True Confession: Ideas for recovering a true spirit of confession in worship
Not long ago I asked a group to identifiy distinguishing marks of Reformed worship. “A unison prayer of confession,” one of them responded. Actually, we have not had a spoken unison prayer of confession for very long. Before the invention of the mimeograph, spoken, unison prayers were not possible. In fact, there was no such thing as a worship bulletin.
But this respondent was right in one important sense: confession has always been a major emphasis in Reformed worship. Calvin said that when we assemble as the church, we say something about God and something about ourselves. We enter into the presence of our gracious God and of the angels only when we acknowledge our unworthiness. “On every Lord’s Day the minister makes a formal confession, in which he represents all as guilty of sin, and supplicates for pardon from the Lord on behalf of all” (Institutes, 3, 4, 11).
The form confession took in the liturgy was shaped by other influences at work in early Reformed worship: the desire for participation by the “priesthood of all believers,” for example, and an emphasis on singing the psalms. So it became customary very early in the Reformed tradition for the minister and the congregation together to sing their repentance. Some of us remember singing Psalms 51, 32, and 25. And sometimes we sang Psalms 86 and 103. This singing of the psalms, and especially of the latter two, brought together our praise of God and our reflection on our own unrighteousness. Even the singing of the Kyrie Elieson carried this double emphasis, reflected in two possible translations of this phrase: “Lord, have mercy,” a pleading prayer, or “Lord, you have given mercy!” a triumphant acclamation. Churches that have not sung their repentance for some time should consider it again (see box p. 19 for suggestions).
Why Do We Confess Our Sins?
Far too many folks would say that we confess our sins so that we might be forgiven. Not so! At least, it should not be so. We confess our sins because we know and have the assurance that our God is a gracious and forgiving God who, while we were yet sinners, sent Christ to die for us, received us in baptism, and for Jesus’ sake forgives our sins. So we dare to approach the throne of grace with confidence, not with fear. How should we embody this truth in our liturgies?
Since “repentance not only immediately follows faith, but is produced by it” (Calvin’s Institutes, 3, 3, 1), the prayer of confession must always be preceded by a reminder of God’s promise to forgive us our sin and cleanse us from all unrighteousness. The consciousness and acceptance of God’s mighty and gracious acts in Jesus Christ prompt praise; praise brings about repentance; and the first fruit of repentance is our confession of sin. The subsequent fruit is living a joyful and obedient Christian life.
Calvin warns of two errors that must be avoided. First, we must avoid giving the impression that God’s grace is rendered effective because of anything we do (even praying a prayer of confession). Second, grace should never be considered as any kind of reward or divine response, but always and only as the free gift of God (Institutes, 2, 3, 11).
A Common Misunderstanding
We must raise serious questions about prayers of confession, whether spoken or sung, that sound as if we are pleading with God to forgive us. We should avoid the imploring tone that expresses only the possible prospect that God will forgive us and that betrays the implicit fear that if we don’t “repent hard enough” or sincerely enough, God just might not be trusted to forgive us. Rather, the thrust of the prayer should be an expression of confidence that our Lord God will not refuse or cast out those who come trusting in the work and the grace of
Jesus (John 6:37). Our prayers should express clearly our recognition that God acts first. It is through recognizing God’s gracious forgiveness that we are moved to repentance and confession.
The following prayer comes close to that intention:
Almighty God, you love us, but we have not loved you.
You call, but we have not listened.
We walk away from neighbors in need,
wrapped in our own concerns.
We condone evil, prejudice, warfare, and greed.
God of grace, help us to admit our sin,<> so that as you come to us in mercy,
we may repent, turn to you, and receive forgiveness;
through Jesus Christ our Redeemer. Amen.
—composed for the Presbyterian Worshipbook (1970) and slightly altered for the Book of Common Worship 1993, p. 89
Note that God’s coming to us in mercy precedes our repentance, though there is still an ambiguity here. This prayer could be construed by the pew sitter to mean that only when we admit our sin, will God “come to us in mercy.”
