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Aug11ThuWhy do we kneel at the mercy seat? August 11, 2016 by Captain Scott Strissel
The hope of the Army is in the penitent form. As soon as that goes out of use, we go out.
- Filed Under:
- Opinion & Critical Thought
—General Albert Orsborn
We call it the mercy seat. Others call it the penitent form. Still others call it the altar. What is it? Why is it there? Do we still need it? Maybe you're new to The Salvation Army, or maybe you've been a soldier for years and never quite understood what we do when it comes time for the “altar call” or “time of response.” Is this practice outdated, or is it still useful? What is the biblical understanding of the “mercy seat”?
Major Joseph Vijay Boda, former executive secretary for social services in India, explains, “The mercy seat in Salvation Army meetings symbolizes God's unremitting call to his people to meet with him. It is not only a place for repentance and forgiveness, but also a place for communion and commitment … [where] we may experience a deep awareness of God's abundant grace and claim his boundless salvation.”
Perhaps some of us are good at explaining this to newcomers or new soldiers, but sometimes we need a refresher course. We need to remember what we are doing at the mercy seat or why we have these moments of commitment at all.
In Scripture, the first mention of the mercy seat is in Exodus 25. The kapporeth or “place of atonement” was the slab of gold covering the Ark of the Covenant. Imagine—the place of atonement covered the opening to the presence of God.
Jesus became our place of atonement once and for all. His blood makes us clean and his grace cancels our debts. When we kneel at this place we call the altar, penitent form or mercy seat, we are placing our sins on Christ. We lay them down, and, in so doing, we are invited to pick up a new life, based on the unmerited grace and forgiveness that Christ offers us in his death and Resurrection.
The mercy seat is a sacred place, whether we are at a holiness meeting at our corps or at a special event, where the chairs have been turned around, waiting for those willing to seek repentance or reconciliation. It is a place of divine encounter.
But it's so much more than a specific place. We have access to this mercy seat anywhere, any time, any place. No, it's not a new app for your cell phone or computer. The mercy seat is never far away, no matter where you are. The mercy seat is found in our hearts.
When we accept Christ and receive forgiveness, we also receive the blessing of his presence. The Holy Spirit takes up residence within us. Not in some sort of alien, “body snatchers” way, but rather in a Creator-meets-and-communes-with-creation sort of way. His presence is the mercy seat in our hearts, where we can come at any time before him to confess, commune and grow in his image.
Commissioner Samuel Logan Brengle once said, “I have carried a penitent form (mercy seat) around in my heart half a century or more. And if there is ever any need, I constantly fly to thee.”
Before I conclude, I must mention that the mercy seat isn't just for sinners. It takes real courage to come before the church and kneel at the altar. Many people worry about what others will think, but shame on anyone who would criticize a brother or sister penitent before the Lord. Or we may think that once we've gone to the altar, we shouldn't have to go back anymore. Nothing could be further from the truth! If Brengle, one of our first theologians, went to his mercy seat frequently, how much more do we still need it in our lives?
The mercy seat beckons us to:
- Reconnect with our Saviour
- Bring petitions and prayers as intercessors
- Pray in thanksgiving
- Seek forgiveness
- Find reconciliation and re-ignition
- Pour out the deepest secrets of our hearts before the Holy Spirit, who has been prodding us to let him in
- Surrender or surrender again
- Bring your brother or sister who needs encouragement and assurance; who needs a friend; who desires new life and is sick of sin
So is the mercy seat pointless in our modern, sophisticated age? Yes. It's as pointless as the Son of God stepping down out of heaven and taking our sins upon himself. If that is pointless, then so are our lives.
The mercy seat is so much more than a kneeling place for sinners or saints. It is the exhalation of sin and the inhalation of salvation, new life and holiness. We should preach and emphasize it over and over again, with clarity, sincerity and truth.
Captain Scott Strissel is the corps officer at Evansville Corps and Community Center in Indiana. He is an active blogger and contributor for the purpose of encouraging and challenging the Salvation Army world. Read his blog at pastorsponderings.org.