Are You Roman Catholic? Part 1: CONFESSION and ABSOLUTION

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Some evangelicals who visit our worship services go away thinking and feeling that they had been to a Roman Catholic church. This is not surprising, because we use words and practices that many evangelicals assume to be Roman Catholic inventions and innovations. We frequently use words such as sacrament, liturgy, confession, absolution, catechism, communion. We do Profession of  Faith and baptize infants and little children.

These are shocking to many who have been accustomed to a form of worship (or liturgy) that is devoid of sense and structure that is popularly called “led by the Spirit.” Moreover, they have no clue about church history and how these doctrines and worship practices developed over 2,000 years since the apostolic age.

So here is Part 1 of a series to allay fears by visitors that we are in some way related to the Roman Catholic Church and are practicing Roman Catholic rituals.

Confession
Sometime ago, someone asked me what our church’s position is on confession and absolution. For evangelicals, these two words conjure up a nightmare of the dreaded Roman Catholic confessional.

Our church’s Reformed liturgy actually starts with a corporate Confession of Sin followed by Absolution. These are preceded by a Reading of the Law. The Law reminds us of God’s holiness and our sinfulness, points us to Christ’s obedience for us, and guides us in our obedience to God’s commandments. It also helps unbelievers see their sinfulness and condemnation (Exod 20:1-17; Deut 5:6-21; Matt 5-7; Gal 3:1-5, 10-12; Matt 22:34-40). The Ten Commandments are read often. An example of the start of our worship service is as follows:

"The Confessional" by Giuseppe Maria Crespi (1665-1747)

"The Confessional" by Giuseppe Maria Crespi (1665-1747)

Entering into God’s Presence

* Call to Worship: Psalm 111:1-10
* Invocation: Psalm 124:8
* God’s Greeting: 1 Peter 1:1-2
* Opening Prayer
* Psalm of Praise: (Psalm 111) O Give the Lord Wholehearted Praise #222:1, 2, 6, 7

Confession of Sin

Reading of the Law: Exodus 20:1-17
Confession of Sin: Psalm 51:3-6, 9-12 (Responsive Reading)
Assurance of Pardon: Psalm 51:13-17

Just over a decade after the Apostle John died, already Pliny the Younger’s letter to Trajan (ca. 111-3 A.D.) implies that the Decalogue was regularly read in the early church’s liturgy. He observes what they do regularly on “a fixed day”:

[T]hey were accustomed to meet on a fixed day before dawn and sing responsively a hymn to Christ as to a god, and to bind themselves by oath, not to some crime, but not to commit fraud, theft, or adultery, not falsify their trust, nor to refuse to return a trust when called upon to do so. When this was over, it was their custom to depart and to assemble again to partake of food—but ordinary and innocent food.

Because the Law exposes our sins (Rom 3:20; 7:7), we confess them and repent before God. The Didache, written in the second century, says this about confession: “first confessing your transgressions, that your sacrifice may be pure.” This confession may be sung, prayed or recited corporately at first, then followed by silent, personal confession.

This humbling start to a church’s worship liturgy has much Scriptural precedence. When God called Israel to assemble for worship at Mount Sinai, they were forbidden to approach the mountain lest they die. They must first offer bloody animal sacrifices to be able to go up the mountain (Exod 24:1-9), a foreshadow of Christ’s sacrifice for our sins so we may be able to “have confidence to enter the holy places by the blood of Jesus” (Heb 10:19).

Obviously, the Reformers took their cue from this Mount Sinai and other Old Testament accounts, opening their worship with confession of sin. John Calvin, in his Institutes 3:4:11, tells us of the importance of this opening confession:

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? … 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. 1

So in 1543, Calvin wrote Confession of Sin below read corporately by the congregation in Geneva. Our church sometimes uses this Confession in our worship service.

Lord God, eternal and almighty Father: We acknowledge before your holy majesty that we are poor sinners, conceived and born in guilt and in corruption, prone to do evil, unable of our own power to do good. Because of our sin, we endlessly violate your holy commandments. But, O Lord, with heartfelt sorrow we repent and turn away from all our offenses. We condemn ourselves and our evil ways, with true sorrow asking that your grace will relieve our distress. Have compassion on us, most gracious God, Father of mercies, for the sake of your son Jesus Christ our Lord. And in removing our guilt, also grant us daily increase of the grace of your Holy Spirit, and produce in us the fruits of holiness and of righteousness pleasing in your sight: Through Jesus Christ our Lord.Amen.

The description of the liturgy of the Reformed church in Strasbourg 2, where Calvin was pastor from 1538-41, says

When the congregation is assembled, the Pastor enters … and begins the Common Worship, [saying] “Make confession to God the Lord, and let each one acknowledge with me his sins and iniquity.”

