry of the Word should be reserved to those who are duly called.
The answer must be an emphatic “yes”. There is a crucial difference between the public ministry of the Word, and the sharing of the gospel by individual Christians in a personal/social setting. Dan has a great post in which he illustrates this with the analogy of a school physics teacher:
Could I teach high school physics? Probably, but I am not in the “office” of the physics teacher. It would be reasonable for me to look at someone’s homework and offer suggestions, but you would have no business asking me to teach you an entire high school physics course. No accredited school would take your credit from my course.
In the Babylonian Captivity (see previous posts 1 | 2), Luther goes even further, by arguing that lay Christians are able to absolve one another. He attacks the practice of reserving certain “secret” sins as ones which only a bishop or the pope can absolve, arguing that:
In the first place, Christ speaks in Matthew 18:15-17 of public sins and says that if our brother hears us, when we tell him his fault, we have saved the soul of our brother … How much more will it be true of secret sins, that they are forgiven if one brother freely makes confession to another? (pp.213f.)
Luther bases this partly on Christ’s word that “if two of you agree on earth about anything they ask, it will be done for them by my father in heaven” (Matthew 18:19), arguing that:
…the brother who lays his secret sins before his brother and craves pardon, certainly agrees with his brother on earth, in the truth which is Christ. (p.214)
So he continues:
Hence, I have no doubt but that every one is absolved from his secret sins when he has made confession, privately before any brother, either of his own accord or after being rebuked, and has sought pardon and amended his ways … For Christ has given to every one of his believers the power to absolve even open sins. (p.214)
Luther calls on the church authorities of his time (this is before his excommunication by the pope) to:
…permit all brothers and sisters most freely to hear the confession of secret sins, so that the sinner may make his sins known to whomever he will and seek pardon and comfort, that is, the word of Christ, by the mouth of his neighbour.
That said, Luther clearly regarded it as the norm that a Christian would seek absolution from their pastor (see, for example, the Small Catechism). I assume this is partly for the sake of good order – in particular to avoid laypeople setting themselves up as “freelance confessors” – and partly for the increased assurance we enjoy from hearing the word of God’s forgiveness pronounced to us by one who is not only our fellow believer, but a “called and ordained servant of Christ”, bearing the specific promise that “If you forgive anyone his sins, they are forgiven” (John 20:22-23).
But if any of us is speaking to someone who is troubled in their conscience and needs to hear afresh the promise of God’s forgiveness, then we should not be afraid to declare that promise to them in the most direct terms; and those of us who hear that promise from the lips of our brother or sister should not be afraid to receive it as “the word of comfort spoken by God himself” (p.212).