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The Mercy Seat


Major Joseph Vijay Boda

‘The hope of the Army is in the penitent form. As soon as that goes out of use, we go out’ (General Albert Orsborn).

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.’

The people of India know the need to have a focal point in any place of worship. For the Hindu that will be the Sanctus Sanctorum of the temple, where the idol of the principal god venerated at that particular temple is kept. For many Christians it is the altar. For the Salvationist it is the mercy seat.

Mercy seat – origin and historical perspective:

The origin of the mercy seat can be found in the Bible. The mercy seat was a solid gold covering for the Ark of the Covenant, which moved with the Israelites as they journeyed to the promised land, Canaan (Exodus 25). The mercy seat symbolised the presence of God among them and it was the place where God met Moses and spoke to him.

Early in 19th century, when revival meetings were held in the USA, the modern mercy seat was called ‘Mourners Bench’. The usefulness of that ‘mourners bench’ was noted, as it was a helpful place to bring the seekers together to instruct and encourage them. In the campaign of Charles Finney in England in 1849, the mourners bench was called the ‘anxious seat’. Significantly, The Salvation Army recognised the importance of the mercy seat and utilised the provision made in the Bible and some churches. It followed the practice of renowned servants of God. It was also a place where people could meet God and talk with him. The first issue of The War Cry (1879) used the term ‘penitent form’. Other names given to the mercy seat include ‘atonement cover’, ‘a place of grace’ and also ‘holiness table’.

Mercy seat – purpose and use:

Just as I am, and waiting not

To rid my soul of one dark blot,

To thee whose blood can cleanse each spot,

O Lamb of God, I come!

Have we not sung this song many times in prayer meetings? No person can be disappointed in coming to the mercy seat, kneeling and truly praying, confessing, repenting of sins and trusting Jesus. People leave the mercy seat rejoicing, having the assurance of obtaining pardon from their sins. They have benefited from the favour and grace shown by the Lord to undeserving sinners. Let the sinners take a step of faith to the mercy seat, even half a step and Jesus will do the rest. On the basis of Christ’s atoning work on the Cross, God offers them complete forgiveness right there. God always loves and delights in giving what an earnest seeker desires at the mercy seat. He quenches the thirst of such persons. Several believers’ testimonies reveal that it was a place of experience and forgiveness, a place of communion with the Lord and a place of commitment and covenant made with God for the enrichment of spiritual life and for his service.

There can be as many reasons for using the mercy seat as there are human needs. Very often people use the mercy seat as a place where they seek healing. They may also use it as a place where they ask God for some special help.

Let us study some of the sayings of our own leaders, who by their experience and use of the mercy seat, encourage us:

‘I think the mercy seat should be utilised for any purpose involving prayer. I think it is quite useful for Salvationists to be invited to come together for prayer at the mercy seat for a number of purposes. Unfortunately, in too many corps coming to the mercy seat means that there is something wrong or there has been a distressing defeat in the person’s life. Having Salvationists together in positive prayer around the mercy seat can help remove some of the unfortunate barriers.’

Colonel Phil Needham (Community in Mission)

‘We may kneel to give thanks, to intercede for others, to dedicate ourselves, and to share spiritual communion with Christ, and whatever our need we can be assured that God can meet it.’ Commissioner Wesley Harris (Battlelines)

‘There are those who tell us that the hope of The Salvation Army for the future is in the hands of its young people. I did not agree with that. The hope of the Army is in the penitent form (mercy seat). As soon as that goes out of use, we go out. The sign of the finger of God on the mercy seat is the crowning glory of God’s favour on The Salvation Army.’

General Albert Orsborn ( House of My Pilgrimage)

In summing up the use of the mercy seat, we can say in the larger and more general sense that it is a place:

  • for seeking salvation, restoration, renewal, consecration, spiritual guidance
  • to make commitment and covenant
  • to offer a special service
  • to seek holiness and sanctification
  • for spiritual enrichment
  • for communion
  • for prayer

What a picture of the way God works with earnest seekers at the mercy seat! Through it Christ confirms his presence in their lives and they show their desire to find in him the spiritual resources he waits to supply! Oh! There is no limit to the Lord’s supply, he is a loving, sovereign Creator who desires us to find fulfilment only in fellowship with him.

Mercy seat – what it is and what it is not:

Colonel Phil Needham says:

‘The mercy seat itself is symbolic of any place where a seeker comes after God in prayer. The true mercy seat is the heart, and the outward act of kneeling at a prayer bench, or any other place, is nothing if not the outward sign of the kneeling soul. Almost any place can become the mercy seat setting. The actual mercy seat in a corps hall is therefore only symbolic in the sense that it represents all such places.’

Commissioner Samuel Logan Brengle, the Army’s early-day holiness teacher, delights in saying: ‘I have carried a penitent form around in my heart half a century or more. And if there is ever any need, I constantly fly to thee.’