We should be even more careful as we craft these prayers to instill a proper theological awareness of “faith alone, grace alone” in our worshipers. Here is my attempt at trying to be “even more careful” with this good prayer:
Awesome and compassionate God,
You have loved us with unfailing, self-giving mercy,
but we have not loved you.
You constantly call us, but we do not listen.
You ask us to love, but we walk away from neighbors in need,
wrapped in our own concerns.
We condone evil, prejudice, warfare, and greed.
God of grace, as you come to us in mercy,
we repent in spirit and in truth,
admit our sin, and gratefully receive your forgiveness
through Jesus Christ our Redeemer. Amen.
Here is another attempt to rewrite a historic prayer of confession that is often used as a spoken unison prayer by a congregation:
Eternal Splendor, Light of light and God of gods,
You have shone upon us and we have seen your glory,
shining in the face of Jesus Christ our Lord.
Bathed in your light, our faith and our life are shown to be shrouded and tarnished.
We have not loved you with our whole heart and mind and strength;
we have not loved our neighbors as ourselves.
Yet, in your great mercy you forgive what we have been.
We pray that you now will amend what we are
and direct what we shall be,
that we may henceforth walk in your light,
delight in your will, and reflect your radiance,
to the glory of your holy name. Amen.
Renewing Our Baptism
I believe that every public prayer of confession is an occasion of the renewal of our baptism. Again I turn to Calvin, who says that the propensity toward evil never ceases in us, but we take courage because what “begins in our baptism” must be pursued every day until it is perfected when we go to be with the Lord (Institutes, 4, 15, 11). Even Jesus indicated that his baptism would only be completed in his death (Mark 10:38-39). “If repentance be enjoined upon us as long as we live,” says Calvin, “the virtue of baptism ought to be extended to the same period. . . . Whenever we have fallen, therefore, we must recur to the remembrance of baptism” (Institutes, 4, 15, 3-4).
For these reasons we should consider making the call to confession from the baptismal font and that any sung or spoken prayer of confession should be led from there, not from the pulpit.
Consider the following call and prayer:
All who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death. Therefore, we have been buried with him by baptism into death, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the
Father, so we too might walk in newness of life (Rom. 6:3-4). As we praise God for all the gifts signified by our baptism [here the minister may lift some water with the hand, letting it fall audibly back into the font], let us confess that we have sinned as we have sought to walk in Christ’s way. Let us pray:
Eternal and merciful God,
you have loved us with a love beyond our understanding,
and you have set us on paths of righteousness for your name’s sake;
Yet, we have strayed from your way;
we have sinned against you in thought, word, and deed,
through what we have done and what we have left undone,
and we have wandered from your pathway.
As we remember the cleansing water of baptism, O God,
we praise you and give you thanks that you forgive us yet again.
Grant us now, we pray, the grace to die daily to sin,
and to rise daily to new life in Christ,
who lives and reigns with you,
and in whose strong name we pray. Amen.
Followed by this assurance:
If we have been united with Christ in a death like his, we will certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his. So you must consider yourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus (Rom. 6:5, 11). Go in peace. Your (Our) sins are forgiven.
Calls and Assurances
Both the call to confession and the assurance following it should, in effect, be assurances of the grace of God. It is not our task to convince people of their sinfulness but to proclaim the mighty works of God—especially in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. Our goal is that people will come to faith, and through the lens of that faith, see their own inadequacy and be brought to repentance and confession.
An abundant supply of such calls can be found in the psalms in John, and in Paul’s letter to the Romans (see box). Perhaps the most striking is Romans 5:8-9:
The proof of God’s amazing love is this: while we were sinners Christ died for us. Much more surely, now that we have been justified by his blood [another opportunity to lift the water], will we be saved through him. As we reflect on God’s amazing love, let us confess our sins.
Confession as Integral to Worship
Let me summarize a bit. When the church gathers for prayer (worship), we come in confession—both of faith as we praise God’s might and saving love, and in repentance as we confess our sinfulness. Most often this confession of sin is a specific penitential segment early in the worship service.
