In some churches, there is only an occasional song of confession, but somebody usually includes a confessional element in a prayer at some point, but confession isn’t a very big part of what I call modern, non-liturgical church services.
Confession is important. It is about sin, and sin is a big thing in Christianity. We all sin more or less continuously, so we need to repent again and again. And when we do so honestly and regularly, we get a much better picture of who we are. And how much we need forgiveness.
In the traditional liturgies of most denominations, we practiced confession weekly, and in this repetition, garnered long term beneficial effects. These benefits are derived from turning our love toward God, through ritual. Rituals have the power to shape our identities, and if we are not deliberate, cultural liturgies will shape them instead.
The liturgical worship service is structured around a dialogue between God and his people. God calls us and Greets us, we respond with praise. Then God speaks through his word; we are reminded of God’s expectations for us in the reading of the Law. This is often the Ten Commandments, but there are many suitable passages, like Micah 6:8. The point here is that we need to be reminded that God has expectations, and we have failed to live up to them. We are disobedient and rebellious.
Thus, we need to repent.
Call to Confession
We are called to confession. We have to be called because we don’t really want to do it. True confession is hard because we have to look at who we really are. An honest look at oneself does not happen easily. We might need some practice–maybe even a thousand cracks at it. But if you deliberately practice confession in church every week, it will begin to be a daily rhythm, and you’ll be good at it in less than 20 years.
The call to confession reminds us that what’s wrong with the world is not out there somewhere but within me. I need a reminder, especially if I look at social media occasionally. The sins of others are so obvious on Twitter. The call to confession repeated weekly can begin to remind me that I am the problem with the world.
Until we realize that our biggest problem in life is not out there, but in us, we haven’t really come to a Christian understanding of reality. The repetition of ritual helps us to accept this reality in ways far deeper than intellectual consent. This is the power of ritual.
Prayer of Confession
If confession is just a mention in a prayer by the worship leader, then I might quickly confess the first sin that comes to mind. I can usually remember one. But, this is inadequate. I have committed a lot more sins than this one. Then there are the sins of omission. Then there are the sins that I would have committed in different circumstances. All of these damn me.Our appreciation of God's Grace is proportional to the degree we understand our need for it. Click To Tweet
Our appreciation of God’s Grace in Redemption is proportional to the degree we understand our need for it. The only way for us to understand our need for God’s salvation is to meditate on our sin, and then confess it.
This past summer I was in England and I worshiped in Anglican churches. Praying in unison each week a prayer of penitence from the Book of Common Prayer is a moving experience when you attend to the words. Here’s an example:
Most merciful God, Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, we confess that we have sinned in thought, word and deed.
We have not loved you with our whole heart. We have not loved our neighbours as ourselves. In your mercy forgive what we have been, help us to amend what we are, and direct what we shall be; that we may do justly, love mercy, and walk humbly with you, our God.
“But if you confess every week it is no longer moving, or special.”
We overemphasize experience in our culture–in church, we have a danger of emphasizing religious experience. Occasional experiences don’t shape us as regular ones do. The function of the liturgy is not to be new and special, but to shape us into a particular people. To conform us to reality, if you will.
It’s almost a given that we must avoid “empty ritual.” But what we must realize is that there is no such thing. Rituals are full. We give a child a quarter to drop into the collection plate every week. We insist a child say the words, “I’m sorry,” even when they clearly don’t mean it. These are important things to do, for they shape the identity of the child. The shaping isn’t intellectual–in the head–nor is it a changing of the heart. In Desiring the Kingdom, James K. A. Smith says that routines and rituals affect us in our gut or bones.
We are shaped into a certain kind of people by a liturgy of confession.The ritual reminds us of two things--it reminds me that I am no worse than anyone else, and it reminds me that I am no better.Click To Tweet
Then, in the dialogue of worship, God speaks again.
Assurance of Pardon
As difficult as confession is, before we even start the confession, we know what’s coming. Amazing Grace. The assurance of pardon.
Human sinfulness is a big deal in Christianity, but God’s pardon and adoption into his family is the other half of the story. Both should, then, be a significant part of our weekly gathering.
God’s pardon is really good news. In the Old Testament, regular blood sacrifice established a pattern of purification. Sacrifice was God’s way of removing human uncleanness so that people could be restored to fellowship with God. The sacrifices reinforce the idea that death is the penalty for sin. But it’s clearly an act of Grace that God even allows for a substitute. Old Testament animals functioned as a substitute death. The inadequacy of these sacrifices is evidenced by the need for repeated sacrifice.
The death of God himself on our behalf is a once and for all sacrifice for our sake. We do nothing to earn it. It is a free gift. We do nothing but open our hands and receive it.
At this point in the liturgy, God gives pardon. And we receive. Repeated every week we become persons and a people of Grace.
In the prayer of confession, we come to realize and admit that we are in a hard place. We cannot save ourselves. We are unworthy to be anywhere near a holy God. When we get honest about our sin, we come to an understanding of how much I need Jesus, and then we experience his Grace.
Response of Thanksgiving
We confess, God pardons, and then we express gratitude.
This is to be the pattern of the Christian life. Like inhaling and exhaling.
But in order for this to become the pattern, it needs to be reinforced.
If we don’t practice it weekly, we won’t ever get the hang of it. We will spend a lifetime not knowing ourselves, and worse yet, not knowing the extent of God’s Grace.
Occasional confession is a liturgy of omission. A church that occasionally confesses is not much better than one that never confesses. The repetition is where the shaping occurs. The church that has a significant confession element every week will more effectively disciple the people into experiencing a pattern of confession and forgiveness that will alter their lives. The Sunday confession models the prayers we can offer on Monday and beyond.
If your church does not practice regular Confession and Assurance, is it time to consider including it in our weekly worship services? If it does, allow the power of ritual to turn out love towards God.
Other posts in this series: