As part of our emphasis on practical Christian living, we have emphasized the importance of confession of sin for many years. We have taught (and continue to teach) that confession is nothing less than full honesty before God, and that such honesty is always to be ongoing and immediate. But something else we do might seem to be in tension with this first emphasis, and that is our weekly practice of confessing our sins together in the worship service. How do these two emphases relate to one another? Can they?
What is the problem? Why should we confess a sin we have already confessed? And does confessing our sins here discourage people from confessing them promptly and individually?
“He that covereth his sins shall not prosper: But whoso confesseth and forsaketh them shall have mercy” (Prov. 28:13).
“If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins, and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness” (1 John 1:9).
Summary of the Texts:
As just mentioned, confession of sin is a simple matter of honesty before God. It is the recognition that God is utterly holy, absolutely omniscient, and one who cannot be gamed. When we seek to delude Him about our spiritual state, we are only deluding ourselves.
When we try to cover our own sins with our own provision for sin (i.e. lame excuses), we will not prosper. But if we confess them and forsake them, then God will show mercy. If we “speak the same thing as” God does about our sin (homologeo), He is faithful and just to forgive us our sins, and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness. If we confess, God promises to forgive. This means that we ought not to confess and then beg and plead with God to forgive us, as though He might break His word, as though He might not forgive.
Now if you don’t do this, if you don’t confess a sin, the death of Jesus is unaffected. If you don’t do this, your justification is untouched; it is as perfect as it ever was. But you, in your day-to-day sanctification, are nevertheless struggling along in your race with 150 pounds of unconfessed sin in your most unnecessary backpack. “Let us lay aside every weight, and the sin which doth so easily beset us, and let us run with patience the race that is set before us” (Heb. 12:1). Confession of sin is what lays that weight aside.
Unbelief on Your Knees:
If you confess a particular sin over and over and over again, this is not an exercise in piety, but rather an exercise in unbelief. Christ died for us, once for all (Heb. 10:10). God imputes the righteousness of Jesus Christ to us at our conversion, and He does so once for all (Rom. 8:1). Whatever we do in our ongoing confession of sin needs to reinforce these glorious truths, and not undermine them.
So What Does Liturgical Confession Mean?
How does it work? How are we supposed to use it?
- When we confess in the worship service, we are confessing our sins using the words of Scripture. This is a pattern that Scripture requires of us—for example, when Paul says that we are regularly to address one another in psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs (Eph. 5:19; Col. 3:16), he is using the Greek words for the three headings in the LXX Psalter. Now if God wants us to sing the entire Psalter, then this means He wants us to include the penitential songs. But how can I sing Ps. 32 or 51 if I haven’t personally committed murder or adultery? God sees a benefit in it. Maybe we should trust Him. Our task is not to tailor Scripture to fit with our experiences, but to bring our experiences to Scripture in order to be fitted. We want to point to a particular sin and say “that doesn’t apply to me.” Don’t worry—keep that attitude up, and it soon will.
- When we confess in the worship service, most of the confession is corporate. This means that we do not necessarily have our own personal sins in view. In the ninth chapter of Daniel, the prophet makes a profound prayer of national confession (Dan. 9:4-5), and he mentions any number of sins that he personally had not committed. But he identifies with his people nonetheless, and confesses with them, and on their behalf. This is a pattern we seek to emulate in our time of confession—first the sins of our nation and generation, then the sins of the church, and then finally our own personal sins.
- When we confess in the worship service, the prayers of confession are paradigmatic and instructive. As we pray together, we are helping to shape and mold our responses. What do we do when sin occurs in our lives? The Bible says to imitate those who lead you, and this includes how they lead in worship. “Remember your leaders, those who spoke to you the word of God. Consider the outcome of their way of life, and imitate their faith” (Heb. 13:7, ESV). The issue may not be last Wednesday, but rather next Wednesday. The lesson is never “wait until Sunday.” The lesson should be let “what we do on Sunday” shape your instinctive responses in the course of the week. We read Scripture in worship also, but not so that you don’t have to. We confess our sins here, but never as a substitute for personal, immediate confession.
- When we confess in the worship service, the prayers of confession are invitational. This time provides you with an opportunity to “drill down.” “Search me, O God, and know my heart: Try me, and know my thoughts” (Ps. 139:23). We often confess honestly but still inadequately. If you confessed a sin on Wednesday, don’t confess the very same sin on Sunday. But if you sinned grievously on Wednesday, the chances are pretty good that you don’t understand yourself fully yet. You might think you were done because you plucked the dandelion out of your yard when God wanted that stump from the old oak tree to come out.
- When we confess in the worship service, we are picking up the stragglers. Although we should confess our sins right away, not everyone does. It is a shame to put off to Sunday what you should have done right away (Heb. 3:7). But it is a worse shame to be prompted and nudged on Sunday and still put it off again.
A Suggested Prayer:
“Father, You know all things, and You know my heart. I know You have forgiven me the sins I have confessed already, and I thank You for it. I pray that You would now bring to mind anything I have not yet made right with You so that I might do so. I am eager to do so. If there are any continuing areas where I am self-deceived, I ask that You would reveal them to me now. I thank You for the forgiveness You have promise, and I thank You in Jesus’ name.”