However, having such a segment in our worship is not one of the primary requirements of Reformed worship. Rather, as we have seen, a spirit of repentance, humility, and confession should pervade our entire worship service.
So it is appropriate that from time to time, perhaps during Lent, the specifically penitential segment follow the sermon. And, since our praise and confession are complementary, there may be times in the year, such as in the Easter season, that the opening prayer of adoration may contain the element of the confession of our unworthiness. The rhythm of the Christian year will show itself in our prayers, with a stronger sense of praise during the festival seasons and a stronger sense of repentance during the preparation seasons. But both emphases should always be present, even though their proportions may vary.
But it’s also true that when we have the most intense awareness of the awesome majesty and greatness of God, we have the greatest sense of our own inadequacy and sinfulness. And, as Calvin says, it may be that when we are the most overcome by the sense of our own sinfulness, when our sins are beyond counting, that we give the greatest praise to God. Indeed, there is a point at which it is impossible even to think about being able to enumerate all our sins. “Who can detect all their errors? Cleanse me from hidden faults” (Psalm 19:12) And 1 John 3:20 says that even when our hearts condemn us, “God is greater than our hearts.” When in my repentance and my prayer of confession I acknowledge that I cannot even know the scope of my sinfulness, this may be the highest praise, the highest adoration of our God, who can save completely.
SCRIPTURAL CALLS TO CONFESSION AND ASSURANCE
- Many passages from the book of Psalms provide excellent calls to confession: 91:9-10, 14; 100:3; 145:13b-14; 147:2-3, 5.
- Romans and John also are excellent sources for calls to confession: Romans 1:16-17 and 5:1-2, 8-9. The following calls to confession are accompanied by assurances (in parentheses): 6:8-11 (12-13); 8:15b-17a (8:1-2); 8:31-34 (8:35, 37-39).
- John 3:16 (3:17-18a, ending with “those who believe in him are not condemned”).
- Additional assurances of pardon can be found in the following passages: 1 Timothy 1:15; 1 Peter 2:24 (and Isa. 53:4-6, which it quotes); 2 Corinthians 5:17. Following the assurance of pardon it is appropriate to use any of the exhortations from the later portions of Paul’s letter, or a reading of the Law and its summary.
-Arlo D. Duba
RESOURCES FOR SUNG PRAYERS OF CONFESSION
The topical index of denominational hymnals will provide many resources for singing rather than speaking a prayer of confession. Take a look under such categories as “Confession,” “Forgiveness,” “Reconciliation,” and “Repentance.”
Many contemporary collections also include good possibilities. Here are several contemporary songs, some that function well as calls to confession, some as prayers of confession, some as assurances of pardon, some as all three. A brief spoken introduction to the focus of the song will help the congregation understand the relationship among those different elements of confession.
“Children from Your Vast Creation,” text by David Robb; tune: beach spring, in Sing Justice! Do Justice! (Selah)
“For Freedom Christ Has Set Us Free,” text by Sylvia Dunstan, tune: azmon, in In Search of Hope and Grace (G.I.A.)
