On Confession and Assurance

Q. I have trouble with planning our prayers of confession. People are saying the words, but I wonder how many are actually personally confessing their sin. If we aren't actually confessing, why perform this rather onerous part of the service?

A. This problem actually touches every part of corporate worship. Not everyone who sings songs of praise has his or her heart, mind, and will engaged in praise. Not all who speak the Lord's Prayer "mean it" in the moment. And though worshipers' body language may give us some clues about whether they really mean it, we never know with certainty. Some who appear less engaged may actually be deeply engaged. Others who participate vigorously may be more caught up with the music or beauty of the language than the act or worship itself. Certainly the ideal is a community of people who are self-consciously engaged with heart, mind, soul, and will, and who mean every good word they speak or sing.

Indeed, one skill for worshipers to hone is the skill of learning to mean the words that someone else— whether songwriter or prayer leader—gives us. Worship planners and leaders—in every worship style—are like priests, placing words on the congregation's lips that mediate our worshipful encounter with God. (This is why wise churches require spiritual maturity for their worship leaders.) Public worship always involves using words that come from someone else.

This skill requires a unique mix of humility (submitting ourselves to words given to us by the community of faith), grace (willingness to offer the benefit of the doubt when those words may not be well chosen), and intention (to actually appropriate those words as our own). Arguably, this task may be the most difficult in the confession of sin, which is so counter-cultural these days, both inside and outside of the church.

Here is the slightly bigger picture: a healthy prayer life—in private and in public—involves two kinds of prayers. First, prayers that are specific, extemporaneous, personal, and immediate, prayers that arise from the honesty of our own experience ("Lord God, give me the right words to say in my important conversation this afternoon"). Second, prayers that are communal, "given," even "imposed" on us. Think of children learning the Lord's Prayer.

They may learn this prayer when they don't even understand the words, but grow into this prayer over time, learning to mean it more and more throughout their whole lives. Or think of an evangelist's invitation: "pray with me." Or the practice of praying the psalms. In all these examples, we can be grateful that our prayer life is not limited to what we generate from our own thoughts, experiences, and emotions. We can be grateful that we are invited to grow into something bigger than ourselves. So it is with the prayer of confession: the church invites us to address God with words more honest than we ever dreamed possible. Such honesty, perhaps more honesty than we could generate on our own strength, becomes remarkably liberating when we sense the immensity of God's grace. In this way, we can begin to think of prayers of confession, and the assurance of pardon that follows, not as an onerous obligation but as a gift of grace.

Q. Sometimes our pastor includes a confession of sin with other prayers and we never really have an assurance of pardon. At our last planning meeting someone asked, "Do we have to have a prayer of confession? And if we do, do we have to have an assurance of pardon?" By lacking one, aren't we breaking some rule?

A. No. There is no rule that you need a prayer of confession followed by an assurance of pardon to have a legitimate worship service.

But there's an even better reason to make this common practice: it is a wise, biblical Christian practice that models honest faith and enacts honest, covenantal communication between us and God. In general, the thing to look for in analyzing worship is not "What rule do we have to follow?" but rather "What wisdom wouldn't we want to live without?" Replacing "law language" with "wisdom language" in our worship decisions actually corrects two problems: legalistic adherence to traditions without appropriating their meaning, on the one hand, and careless discarding of traditions, on the other.

Especially in a culture that avoids talk of sin and culpability, regular prayers of confession bear witness to the fact that our God longs for honesty within the promise-based relationship he has established with us in Christ, Just as a marriage cannot flourish without honest confession, so too our marriage like relationship with God flourishes when we freely, honestly express all facets of our life: our hopes, fears, sins, desires, thanksgiving, and praise. One mark of mature worship—in any style—is the degree to which it enables God's people to express a wide range of emotion and experience.

Note that we don't confess sin in worship to "pull the lever" of divine grace. We confess sin because God's grace comes first, creating a relationship with us in Christ in which this honesty is welcome and safe.

Even more life-giving is a straightforward declaration of God's forgiveness in Christ. When prayers of confession arc buried within other prayers and the assurance of pardon is omitted, we miss the simple and profound beauty of hearing the proclamation of God's promise: "In Christ, you are forgiven." For some worshipers, this may be the best moment in the service—especially when we allow Scripture to speak for itself. So in response to the question "Do we have to have an assurance of pardon?" I'd answer, "Why on earth would you ever want a worship service without one!"

Occasionally churches may omit this part of the service because the themes of repentance and renewal are so prominent elsewhere—at a baptism or during the Easter season. My biggest worry is for churches (like the home churches of two of my seminary students) that can't remember the last time they had a prayer of confession and assurance of pardon.

Q. Our prayers of confession are in a rut. We use the homemade written prayers that everyone reads together. After a few weeks, they all sound alike. Help us do better with that part of the worship service!

A. First, don't forget scriptural prayers of confession. Any setting of a penitential psalm like Psalm 32 or 51 is a good place to start.

Second, sing your prayer of confession! For many generations of worshipers in the Reformed tradition, participation by the congregation in the prayer of confession happened only through singing penitential psalms. Many hymnals have an entire section of songs for confession and assurance; the recent supplement Sing! A New Creation includes a variety of sung prayers based on psalms and hymns from around the world.

Third, consider what kind of expression of penitence is suited to the sennon of the day. If the sermon is about family relationships (perhaps based on Ephesians 5:22-6:4), consider a prayer of confession that acknowledges brokenness in family relationships.

If the sermon is about God's creation, prepare a prayer that focuses on our abuse of creation—both personally and institutionally. Fourth, consider how a kind of pregnant silence can be incorporated before, during, or after the prayer of confession. Consider leaving even five seconds of silence after the reading of each line in a penitential psalm to let the poignant words sink in. Fifth, in smaller, more intimate settings, ask members of the congregation to generate some of the content of the prayer. In one church, a Bible study group studying the sermon text for the next week generated a list of five very specific personal and corporate sins that were included in the prayer of confession. On Sunday morning, there was nothing routine about that prayer. The specific, local references made all the difference.

Finally, most congregations need a bit of teaching about what is going on in this part of the service, and why we do it (some of the themes raised above). This is a perfect topic for education classes for all ages, a column in your church newsletter, or even a short note from time to time in your bulletin.


We hope you find Q&A stimulating. We also hope that you'll join in the dialogue. Send your questions about worship to Reformed Worship Q&A by mall (2850 Kalamazoo Ave. SE Grand Rapids, Ml 49560), fax (616-224-0803), or e-mail (info@reformedworship.org).

You can also e-mail John directly (jwitvlie@calvin.edu).


Worship Sourcebook

Many examples of calls to confession, prayers of confession, and assurances of pardon will be included in The Worship Sourcebook, a large collection of resources with teaching notes for all parts of the worship service and for the different seasons of the church year. The Calvin Institute of Christian Worship (www.calvin.edu/worship), Faith Alive Christian Resources (www.FaithAliveResources.org), and Baker Book House (www.bakerbooks.com) are working on preparing this resource in response to many requests. Check our websites for more information.

Rev. Dr. John D. Witvliet is director of the Calvin Institute of Christian Worship and professor of music and worship at Calvin University and Calvin Theological Seminary in Grand Rapids, Michigan. He also teaches in the religion department at Calvin University.

Reformed Worship 67 © March 2003, Calvin Institute of Christian Worship. Used by permission.