Confession is a wise practice because it forms our faith and identity.

Covenant renewal happens in community.

Wise is the preacher who invites hearers to receive God’s lavish grace, to repent from sin and evil, to turn toward Christ. . . .

Wise is the church that . . . encourages honest and trusting prayers to God that express the full range of human experience . . . prayers of celebration and lament, trust and desperation, supplication and intercession, thanksgiving and confession, healing and hope.

—from Worshiping the Triune God, World Communion of Reformed Churches

Why did a 2010 gathering of Reformed denominations from around the world think it wise to include confession of sin and the assurance of pardon in worship? Why has confession found a place in worship liturgies, from the early church, to the Roman Mass, to the Reformers? Even our own denomination’s Church Order stipulates the inclusion of prayers of confession (see Art. 61). After a time of dwindling use, they seem to be on the rise. But what is the wisdom behind the practice?

As Reformed Christians we see worship as a reenactment of our covenant with God, a renewal ceremony with God and those gathered in dialogue. God calls us to worship; we respond with praise. Faced with God’s holiness, we become aware of our own sinfulness and our need to confess—to which God responds with words of forgiveness. Then, desiring to live a life that more fully emulates the life of Christ, we turn to the Word to hear God’s message to us. Week after week we respond to that message and are sent out with God’s blessing to be a blessing to others. The practice of confessing our sin in worship is wise, first of all, because it is based in Scripture and is part of the rhythm of all relationships, especially our relationship with a holy God.

While we can certainly confess and experience forgiveness on our own, covenant renewal occurs within community. God is never in relationship with us only as individuals but also within a community of believers. In our baptism we are united with Christ and with one another. When one person rejoices, we all rejoice; when one mourns, we all mourn. And when one sins, it becomes our sin. And so we come as God’s united people confessing our sin together: individual and corporate sin, actions we have done and things we have failed to do. It is a wise practice because it places us in a community of believers honestly struggling in Christ to overcome temptation, to challenge unjust systems of which we are a part, to declare that Jesus is victor over our idols, and to be assured of our pardon.

We need regular reminders of our sinfulness and God’s abundant grace. While we don’t want to focus on our depravity, without the act of confession and forgiveness we won’t fully understand or experience God’s grace. In worship we are reoriented; we are reminded that we have been set apart for holy living. Confession is a wise practice because it forms our faith and identity.

Within the regular practice of confession, there is plenty of room for variation. We might want to begin worship with it, for example, or respond to a sermon with a time of confession, or include it in our preparation for the Lord’s Supper. The context will suggest whether the prayer of confession should be read by the pastor, recited by the congregation, or spoken extemporaneously. It may or may not include a spoken or sung response. It may be a part of a song or offered during an extended time of silence. Various postures may be employed: from bowing to kneeling or even lying prostrate before God. It may also be instructive to lead from the baptismal font.

Far from being an empty ritual, the regular confession of sin and the assurance of pardon are packed with meaning. We are a sinful people, and we need the weekly reminder of our dependence on God’s grace.

In that there is great wisdom.

 

Questions for Discussion

  1. What place does confession of sin have in our worship liturgies? Is it essential? Can it stand alone or does it require other elements, such as assurance of pardon and/or directives for living?
  2. If we may and should confess our sins personally and privately, why do we also do so in public worship?
  3. What is “covenant renewal?” How does that relate to worship? What place does confession of sin play in it?
  4. Does it matter what posture we take as we confess our sin? For example, is kneeling better than standing or sitting? And is a spoken prayer of confession better than one we sing together?
  5. What are “corporate sins”? Do they differ from the sins we commit as individuals? Are we personally responsible for them?
  6. Why do we need to be constantly reminded of the fact that “we are a sinful people”? Does that do full justice to the gospel and to the new life we have in Christ?

About the Author

Joyce Borger, an ordained pastor, is the director of Worship Ministries for the Christian Reformed Church and editor of the quarterly journal Reformed Worship.

See comments (4)

Comments

Thanks Joyce for a thought provoking article.  But I, personally, think you overstep logical boundaries when it comes to confessing individual sins before a congregation.  But perhaps I’m misunderstanding you, as to confessing individual sins.  If you mean naming personal sins before a congregation, then that is a congregation that I want no part of.  As, at least one Reformed theologian has suggested, God gave Adam and Eve clothing in the garden of Eden to cover their shame, not to expose it.  In other words, God allows us at some level to keep our personal sins and shame between ourselves and God.  God sees all and knows all and confession to him makes perfect sense.  But to expose our personal shame, our personal sins, to a group of sinful people makes no sense at all.  The church is, after all, made up of sinners, in fact in reality, not all that different from those outside of the church, if statistics speak realistically in regard to pornography and divorce in the church, as well as other sins.  You are naive if you think a typical CRC congregation is anywhere as forgiving as God.  In fact, I would suggest that there is no congregation this side of heaven, that is as understanding and forgiving as God.  Such confession as you suggest would do much more harm than good.  So corporate sin and even confession of personal sin in a general way sounds reasonable.  But you should rethink your premise before suggesting naming our personal sins in congregational worship.  Thanks again for your article.  It does help your readers to think through this issue, as it seems to be gaining some momentum in some Christian circles.

Roger,

 

Corporate or liturgical confession is typically a printed general confession that confesses the sins and sinful nature of man with an understanding of the need of Christ our Lord for grace that the congregation reads and confesses together.

Thanks for the clarification David.  But as I understand such “confession” as you suggest, most churches (especially CRC churches) have been doing this all along.  It’s part of normal prayer, especially following the pattern of A.C.T.S., which is a well accepted pattern in our churches, and in which the “C” stands for confession.  And it’s also a normal part of our worship, as taught in our seminary.  So I’m trying to understand what Joyce, in this article, is emphasizing, other than what is already being done in our churches.  When she states, “when one sins, it becomes our sin. And so we come as God’s united people confessing our sin together: individual and corporate sin, actions we have done and things we have failed to do.”, this could sound like she means naming our sins before the congregation.  I’m still not sure what she has in mind, whether confession of individual sins in a general way or naming individual sins before the congregation.  There is a movement among some Christian “small groups” to be perfectly honest and open with each other in the group, and this includes naming personal sins that a person may be struggling with.  If Joyce is pushing for this kind of confession in corporate worship, then I don’t see that as helpful.  After all, many might consider the church as a larger small group.  As I suggested in my earlier comment, I may be misunderstanding Joyce as to what she means.  Is she suggesting something that is not being done in our churches or just reemphasizing what we already do?  Some clarification might be helpful.

I am persuaded that in 2010 and most times otherwise, the World Council of Reformed Church, quoted in this article, pushes communal prayers of confession as a means to pressure and propogandize about complex and highly disputed political issues.

Some refer to WCRC as an ecumenical organization. I dont.  I think a fair review of its activities (and website) demonstrate that WCRC is a political organization that has a very particular political perspective.  Some in the CRC agree with WCRC's political perspectives and positions.  I don't.  I consider them inconsistent with historical Reformed theology and a Calvinist worldview.  I regard the Accra Confession, adopted by WCRC, as predominantly a liberation theology political manifesto.

WCRC's push for communal prayer/confession helps them "teach" those of differing political perspectives what they should really think.  I consider that an abuse, and nothing akin to how Jesus taught us to pray.