Thursday, September 13, 2012

Reformed Liturgical Confession of Sin and Absolution (3)

Concerning the forgiveness of sins, the last two posts (Here and Here) show that 'the power of forgiving or retaining sins is in the power of the gospel preached' and as Calvin noted, strictly speaking "Christ did not give this power to men but to his word, of which he made men the ministers."

So then, when the Lord's people publicly gather for worship, is it necessary to have a public confession of sin and absolution apart from the hearing of the Gospel in the sermon preached?  Isn't hearing the gospel and believing enough?  And, if there is to be a confession and absolution, how is it to be worded in order to reflect the biblical truth that forgiveness of sins comes through repentance and faith in Christ Jesus alone as proclaimed in that gospel and not by the word of man, even that of a godly minister?

Here's John Calvin addressing that first question concerning public confession of sin:
Seeing that in every sacred assembly we stand in the view of God and angels, in what way should our service begin but in acknowledging our own unworthiness? But this you will say is done in every prayer; for as often as we pray for pardon, we confess our sins. I admit it. But if you consider how great is our carelessness, or drowsiness, or sloth, you will grant me that it would be a salutary ordinance if the Christian people were exercised in humiliation by some formal method of confession. For though the ceremony which the Lord enjoined on the Israelites belonged to the tutelage of the Law, yet the thing itself belongs in some respect to us also. And, indeed, in all well-ordered churches, in observance of an useful custom, the minister, each Lord's day, frames a formula of confession in his own name and that of the people, in which he makes a common confession of iniquity, and supplicates pardon from the Lord. In short, by this key a door of prayer is opened privately for each, and publicly for all. (Institutes 3.4.2)
Our first entrance into the Church and the kingdom of God is by forgiveness of sins, without which we have no covenant nor union with God. For thus he speaks by the Prophet, "in that day will I make a covenant for them with the beasts of the field, and with the fowls of heaven, and with the creeping things of the ground: and I will break the bow, and the sword, and the battle, out of the earth, and will make them to lie down safely. And I will betroth thee unto me for ever; yea, I will betroth thee unto me in righteousness, and in judgment, and in loving-kindness, and in mercies (Hos. 2:18, 19). We see in what way the Lord reconciles us to Himself by His mercy. So in another passage, where he foretells that the people whom he had scattered in anger will again be gathered together, I will cleanse them from all their iniquity, whereby they have sinned against me (Jer. 33:8). Wherefore, our initiation into the fellowship of the Church is by the symbol of ablution, to teach us that we have no admission into the family of God, unless by His goodness our impurities are previously washed away.
Nor by remission of sins does the Lord only once for all elect and admit us into the Church, but by the same means He preserves and defends us in it. For what would it avail us to receive a pardon of which we were afterwards to have no use? That the mercy of the Lord would be vain and delusive if only granted once, all the godly can bear witness; for there is none who is not conscious, during his whole life, of many infirmities which stand in need of divine mercy. And truly it is not without cause that the Lord promises this gift specially to his own household, nor in vain that He orders the same message of reconciliation to be daily delivered to them. Wherefore, as during our whole lives we carry about with us the remains of sin, we could not continue in the Church one single moment were we not sustained by the uninterrupted grace of God in forgiving our sins." (Institutes 4.1.20)
I doubt there are many who would argue against Calvin's reasoning here.  Certainly the practice had a long tradition in church history and was found in all the confessional churches of the Reformation - Lutheran, Reformed, and Presbyterian.  The thing I really want to look at, though, is how the reformers worded the confession of sin and absolution in their liturgies.  Or put another way, how did the reformed ministers of the gospel exercise the keys of the kingdom when it came to public confession of sin and assurance of pardon?  

As you'll see below, the power of forgiveness was anchored in the Gospel and not the minister.  One of the striking things in the following examples is that the minister offers absolution not to just anyone sitting in the pew, but only to those who repent and believe in the gospel.  Absolution is not merely a word proclaimed by the minister.  Rather, it is a sure and certain pardon offered and proclaimed by the minister to all who repent and believe in Christ Jesus for the forgiveness of their sins.  By the hearing of the Good News offered in Christ Jesus via the words of God's ordained minister of the gospel, the faith of the sinner/saint is engaged.  And it is through faith in Christ that forgiveness and mercy are received by the grace of God.

