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Genuine Sorrow...Wholehearted Joy: The why, when, and how of confession

In an article titled 'A Wretch Like Who?" (America, 1/29/94) Brian Abel Ragen notes that some contemporary versions of 'Amazing Grace" have changed the line "that saved a wretch like me" to "that saved and strengthened me." Ragen writes:

It is important to note that the idea of a redeemer, a savioi; is impossible without the idea of a fallen humanity. You cannot he saved if you are not lost. You cannot be redeemed if you are not in hock. You cannot he freed if you are not enslaved. American culture, even in its churches, avoids tlie idea of real sinfulness. It nev-crthcless clings sentimentally to the idea of redemption.

Popular culture on a large scale both tells people that they are OK and embraces some vague cultural Christianity…

Our culture does not believe in wickedness — that is, in culpability. The "conviction of sin" is hardly possible to us. We believe not in sin and forgiveness but in illness and recovery. It is the endless message of our culhire that everyone is basically good and that most of our problems will be solved when we realize this—in other words, when we build up our self-esteem.

If Ragen's assessment of contemporary culture is right, and I suspect it is, then preachers and liturgists face a difficult challenge when they prepare to lead people in worship. Repentance and forgiveness, confession and absolution are at the heart of Christian doctrine and worship, yet for many such terms are nearly a foreign language.

Increasingly the people who gather in sanctuaries on Sunday morning do not come expecting to publicly announce their guilt and to seek forgiveness, but to have their self-esteem enhanced, their "batteries charged," or to find help "to get through another week," In an age where the closest we come to public confession of guilt is "mistakes were made," the sight of a whole congregation announcing themselves in unison as "miserable offenders" is strange indeed. So some churches have abandoned the corporate prayer of confession in favor of a service that is more positive and "up-beat."

Why Confess?

Both the biblical witness and the history of Christian thought provide ample evidence that confession of sin is an integral part of worship. To come into the presence of the Holy One is to be made aware of our own sinfulness. What elsewhere can be denied and hidden (even from ourselves) is now exposed. A sense of the ultimate worth of God is accompanied by an overwhelming sense of our own unworthiness.

Isaiah's vision of God in the temple moves him to cry: "Woe is me! I am lost, for I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips; yet my eyes have seen the King, the LORD of hosts!" (Isa. 6:5, NRSV). Peter responds to Jesus' miracle with the confession: "Go away from me Lord, for I am a sinful man!" (Luke 5:8).

Luther held that the confession of praise (confessio laudis) and the confession of sin (confessio peccati) were necessarily connected. The worshiper must renounce his or her own glory in order to glorify God. The praise of a worshiper who fails to acknowledge sinfulness will remain an empty show.

Calvin, too, noted the connection between worship and confession:

For since in every sacred assembly we stand before the sight of God and the angels, what other beginning of our action will there be than the recognition of our own unzvorMness? (Institutes, III. 4.11.)

The worshiping congregation's corporate confession of sin, then, is not merely a narrow focus on their own guilt; it is as much a concomitant expression of their awareness of the presence and holiness of God.

When to Confess?

Calvin, following the line of reasoning above, argued that confession was the proper beginning of worship and was a key by which "a gate to prayer is opened" (Institutes III. 4.11.). Most churches continue that practice, making corporate confession early in the service, often after the opening hymn and before the lessons.

But there may be occasions when it is appropriate to place the confession at a different point in the service, such as immediately preceding the celebration of the Lord's Supper. Zwingli placed the confession of sin near the very end of the service, arguing that genuine confession could be made only after the sermon, in response to the Word that teaches us to recognize our need and assures us of forgiveness.

Wherever the confession occurs in the service, it will require some kind of introduction. The introduction or call to confession should be brief and to the point. Since no one is moved to confession unless there is hope of forgiveness, it is most appropriate to include in this introduction words from Scripture reminding us of God's readiness to forgive.

Corporate, Not Private

A congregation in Washington, D.C. regularly precedes the prayer of confession with a reading from the daily newspaper. The pastor will read a news story about inadequate housing for the poor, or corruption in a government agency, or some example of injustice in the community. The reading concludes with a call to confession: "Brothers and sisters, this is a sin, and we need to confess it." In this way the congregation is reminded that it participates in the inequality and injustice of society. In the prayer of confession the people acknowledge not only their own sins, but the sin of the world.

Since the prayer of confession is a corporate prayer, the language of the prayer will normally be more general than specific. This is not a time to enumerate particular sins, but to express our contrition in language that, while concrete, is inclusive. To allow time for personal confession, the worship leader may include a period of silence following or within a unison prayer.

