Why have a Confession of Sin in the Worship Service?
Every week the congregation of Redeemer church corporately confesses our sins before God and seeks his mercy and forgiveness. This week for example, we will ask God in our prayer of confession that he would “Remember not the sins of my youth, or my transgressions; according to your steadfast love remember me, for the sake of your goodness, O Lord. For your name’s sake, O Lord; Pardon my guilt, for it is great.” Having a corporate confession of sin as part of the weekly service has a long history in the Christian church, formally instituted in the 7th century and renewed during the protestant reformation. In recent decades, however, it is an element that has been disappearing from American evangelical churches. Indeed, any mention of sin has been disappearing. The main reason for this removal is fear that confessing sin will be perceived as awkward for visitors who may be present. We believe, however, that it is very important to keep this as an element of our service for several reasons.
First, confession of sin is commanded of God’s people. The Bible is filled with confession of sin. The psalms are a good example, many containing portions of confession, and others being devoted entirely to confession of sin. In Psalm 32, for example, the psalmist specifically addresses the danger of unconfessed sin: “When I kept silent my bones wasted away through my groaning.” As a result, the psalmist takes action “I acknowledged my sin to you, and I did not cover my iniquity. I said, ‘I will confess my transgressions to the Lord’” (See also Psalm 51). While the Psalms began as individual prayers, they were used by Israel in their worship of God and so very likely served as corporate prayers of confession. We see a clear example of corporate confession in Nehemiah 9. There Nehemiah, after a lengthy recounting of Israel’s unfaithfulness to God, finishes his prayer confessing the nations sin: “…We have acted wickedly. Our kings, our princes…have not kept your law or paid attention to your commandments and your warnings which you gave them.” The New Testament is filled with similar examples and commands to confess sin, not the least of which is Jesus himself who instructed us that we are to daily ask that God would “forgive our debts.” The Apostle John reminds us that “if we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves…but if we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness.”
Second, confession of sin is the appropriate response when coming into the presence of God. The example of the prophet Isaiah is instructive. Isaiah 6 records Isaiah having a vision of God seated on his glorious throne, and surrounded by his heavenly hosts. What is Isaiah’s immediate response? He falls on his face and confesses his sin “Woe is me, I am undone. I am a man of unclean lips” (See Ezekiel 1 and Revelation 1 for similar reactions). When men, even righteous men as Isaiah was, are confronted with the glory and holiness of God, we immediately become aware of how sinful we are. As one pastor has written, we don’t see “…anyone in the Bible stroll into God’s presence singing ‘I’ve got joy, joy, joy, joy, down in my heart.”
Third, confession of sin gives our worship authenticity. Psalm 66:18 says that “If I regard iniquity in my heart, the Lord will not hear me.” Not only does failing to confess sins depart from the biblical model of approaching God, it also smacks of dishonesty. After all, we are sinners and God is holy. As one Christian theologian has written, “Honesty demands that when we approach God sin be confessed. Otherwise we have an uneasy conscience about it, and, even worse, we compromise the holiness of God.” Further, when we confess our sin we are acknowledging to ourselves and others that we are broken people. Too often the church is accused of being (and unfortunately we often play along) holier than thou, a group of people who think they have it all together and who look down on those who don’t. A true confession of sin destroys this stereotype. We don’t have it all together, we fail to live up to the standards that we preach, and our only hope is God’s mercy. A confession of sin declares publically that the church is not a haven for the spiritually strong, but a hospital for sinners in various stages of recovery.
Finally, a confession of sin shows clearly what the Gospel of Jesus is and is not. What is my problem and what do I need? Do I just a need a little guidance in my life? Am I a basically good person who has a few bad habits that I need help breaking? If that is what we believe about ourselves, then Jesus becomes our spiritual advisor and perhaps our life coach who can help us have a better life. But this is not the Gospel. A confession of sin reminds us that our problem is that we are corrupt in our nature, have failed to obey a holy God, and so are justly under his wrath and curse. We need a savior, we need forgiveness, not a coach. Our only hope is that God out of sheer mercy will provide one. Praise God he did.