Aren’t these Roman Catholic stuff?
For evangelicals, these three words conjure up a nightmare of a confessional, adoration of the host, and other forms of Roman Catholic sacerdotalism. James asked me about these things:
Please tell me what your church’s position is (in practice) on the following issues:
1. Confession and absolution.
2. The nature of communion, or Lord’s Supper.
I thought that a discussion of these matters would profit not just James but others who are wondering what a Reformed church is all about. So instead of just answering his email, or post my answer on Facebook, I’m posting my brief answers here.
Our 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.
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, 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 the description of the liturgy of the Reformed church in Strasbourg, of which 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.”
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.” 2
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. 3
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.” But, as Michael Horton says:
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). 4
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. 5
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.
Communion, or Holy Communion, is another one of evangelicalism’s most dreaded words. Again, however, this is another biblical word, from the Greek koinonia, which means “close association involving mutual interests and sharing,” and commonly translated as “communion,” “fellowship,” or “participation.” 6 The two most familiar usages are:
The cup of blessing that we bless, is it not a koinonia in the blood of Christ? The bread that we break, is it not a participation in the body of Christ? (1 Cor 10:16)
The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ and the love of God and the koinonia of the Holy Spirit be with you all (2 Cor 13:14).
So when we receive the bread and the wine, we “participate” and “fellowship” with the body and blood of Christ, and with one another.
It is also used in the sense of “sharing” material possessions with brethren, “For Macedonia and Achaia have been pleased to make some koinonian for the poor among the saints at Jerusalem”
(Rom 15:26); and sharing in the sufferings of Christ, “that I may know him and the power of his resurrection, and may koinonian his sufferings, becoming like him in his death…” (Phil 3:10).
So the Lord’s Supper is much more than a mere memorial service, “Do this in remembrance of me,” as most evangelicals believe it to be. It is not even a public declaration of one’s faith in Christ. Rather, it is a participation, fellowship and sharing of his body and blood. This is shocking to everyone who first hears such a “Catholic” view of the Supper, as R. Scott Clark says,
Our spiritual union with Christ, which Jesus called eating His flesh and drinking His blood, leads the Christian naturally to think of the communal, formal, sacramental expression of that ongoing, daily eating of Christ that Calvin called our “mystical union’”with Christ (unio mystica).
Jesus’ words in John 6:54, “Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood,” are quite shocking to us super-spiritual evangelicals. But such sacramental use of the ordinary is the character of redemptive history. The Lord’s Supper, like the Old Covenant feasts that preceded it, involved the sacred use of ordinary things because grace does not replace creation; it renews it. 7
Our individualistic culture has also twisted our minds into thinking that Christianity is “personal.” But from the very beginning, God has chosen a people for his own, not individuals–”you and your children after you.” The Supper is not an individual, but a “communal” feast, a “communion” of the saints, “But if we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have koinonia with one another, and the blood of Jesus his Son cleanses us from all sin” (1 John 1:7). As Clark once again cautions,
We have come to think of the Christian life primarily as a private affair between God and us in our prayer closet. Jesus conducted His ministry and instituted the Supper in a corporate setting, at a feast; and the New Covenant feast was intended to be a communal act of worship as well, not a private spiritual exercise. (See Acts 2:42-46; 20:7-11; 1 Cor 5:7-8; 10-11.) … The Bible, however, deals with man, not only as a solitary unit in his relation to God, but also as a member of a spiritual society, gathered together in the name of Jesus.
But this communion is not the same as the Roman Catholic doctrine of the Eucharist. Beginning with the Fourth Lateran Council in 1215, the medieval Roman church started teaching that at consecration the substance of the common bread and wine is transformed into Christ’s substance (transubstantiation) while their physical properties remain as is. The Roman church denies it, but in this view, the priest seems to be performing a magician’s trick, a hocus pocus. In fact, this colloquialism derives from hoc est corpus meum (“This is my body,” Luke 22:19, Latin Vulgate) when Christ instituted this sacrament.
Although Martin Luther did not view the Lord’s Supper as a hocus pocus, these words of institution also caused a controversy which split the Reformation into two major camps, the Reformed and the Lutherans, in 1529 after the Colloquy at Marburg. Ullrich Zwingli opposed Luther’s view of the “real presence” of Christ “in, with, and under” the elements, prepositions that are difficult even for theologians. To be sure, Luther’s “real presence” is much stronger than Zwingli’s memorialism, but it is easily misunderstood as too close to Rome’s transubstantiation.
