WHY WE DO WHAT WE DO: The Declaration of Pardon

“If you have confessed your sins to God and you trust in the finished work of Christ for your salvation, then you can be comforted and assured as I declare to you in the name of Jesus Christ and by the authority of his Word that your sins are forgiven and you are not under the condemnation of God’s law.”

The declaration of pardon or “absolution” is a public announcement to the congregation that God has forgiven the sins of all those who put their trust in Jesus Christ. It is an important part of our liturgy in the Divine Service. After hearing the law and confessing our sins to God, we need the assurance that God forgives us and receives us in Christ. This is what the absolution does. Acting on behalf of the Lord he serves, the minister of the Word raises his hand in an oath-taking posture and pronounces God’s promise that all those who confess their sins and put their trust in Christ are absolved. He swears an oath upon the basis of God’s Word and covenant that as surely as he declares the forgiveness of sins to those who put their trust in Christ, so truly has God forgiven them.

The minister does not possess in himself the power to forgive sins, but Christ does, and he has called and sent his ministers to proclaim the forgiveness of sins. The minister acts on the authority of God’s Word and in the name of Jesus Christ, opening the gate of heaven with the keys of the kingdom (Matt 16.18-19; John 20.21-23). Christ has entrusted the keys of his kingdom to ministers of his Word who proclaim law and gospel (Heidelberg Catechism Q. 84) and to elders who exercise church discipline (Heidelberg Catechism Q. 85). In contrast to the medieval church, which abused this authority and tyrannized God’s people, the Reformers saw the use of the keys of the kingdom as a service rendered in the public means of grace. The power is in the Word, and that Word must be proclaimed.

This is why the Reformers kept the absolution in their liturgies. For example, Martin Bucer used the following words in the declaration of pardon: “Let everyone, with St. Paul, truly believe in Christ. Thus, in his name, I proclaim unto you the forgiveness of all your sins, and declare to you to be loosed of them on earth, that you may be loosed of them in heaven, in eternity. Amen.” (1539 Strasbourg Liturgy)

Calvin’s was very similar: “Let each one of you truly acknowledge that he is a sinner, humbling himself before God and believe that the heavenly Father will be gracious unto him in Jesus Christ. To all those that repent in this way, and look to Jesus Christ for their salvation, I declare that the absolution of sins is affected in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen.” (1542 Form of Church Prayers)

In the 1552 Book of Common Prayer, we find these words: “Almighty God, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, which desireth not the death of the sinner, but rather that he may turn from his wickedness and live, and hath given power and commandment to his ministers, to declare and pronounce to his people being penitent, the absolution and remission of their sins: he pardoneth and absolveth all them which truly repent, and unfeignedly believe his holy gospel. Wherefore we beseech him to grant us true repentance and his Holy Spirit, that those things may please him, which we do at this present, and that the rest of our life hereafter, may be pure and holy: so that at the last day we may come to his eternal joy: through Jesus Christ our Lord.”

The declaration of pardon has had an important place in Reformed liturgies over the centuries. We look forward to this great announcement every Lord’s Day. As Calvin said, “Christ intended to assure his followers of the salvation promised to them in the Gospel, that they might expect it as firmly as if he were himself to descend from heaven to bear testimony concerning it…In a word, it is a wonderful consolation to devout minds to know that the message of salvation brought to them by a poor mortal man is ratified before God.”

May you be comforted by the gospel every week as the forgiveness of all your sins is declared to you in the name of Jesus Christ!

~ Pastor Brown