Monday, July 16, 2012


What goes on in worship after the Confession of Sin? The Declaration of Forgiveness. That’s according to the Book of Common Worship (1993)(BCW)—at least that’s what it says in the order of service.

If you look at that part of the same book that lays out the “Basic Movement of the Service for the Lord’s Day,” you’ll find that it’s clear whose forgiveness is being conveyed:

"The people gather in response to God's call, offering praise in words of scripture, prayer, and song. The people acknowledge their sinfulness and receive the declaration of God's forgiveness." (Emphasis mine.)

In still another part of the BCW, “The Service for the Lord’s Day: A Description of Its Movement and Elements,” you’ll read this paragraph:

"Having confessed our sin, we remember the promises of God's redemption, and the claims God has on all human life. The assurance of God's forgiving grace is declared in the name of Jesus Christ. We accept God's forgiveness, confident that in dying to sin, God raises us to new life." (Emphases mine.)

It seems that other Christians flaunt similarly diverse terms for this act of worship: Assurance/Declaration/Affirmation of Pardon, Declaration of Divine Grace, and Absolution. I suppose there are probably more.

I bring this up, not to point out the imprecise nature of our liturgical language, but to raise the question of the liturgical role played by the person pronouncing these assurances, declarations, affirmations and absolutions.

In the liturgy of the BCW, these statements are aimed directly at the people in the pews by the speaker, presumably the pastor or presider:

"I declare to you in the name of Jesus Christ, you are forgiven."

In this, the speaker appears to carry out a priestly function. We don’t have priests, of course, but sometimes the liturgy calls upon presiders to be priest-LY, to be the communicator from God to people, and this is one of them.

The Reformation understanding of the Priesthood of Every Believer squelched any thought that any one person must be the mediator of our relationship with God. By virtue of the New Covenant, Jesus became the sole Mediator for all God’s people.

Nevertheless, the Declaration of Forgiveness runs the risk of looking like what we don’t believe in. Yes, that’s not a priest doing that, but it looks “priest-ly”. It’s a temptation to arrogance, suggesting that the pronouncer of pardon is above the sinners who need it.

So, what to do?

Looking back in history to the 1946 version of the Book of Common Worship, we find that the “Assurance of Pardon” to be said by the minister, in the first order, reads:

"Almighty God, who doth freely pardon all who repent and turn to Him, now fulfill in every contrite heart the promise of redeeming grace; remitting all our sins, and cleansing us from an evil conscience; through the perfect sacrifice of Christ Jesus our Lord."

The declaration or assurance includes the speaker! Pardon is assured for the minister as well as the people. He or she is in the same leaky boat of sin as everyone else, and personally affirms for him- herself the much-needed bailing out from God.

To be sure, one thing it would require is that the pastor/presider would have to pray the confession of sin personally and not just lead others in its recitation. If that is genuinely done, then the declaration or assurance including the speaker would be heartfelt as well.

What would happen if we pluralized those assurances and declarations of pardon and forgiveness so that the pastor/presider is one of the people? Perhaps this would narrow the lay-clergy gap in some churches. This small change would move the Declaration of Forgiveness from looking and sounding priestly to being more pastoral, less condescending and more compassionate.

Not a bad shift in tone for our liturgy.

How is the Declaration of Forgiveness conveyed to the people in your church?

1 comment:

  1. I don't feel comfortable saying, "Your sins are forgiven." I remember Thomas Merton's statement that "we should never be surprised at evil in the church because, it is after all, a house of sinners." I think somewhere in Paul's letters he points out that we all fall short in the category of righteousness before God. So I say, "Our sins are forgiven."


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