Absolution
After confession, God declares us pardoned through Christ who made satisfaction for our sins. The minister has authority in Christ to declare forgiveness (Matt 18:18; John 20:23). He may also read 1 John 1:8-9. This is commonly known as absolution, from the Latin word, absolutio, which means “acquittal, pardon.” Zacharias Ursinus, the Heidelberg Reformer, says that when ministers “absolve” the corporate assembly, they “declare and publicly testify the grace of God, and the remission of sins to such as are truly penitent; that is, to those who live in true faith and repentance.” A dictionary defines it as “a formal act of pronouncing the forgiveness of sins.” 3

Also called Declaration or Assurance of Pardon, Calvin spoke of worship that begins with corporate confession followed by the proclamation of absolution by the minister:

For when the whole church stands, as it were, before God’s judgment seat, confesses itself guilty, and has its sole refuge in God’s mercy, it is no common or light solace to have present there the ambassador of Christ, armed with the mandate of reconciliation, by whom it hears proclaimed its absolution (2 Cor 5:20) (Institutes 3:4:14).

This is one of the most unpopular and misunderstood part of Reformed liturgy, even among Reformed churches. Rev. Danny Hyde calls it the “lost keys,” referring to the “keys of the kingdom of heaven”
(Matt 16:19; cf Heidelberg Catechism Q&A 83-85), for the wrong reasons:

It has been lost for so long that when attempts to find and use the absolution in Reformed liturgy occur, the charge of it being too Roman Catholic, too clerical, too ritualistic, too novel, and unbiblical is laid. 4

But it was Jesus himself who told his disciples before he left this world that declaring forgiveness is one of their chief responsibilities, “If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you withhold forgiveness from any, it is withheld” (John 20:23). The importance of the minister’s announcement to the congregation, “Your sins are forgiven you,” is not lost on Calvin, who says in his commentary on Matthew 16:19:

For we know that the gate of life is only opened by the Word of God. From this it follows that the key is put into the hand of the ministers of the Word … For Christ, by setting us free by His Gospel from the guilt of eternal death, looses the snares of the curse by which we were held bound. Therefore He declares that the doctrine is appointed for loosing our chains, so that, loosed by the voice and testimony of men on earth we may in actual fact be loosed also in heaven.

Those who confess their sins are absolved, “not only by men but by God Himself.” To be sure, the minister has no authority in himself to absolve the sins of others. God alone is able to forgive sins, because as Ursinus affirms, ministers can only “loose and remit sins ministerially.” Michael Horton writes:

The minister has no inherent power to forgive sins, but Christ does, and he has called his ministers to proclaim in his name both law and gospel, to close the gate of heaven, and to open it by the ministry of the Word.

Just as God has given to his ministers the authority to preach, he has given the authority to proclaim God’s curse and God’s blessing in his name. They are like the prophets and apostles in this limited respect: In both cases, it is the king who is judging and forgiving through his ambassadors. They are authorized to curse and to bless in his name—an authority that they use as servants rather than as lords (emphasis added). 5

If after the Reading of the Law and Confession of Sin, the congregation does not hear God’s words of grace, mercy, and forgiveness of sins, they are left despairing and hopeless. The Law focuses on man’s moral inability, and the effect on sinners is mourning, as when Israel heard Ezra read the Law to them, “all the people wept as they heard the words of the Law.” But they were assured by the priests that there is joy in forgiveness, “Go your way. Eat the fat and drink sweet wine and send portions to anyone who has nothing ready, for this day is holy to our Lord. And do not be grieved, for the joy of the Lord is your strength” (Neh 8:9-10). Confession, then absolution, is the transition from law to gospel, from guilt to gratitude, from sin to salvation.

While absolution announces forgiveness, the Heidelberg liturgy of 1563 added a declaration of judgment—a “proclamation of God’s curse”—upon the unrepentant sinner after the sermon:

But as there may be some among you, who continue to find pleasure in your sin and shame, or who persist in sin against their conscience, I declare to such, by the command of God, that the wrath and judgment of God abides upon them, and that all their sins are retained in heaven, and finally that they can never be delivered from eternal damnation, unless they repent. 6

This judgment may be unfamiliar, even shocking, to the modern mind, but this is merely the ministerial exercise of the keys: closing the gate of heaven to the impenitent.

Confession and Absolution. These are not Roman Catholic, but catholic and orthodox, in other words, Scriptural doctrines. They are historical practices as well.

 

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Notes:

  1. John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, ed. John T. McNeill, Ford Lewis Battles, trans. (Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1960).
  2. Calvin was “exiled” by the church in Geneva for not acquiescing to the city council’s demands. But after three years in Strasbourg, he was recalled back to Geneva, where he served as pastor again until his death in 1559.
  3. J. G. Davies, ed., The New Westminster Dictionary of Liturgy and Worship (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1986), 1.
  4. Daniel R. Hyde, “Lost Keys: The Absolution in Reformed Liturgy,” Calvin Theological Journal 46:1 (April 2011), 140–166.
  5. Michael Horton, A Better Way, Rediscovering the Drama of God-Centered Worship (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2002), 152.
  6. R. Scott Clark, Recovering the Reformed Confession (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing, 2008), 284.

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