Not every Christian thinks any of us has the power to do that, so there are lots of arguments. At the time of the early Faust, his part of Germany was the home of Martin Luther’s Protestant reform movement. If Faust was a Protestant, absolution wasn’t available to him, and that explains why he didn’t seek it out.
In the sixteenth century Faust stories, God does not absolve Faust of his sins, and Faust doesn’t ask him to. He is claimed by the Devil, and torn to pieces before being cast into Hell, out of God’s sight for eternity.
Faust is about the dangers of magic, of arrogance, of attempting to gain control over God and subvert His Purpose. In those earlier times, there was a tangible danger that Faust’s sins would draw the enmity of the Lord on Faust and on his neighbours, too.
But after the seventeenth century, the battle is being lost. Apologists rationalize God’s forgiveness, and Faust is saved. Faust’s dangerous and arrogant behaviour is forgivable if he can maintain his focus, because the pursuit of knowledge and spiritual betterment in the image of God is a noble pursuit.
In the ensuing centuries, man has stepped out from God’s shadow, and faces Him. With no response, he turns away. God is silent. Man investigates.
21 “He said therefore to them again: Peace be to you. As the Father hath sent me, I also send you.
22 When he had said this, he breathed on them; and he said to them: Receive ye the Holy Ghost.
23 Whose sins you shall forgive, they are forgiven them; and whose sins you shall retain, they are retained.” – John 20:19-23 Douay-Rheims 1899 American Edition.
Roman Catholic Church
“God, the Father of mercies, through the death and resurrection of his Son has reconciled the world to himself and sent the Holy Spirit among us for the forgiveness of sins; through the ministry of the Church may God give you pardon and peace, and I absolve you from your sins in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.” – Catholic Prayer of Absolution
Absolution is pronounced by the Church. It is a part of the religious sacrament of penance and reconciliation. It begins with the sinner’s confession of their specific sins. The sinner or penitent, must be sincere in their confession and their desire to remove their sin, otherwise the process is empty and valueless, and the sinner’s sin is compounded.
The priest may then then assign a penance and offer absolution.
In the tale of Mary of Nijmegen, the penance given to her was to wear iron rings until they wore thin and fell off, indicating God’s forgiveness.
In Goethe’s Faust, God intercedes and forgives Faust, though still Faust hasn’t repented. Of course Goethe’s Faust isn’t Catholic, either.
There are issues about the right of the Church to offer absolution, since it is recognized that man cannot know God’s intention, and cannot presume to offer absolution in His name.
The Church recognized this at the Council of Trent in the mid-16th century (5-20 years before the estimated writing of the first Faust story), but maintained that it had inherited the authority given directly by Jesus to the apostles, including Peter (John 20:19-23).
The Church’s authority thus comes from Jesus, and is transmitted to the priesthood through Peter, the foundation of the Catholic Church. Critics say that there is no evidence that Jesus intended the power to be transmitted to successive generations of priests (indeed, no evidence that he intended that there should be priests), or that the Church is the true apostolic successor.
Absolution forgives the guilt associated with the penitent’s sins, and removes the eternal punishment (Hell) associated with mortal sins. As real damage may have been done, the penitent is still liable for punishment here on Earth, unless the Church applies an indulgence, which at times could be bought from a priest – which was something else the Protestants didn’t like.
The Reformed traditions
Other non-Catholic churches generally don’t claim to have the God-given authority to grant absolution, or they may grant it for the general congregation, and not so much for specific and individual acts of confession. They leave that to God.
Sources and references