Lent, Commination and The Cross

Fundamental Doctrine

The Good Friday song by Townend and Getty, “Oh, to see the dawn, of the darkest day” (that many find helpful), goes on like this:

“Christ on the road to Calvary. | Tried by sinful men, | Torn and beaten, then | Nailed to a cross of wood. | This, the power of the cross: | Christ became sin for us, | Took the blame, bore the wrath – | We stand forgiven at the cross.” Keith Getty & Stuart Townend © 2005 Thankyou Music CCL 2054

Some cannot believe that there is such a thing as “God’s wrath” or an objective reality to the word “hell” (see Coloured Supplement September 2013 for criticism of another Townend and Getty song where it says, “the wrath of God is satisfied”). However, the Church of England is committed to believing that God’s wrath and the reality of God’s judgement on sin is real. It is essential to understanding the love of God as seen in Christ bearing our sin, in our place on the Cross that first Good Friday. For the opposite of God’s wrath is not God’s love but God’s neutrality to sin (and death, disease and moral and spiritual darkness that result from sin). But God is a God of life and love who wants human flourishing and “blessing”. To this end there is in the Book of Common Prayer a service called a “Commination – or denouncing of God’s anger and judgements against sinners” (minor Latin for “threaten”). The Book of Common Prayer, it must be noted, is one of the historic standards for Anglican theology and doctrine; and Anglican clergy are to teach this doctrine. So as this Commination Service is “to be used on the first day of Lent, and at other times”, may I suggest that we consider carefully its teaching as we think of Christ’s death at this time of year.

Deuteronomy 27

The Commination service is seeking to counter charges of cheap grace or the idea that genuine faith and repentance is compatible with a life lived in defiance of God’s will and word. This is obviously something to be remembered when in March 2014 the “Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Act” came into force, an Act that celebrates and promotes what God clearly says is sinful. Indeed, this service is to remind you that you cannot just act as you like without negative consequences. But as one Prayer Book commentator points out, the service is not only “to awaken the sense of guilt … at the same time [it is] to declare the glorious Gospel of the grace of God.” Nevertheless, the service starts with high-lighting some of the curses you read about in Deuternomy 27:

“Cursed be the man who makes a carved or cast-metal image, an abomination to the LORD, and sets it up in secret. Cursed be anyone who dishonours his father or his mother. Cursed be anyone who moves his neighbour's landmark. Cursed be anyone who misleads a blind man on the road. Cursed be anyone who perverts the justice due to the sojourner, the fatherless, and the widow. Cursed be anyone who lies with his father's wife. Cursed be anyone who strikes down his neighbour in secret. Cursed be anyone who takes a bribe to shed innocent blood (ESV translation).”

And summarizing some of the others “curses” of Deuteronomy 27, it concludes: “Cursed are the unmerciful, fornicators and adulterers, covetous persons, idolaters, slanderers, drunkards and extortioners.” This list of sins is not exhaustive but representative. At any rate, the congregation is to say “Amen” to each of the curses, not as cursing other people, but as admitting that such activity is cursed in God’s sight and as a warning to ourselves.

Cranmer’s biblical homily

Then the Minister reads a sermonette made up of a collection of biblical truths. Here it is in Cranmer’s (ancient) version:

“Now seeing that all they are accursed (as the prophet David beareth witness) who do err and go astray from the commandments of God; let us (remembering the dreadful judgement hanging over our heads, and always ready to fall upon us) return unto our Lord God with all contrition and meekness of heart; bewailing and lamenting our sinful life, acknowledging and confessing our offences, and seeking to bring forth worthy fruits of penance. For now is the axe put unto the root of the trees, so that every tree that bringeth not forth good fruit is hewn down, and cast into the fire. It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God: He shall pour down rain upon the sinners, snares, fire and brimstone, storm and tempest; this shall be their portion to drink. For lo, the Lord is come out of his place to visit the wickedness of such as dwell upon the earth. But who may abide the day of his coming? Who shall be able to endure when he appeareth? His fan is in his hand, and he will purge his floor, and gather his wheat into the barn; but he will burn the chaff with unquenchable fire. The day of the Lord cometh as a thief in the night: and when men shall say, Peace, and all things are safe, then shall sudden destruction come upon them, as sorrow cometh upon a woman travailing with child, and they shall not escape. Then shall appear the wrath of God in the day of vengeance, which obstinate sinners, through the stubbornness of their heart, have heaped unto themselves; which despised the goodness, patience, and long-sufferance of God, when he calleth them continually to repentance.

