Saturday, June 05, 2010

Assurance of Pardon?

Some churches have, as part of their liturgy, an “assurance of pardon.” After the law is read and prayer asking for forgiveness is offered, the minister assures the congregation that their sins are forgiven. I’m wondering whether that is necessary, or even right, for these reasons:

1. When I survey my congregation every Sunday morning, I do not see a group of people who yet need to have their sins forgiven; rather, I see a congregation of believers, children of God, who have gathered together in joy to celebrate the wonderful fact that they are the forgiven people of Christ. (This is not to say that each individual member, head for head, is in a right relationship with God, but the congregation is.)

2. I am not sure that we are required to go through a crisis every Sunday morning – of being held like a struggling spider over a flame, fearing we will be dropped in, but then, in the nick of time, having the minister assure us that our sins are forgiven.

3. The ultimate function of the law in our lives is not one of revealing to us our sins and misery (Lord's Day 2), but a rule for thankfulness (Lord's Day 32-44).


Steve said...

Your points are interesting Reverend: Can you comment on a few things that come to mind:
First, would not your point 2 have to do with a misuse of the practice of assurance?
Second,in regard to your point 3 I'm not sure you mean to give the impression of a dilemma.
Third, what is your take on the non-reactionary point of the Reformers, who didn't detect this to be too-RCC? (compare Calvin -- : "held that the pardon expressed by the minister of the Church gave to the penitent a greater guarantee of forgiveness"
Fourth: what do you think of using the "assurance of pardon" (absolution) pedagogically? I mean: the servant of the LORD is showing the congregation not only how to pray but also how to confess sins and (based on 1Jn1:9)can consequently be assured of God's forgiveness?

Steve Vandevelde
Coaldale AB

George van Popta said...

The keys of the kingdom of heaven are administered in the preaching (QA 84). The sermon assures the believer that heaven is opened and warns the unbeliever that heaven is closed. In that sense, the preaching needs to be discriminating.

The congregation is a body of believers, but there are hypocrites and unbelievers mixed in the congregation as well (BC 29; LD 31).

Just as the preaching addresses the beloved while containing a warning for the unbeliever and hypocrite, I would think that an “assurance of pardon” would need to be similarly discriminating. Kuyper, in Our Worship, says: “The worship service should include (1) a brief exhortation calling to mind one’s sins; (2) a common confession of sin, preferably to be sung metrically; and (3) a public declaration of forgiveness for all who sincerely confessed their sins, coupled with a declaration of judgment for all who persist in their sins” (p. 152).

A non-discriminating blanket assurance of pardon may well lead to false assurance in some.

Interestingly, AK suggestions that the Ten Commandments be read or sung after the sermon (p. 134), before we go back into the world, since they are, finally, a rule for thankful living.

John van Popta said...

Hi George

We've just introduced the assurance of pardon to our liturgy in Fellowship Church.

You write that you don’t see the congregation as “a group of people who yet need to have their sins forgiven; rather, [you] see a congregation of believers, children of God, who have gathered together in joy to celebrate the wonderful fact that they are the forgiven people of Christ.” But, George, don’t you create a straw man here? I could respond and say “Why then pray for forgiveness of sins at all after the reading of the law?” To answer that I would say that the “assurance of pardon” functions as an answer to that confession. We hear the law, confess our sins in song and prayer, and then the minister reads a passage of scripture that underlines the truth that repentant sinners are forgiven, and the congregation responds with a song of thanksgiving and confidence. That’s not about creating uncertainty, or a “crisis” but accenting the truth of the gospel in a responsive way.

Fellowship Church has structured it’s liturgy under the headings: Call to Worship; Ministry of Reconciliation; Ministry of the Word; Ministry of Mercy; Ministry of Blessing (with PM Confession of Faith and with occasional Ministry of the Sacrament). The Assurance of Pardon is an integral part of The Ministry of Reconciliation
You can see how our liturgy works at

It is interesting though, that the Heidelberg Catechism puts Christ’s "summary of the law" from Matthew 22 under the rubric of “Sin and Misery,” and the 10 Commandments under the rubric of “Thankfulness!” Does that have something to say about where we should place the “Ten” in the Sunday services?

Brother John

John van Popta said...

Hi George

Further to that…

James K.A. Smith writes in “Desiring the Kingdom” about confession and assurance of pardon in the worship service.

“Here again, in confession and assurance of pardon, we meet a moment where Christian worship runs counter to the formation of secular liturgies that either tend to nullify talk of guilt and responsibility or tend to point out failures without extending assurance of pardon. On the one hand, Oprah-fied secular liturgies tend to foster an illusory self-confidence (“Believe in yourself!”) that refuses to recognize failure, guilt, or transgression, castigating such things as “negative energy” that compromises self-esteem. The we-can-do-it confidence of these liturgies of self-affirmation offers assurance without confession. On the other hand, many of the secular liturgies of marketing play off our deep knowledge of our faults and failures, but transform them into phenomena that yield shame, but not guilt. In response they promise not forgiveness or pardon, but opportunities to correct the problem via various goods and services. In this sense, they seem to require confession but make no promise of pardon or peace. In contrast to both, the rite of confession and assurance in Christian worship counters such secular liturgies […] Yet the practice does not leave us in despair, but rather gives us hope, assuring us of forgiveness and reminding us that the curse is being rolled back. [….]”

The book is a great read!

George van Popta said...


Any thoughts on what AK says (quoted be me above) about the "Assurance" also containing a public declaration of judgment for all who persist in their sins?