Martin Bucer's 1539 Liturgy:
Public Confession of Sins
Make confession to God the Lord, and let everyone acknowledge with me his sin and iniquity:  Almighty, eternal God and Father, we confess and acknowledge unto You that we were conceived in unrighteousness and are full of sin and transgression in all our life. We do not fully believe Your Word nor follow Your holy commandments. Remember Your goodness, we beseech You, and for Your Name's sake be gracious unto us, and forgive us our iniquity which, alas, is great Amen.
Public Absolution of Sins
This is a faithful saying, and worthy of all acceptance: that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners. (1 Tim. 1:15)
Let everyone, with St. Paul, truly acknowledge this in his heart and believe in Christ. Thus, in His name, I proclaim unto you the forgiveness of all your sins, and declare you to be loosed of them on earth, that you be loosed of them also in heaven, in eternity. Amen.
From 1539 used by John Knox in Scotland and John Calvin in Geneva -
Confession of Sins:
Almighty God, eternal Father, we acknowledge and confess to you that we were born in unrighteousness. Our life is full of sin and transgression; we have not gladly believed your Word nor followed your holy commandments. For your goodness’ sake and for your name’s sake, be gracious unto us, we pray, and forgive us all our sin, which is very great. Amen.
Let each of us come before the face of the Lord, confessing our own faults.
Silent Prayer of Confession
Assurance and Absolution
This saying is true and we should believe it: that Christ Jesus came into the world to rescue sinners. He himself bore our sins in his body on the cross, that we might be dead to sin and alive to all that is good. To all those who repent, therefore, I proclaim to you the forgiveness of all your sins, in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.
The Strasbourg Liturgy of 1545
Public Confession of Sins
My brethren, let each of you present himself before the face of the Lord, and confess his faults and sins, following my words in his heart:
O Lord God, eternal and almighty Father, we confess and sincerely acknowledge before Your holy Majesty that we are poor sinners, conceived and born in iniquity and corruption, prone to do evil, incapable of any good, and that in our depravity we transgress Your holy commandments without end or ceasing; therefore we purchase for ourselves, through Your righteous judgment, our ruin and perdition. Nevertheless, O Lord, we are grieved that we have offended You, and we condemn ourselves and our sins with true repentance, beseeching Your grace to relieve our distress. O God and Father, most gracious and full of compassion, have mercy upon us in the name of Your Son, our Lord Jesus Christ. And as You do blot out our sins and stains, magnify and increase in us day by day the grace of Your Holy Spirit; that as we acknowledge our unrighteousness with all our heart, we may be moved by that sorrow which shall bring forth true repentance in us, mortifying all our sins, and producing in us the fruits of righteousness and innocence which are pleasing to You, through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
Public Absolution of Sins
Let each of you truly acknowledge that he is a sinner, humbling himself before God, and believe that the heavenly Father wills to be gracious unto him in Jesus Christ.
To all those that repent in this way, 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.
1662 (same as 1552) Book of Common Prayer -
Holy Communion
General Confession:
ALMIGHTY God, Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, Maker of all things, judge of all men; We acknowledge and bewail our manifold sins and wickedness, Which we, from time to time, most grievously have committed, By thought, word, and deed, Against thy Divine Majesty, Provoking most justly thy wrath and indignation against us. We do earnestly repent, And are heartily sorry for these our misdoings; The remembrance of them is grievous unto us; The burden of them is intolerable. Have mercy upon us, Have mercy upon us, most merciful Father; For thy Son our Lord Jesus Christ's sake, Forgive us all that is past; And grant that we may ever hereafter Serve and please thee In newness of life, To the honour and glory of thy Name; Through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
