Liturgy: Assurance of Pardon

It has been awhile since I last wrote on the subject of liturgy so let us review what we are trying to accomplish in these series of posts. We are following the outline of our worship services[1] and establishing the biblical nature and evidence for these elements of worship. As we explain and describe each element we want to keep in mind that we are not doing so merely to present worship as a cerebral experience. That is as long as you know what you are doing and why you are doing you and others have succeeded in worshipping God in Spirit and in truth (John 4:24). Rather we believe that our worship ought to be done in an “understandable”way (1 Corinthians 14:15) so that we might rightly commune with God. 

And we examine the next portion of our liturgy we see that we are called to understand or comprehend the magnitude of our sins as well the greatness of God’s forgiveness. The law, which was just read, has demonstrated that we are guilty of transgressing it and are worthy of punishment and divine wrath. (Romans 3:19-20; Ephesians 2:3). We should be delighted to hear the assurance of pardon for our sins which is freely given in Christ. However it is appropriate first and indeed a necessity to make a confession of sins (1 John 1:9). But it is not sufficient to merely proclaim a general inclination to sin or a worldwide fall into sin but rather when God’s people hear the law they confess their sins. 

And it is particularly instructive that we are confessing our (plural) sins and not just my (singular) sins. Certainly we must do the latter (Psalm 32:5) but we follow the ebb and flow of the biblical pattern when we also do so as a body in our public worship. Aaron was commanded to lay his hands on the head of the goat, and confess “over it all the iniquities of the children of Israel, and all their transgressions, concerning all their sins, putting them on the head of the goat, and shall send it away into the wilderness “ (Leviticus 16:21 -emphasis’ mine). In the dedication of the temple, Solomon envisioned a time when Israel, repenting of their sins and failures, would confess God’s name pray for the forgiveness of the “sin of your people” (1 Kings 8:34). Daniel prayed by himself and yet said “we have sinned and committed iniquity” (Daniel 9:5). And our Lord Himself taught us to pray “Forgive us our debts”. (Matthew 6:12)

But what practical significance does this hold or have? First of all, it reminds me that these people who I worship with and fellowship and commune with are (surprise!) just like me. It is not just I who is a sinner, nor is it only that publican over there (Luke 18:11ff.) but we all have fallen short of the glory of God. It reminds me that I ought to treat my brother and sister with compassion because, without Christ, we are all condemned and without hope (1 Corinthians 15:14-17). Rather, since I am forgiven and you are forgiven we can forgive one another and willingly so (Ephesians 4:32). So then I may not think of myself as outside the fellowship for my sins, but included as “first among equals” (as Paul would say – see 1 Timothy 1:15).[2]

Second, it tells a listening world that these Christians, amongst whom they may find themselves one day, are not so hypocritical as they thought and maybe more humble than they give them credit. For sin is a universal problem with a particular solution; the Christian has no monopoly on sin but has or knows the only way for its removal: in Jesus. To confess our sins in light of our witness to the world, then, is to say: yes, you need Christ because you are condemned without Him (John 3:18) but without Him so are we! So our corporate confession of sins gives ‘traction’ to the Gospel by proclaiming the Saviour instead of the self. For there is only one mediator between God and men, the man Jesus Christ (1 Timothy 2:5). The biggest hypocrites of all are not the Christians who call sin ‘sin” but those who have no need for forgiveness and (thus) have no antidote to sin. 

But what then of the assurance of pardon? Like the confession of sins, it is corporate since Christ died for His people (Matthew 1:21).  We have a common Saviour and we are called to serve Him. No one person in the body of Christ is to be abandoned or left behind by the Lord’s servants because Christ Himself never abandons His sheep (John 10:28). Our mutual pardon in Christ’s sacrifice is a mutual calling or reminder to our sacrifice for one another (Romans 12:1-3). 

Furthermore the law should never be proclaimed without the gospel (Romans 3:21ff.). The assurance of pardon is a rich promise that all who come to Christ in true repentance and faith are truly forgiven in Him. And everyone of the pages of the God’s Word brim with this wonderful announcement or good news. Thus we should never be tired of hearing it though is repeated from Lord’s Day to Lord’s Day. It is a celebration and it should be received as such (Revelation 5:9ff.).  

Finally, we might ask, how does this assurance to ‘work’? When the pastor reads the text or summary of scripture pronouncing our forgiveness, must we understand that to mean that God is forgiving us through him? We see in John 20:23, for example, that our Lord tells His disciples “If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.” These are strong words and, in the opinion of some, they teach that pastors and priests have power and influence over our ‘forgiven state’. Let me say first of all that the Jesus’ opponents were correct: only God can forgive our sins (Mark 2:7) and He has done so in His Son (vs. 10). Indeed Paul and the other apostles never make the forgiveness of their readers dependent upon their intercession or help. Quite the contrary Paul, like David, ‘conditions’ forgiveness on faith in God’s mercy (Romans 4:5ff.). 

Rather our Lord Himself commanded that we disciple the nations thus presenting the understanding that we may call all people to forgiveness in Him regardless of what they have done. Indeed, as John Calvin notes, Jesus sent His disciples (John 20:21) for this purpose: that all who preach God’s Word forgive in the sense of proclaiming forgiveness. For we have to understand that a proclamation of forgiveness is, in a sense, as good as the act of forgiveness. Though we were not present at the cross or doing any of Jesus’ suffering and did not witness His love for us or His righteous works in our stead we do have the scriptures and we do have the gospel. And when the gospel is faithfully proclaimed we can be assured that we are truly forgiven by God Himself as we trust in His Son for that forgiveness. That is why Paul says Jesus has given him and other gospel preachers “the ministry of reconciliation” (2 Corinthians 5:18) which grants them the authority as ambassadors of Christ to call others to “be reconciled to God” though they themselves, do not reconcile anyone (1 Corinthians 1:12ff.). Thus, like Paul, the pastor or minister has an official calling to bring that gospel message of the forgiveness of sins (Romans 1:1,5; Galatians 1:1,11-12). When we believe in the assurance of pardon as brought to us by the minister we are forgiven; if we do not believe we are condemned.

“‘Now the just shall live by faith; but if anyone draws back, My soul has no pleasure in him.’ But we are not of those who draw back to perdition, but of those who believe to the saving of the soul.” (Hebrews 10:38-39)

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[1] For an outline of our worship services I invite you to visit our “Bulletin” page. There you may download a bulletin to see the order of worship.
[2] Please note that this principle does not ignore or do away with church discipline. Rather it underscores its necessity for sin in the body does not just corrupt one but all (1 Corinthians 5:6ff.). Also because sin is no respecter of persons we judge the public and scandalous transgression being worthy of church discipline on the basis of the act not the person we think they should be. (James 2:1ff.). 

Next post: Liturgy – Prayer

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