“The hope of the Army is in the penitent form. As soon as that goes out of use, we go out” (General Albert Orsborn)
We call it the Mercy Seat, others call it the Penitent Form, still others call it the Altar.
Why is it there?
What is it’s purpose?
Is it still valid and needed today?
Perhaps these are just a few questions that you’ve wondered about as you have participated in a Salvation Army service or meeting. Some have, perhaps, been soldiers for years and never quite understood why we do 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Is this practice outdated or is it still useful?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”?
I believe Major ViJay Boda puts it rather succinctly; “
“The International Spiritual Life Commission affirmed to the whole Army world that the mercy seat in Salvation Army meetings symbolises 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. The report emphasises, ‘Here we may experience a deep awareness of God’s abundant grace and claim his boundless salvation.’
Encouraging the use of the mercy seat, the commission says, ‘The mercy seat may be used by any one, at any time, and particularly in Army meetings when, in response to the proclaimed word, all are invited to share loving and humble communion with the Lord.”
This is a good explanation, and perhaps some of us are good at explaining this to new comers or new soldiers…but sometimes I think we need a refresher course. We need to break old patterns and old molds in order to better understand what we are doing at the Mercy Seat or why we have these moments of commitment at all.
Biblically speaking, the Mercy Seat is first mentioned in connection with the Ark of the Covenant. It is the “kapporet“, or the “atonement piece”. Later it was the ornate golden cover to the ark with two cherub corners. Imagine that, the “atonement piece” covers the opening to the very presence of God.
Symbolically speaking, Jesus became our once for all- atonement piece – our mercy seat. His blood makes us clean, and his provenient grace cancels our debts/sin. When we kneel at this place of repentance that we call the Altar, or Penitent Form, or Mercy Seat, we are essentially placing our sins on Christ. We lay them down, and in so doing, we are invited to pick up new clothes, a new life, this unmerited grace and forgiveness that Christ has prepared for us in His death and resurrection.
This Mercy Seat can be a sacred place.
We can kneel upon it in our corps buildings during Holiness meetings, we can find it at special events where seats have been turned around waiting for those willing to repent or seek reconciliation. These sacred spaces are not necessarily holy in and of themselves. They are just structures, constructed with human hands, but purposed for Divine encounters.
The Mercy Seat is so much more than a specific place.
We, being the very essence and the body of Christ, now have access to this mercy seat anywhere at anytime and anyplace. No, it’s not some new application found on our cellular devices or on our computers. This Mercy Seat is never far from us, even when we find ourselves at home or bedridden with illness – it is there! This Mercy Seat is found in our hearts. When we receive Christ at a place of forgiveness and new life, such as the Altar, we also receive the blessing of His Holy 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. With His presence comes the mercy seat of our hearts, where we can come at any time before Him to confess, commune and grow in Christ’s image.
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.“
1 Mercy Seat – Many Uses (Not Just A Place For Sinners!!!)
Before I close this topic today, (honestly, this is a primer for further discussion), I would be remiss not to mentioned that the Mercy Seat is SO MUCH MORE THAN JUST A PLACE FOR SINNERS. It takes real courage sometimes to come before the ecclesia (body of believers – A.K.A. The Church) and kneel at the Altar. Sometimes many worry about what others might think or say (Shame on anyone who would say anything towards a brother or sister penitent before the Lord). Sometimes this erroneous thought that keeps on circulating spoken or unspoken – is that once one has gone to the Altar they shouldn’t have to go back anymore. Nothing could be further from the truth!!
If one of our more esteemed first theologians (Brengle) went to his Mercy Seat frequently, how much more do we still need it in our lives?
The Mercy Seat still beckons us to:
-Come and Reconnect with our Savior.
-Come and bring petitions and prayers as intercessors.
-Come and cast our prayers of thanksgivings to Him.
-Come and seek forgiveness again.
-Come and find reconciliation and re-ignition.
-Come and pour out those deeply secret spaces of our hearts before the Holy Spirit who has been prodding us to let Him in.
-Come to surrender, or surrender again.
-Come and bring your brother or sister who needs encouragement and assurance.
-Come and bring your brother or sister who needs a friend.
-Come and bring your brother or sister 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 truly pointless – then so are our lives.
No, in fact the Mercy Seat is so much more than just a kneeling place for sinners or saints…it is the exhalation of sin and in the very same moment, the inhalation of salvation, new life and holiness. It ought to be perpetuated, preached on, and emphasized over and over again – with clarity, sincerity and truth.
For more reading on this topic check out another post: Is Your Mercy Seat Broken?
Something more for our Army world to ponder today.
To God be the glory!