I grew up in a Pentecostal church (PAOC). My Dad was a Pentecostal Pastor and I have followed in his footsteps I suppose. All of that simply to say that I’m thoroughly acquainted with both the beauty and the mess that can be found in some of our church services. I’ve been around the block and have participated in Pentecostal services from Newfoundland to California. There’s much that I’m grateful for but I must confess that sometimes I think we are an awful lot like teenagers: we’re young, we’ve grown quickly, and we think that our “parents” don’t know as much as we do. (Thankfully in recent years I’ve seen some slow moves towards a change of attitude in this regard.)
One of things that I think we’ve gotten dreadfully wrong is how to deal pastorally with repentance. Repentance is a major theme in many of our churches, particularly in revivalistic settings. I remember singing some minor keyed pop Kyrie (Lord have mercy) – the scary and dramatic kind – while people were on their faces crying out very loudly for God’s mercy. People would wail “Forgive us God! Have mercy on us!”. This was followed by…nothing. We just kind of trickled out of church without a benediction hoping that God might have mercy on us and our sinful nation. (The sinful nation bit is particularly American and can be heard most frequently during presidential election seasons). Frankly, we sounded a bit like the prophets of baal in 1 Kings 18. Thankfully we didn’t cut ourselves like these prophets, but looking back this verse is now a bit eery to me:
“And as midday passed, they raved on…but there was no voice. No one answered; no one paid attention.1
A little over a decade ago I met one of my former professors (John Stephenson) for lunch. During the course of our conversation he said this about repentance: ‘You know what’s missing from many of our services? Absolution. When the people repent, the minister is to offer a word of absolution.’ He was right. Our God speaks. He is not, like baal, silent to our cries though we ‘rave on.’ Flemming Rutledge in her wonderful book The Crucifixion writes:
“The familiar caricature of the evangelistic tent revival depicts the preacher attempting to whip up a sense of sinfulness in the audience so that it will ‘come to Jesus’ for mercy and forgiveness. The discussion here makes precisely the opposite point. If a congregation is led to an understanding of salvation, the sense of sin will come as a consequence – and then the knowledge that the danger is already past will result in profound and sincere repentance. That is the proper time to talk about sin.”2
I think one of the reasons that we pastors have been nervous about offering absolution is that we think “who can forgive sins but God alone3”. Here’s the thing, when we look to the cross we can be confident that God has already forgiven us. Our repentance, which is itself a work of the Spirit, is the act of us catching up with what God has already accomplished. Thanks be to God!
I thought of this as I typed out the liturgy for our Christmas Eve service. After a prayer of repentance there was an Assurance of Pardon:
Almighty God have mercy on you, forgive you and all your sins
Through our Lord Jesus Christ, strengthen you in all goodness,
And by the power of the Holy Spirit keep you in eternal life.
I wrote these words with tears in my eyes because I now understand that I can both speak and receive these words with assurance, authority and gratitude.
1 1 Kings 18:29
2 Fleming Rutledge, The Crucifixion p. 173
3 Mark 2:7
*Image source: https://ftc.co/resource-library/blog-entries/the-importance-of-corporate-confession