Facilitate—Don't Manipulate

Those who compose written prayers of confession for congregations bear a heavy responsibility. Since we are literally putting words into people's mouths, such prayers ought to be composed with great care and thought and prayer. We must resist the temptation to manipulate people into confessing sins they aren't ready to confess, or to acknowledge guilt of which they are unaware. The aim of such a prayer is the same as that of any other part of the service: namely, to serve as a vehicle to bring people into the presence of God—or more precisely, to help us become aware of the God who is already present. That is something beyond the control of the worship leader.

What Calvin said of the sacraments is also true of prayers of confession: "They profit not a whit without the power of the Holy Spirit..." (Institutes, TV 14.9) Who can know ahead of time what will serve as the vehicle for the Spirit's ministry? It may be fresh language, a piece of music, a particular turn of phrase, or an often-repeated prayer that suddenly takes on new meaning because of circumstances in a worshiper's life. Let it be a continuing source of wonder to worship planners, liturgists, and preachers that the Spirit is able to use our feeble and faulty efforts as vehicles for God's grace.

Singing the Confession

Calvin, complaining that the "prayers of the faithful are so cold," recommended singing as a way "to incite us to lift up our hearts to God and move us to zeal... "A spoken prayer of confession might conclude with a musical setting of the Kyrie Eleison ("Lord, have mercy") or the Agnus Dei ("Lamb of God") or some other musical response. As an option to a spoken prayer the congregation may sing one of the penitential psalms or an appropriate hymn.

On some occasions a choir anthem may serve as the congregational prayer of confession, but since the prayer belongs to all the people, it is normally best to allow for the direct and full participation of the entire congregation.

Declaring Forgiveness

The prayer of confession itself may conclude with an affirmation of trust in God's grace and mercy. In addition, the prayer should be followed by a declaration of forgiveness or absolution. With conviction and joy the minister announces God's promise to pardon all those who come hi repentance and faith.

Calvin held to a high view of ordination at this point, calling ministers "ordained witnesses and sponsors of [God's mercyj to assure our consciences of forgiveness of sins, to the extent that they are said to forgive sins and to loose souls" (Institutes III. 4.12). Therefore, the Strassburg Liturgy included a forthright absolution: "In Christ's name I proclaim unto you the forgiveness of all your sins, and declare you to be loosed of them on earth, that you be loosed of them also in heaven, in eternity." The congregation in Geneva, however, objected to this practice ("Who can forgive sins except God alone?") and showed their hostility by standing to sing in order to forestall the absolution!

There is power in an absolution that is forthright, direct, and personal. "You are forgiven" conveys much more than "Sins are forgiven." But pastors must be sensitive to how the congregation will receive such an announcement of forgiveness. Will they hear it as a word from God? If the pastor proclaims forgiveness in words similar to those of the Strassburg Liturgy it would be wise to preface them with the words from Scripture that assure us of God's forgiving grace through Jesus Christ.

Confession without absolution is incomplete—a case of arrested development in the Christian life. The confession concludes not with an acknowledgement of sin, but with an acceptance of grace. In the words of the Heidelberg Catechism, true repentance involves not only genuine sorrow for our sin but also "wholehearted joy in God through Christ." In confession, absolution, and response we rehearse the gospel in miniature. Week after week after week we give liturgical expression to what is at the heart of the Christian's life: the death of the old self and the birth of the new, a journey from grief to joy, from slavery to freedom, from life in the far country to a home close to our Father's heart.

The services of confession that follow are loosely based on the lectionary texts (Revised Common Lectionary) for the Sundays in Lent, year C. Each prayer begins and concludes with a stanza from "God, Be Merciful to Me," a setting of Psalm 51 as found in Rejoice in the Lord (1041 Otfjer musical settings can be found in Hie Psalter Hymnal (255) and The Hymnbook (282). Scripture is from the NRSV.

LENT I

Deuteronomy 26:1-11
Psalm 91:1-19-16
Romans 10:8b-13
Luke 4:1-13

Call to Confession (Hebrews 4:15-16)

Remember that our Lord Jesus Christ is able to sympathize with us in our weaknesses. In every respect he was tempted as we are, yet without sin. Let us therefore approach the throne of grace with boldness, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need.

Let us confess our sins to Almighty God.

Prayer of Confession

God, be merciful to me; on thy grace I rest my plea.
Plenteous in compassion thou, blot out my transgressions now;
my transgivssions I confess; grief and guilt my soul oppress;
I have sinned against thy grace, and provoked thee to thy face.

