It is puzzling to see one of the defining marks of a Christian’s identity quietly disappear from a church’s worship.
I’m speaking, of course, about confession – a time when the church comes together as a repentant people, and asks God to forgive and cleanse, to renew and restore, to inflame our cold hearts and fill us with overflowing love.
Confession is one of the defining marks of a Christian because it is linked to repentance and faith. When we confess our sins to God, we are agreeing with God that our sin is something that needs to be forgiven. We are recognizing that our sin hurts us, hurts others, and most importantly, hurts the heart of God.
Confession is the expression of repentance in which we name our sin for what it is, turn away from sin, and turn toward a merciful God. The difference between a Christian and a non-Christian is not that the non-Christian sins and the Christian does not, but that the Christian sins and repents, while the unbeliever hardens their heart toward God – either by refusing to admit the sin or by trying to deal with the sin in some other way.
As a part of corporate worship, confession has historically been near the beginning of a service. Once we have been summoned to worship God, and once we have seen and begun to experience His presence, we are like Isaiah – falling on our knees before a majestic and holy God, amazed when seeing the brightness of His glory, ashamed when seeing our sin for what it is. Before we can move forward in worship, or move outward in mission, we fall down in repentance.
Scripture never requires a time of confession near the beginning of a service. The Lord’s Prayer leads us to ask for forgiveness near the end, not the beginning. Making confession a requirement in every worship service could give the impression that God is constantly angry with us and we can only approach Him after doing penance. This would lead us back to the medieval image of a God whose favor we must somehow earn, rather than the God of grace whose favor is freely received through the merits of Christ and His righteousness.
Today, however, the more pressing problem is not the idea of a God who is perpetually angry, but a shriveled god who is shallow and nice. If we don’t see God taking sin seriously, we won’t take it seriously either. And once we stop taking sin seriously, repentance loses its power. No surprise, then, that confession falls away, and the one thing for which all Christians should be known – repentant faith – is something we no longer express together in public.
My hope is that the practice of corporate confession will make a comeback – whether in a time of silent prayer, corporate confession, or songs that plead for mercy. After all, we are not in a posture to receive God’s Word until we have first renounced our sin.
A confession of sin renounces any attempt to justify the sin; we humble acknowledge our sin and its sentence. At the same time, we humbly place ourselves in the hands of a mighty and merciful Savior. He is the One who grants repentance, and He is the One in whom we trust.