Then shall they call upon me (saith the Lord) but I will not hear; they shall seek me early, but they shall not find me; and that, because they hated knowledge, and received not the fear of the Lord, but abhorred my counsel, and despised my correction. Then shall it be too late to knock, when the door shall be shut; and too late to cry for mercy, when it is the time of justice. O terrible voice of most just judgement, which shall be pronounced upon them, when it shall be said unto them, Go, ye cursed, into the fire everlasting, which is prepared for the devil and his angels. Therefore, brethren, take we heed betime, while the day of salvation lasteth; for the night cometh, when none can work: But let us, while we have the light, believe in the light, and walk as children of the light; that we be not cast into utter darkness, where is weeping and gnashing of teeth. Let us not abuse the goodness of God, who calleth us mercifully to amendment, and of his endless pity promiseth us forgiveness of that which is past, if with a perfect and true heart we return unto him.

For though our sins be as red as scarlet, they shall be made white as snow; and though they be like purple, yet they shall be made white as wool. Turn ye (saith the Lord) from all your wickedness, and your sin shall not be your destruction: Cast away from you all your ungodliness that ye have done: Make you new hearts, and a new spirit: Wherefore will ye die, O ye house of Israel? seeing that I have no pleasure in the death of him that dieth, saith the Lord God. Turn ye then, and ye shall live. Although we have sinned, yet have we an Advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous; and he is the propitiation for our sins.

For he was wounded for our offences, and smitten for our wickedness. Let us therefore return unto him, who is the merciful receiver of all true penitent sinners; assuring ourselves that he is ready to receive us, and most willing to pardon us, if we come unto him with faithful repentance; if we submit ourselves unto him, and from henceforth walk in his ways; if we will take his easy yoke and light burden upon us, to follow him in lowliness, patience, and charity, and be ordered by the governance of his Holy Spirit; seeking always his glory, and serving him duly in our vocation with thanksgiving. This if we do, Christ will deliver us from the curse of the law, and from the extreme malediction which shall light upon them that shall be set on the left hand; and he will set us on his right hand, and give us the gracious benediction of his Father, commanding us to take possession of his glorious kingdom: Unto which he vouchsafe to bring us all, for his infinite mercy. Amen.”

Conclusion

Then the great penitential Psalm 51 is read, “A Psalm of David, when Nathan the prophet went to him, after he had gone in to Bathsheba”. And the service concludes with the minister praying as follows:

“O most mighty God, and merciful Father, who hast compassion upon all men, and hatest nothing that thou hast made; who wouldest not the death of a sinner, but that he should rather turn from his sin, and be saved: mercifully forgive us our trespasses; receive and comfort us, who are grieved and wearied with the burden of our sins. Thy property is always to have mercy; to thee only it appertaineth to forgive sins. Spare us therefore, good Lord, spare thy people, whom thou hast redeemed; enter not into judgement with thy servants, who are vile earth, and miserable sinners; but so turn thine anger from us, who meekly acknowledge our vileness, and truly repent us of our faults, and so make haste to help us in this world, that we may ever live with thee in the world to come; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.”

Then all join in with this final prayer:

“Turn thou us, O good Lord, and so shall we be turned. Be favourable, O Lord, be favourable to thy people, who turn to thee in weeping, fasting, and praying. For thou art a merciful God, full of compassion, long-suffering, and of great pity. Thou sparest when we deserve punishment, and in thy wrath thinkest upon mercy. Spare thy people, good Lord, spare them, and let not thine heritage be brought to confusion. Hear us, O Lord, for thy mercy is great, and after the multitude of thy mercies look upon us; through the merits and mediation of thy blessed Son, Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.”


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