Most merciful God,
whose son Jesus Christ was tempted in every way,
yet without sin,
we confess before you our own sinfulness:
we have hungered after that which does not satisfy;
we have compromised with evil;
we have doubted your power to protect us.
Forgive our lack of faith; have mercy on our weakness.
Restore in us such trust and love that we may walk in
your ways and delight in doing your will.

Gracious God, my heart rerieiv, make my spirit right and true;
from my sins O hide thy face, blot them out in boundless grace.
Cast me not away from thee; let thy Spirit dwell in me;
thy salvations joy impart; steadfast make my willing heart.

Assurance of Pardon (from Psalm 91:14-16)

Those who love me, I will deliver, says the Lord;
I will protect those who know my name.
When they call to me, I will answer them;
I will be with them in trouble,
I will rescue them and honor them.
With long life I will satisfy them,
and show them my salvation.

Receive the good news of the gospel:
In Jesus Christ we are forgiven.

LENT II

Genesis 15:1-12,17-18
Psalm 27
Philippians 3:17-4:1
Luke 13:31-35

Call to Confession (Isaiah 54:7-8)

For a brief moment I abandoned you, but with great compassion I will gather you, says the Lord. In overflowing wrath for a moment I hid my face from you, but with everlasting love I will have compassion on you, says the Lord your Redeemer.

Let us confess our sins to Almighty God.

Prayer of Confession

God, be merciful to me; on thy grace 1 rest my plea.
Plenteous in compassion faou, blot out my transgressions now;
my transgressions 1 confess; grief and guilt my soul oppress;
I have sinned against thy grace, and provoked thee to thy face.

God of mercy,
whose son Jesus Christ longs to gather us
in the wide embrace of his love:
we confess that we have been wayward children.
We have disobeyed your commands;
our ears have been deaf to your call;
our hearts have been cold to your love.
In thought, in word, and in deed
we have hurt others and dishonored your name.

In your great mercy receive us yet again as your well-beloved children, not because we are worthy but for the sake of him who loved us and gave himself for us.

Gracious God, my heart renew, make my spirit right and true;
from my sins O hide tliyface, blot them out in boundless grace.
Cast me not away from thee; let thy Spirit dwell in me;
thy salvations joy impart; steadfast make my willing heart.

Assurance of Pardon (Isaiah 49:15,66:13)

Can a woman forget her nursing child,
or show no compassion on the child of her womb?
Even these may forget,
yet I will not forget you.

As a mother comforts her child,
so will I comfort you, [says the Lord.]

Receive the good news of the gospel:
In Jesus Christ we are forgiven.

LENT III

Isaiah 55:1-9
Psalm 63:1-8
1 Corinthians 10:1-13
Luke 13:1-9

Call to Confession (Isaiah 55:6-7)

Seek the Lord while he may be found, call upon him while he is near; let the wicked forsake their way, and the unrighteous their thoughts; let them return to the Lord, that he may have mercy on them, and to our God, for he will abundantly pardon.

Trusting ourselves to the grace of God, let us confess our sin before God and one another.

Prayer of Confession

God, be merciful to me; on tfiy grace 1 rest my plea.
Plenteous in compassion thou, blot out my transgressions now;
my transgressions I confess; gi-iefand guilt my soul oppress;
I have sinned against thy grace, and provoked hee to thy face.

Everlasting God, fountain of all life and the true home of every heart: our hearts are restless until they rest in you. Yet we confess that our hearts have been enslaved by selfish passion and base desire. We have sought after many things and have neglected the one thing needful. We have not loved you with our whole heart and mind and strength. Loving God, who alone can fill our deepest longings and quiet our restless hearts, help us to turn to you and find forgiveness. Lead us home that we may again find in you our life and joy and peace.

Gracious God, my heart renew, make my spirit right and true;
from my sins O hide Qiyface, bbt them out in boundless giwce
Cast me not away from thee; let thy Spirit dwell in me;
thy salvations joy impart; steadfast make my willing heart.

Assurance of Pardon (Matthew 11:28-30)

Jesus said: Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.

Receive the good news of the gospel:
In Jesus Christ we are forgiven.

LENT IV

Joshua 5:9-12
Psalm 32
2 Corinthians 5:16-21
Luke 15:1-3, 11b-32

Call to Confession (1 John 1:8-9)

If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, God, who is faithful and just, will forgive our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness.

Let us confess our sins to Almighty God.

