Corporate Confession of Sin: Why Do It?

My journey to understand the practice of confession began with a simple question: “Why?” Why in the world would people intentionally carve out time in worship to dwell on all their failures and disappointments from the previous week?

I grew up in two vastly different church traditions, but neither the Baptist church of my childhood nor the contemporary nondenominational church of my college years spent time during worship confessing sin. While serving as a music director in a nondenominational context, I began to wonder about some of the foreign (to me) practices of historically liturgical churches, specifically confession.

I grew to believe that there is beauty when God’s people sincerely open their hearts in confession and are reminded of the assurance of forgiveness in Christ. Confession shapes our identity, our relationship with God, our relationships as a community, and our sense of mission.

Confession for Identity

Confession pushes against false narratives that place us at the center of all things, freeing us to live honestly in relationship with God and each other.

At the very beginning of Institutes of the Christian Religion, John Calvin observes: “Nearly all the wisdom we possess, that is to say, true and sound wisdom, consists of two parts: the knowledge of God and of ourselves. But, while joined by many bonds, which one precedes and brings forth the other is not easy to discern” (Institutes, I.1.i). The obvious tension in Calvin’s words points to a life and faith of humble openness before the Lord.

In confession, we practice this sincerity and humility with open hearts and honest lips. We’ve messed up. We’ve done things, and left things undone, in disobedience. We haven’t loved God with all our heart, soul, and strength, or loved our neighbors as ourselves.

To say “I’m sorry” to God is to heed Calvin’s words and take God’s glory seriously. It is to search our motives and actions honestly, to acknowledge reality, and to move toward healing. This will allow us to become more wholly who we are, the identity we are called to as those in Christ.

At Covenant Life Church we recently used in our confession Pat Barrett’s song “The Way (New Horizons)” (YouTube: tinyurl.com/t4du2pn). We sang the first half of the song, brought the music down low, confessed how we had doubted these words throughout the week, and asked the Spirit to recalibrate us so we could follow Jesus with more trust in light of his forgiveness. Then we sang the bridge: “It’s a new horizon, and I’m set on you, because you meet me here today with mercies that are new.”

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Confession for Relationship

Confession as a form of identity-shaping honesty makes sense as long as we understand it in the context of a relationship with God. One reason the liturgical act of confession confused me was that I interpreted it as God holding back forgiveness until we speak the right “magic words.” It seemed as if believers were wallowing in their guilt and shame, hoping a distant God might take pity on them. But that all changes when the love of God is the foundation for our practice of confession.

In his book Discover the Mystery of Faith: How Worship Shapes Believing, Glenn Packiam reminds us, “God freely offered us forgiveness in Christ. We do not confess because God is withholding forgiveness. . . . We do not confess our sin because we hope to find a gracious God; we confess our sin because we know that God is gracious” (p. 58). Or as the psalmist puts it, “But with you there is forgiveness, so that we can, with reverence, serve you” (Psalm 130:4).

The practical challenge is to be honest about the gravity of our sinfulness while maintaining the spirit of joy that comes from the forgiveness already won for us in Christ. That’s why posture and music are so important for our times of confession at Covenant Life. Sometimes we kneel or open our hands. Sometimes a slow, simple chord progression in a minor key communicates the weight of sin but crescendos to a celebration of God’s grace in Christ.

Confession for Community

Confessing as a community of believers reminds us that we have failed to live as God has called us. We as God’s people are culpable in ways that we as individuals might not be, and we share in the burden of each other’s sins. We admit we have participated in structural, systemic sins that are bigger than each of us.

Beautifully, though, we also share in forgiveness together. Our hearts are formed more fully in the love of God when we look across the room and remember that the people we worship with have been washed clean by God’s forgiveness. Taking confession seriously should form us as a community of believers, eager to spur each other on in the love of Christ.

Recently our confession prayers were woven into a new musical setting of the hymn text “O Day of Peace” (arr. Josh Garrels, tinyurl.com/u6ehvza). We sang a verse longing for the day when “swords of hate fall from our hands,” when we’ll be “delivered from our selfish schemes.” Our pastor led us in a prayer of confession before we sang the same verse again. We also wove our Prayers of the People into this song, looking forward to Christ’s restoration of all things.

In confession, we practice this sincerity and humility with open hearts and honest lips.

Confession for Mission

Confession and assurance are also connected to our sense of mission. The church lives together in the constant ebb and flow of being gathered and being sent. As we are formed into a united community in worship, the Spirit’s work in our midst prepares us to go out.

One of the greatest effects of sin is shame, a form of fear. In Genesis, Adam and Eve’s first impulse after they disobeyed was to hide from God. Fear comes from the expectation of rejection. Fear is also one of the greatest forces that keeps us from living our mission in our neighborhoods, jobs, friendships, and even our own homes. We avoid the potential rejection of our family and friends.

In confession, we stand before the Almighty, owning our disobedience, but without fear of rejection. One recent worship gathering was shaped entirely by the prophet Isaiah’s encounter with God. Isaiah cries out for mercy because he and his community have “unclean lips.” He is made clean by God’s grace, and then steps up when God looks to send someone out to speak God’s Word. We followed those same movements. We proclaim God’s glory, cry out for forgiveness, revel in God’s grace, and seek the Spirit’s power as we were sent into the world. Like Isaiah, we were not trapped in our sin; rather, the welcoming grace of the Lord became the source of our sending.

Confession as a Gift

Covenant Life doesn’t formally follow the historical liturgy. But historical liturgical practices inform everything we do. We have a time of confession and assurance of forgiveness nearly every time we gather, although it looks different from week to week (YouTube: tinyurl.com/ugz729c). I doubt the congregation would describe the time of confession as the high point of our worship. But learning to say “I’m sorry” as a community of believers has shaped our identity in the reality of the gospel. The practice restores us to God in Christ by the Spirit, unites us to each other, and launches us into the world for the sake of God’s glory.

Chris Walker is an ordained minister in the Christian Reformed Church and serves as pastor of worship and the arts at Covenant Life Church in Grand Haven, Michigan, where he has served and worshiped with his family since 2010.