ALMIGHTY God, our heavenly Father, who of his great mercy hath promised forgiveness of sins to all them that with hearty repentance and true faith turn unto him; Have mercy upon you; pardon and deliver you from all your sins; confirm and strengthen you in all goodness; and bring you to everlasting life; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
Hear what comfortable words our Saviour Christ saith unto all that truly turn to him.
COME unto me all that travail and are heavy laden, and I will refresh you. St. Matth. xi. 28.
So God loved the world, that he gave his only-begotten Son, to the end that all that believe in him should not perish, but have everlasting life. St. John iii. 16
Hear also what Saint Paul saith. This is a true saying, and worthy of all men to be received, That Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners. 1 Tim. i. 15.
Hear also what Saint John saith. If any man sin, we have an Advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous; and he is the propitiation for our sins. 1 St. John ii. 1.
1662 (same as 1552) Book Of Common Prayer -
Morning Prayer
DEARLY beloved brethren, the Scripture moveth us, in sundry places, to acknowledge and confess our manifold sins and wickedness; and that we should not dissemble nor cloak them before the face of Almighty God our heavenly Father; but confess them with an humble, lowly, penitent, and obedient heart; to the end that we may obtain forgiveness of the same, by his infinite goodness and mercy. And although we ought, at all times, humbly to acknowledge our sins before God; yet ought we chiefly so to do, when we assemble and meet together to render thanks for the great benefits that we have received at his hands, to set forth his most worthy praise, to hear his most holy Word, and to ask those things which are requisite and necessary, as well for the body as the soul. Wherefore I pray and beseech you, as many as are here present, to accompany me with a pure heart, and humble voice, unto the throne of the heavenly grace, saying after me;
A general Confession to be said of the whole Congregation after the Minister, all kneeling.
ALMIGHTY and most merciful Father; We have erred, and strayed from thy ways like lost sheep. We have followed too much the devices and desires of our own hearts. We have offended against thy holy laws. We have left undone those things which we ought to have done; And we have done those things which we ought not to have done; And there is no health in us. But thou, O Lord, have mercy upon us, miserable offenders. Spare thou them, O God, who confess their faults. Restore thou them that are penitent; According to thy promises declared unto mankind in Christ Jesu our Lord. And grant, O most merciful Father, for his sake; That we may hereafter live a godly, righteous, and sober life, To the glory of thy holy Name. Amen.
The Absolution, or Remission of sins, to be pronounced by the Minister alone, standing; the people still kneeling.
 ALMIGHTY God, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who desireth not the death of a sinner, but rather that he may turn from his wickedness, and live; and hath given power, and commandment, to his Ministers, to declare and pronounce to his people, being penitent, the Absolution and Remission of their sins : He pardoneth and absolveth all them that truly repent, and unfeignedly believe his holy Gospel. Wherefore let us beseech him to grant us true repentance, and his Holy Spirit, that those things may please him, which we do at this present; and that the rest of our life hereafter may be pure, and holy; so that at the last we may come to his eternal joy; through Jesus Christ our Lord.
The people shall answer here, and at the end of all other prayers,


