Friday, 22 March 2013

Why Commination?

Why Commination: or denouncement of God's anger and judgements against sinners?

What is the purpose of the Book of Common Prayer service of Commination?  Why is it an important service?  What does it teach?  Why should we still do it in the 21st century?

These are good questions about a service that can make some people today feel rather uncomfortable.  It is my belief that Commination is a powerful, relevant, and Gospel centred service that presents Biblical teaching on God, humanity, eternity, and the Good News of Jesus Christ.  The following are my personal views on the service of Commination, Biblical church teaching, and the Gospel.

Commination literally means ‘the action of threatening divine vengeance’ – as the service itself explains:  “a denouncing of God’s anger and judgements against sinners.”  The idea of God being angry may make us uncomfortable, but it is very Biblical.  God’s anger or wrath at sin and sinners is mentioned around 600 times in the Bible.  The most frequently mentioned attribute of God is His complete Holiness.  Because God is Holy, He cannot stand to be near sin – He hates and despises it.  Importantly, Scripture does not say ‘hate the sin, love the sinner’ – that was Ghandi.  God is perfectly just, we are all sinners, we all deserve judgement and the death penalty because as Saint Paul said “the wages of sin is death” (Romans 6.23).  That the service of Commination is based in the Bible can be seen by the over 75 verses of Scripture that it quotes – with many more alluded to.

In his worship song ‘Here I am to Worship’ Tim Hughes wrote these lyrics “I’ll never know how much it cost, to see my sin upon that cross.” For me this is the essence of the teaching of the Commination service – until we understand God’s hatred of sin, and all He had to overcome to restore us to a right relationship with Him, we will never know how much He loves us.  Commination begins by displaying God’s anger and judgement against sin.  Importantly though, even at the beginning, it says that God’s anger and judgement is only a curse “against impenitent sinners” – it is only those who don’t repent to Jesus who face such judgement.  For the next part of the service the ‘curses’ of Scripture are read, and like the 10 commandments, we are all guilty of breaking them.  Explaining that the Day of the LORD is coming – judgement day – the service compels the believer to fear God and turn away from sin and not to “despise the goodness, patience, and long-sufferance of God.” 

Boldly the service proclaims that through Jesus there is forgiveness of any sins “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.”  It declares Jesus to be on our side “Although we have sinned, yet we have an Advocate with the Father, Jesus the Righteous; and He is the propitiation of our sins” Propitiation is a word which means the removing of wrath against sinners.  We are then reassured that Christ is ready to receive us whenever we come to Him in humility, no matter what we have done or how many times we have done it  - “(Jesus is) most willing to pardon us, if we come unto Him with faithful repentance.”

Scripture teaches that everyone has sinned (except Jesus) and not only that, but that we are all ‘depraved’ – 26 verses of Scripture declare that even from birth all of us are lost and our hearts are inclined to evil, even from birth we are all in desperate need of a Saviour.  Indeed, we are so lost that of our own power and choice we would never seek out God None is righteous, no, not one; no one understands; no one seeks for God” (Romans 3.10-11).  If we are ever to truly get right with God, to make progress in our faith and discipleship, to be moulded by the Holy Spirit into the likeness of Christ, we must first look in the mirror, deeply, and recognise how fallen we are.  We are far worse than we like to imagine but Jesus is far stronger than we could ever hope.  This is why towards the end the Commination service declares “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 of our faults”   Also worthy of note is that it is not our own doing that we are saved, we are not saved by ‘good works’ or keeping The Law.  We are saved by the grace of God – “whom Thou hast redeemed… Through the merits and mediation of Thy blessed Son Jesus Christ our Lord.”

As I hope you can see, the service of Commination, though an uncomfortable one, is full of the Good News of Jesus. It is designed to, at the start of Lent, bring us to our knees, to acknowledge our sinfulness, to fall on the mercy of God and not our own strength, to see the judgement against sin and so be encouraged to fight valiantly against it, and to know the assurance of forgiveness through Christ.  The message is more relevant than ever and just as important as the day it was written.  But does this make this particular service, with all the thee’s and ‘Thou’s, the ‘brethen’ and the inclusion of all peoples under the gender-inclusive ‘men’ – not to mention numerous words that are no longer used or sound very different to modern usage – worth using in the 21st century?  I believe so.  In general I believe all church and prayer should be done in a language easily understood by the people present.  But, occasionally there can be good reasons to use the ancient versions that can still be understood if we concentrate. Even better, someone should update the language of the service without compromising at all on the doctrine or judgement it conveys.  Who knows, one day I may get round to it!  In the mean time it is still useful to use the old English for many reasons:

Firstly, hearing Scripture and prayer in such a ‘beautiful’ or ‘ecclesial’ form of English can hammer home the point it is making by the use of language which doesn’t just become meaningless because we use it so often.  Secondly, the service of Commination links us to the foundation of the Church of England; it connects us to the Reformation.  The service of ‘ashing’ which now seems so traditional did not exist in the Church of England until the late 19th century.  Following the Reformation it was banned because people at that time built up many superstitions around it – not helped by everything in church being said in Latin, the very poor understanding most people had of Biblical teaching, and the spurious teaching of the Roman Catholic Church. J.C. Ryle in his "Against Ritualism" lists ashing as one of their un-Anglican practices.  I believe Ryle has a good point, though in this case, given the Biblical precedence of repenting in ash and sackcloth I think the practice can be redeemed - if combined with Commination.   Thus I do not necessarily object to ‘ashing’ if done biblically but I believe it is important for Anglicans to retain their identity as a church of the Reformation, a church which is grounded on and in Scripture, and a thus a church which rejects ritualism.  

For these reasons outlined above, the use of the traditional service of Commination is an excellent practice and fits very well if done before a biblical and reformed, none ritualistic, ‘ashing’ followed by the Lord's Supper.  The sermon should make very clear what 'ashing' is and is not!

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