Dear Church Family,
In our examination of the elements of our corporate worship service, most recently we looked at the importance of confessing our sins, corporately and privately. Just as it is important to examine ourselves, confess and repent of our sins, it is equally important to know that according to the promises of God, our sins are forgiven through faith in Christ. So, upon confessing our sins, the minister asks the congregation to rise in order to hear God’s assurance of pardon.
Condition of Means, Not Merit
In preface to the assurance of pardon, the minister declares, “Hear the promises of God to those who repent of their sins and trust in Christ.” Faith (trusting in Christ) and repentance (turning from one’s sins and seeking forgiveness) are inextricably linked together. They are inextricably linked in Scripture (Mark 1:15 – Jesus’ message was: “repent and believe in the gospel”), and they are inextricably linked in our Westminster Standards (WCF 15:1 – “Repentance unto life is an evangelical grace, the doctrine whereof is to be preached by every minister of Gospel, as well as that of faith in Christ”).
Faith and repentance are conditions of salvation and the forgiveness of sins, but we must be quick to clarify what we mean by “condition.” Faith and repentance are conditions of means, not merit. The person and work of Christ is what merits (or earns) salvation and forgiveness of sins. Faith and repentance are the means by which God applies the merits of Christ to His people.
Unfortunately, there have been some preachers and theologians throughout church history (and presently) who shy away from proclaiming the necessity of faith and repentance. They do so because it might lead, they say, to viewing faith and repentance as meritorious works – something which a person does to earn favor with God. That’s why understanding faith and repentance as conditions of means and not meritorious is important. J.I. Packer is helpful as he clarifies, “The truth is that every act of faith, psychologically regarded, is a matter of doing something (knowing, receiving, and trusting are as much acts in the psychological sense as is resolving to obey); yet no act of faith ever presents itself to its doer as other than a means of receiving undeserved mercy in some shape or form.”
Consider the things that are necessary for painting your house. You need a painter, a paintbrush, and some paint. In God’s work of salvation, the Holy Spirit is the ‘painter.’ The ‘paint’ is the righteousness of Christ (His obedience and merit). The ‘paintbrush’ is faith and repentance (the means which God uses to apply the righteousness of Christ to sinful men and women). Perhaps it’s not the perfect illustration, but hopefully it helps.
It is important that we recognize and acknowledge that salvation and the forgiveness of sins is solely based upon the merit of Christ and that there is nothing that we may do that will make us deserving of it. At the same time, it is equally important that we recognize and acknowledge that God does not grant salvation and forgiveness to anyone apart from the means of faith and repentance. Thus, the declaration of the promises of God and assurance of pardon are for all those – and only those – who “repent of their sins and trust in Christ.”
Assurance, not Absolution
In some traditions such as the Roman Catholic Church (RCC) – and even some Protestant traditions (e.g., Lutheranism and Anglicanism) – the priest or minister is said to have the power to forgive the sins of people. According to the catechism of the RCC, in the sacrament of penance and reconciliation, “the disclosure or confession of sins to a priest is an essential element of the sacrament.” And, “by the priest’s sacramental absolution God grants the penitent ‘pardon and peace.’” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, Part 2, Section 2, Chapter 2, Article 4, 1424)
Yet, the Scripture is clear that it is only God who is able to forgive sins. Before He healed a paralyzed man (Luke 5:17-26), Jesus declared to him, “Your sins are forgiven you.” The scribes and Pharisees who heard this were outraged at what, in their mind, amounted to blasphemy: “Who is this man who speaks blasphemies? Who can forgive sins, but God alone?” Then, in order to prove that He was the Son of God and had the power to forgive sins, Jesus healed the man.
The minister or elder who declares the assurance of God’s Word is not forgiving the sins of the people, nor providing absolution. He is declaring the assurance of forgiveness from God’s Word to those who repent of their sins and trust in Christ. There is no special power imbued in the man himself, but there is special power in the Word of God and the promise of assurance. To claim otherwise would be blasphemy.
God’s Promises from God’s Word
It is important to understand that when the minister declares the assurance of God’s forgiveness, he does so as God’s representative voice. That is, God is speaking His Word through the voice of a man. The assurance of pardon is a particular promise from God’s Word spoken by the minister. And, he may declare the assurance of pardon with confidence not because of any special power that God has given to him, but because God is true to His Word.
The promises from God’s Word which are used in our worship for the assurance of pardon are usually selected based upon the previous recitation of the catechism. And, the following hymn is often tied to this assurance of promise by way of reinforcing the truth that has been declared.
Acknowledgment and Response
Following the declaration of the assurance of pardon, at Hill Country Church (PCA), the minister exhorts the congregation: “Now, lift up your hearts.” To which the congregation responds: “We lift them up to the Lord!” In the Scriptures, the Lord commended David as the King of Israel for his being a man after God’s own heart (1 Samuel 13:14). Likewise, in the New Testament, we find that the goal of the ministry of the Word “is love from a pure heart and a good conscience and a sincere faith” (1 Timothy 1:5).
By “lifting up our hearts up to the Lord” we are confessing our need to be cleansed by the blood of Christ. We are recognizing our continual need of God’s mercy and grace. We are acknowledging our own inability, and submitting ourselves to the sanctifying work of the Holy Spirit.
“The Altar” by George Herbert
In his poem “The Altar,” George Herbert beautifully captures this idea of the necessity of humble submission in offering one’s heart to the Lord. In the poem, Herbert confesses that the heart is only able to be transformed by the hand of the Lord and nothing else. And, he concludes the poem (at the foundation of the altar) by linking Christ’s sacrifice to the sanctification of the heart. Herbert was one of the first Christian poets to employ what is called concrete (or shape) poetry. Thus, as Herbert describes his heart as an altar to the Lord, the words of the poem take the shape of an altar (if the formatting of the poem below has been altered in transmission, be sure to click on the link above to see what I mean).
A broken A L T A R, Lord, thy servant reares,
Made of a heart, and cemented with teares:
Whose parts are as thy hand did frame;
No workmans tool hath touch’d the same.
A H E A R T alone
Is such a stone,
As nothing but
Thy pow’r doth cut.
Wherefore each part
Of my hard heart
Meets in this frame,
To praise thy Name;
That, if I chance to hold my peace,
These stones to praise thee may not cease.
May the Lord bless you as you prepare to worship Him well, this Sunday!
The Lord be with you!
– Pastor Peter M. Dietsch