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A friend of mine in hospice care was obviously struggling when he mentioned the devil and the guilt he felt. I told him: “Andrew, in Jesus your sins are forgiven.” Ever since, I have been puzzling over this. I am not a member of the clergy. But may I, as a fellow Christian, pronounce to my friend, in extremis, that his sins are forgiven? Is this not, in effect, administering the last rites?

In this situation your instinct guided you, and I'm very glad you acted on it. Your friend was not only anxious about dying but also—perhaps even more so—about what the Judge might say when the Book of Life is opened. You pointed to Jesus’ forgiving grace.

The last rites are one of seven sacraments in the Roman Catholic tradition. They are commonly administered by the priest and sometimes are referred to as the act of absolution. You should be aware that even in that tradition lay persons are allowed, in extremis, to administer the sacrament in times of great need. A nurse, for example, may baptize a newborn child who, humanly speaking, is not likely to live. Most Protestants will recognize the validity of such a baptism.

In Protestant thought, however, there are only two sacraments specifically instituted in the New Testament: baptism and the Lord’s Supper. We do not administer last rites. But we do stand at a deathbed with the gospel of grace and are perfectly at liberty to proclaim it there. The ordained do so, and so may the non-ordained. It is not a sacrament; it is speaking biblical truth.

We often urged seminary students not to pronounce the benediction until they were ordained. To do so as students, complete with the raising of the arms, was not well-received by an older generation who thought it the height of arrogance. Instead, we had them paraphrase the Aaronic benediction as a prayer: “The Lord bless you and keep you . . .” That way the non-ordained acted without presumption yet clearly spoke words of Scripture. That’s what you did. Well done!

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