“If My People,” based on 2 Chronicles 7:14, by Eddie Smith, in Renew! (Hope)
“Who Can Sound the Depths of Sorrow,” by Graham Kendrick (RW 39)
“Give Me a Clean Heart “(African American) by Margaret J. Douroux, in Lift Every Voice and Sing II (Church Publishing Incorporated)
Kyrie Eleison, settings from Russia and Ghana, in With One Voice (Augsburg Fortress; see also RW 48, p. 46)
“Listen, Listen God Is Calling”(African), in With One Voice (Augsburg Fortress)
“Create in Me a Clean Heart” (based on Ps. 51:10-12), in Maranatha! Praise Chorus Book 3 (Marantha! Music) and Renew (Hope)
“Change My Heart, O God,” by Eddie Espinosa, in The Celebration Hymnal (Word, 1997)
“Purify My Heart,” by Brian Doerksen, in BBC Songs of Praise (Oxford)
“Purify My Heart,” by Jeff Nelson, in Renew! (Hope)
“Shine on Me,” by Richard K. Carlson, in The Covenant Hymnal (Covenant Publications)
AN EXTENDED TIME OF CONFESSION DURING LENT
Here is one example of an extended time of confession, both spoken and sung, for the third Sunday in Lent, based on the “Via Dolorosa” series in RW 50 (Dec. 1998, p. 6). The Scripture text was Luke 7:36-50, the story of the woman who “crashed” Simon’s dinner party and washed Jesus’s feet with her tears. The prayers followed the sermon and prayer of application. Everyone was encouraged to have both their worship folder and their hymnal ready, so the prayers could follow without interruption The prayers of confession were followed immediately by the intercessory prayers of the people.
We Dedicate Ourselves to Godly Living
Call to Confession
The good news is this: Christ came into the world to save sinners.
Let us therefore open ourselves to Christ’s saving love as we humbly confess our sins, and in faith receive cleansing (1 Tim. 1:15).
Silent prayers of confession
concluded by singing “Ah, Holy Jesus” stanzas 1-2. The organ introduction was very quiet, beginning with melody only; the singing was subdued; stanza 2 was sung unaccompanied.
Prayer of Dedication
My Father, I abandon myself to you. Do with me as you will.
Whatever you may do with me, I thank you.
I am prepared for anything; I accept everything,
provided your will is fulfilled in me and in all creatures;
I ask for nothing more, my God.
I place my soul in your hands.
I give it to you, my God, with all the love of my heart,
Because I love you.
—Charles de Foucald (1858-1916)
Sung Prayer: “Ah, Holy Jesus”
stanzas 3-4. Here too, the organ leadership was subdued, but grew on both stanzas.
Assurance of God’s Mercy and Pardon [the words Jesus spoke to the woman]
“Your sins are forgiven. Your faith has saved you. Go in peace” (Luke 7:48, 50).
Hymn of Thanksgiving: “When I Survey the Wondrous Cross” PsH 384, PH 100, 101, RL 292, 293, SFL 166, TH 252, TWC 213
Prayers of the People
[Then came the offering, the doxology (stanza 4 of “When I Survey”), blessing, and postlude.]
—from the worship bulletin of Eastern Avenue Christian Reformed Church,
Grand Rapids, Michigan
MAKE A POINT OF PRAYER
A look at any given day in Martin Luther’s calendar would reveal the following:
“On a typical day I am charged with the pastorate of three congregations. I teach regularly at the seminary. I have students living in my house. I am writing three books. Countless people write to me. When I start each day, therefore, I make it a point to spend an hour in prayer with God. But if I have a particularly busy day, and am more rushed than usual, I make it a point to spend two hours with God before I start the day.”
—Alvin J. Vander Griend, The Praying Church Sourcebook (CRC Publications, 1990, 1997), p. 333
PSALM 19: 1- 6
When I look at the sky,
I can tell what You have been doing.
The sun, the moon, and the stars
show that You keep things
going all the time.
Every morning the sun shows us
that You are still on the job.
Each night is Your promise
for another day.
I don’t need to hear Your voice.
I can hear what You are saying
when I see what You do.
— Eldon Weisheit, Psalms for Teens (Concordia, 1992)
PRAYER GAINS ACCESS
One church in a small New York town decided to canvass its community by prayer. There were no brochures, newsletters, or tracts; just prayer. No one pressed a doorbell or made a phone call. The church members simply prayed earnestly. With a red marker and a map, they prayed that God would touch the lives of those who lived on each of the town’s forty streets.
What happened? People started visiting the church “out of the blue.” One Sunday four families came on the same week that the church had prayed for households on their street. Prayer had gained access.
—Alvin J. Vander Griend, Houses of Prayer: Ministry Manual (Mission 21 HOPE, 1997), p. 38