We should also be clear in our thinking, understanding, speaking and practising as to what the mercy is not:

  • It is not the only place where people meet with God
  • It is not the only place where sinners find salvation or forgiveness
  • It does not possess any special spiritual power of its own
  • It is not a sacred object in the sense that it adds eternal significance to what takes place
  • Its use is not an essential step which must be taken on the way to becoming a soldier in the Salvation Army

There is no virtue attached to the mere object, which is just a bench. Therefore it should not become another idol to worship.

Mercy seat – privilege and responsibility:

The penitent form, mercy seat or holiness table occupies an important place in Salvation Army activities. Sometimes there are words written on the Salvation Army mercy seats placed in front of the congregation in the prayer halls – ‘Jesus is mighty to save’; ‘Seek Holiness’; ‘Jesus Saves’.

The Army’s use of the mercy seat arose naturally as part of its integral mission and worship. When some orthodox churches miss this privilege of calling the people to seek salvation, The Salvation Army enjoys its privilege, using it for the extension of God’s Kingdom. Through the years, the mercy seat has found a wider use. There is a freedom for us to exercise to invite people to the mercy seat at the end of the sermon. The congregation is given the opportunity to make a public response, to be given counselling, according to their needs. This helps seekers.

The term ‘mercy seat’ and ‘penitent form’ seem to have been interchangeable since the Army’s early days. The Founder did not look down to base the practice of the Army on the structural beliefs of other churches, even though the Army’s close identification with the Methodists is acknowledged.

General Albert Orsborn says: ‘The primary aim of Salvationists must be bringing sinners to the mercy seat. Every meeting held, every programme presented, every contact made must be a means to this end – the salvation of souls.’

Let me conclude by narrating two incidents from the life and ministry of our Founder. Writing to his son, Bramwell, in 1876, William Booth said, ‘Let no one be urged to go forward to the penitent form who is not deeply convinced of sin. The more thoroughly persons are awakened and broken down before God, the more readily they will exercise faith in Christ and enter into rest, and the more stable they will become afterwards.’ As the Founder speaks, we find him saying: ‘In a remarkable meeting I held in one of the larger cities of Japan a dear woman came to the mercy seat. She found forgiveness for herself and went from the registration room to the place where she had been sitting to bring her two children to the penitent form. Kneeling between them, she pointed them to the Saviour whom she had just found.’

Then he related another incident:

‘I dare say you may remember the story I tell sometimes of the little girl, in Salvation Army uniform, who came to the penitent form weeping bitterly. The sergeant knelt by her side and said, ‘My dear, what is the matter? Have you been led into telling a story?’

‘No, sergeant.’ she replied.

‘Have you lost your temper, or been using bad words?’

‘No.’ said the child.

‘What then have you come here for, my dear?’

‘Oh,’ said the child sobbing, ‘I have come here for my mother. She won’t come to the penitent form herself, and so I have come for her.’

The sergeant comforted the child, and the feeling came into her heart that God would save her mother. So, running home and leaping on to her mother’s lap, and throwing her arms around her neck, she burst out ‘Oh mother, mother, I have been to the penitent form for you. Now you must go there yourself! I am sure Jesus will save you.’ The mother did go to the mercy seat for herself and found the salvation which all find who go there in sincerity.

Mercy seat and our response today:

There is a responsibility on the shoulders of officers and soldiers to build a healthy corps where they belong. We are responsible for each other’s spiritual welfare. We must grab every opportunity ourselves and also to help others to seek God’s grace at the mercy seat. We should see that in the life of a corps a special significance be given to the proper utilisation of the mercy seat.

How sad it is to note that days, weeks, months and perhaps years pass without the use of the mercy seat in some of the corps halls. Many a time it is simply a place for keeping things, thank offerings of all kinds, items for auction, decoration with papers, keeping candles during Christmas meetings. This is completely misusing it, forgetting the very purpose of the mercy seat. Often the mercy seat is not dusted and kept clean, nor repaired. This points to the careless attitude towards it. Only during leaders’ visits the mercy seat is used for calling people to kneel and pray. Sometimes people are pushed rather than persuaded to go forward. We must beware of such practices.

All these sad sides of the improper and underutilisation of the mercy seat need to be addressed. We must emphasise the purpose of mercy seat. This is a place where a person meets with God. If conversion takes place we praise God, but it must not be forced. Conversions must not be forced, and we should exercise the call to the mercy seat carefully in these days, so that opponents of our work should not have opportunity to criticise our methods.

There is need to plan to counsel those coming to the mercy seat both at the time of kneeling at the mercy seat and after some time. Efforts need to be made to teach and train soldiers to meet and counsel the people coming to the mercy seat.

Let us regain the lost value and place of the mercy seat in The Salvation Army. May we resolve to do it as we seek ways to experience God’s grace and his blessings at the mercy seat.

Major Joseph Vijay Boda is now retired and lives in Andhra Pradesh. Before retirement he was the Executive Secretary for Social Services in India and also the Editor of the All English War Cry.

For further thought and discussion:

1. When did you first meet God at the mercy seat? What happened?

2. When was the most recent occasion when you met God at the mercy seat? What happened?

3. Is the mercy seat an effective means of grace in your corps?

4. When last did you pray with someone at the mercy seat? Have you been able to follow up the conversation at the mercy seat?

© 2016 The Salvation Army
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