  1. Thanks for the warning against sacderdotalism.

    when we deny that each atom of the bread
    contains God completely,
    the clergy priests explain that it makes no difference
    what those sectarians think is happening

    because history tells us, the tradition,
    the story that works
    (not for the sectarians , them we kill)
    that Christ is fully present in the bread

    the clergy chaplains defend the narrative
    thank god this day for constantine
    and all those who make it possible for us to worship
    in liberty and peace

    grateful to the troops
    the killers who stand between us
    and the chaos of apocalypse and liberalism
    thankful we do not have to face revelations

    the soldiers are cheap, their lives also,
    they kill for us so that we don’t have to
    the clergy priests cost more but they assure us

    this is not nostalgia for the past,
    the sacrament is liminal
    here where now is and no there or no then

    We have paid the clergy priests to tell us about the one church
    for all times and all places,.
    to tell us that sectarians are atheists posing as protestants

  2. The forgiveness of sin cannot depend on faith nor can it depend on repentance. Because nobody has perfect faith and nobody has perfect repentance. In lutheranism the forgiveness of sin is an objective reality accomplished in Christ Jesus for all men. Same with the sacraments, the sacraments take away sin. Faith receives the forgiveness of sin. This is why many lutherans such as C W Walther the founder of the Lutheran Church Missouri Synod affirm that the Reformed do not preach the gospel, they left the power of the keys in heaven. The power of the keys has been entrusted to Peter and all the apostles and Ministers in the Church and to every Christian. I agree that the power of the keys lies in the preaching of the gospel, but the gospel is the proclamation of the free forgiveness of sin unconditionally. The forgiveness of sin does not depend on repentance and faith, on the contrary the forgiveness of sin creates repentance and faith, it is the object of faith. Karl Barth understood this very well in the Reformed tradition, and lutherans also understand it when they preach objective justification. The abssolution that is referred in this article is no absolution at all, how can I have assurance that I have been forgiven if my assurance depends on a weak faith ? Impossible. Specially when the confession of sin rightly admits that we haven't believe your word rightly, so faith does not provide any assurance. The only way we can get assurance is through the proclamation of a free forgiveness of sin which precedes and is received by faith. Lutherans and Barth get it right, the reformed know the gospel in their heart and are saved but they do not know in their head.

  3. Imperfect or weak faith in the perfect savior Jesus Christ receives forgiveness of sins .

    "We are justified," Luther states in his Galatians commentary, "not by faith furnished with charity, but by faith only and alone... Faith, Luther writes, "clasps Christ as a ring clasps its jewel"

    "Wherefore when the law accuseth and sin terrifieth thee, and thou feelest nothing but the wrath and judgment of God, despair not for all that, but take unto thee the armour of God, the shield of faith, the helmet of hope, and the sword of the Spirit (Eph. vi 16 ff.), and try how good and how valiant a warrior thou art. Lay hold of Christ by faith, who is the Lord of the law and sin, and of all things else which accompany them. Believing in him thou art justified: which thing reason and the feeling of thine own heart when thou art tempted, do not tell thee, but the Word of God. Moreover, in the midst of these conflicts and terrors which often return and exercise thee, wait thou patiently through hope for righteousness, which thou hast now by faith, although it be yet but begun and imperfect, until it be revealed perfect and eternal in the time appointed." - Luther, Galatians Commentary.

    Me: Even a weak faith in a strong Christ is justified and receives the forgiveness of sins. This is all the ministered is announcing and affirming in the assurance of pardon. Less Barth, more Luther...

    1. Update to clarify: Even [one with] a weak or [imperfect] faith in a strong [and perfect] Christ is justified and receives the forgiveness of sins.

    2. Jack, I understand what you are saying. I still believe the forgiveness of sin has been accomplished for all mankind. Every man born since Adam has been forgiven. This is not Barth's position alone, this is the official position of the lutheran church Missouri Synod and the Wisconsin Synod, the two largest confessional lutheran churches in the US. This was also the position of Luther. It is the lutheran understanding of unlimited atonement (which is different from the Arminian view that denies a universal objective justification of all mankind). The same thing in the sacraments, in baptism Luther affirmed that all sins were remitted, regardless whether the baptized believes it or not. If there is unbelief the forgiveness of sins from baptism is forfeited, but this is not God's fault, who freely forgives sins of all baptized children including those that never come to faith. This is the biblical teaching and it was Luther's teaching. Baptism creates faith, we are commanded to believe that our sins were remitted in baptism, the remission of sins precedes faith. It is called universal objective justification.

    3. When Christ said on the cross Father, forgive them for they know not what they are doing, every sinner from Adam to the last man was forgiven. The Father said yes to Christ's request and the sins of all men and women ever born were taken away. The absolution is based on this universal forgiveness already granted in Christ to all men, and it is for everybody in the pew, including the unbelieving and unrepentant. With that said those that refuse this absolution, those that see no need for it, i.e. the unrepentant shall perish, not because the absolution was not effective but because they rejected the absolution.

    4. Dear Anon... suffice to say, classic Lutheranism believes, as do classic Reformed, that salvation is by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone which is the means and ground of the forgiveness of sins imputed to believers.

      From the Wisconsin Synod web site:
      "The Bible and Lutherans teach that faith is a repentant sinner’s acceptance of Jesus Christ as his only Savior and full trust in his worthiness for forgiveness of sins and salvation. Such faith is not a personal achievement or an act of human worthiness. The Holy Spirit creates faith. Whoever remains in this faith to the end of life will be saved eternally. Salvation is not possible without faith."