Enter Calvin’s “real presence.” While rejecting both Rome’s and Luther’s views of Christ’s real physical presence in the elements, he argued strongly that Christ was truly and really present–but spiritually, by faith. In his “Short Treatise on the Supper of Our Lord,” he says,
[A]ll the benefit which we should seek in the Supper is annihilated if Jesus Christ be not there given to us as the substance and foundation of all. That being fixed, we will confess, without doubt, that to deny that a true communication of Jesus Christ is presented to us in the Supper, is to render this holy sacrament frivolous and useless—an execrable blasphemy unfit to be listened to.
And not only is he truly present: as bread and wine nourish us physically, so also Christ’s body and blood signified in the bread and wine truly and really nourish our souls. Again, he says,
Moreover, if the reason for communicating with Jesus Christ is to have part and portion in all the graces which he purchased for us by his death, the thing requisite must be not only to be partakers of his Spirit, but also to participate in his humanity, in which he rendered all obedience to God his Father, in order to satisfy our debts, although, properly speaking, the one cannot be without the other; for when he gives himself to us, it is in order that we may possess him entirely. Hence, as it is said that his Spirit is our life, so he himself, with his own lips, declares that his flesh is meat indeed, and his blood drink indeed (John 6:55). If these words are not to go for nothing, it follows that in order to have our life in Christ our souls must feed on his body and blood as their proper food. This, then, is expressly attested in the Supper, when of the bread it is said to us that we are to take it and eat it, and that it is his body, and of the cup that we are to drink it, and that it is his blood. This is expressly spoken of the body and blood, in order that we may learn to seek there the substance of our spiritual life.
Thereafter, our Reformed confessions affirm the doctrine set forth by Calvin. Heidelberg Catechism Q&A 76 affirms that eating Christ’s body and drinking his blood means:
to be so united more and more to His sacred body by the Holy Spirit, who dwells both in Christ and in us, that, although He is in heaven and we on earth, we are nevertheless flesh of His flesh and bone of His bone, and live and are governed forever by one Spirit, as members of the same body are governed by one soul.
Furthermore, Q&A 79 explains how the Supper nourishes our souls:
[A]s the bread and wine sustain this temporal life, so also His crucified body and shed blood are the true meat and drink of our souls unto life eternal; but much more, by this visible sign and pledge to assure us that we are as really partakers of His true body and blood by the working of the Holy Spirit, as we receive by the mouth of the body these holy tokens in remembrance of Him.
Finally, the Westminster Confession of Faith 29:7 summarizes the Reformed doctrine of the Lord’s Supper succinctly:
Worthy receivers, outwardly partaking of the visible elements, in this sacrament, do then also, inwardly by faith, really and indeed, yet not carnally and corporally but spiritually, receive, and feed upon, Christ crucified, and all benefits of his death: the body and blood of Christ being then, not corporally or carnally, in, with, or under the bread and wine; yet, as really, but spiritually, present to the faith of believers in that ordinance, as the elements themselves are to their outward senses.
Confession, Absolution, Communion. All these are not Roman Catholic, but catholic and orthodox, in other words, Scriptural doctrines.
- John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, ed. John T. McNeill, Ford Lewis Battles, trans. (Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1960). ⇧
- J. G. Davies, ed., The New Westminster Dictionary of Liturgy and Worship (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1986), 1. ⇧
- Daniel R. Hyde, “Lost Keys: The Absolution in Reformed Liturgy,” Calvin Theological Journal 46:1 (April 2011), 140–166. ⇧
- Michael Horton, A Better Way, Rediscovering the Drama of God-Centered Worship (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2002), 152. ⇧
- R. Scott Clark, Recovering the Reformed Confession (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing, 2008), 284. ⇧
- Walter Bauer, Frederick Danker, William Arndt, William, F. Wilbur Gingrich, A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature, 3rd ed., (Chicago, Ill: The University of Chicago Press, 2000), 552-3. ⇧
- R. Scott Clark, “The Evangelical Fall from the Means of Grace,” in John H. Armstrong, ed., The Compromised Church: The Present Evangelical Crisis (Crossway Books: Wheaton, IL, 1998). ⇧