Prayer of Confession

God, be merciful to me; on tlry grace 1 rest my plea.
Plenteous in compassion thou, blot out my transgressions now;
my transgressions 1 confess; grief and guilt my soul oppress;
1 have sinned against thy grace, and provoked thee to thy face.

Almighty God, in Jesus Christ you love us, but we have not loved you. You have opened your heart to us, and in our pride we have spurned your care. You have given us all things, and we have squandered your gifts. We have grieved you and caused hurt to others, and we are not worthy to be called your children. Have mercy on us, O Lord, for we are ashamed and sorry for all we have done to displease you. Cleanse us from our sin, and receive us once again into your household, that we might never more stray from your love but always remain within the sound of your voice.

Gracious God, my heart renew, make my spirit right and true;
from my sins O hide thy face, blot them out in boundless grace.
Cast me not away from thee; let my Spirit divell in me;
thy salvations joy impart; steadfast make my willing heart

Assurance of Pardon (2 Corinthians 5:17-18)

If anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: the old life has passed away; everything has become new! All this is from God, who has reconciled us to himself through Christ, and has given us the ministry of reconciliation.

Receive the good news of the gospel:
In Jesus Christ we are forgiven.

LENT V

Isaiah 43:16-21
Psalm 126
Philippians 3:4b-14
John 12:1-8

Call to Confession (Romans 5:8, Hebrews 4:16)

The proof of God's amazing love is this: While we were sinners, Christ died for us. Because we have faith in him, we dare to approach God with confidence, trusting that God will forgive our sin and cleanse us from every kind of wrong.

Let us confess our sins to Almighty God.

Prayer of Confession

God, be merciful to me; on thy gmce I rest my plea.
Plenteous in compassion thou, blot out my transgressions now;
my transgressions I confess; grief and guilt my soul oppress;
I have sinned against thy grace, and provoked thee to thy face.

God of compassion, in Jesus Christ you did not disdain the company of sinners but welcomed them with love. Look upon us in mercy, we pray. Our sins are more than we can bear; our pasts enslave us; our misdeeds are beyond correcting. Forgive the wrongs we cannot undo; free us from a past we cannot change; heal what we can no longer fix. Grace our lives with your love and turn the tears of our past into the joys of new life with you.

Gracious God, my heart renew, make my spirit right and true;
from my sins O hide thy face, blot them out in boundless grace.
Cast me not aioayfrom thee; let thy Spirit dwell in me;
thy salvations joy impart; steadfast make my willing heart.

Assurance of Pardon (1 Timothy 1:15, 1 Peter 2:24)

Hear the good news! The saying is sure and worthy of full acceptance, that Jesus Christ came into the world to save sinners. He himself bore our sins in his body on the cross, so that, free from sins, we might live for righteousness.

Receive the good news of the gospel:
In Jesus Christ we are forgiven.

PALM / PASSION SUNDAY

Isaiah 50:4-9a
Psalm 31:9-16 or Psalm 118:l-2,19-29
Philippians 2:5-11
Luke 19:28-40 or Luke 22:14-23:56 or Luke 23:1-49
Psalm 118:1-2,19-29

Call to Confession (see 1 Peter 2:4-7)

The very stone that the builders rejected has become the chief cornerstone. Come now to Christ, that living stone, a cornerstone chosen and precious. Whoever believes in him will not be put to shame.

Trusting in the Lord Jesus Christ, let us confess our sins before God and one another.

Prayer of Confession

God, be merciful to me; on thy grace I rest my plea.
Plenteous in compassion thou, Hot out my transgiessions now;
my transgressions I confess; grief and guilt my soul oppress;
I have sinned against fliy grace, and provoked thee to thy face.

O Lord, who on this day entered the rebellious city
which later rejected you:
we confess that our wills are as rebellious as
Jerusalem's,
that our faith is often more show than substance,
that our hearts are in need of cleansing.
Have mercy on us, Son of David, Savior of our lives.
Help us to lay at your feet
all that we have and all that we are, trusting you
to forgive what is sinful,
to heal what is broken,
to welcome our praises,
and to receive us as your own.

Gracious God, my heart rmew, make my spirit right and true;
from my sins O hide thy face, blot fiiem out in boundess grace.
Cast me not away rom thee; let thy Spirit dwell in me;
thy salvations joy impart; steadfast make my willing heart.

Assurance of Pardon (see 1 Peter 2:9-10)

Once you were not a people,
but now you are God's people;
once you had not received mercy,
but now you have received mercy.

You are God's own people, in order that you may proclaim the mighty acts of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light.

Receive the good news of the gospel:
In Jesus Christ we are forgiven.