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.” 1
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. 2
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). 3
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. 4
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.
- 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. ⇧