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
- 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?
- If we may and should confess our sins personally and privately, why do we also do so in public worship?
- What is “covenant renewal?” How does that relate to worship? What place does confession of sin play in it?
- 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?
- What are “corporate sins”? Do they differ from the sins we commit as individuals? Are we personally responsible for them?
- 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.