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A Service of Confession and Renewal

An introduction to the service of confession in Christian Worship.

This week we continue to address certain practices and elements within a worship service instead of providing a full service. This gives us the opportunity to step back from a specific liturgy and examine parts of it more carefully. Last week we took a look at the reading of Scripture in worship. Next week we'll give some thoughts on prayer in public worship. This week we'd like to focus on the time in worship when we make confession of our sins and receive God's renewing assurance of pardon. Some may prefer to call this the Service of Confession, the Service of Renewal or Reconciliation, or Receiving God's Pardon. Whatever its title, we believe this step is a crucial element in the dialog of worship.

Is It Necessary?

We have observed that there is a significant amount of uncertainty about the need for our worship services to include a service of confession. It may be a historic practice that Reformed worship has always included, but our experience in many churches indicates that large numbers of worship planners no longer feel the need to include it-or may even desire to exclude it. While there may be an admission of sin in the pastoral prayer, or a song that includes a confession, the confession and pardon do not appear as a notable part of the dialog with God. We are concerned about this trend and do not consider it a healthy change. For two reasons, we make the case for including a service of confession as a part of our worship.

First, God desires honesty and holiness as we come into his presence. The relationship between God and his children is like a marriage covenant. Just as a marriage cannot flourish without honest confession, our relationship with God cannot thrive unless we freely and honestly acknowledge and express our failures and sins as well as our joys, hopes, and praise. We do not express this confession in a vacuum, hoping to find some willingness on God's part to listen and pardon; rather, we come as God's redeemed children who know his covenant love and therefore make our confessions in the full confidence of his constant grace toward us.

Second, we must address everyone's personal needs. We may like to think that everyone comes to worship eager to praise God and give thanks from a full heart, but the truth is that many of us come with fears, shame, feelings of guilt, and deep disappointment in ourselves and others. And many others ought to come with such honesty, but are trying hard not to acknowledge their neediness. So while we live in a culture that sees abuse, disappointment, violence, and lovelessness on every level, the children of God who come to meet with him surely ought not to feel the need to cover it up.

Handled properly, the service of confession can be a powerful step of grace in our dialog with God.

It ought to be observed, however, that our confessions are not merely private and personal. Confession in public worship is intended to be a corporate act. We have not come merely as separate individuals, but as a family of the children of God. Together we acknowledge our need; together we receive God's grace; and together we express our thanks. Christians surely must have times of personal confession, but in public worship we participate in a corporate act.

A Clear Dialog

All of public worship is a dialog as God meets with his children. A worship service must clearly identify God's voice to us, and our voice to him. If we use arrows written on paper as a tool to indicate who is speaking in worship (arrow down means God is speaking to us; arrow up means we are speaking to God), then the Service of Confession will readily show alternating arrows up and down. This is a strategic conversation that God and his children are having about very far-reaching issues!

God's voice clearly comes to us when he calls us to make confession, when he grants us the words of pardon and forgiveness, and when he calls us to dedicated and grateful living as forgiven people.

Our voice clearly goes to God when we confess our sins, express our thanks at receiving his forgiveness, and dedicate ourselves to holy living.

We do this as a community. We make our confessions corporately and pass the peace to one another as God's forgiven people.

The dialog ought to be very obvious in the way worship is structured, and worshipers who are conscious of the dialog with God will find this part of worship very meaningful. The dialog goes like this:
1. We are called to confession by God (arrow down).
2. We express our prayer of confession (arrow up).
3. God speaks of his pardon and forgiveness (arrow down).
4. We pass the peace to one another (arrow sideways).
5. We express our thanks and praise (arrow up).
6. God calls us to grateful and holy living (arrow down).
7. We dedicate ourselves to grateful and holy living (arrow up).

The Prayer of Confession

One of the key elements in this part of the worship service is the prayer of confession. The worshiping body verbalizes their acknowledgement of sin, confesses it, and asks for God's mercy. This prayer can take many forms, and it is probably best to vary it from week to week so it retains its freshness and vitality.

1. The worship leader can speak the prayer on behalf of all the worshipers. Often an extemporaneous prayer is spoken "on behalf of" all worshipers. An historic and formal prayer can also be used, which will help worshipers to consider their link with those who have gone before.

