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Broken chains

Ministry Monday: Please say ‘you’!

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Posted by Tom Woolford, 17 Oct 2016

Tom Woolford pleads for retaining the 'you' in the absolution, instead of making the common low-church evangelical change to 'us.'

Almighty God, our heavenly Father,
who in his great mercy
has promised forgiveness of sins
to all those who with heartfelt repentance and true faith turn to him:
have mercy on 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.

In my earlier years as an evangelical, I would rankle when I heard the absolution delivered in this way. ‘Priestcraft!’ my mind would shout. ‘Say us! Are you not also a sinner needing forgiveness, O vicar? And who are you to presume to declare my sins forgiven?’ I thought, as many do, that ‘have mercy upon us’ was the much humbler, evangelical, protestant version.

Forgive me, Father. I knew not what I was thinking.

These days I long to hear ‘you,’ and though it would be an exaggeration to say that I rankle to hear ‘us’ take its place, my heart does sink a little. For by making that change, we have diluted what should be a (the?) glorious highpoint of our meeting together. We have, I believe, short-changed the gospel.

Notice what switching you to us does to the absolution: it does not just expressly include the presbyter among the people, but fundamentally changes the nature of the whole. It turns it from a declaration into a petition. We rehearse that God our Father promises forgiveness of sins to those who turn to him in repentance and faith; we then ask this God for mercy and pardon:

Have mercy upon us,
pardon and deliver us from all our sins,
confirm and strengthen us in all goodness…

But haven’t we just prayed that a moment earlier? We have just implored,

Have mercy upon us, most merciful Father.
For your Son our Lord Jesus Christ’s sake,
forgive us all that is past;
and grant that from this time forward
we may always serve and please you in newness of life…

The end of the adjusted ‘us’ absolution has cast us backwards in the dynamics of the gospel. We are stuck in an interminable cycle of penitent confession. That’s not a bad thing – but there is something better.

By means of the ‘you’ absolution the president stands in the stead of Christ and declares that the most merciful Father who promises forgiveness to the penitent faithful has actually forgiven you. And this is the gospel, isn’t it? Not that we are made saveable by grace, so that we can now ask for forgiveness; but that we have been saved by grace – it is finished! – and this forgiveness is declared to us as a glorious, accomplished fact.

Suppose you still have scruples about the ‘you’ absolution. What are they?

Is it that you think Christ’s ministers should not presume authoritatively to stand in the stead of Christ – as his representative, not his substitute – and declare that God has actually forgiven someone? Read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest Matthew 18:18 and John 20:23. This is the ministry of the Church, and particularly her leaders.

Or is it that you doubt that by merely speaking words (in repentance and faith) we can truly acquire a spiritual reality? Be disquieted by the fact that Luther, Calvin, Bucer and Cranmer could not recognise such a low view of the power of the spoken gospel word of the preacher and people as evangelical! Paul Avis in The Church in the Theology of the Reformers, summarises their teaching on the minister’s absolution:

Ministers do not simply announce remission of sins: they themselves remit.  They are not like the messenger sent by a prince who tells a prisoner he can go free; they are like the envoy who, in the name of his prince, takes the prisoner by the hand and leads him out of the dungeons to daylight and freedom. His word is fully effectual.

Of course, because Christ is alone my great high priest – the one mediator between man and God; and because all believers have been made into a royal priesthood, I do not strictly need a minister to declare my absolution for me to be absolved, nor indeed even just for me to know it.

But, as Dietrich Bonhoeffer in his classic Life Together so eloquently puts it, “The Christ in my own heart is weaker than the Christ in the word of my brother.” Whether as an accommodation to the vicissitudes and doubts of our own hearts, or whether as a means to create a people united in love – or both – “God has willed that we should seek him and find his living Word in the witness of a brother.”

At this point, one might consider questions of ordination and lay ministry. That is another topic for another day – but permit me to make two notes germane to this discussion. First, it surely makes most sense for the one presiding at the Lord’s Table – the sacrament of forgiveness acquired and applied – to dispense its audible word as well as its visible word. Lay absolution must surely only go with lay presidency. Second, the priesthood of all believers does not necessitate the presbyterate of all believers. It is perfectly reasonable (and evangelical) to believe that the Church can and should call out some specific men from her number to represent Christ to the congregation in dispensing His gospel word – heard and consumed. If the Church calls and charges such men, it surely makes most sense for them to fulfil this function on behalf of the gathered saints.

The evangelical, Protestant, New Testament gospel is about our being justified not by something subjective and within; but by something objective and outside ourselves. I can (and do) pray on my own for God’s forgiveness; but I also need to hear a word outside myself that tells me I am forgiven. Hearing the minister say, ‘have mercy upon you,’ I hear that word from without. I hear the gospel. And I can only hear that word from without in the congregation. Please, O president, don’t short-change me. Please say ‘you’!

Tom Woolford is a Diocese of Blackburn Ordinand, studying at Oak Hill College.

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