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On Ordained Leadership and Good Friday Moralism

Q Thanks for your comments in RW 69 about ordination. I have one more question: What about the assurance of pardon? In our church, only a minister offers the benediction and greeting or leads the sacraments, but our lay leaders do the assurance of pardon. Is that permissible or advisable?

—Michigan

A In some traditions, the assurance of pardon is very much tied to ordination and is treated much like the benediction, especially when the pastor proclaims, “In the name of Jesus Christ, I declare that you are forgiven.” In this case, this element of worship is called the “absolution.” This language is reminiscent of pastor’s declaration at a wedding: “By the power invested in me . . . I declare you to be husband and wife.” Interestingly, John Calvin called for the use of such an absolution in one of his published liturgies.

Most Reformed and Presbyterian churches, worried about excessive clericalism, have not followed Calvin in this practice, preferring instead a simple declaration using the words of Scripture. (In the Christian Reformed Church, for example, the assurance of pardon is not listed as an “official act of ministry,” such as leading the sacraments or pronouncing the benediction.)

Speaking scriptural words of assurance does not require ordination. In fact, these words can be spoken by any Christian at any time. Imagine the power of a parent saying to a child, “Anyone in Christ is a new creation! That’s true for both you and me.” It is perfectly appropriate for any qualified leader, ordained or not, to declare the promises of the gospel, including in a worship service.

On the other hand, a given congregation might choose, for pastoral reasons, to reserve this action for an ordained pastor. If your congregation experiences the assurance as merely a transition from a song of confession to a song of thanksgiving, or if the assurance of pardon is not especially well led by lay leaders, then consider some provisions to help people hear it in a new way. One of those may be to reserve it only for the minister. Others may be to provide training for lay worship leaders, or to make the language of the assurance of pardon stronger, more direct, and more personal. In any case, you’ll want to promote awareness that the authority for the gospel promise comes from Scripture, not from the power inherent in ordination. This decision is not a matter of explicit biblical warrant, but a provisional decision made for pastoral reasons.

Q Last year, a guest at our Good Friday service commented that we were a church that “claimed we were biblical,” but actually “served up nothing more than a feast of moralism.” What did she mean?

—California

A I suspect that this comment came from a perception that the suffering and death of Christ were presented as moral example for us to follow rather than as a means of God’s salvation. It sounds like your guest left worship with a sense of obligation more than with an attitude of grateful wonder. While the language of the complaint may seem a bit cranky, I don’t want to dismiss it. The comment points to a perennial problem in many churches of all types.

No doubt, the cross of Christ is an example of self-giving love for us to follow (1 Pet. 2:21; 1 John 2:6). But the Bible uses many more images or metaphors to describe the saving power of Jesus’ death. The cross is a ransom (Rev. 5), a conquest of evil (Col. 2), a cleansing agent (Heb. 10:22), a pleasing sacrifice (Eph. 5:2), and a substitution (2 Cor. 5:21). Each of these images stresses God’s action in achieving our salvation and helps us see how salvation is a gift rather than our accomplishment.

It is surprisingly easy, even for churches that profess a gospel of grace, to place the stress in worship on human works. The majority of children’s sermons, for example, seem to carry the implicit message “Be good this week”—as do many prayers, transition comments, and song introductions.

Of course, the Christian gospel calls us to discipleship and obedience. But we must always be careful to talk about this obedience as a grateful response to our salvation, not the basis of it. This is why it is so helpful to read the law in worship after the assurance of pardon, or to have the application parts of sermons follow clear statements about the gift of salvation. And this is why many churches end their worship service not only with a “charge” or “invitation to discipleship” but also a blessing.

Especially on Good Friday, the primary focus should be on God’s action in saving us through Christ’s suffering and death. Use as many biblical images to picture this as possible. By all means, call the congregation to discipleship and obedience, but present that call as a joyful opportunity to express gratitude rather than an onerous burden to achieve salvation.