      Reformed agree with that statement.

      The question of objective justification and the differences between Lutheran and Reformed soteriology which you want to argue is different discussion which isn't central to this post. Indeed, I think Lutherans get it wrong. John Owen in his book, The Death of Death in Christ, makes the definitive biblical case for particular or limited atonement.

      You're initial objection that forgiveness of sins depends not (as if faith earns pardon) on the faith of a believer isn't anything this post is advocating. Yet without faith there is no receiving the forgiveness of sins. Faith is not the ground for forgiveness of sin, i.e. pardon is not given as owed to faith. Yet without faith, which is given by God in effectual calling, there is no receiving the benefits of salvation such as forgiveness of sins. The forgiven sinner must believe. Faith in Christ as he is presented in the Gospel, wrought in the believer by the Holy Spirit, is therefore indispensable as the sole instrument by which one receives Jesus Christ as Savior along with all the saving benefits of his finished work, including pardon for one's sins.

    5. Jack, you are a brother in Christ and we'll meet each other in heaven. With regard to John Owen and his book the Death of Death in the Death of Christ, let's be clear, just as he does in his book on Justification, Mr. Owen clearly advocated the preaching of the gospel to all sinners (and not to the elect, since only God knows who the elect are). He clearly states that the gospel should be preached based on its sufficiency for all (the infinite value of its death, sufficient to save all that come to Christ). And all I am saying in my post is that the absolution should be given to all in the pew. Your article seemed to imply that it should not be given to all, just like the gospel is preached to all, the absolution is given to all following a public confession of sin. "Upon this your confession, I, as a called and ordained Servant of the Word announce the grace of God to all of you, and in the stead and by the command of my Lord Jesus Christ I forgive you all your sins in the name of Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit." Now I just quoted the absolution as given every Sunday in a Lutheran Church Missouri Synod. As you may notice it is given to everybody in the pew. You point out the absolution is like the gospel, and we both agree, now the gospel is preached to everybody in the pew. And as John Owen teaches it is given based on its sufficiency for all. So the absolution also should be given to everyone in the pew. I believe you make a serious error in your article when you said it is not for all. This is hypercalvinism and not traditional reformed theology. Michael Horton or R Scott Clark would also agree that the absolution should focus on Christ work on the cross which is sufficient for all and upon confession of sin should be given to everybody in the pew, not to some. This is all I was getting at. But as I said at the beginning of my post I consider you a brother in Christ, just stopped by your website, and thought I would point it out.


    6. Bill, you write:
      "You point out the absolution is like the gospel, and we both agree, now the gospel is preached to everybody in the pew. And as John Owen teaches it is given based on its sufficiency for all. So the absolution also should be given to everyone in the pew. I believe you make a serious error in your article when you said it is not for all."

      You misconstrue what I have written. Where do I say absolution should not be offered to all in the pews? Just like the gospel it is 'offered' to all but it is only received by those who believe. The minister has no inherent power to absolve sins apart of anyone apart from their faith in Christ. Thus the assurance of pardon, though offered to all, is only truly given to and thus received by those who trust in Christ. In the same way, "All those who call upon the name of the Lord shall be saved." Not all who hear the offer of the gospel are saved, but those who in faith call upon the Lord Jesus.

      By the way, I don't have any concerns as to whether Michael Horton or Scott Clark (I have guest posted on his blog a number of times and over the last number of years he has regularly linked to my blog) would agree with me on this.


  4. OK, Jack. I probably over reacted or misinterpreted. when you wrote in your post back in 2012 :

    "One of the striking things in the following examples is that the minister offers absolution not to just anyone sitting in the pew, but only to those who repent and believe in the gospel."

    Anyhow I am comfortable that you meant that the absolution is given to all based on the public / corporate confession of sin which everybody in the pew outwardly expresses. We are all good, I love Mike Horton, read most of his books. His exposition of the gospel is every bit as good as the best lutheran ministers. The Reformed can preach the gospel purely, just as much as the lutherans. Not too mentioned my favorite fiction book, Pilgrim's Progress, written by a Reformed author. I love the Reformed. God bless, and didn't mean to be negative, my apologies if I misunderstood you and came across that way.