2. The congregation can speak their prayer of confession corporately. If the prayer is printed in the order of service, it may become a unison confession of sin expressing the unity of the body humbled before God. Or a specific passage of Scripture, such as portions of Psalm 51, can be read in unison.

3. The prayer of confession can take the form of a litany, a prayer with repeated congregational response. Following the worship leader, the congregation responds with their confession and plea. One of the most widely used litany responses is "Lord, have mercy" ("Kyrie eleison").

4. The confession can be sung by the entire congregation. This is a particularly effective way to include all and to allow the gift of music to aid us in voicing our plea to God. Hymnals usually include a large number of sung confessions. The "Kyrie" and "God, Be Merciful to Me" are a couple of the most common.

5. The choir or an ensemble can offer a sung confession on behalf of the congregation. A penitential psalm or hymn allows the choir to become the voice of the gathered congregation.

Music as the Servant of Confession

Music can often be particularly helpful in aiding us to make our confessions, or to express our response of thanks and dedication. However, be sure that the music is appropriate to the text, and that the song is appropriately placed within the dialog of confession and renewal. We have both been at services in which congregations "trumpet out" or light-heartedly offer their confessions in sung prayers that musically express neither a humble nor a contrite spirit. Conversely, we have also been in services where congregations have droned out their expressions of thanks and dedication. The spirit of the music should be consistent with the text offered.

As we said earlier in this essay, we see seven elements or exchanges in the dialog of confession. We have found it helpful to vary where the music is placed in the dialog-sometimes we have varied its placement weekly, at other times by season. Theoretically and theologically, music could serve as the vehicle for all seven. Practically, music is more easily incorporated for some than for others. Music need not be limited to only one of the seven elements on any particular Sunday. We believe strongly that the voice of the congregation should be present in this dialog and that choirs, ensembles, and soloists should serve in addition to the congregation or as prompters to the congregation's participation.

The Assurance of Pardon

The core element of the service of confession is the actual declared promise of God that he does hear and does forgive. Worshipers who make their confessions must hear this word of pardon before they will be able to express their thanks and make their dedication. The good news of the gospel is that we are forgiven-this must be clearly stated! It is, indeed, the most beautiful moment of worship! Use words from Scripture so that it is clearly God's voice that comes through (arrow down), though you could preface God's words with statements that call attention to the drama of God's grace (for example, "Hear the word of the Lord" or "Hear the good news!").

Here are some examples of Scripture passages that can be used for the declaration of God's pardon:

  • Psalm 32:1-2
  • Psalm 32:3-5
  • Psalm 103:8-13
  • Psalm 130:3-6
  • Psalm 145:13-14
  • Isaiah 1:18
  • Isaiah 44:21-22
  • Isaiah 53:4-6
  • Isaiah 54:8
  • Isaiah 55:6-7
  • John 3:16
  • Romans 5:8-9
  • Romans 8:1
  • Romans 8:15-17
  • 1 John 1:8-10
  • 1 John 2:1-2

The worship leader has the wonderful privilege of declaring God's promise of pardon to his people!

The Purpose of Reading God's Law

Worship leaders often feel ambivalent about the manner in which the law of God should be used in worship, particularly in this part of the service. Traditionally, many churches read God's law from either Exodus 20 or Deuteronomy 5 at each morning worship service. And when God's law was read, the purpose was usually to point out our sin and call us to repentance.

It seems best that we not read the Ten Commandments in this manner. The Ten Commandments as given to Moses in the Old Testament were intended to instruct God's people how to live in the new land they were being given. Thus it is a guide for grateful living and, when used in worship, can better be used later in the service of confession when the way for grateful and holy living is set before the worshipers.

While the reading of the Ten Commandments should not be neglected, it seems better to vary the passages that are read as the guide for grateful and holy living. Variations can include passages such as the following:

  • Micah 6:6-8
  • Psalm 116:12-19
  • Matthew 5:1-16
  • Romans 12:1-2
  • Romans 12:9-21
  • Ephesians 4:17-24
  • Ephesians 4:25-32
  • Colossians 3:1-17

Many other similar passages will be very useful.

All in all, we emphasize that the conversation between God and his people should include an honest confession and clear statement of forgiveness. This is essential to the health of the church and ought not to be overlooked or become merely routine.