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The Service of Renewal in Grace (Bible Study)

Vital worship, like a healthy marriage, requires honesty and openness in order to thrive. God longs for our honesty before him. We are deeply in need of his renewing pardon.

Lesson 3                                       See all lessons
Scripture: Psalm 32:1-11 and 1 John 1:8-10


The second step in our worship journey with God is a time in which we confess our sins, and God answers our confessions with the assurance of his pardon. Both the Old Testament and the New Testament affirm the necessity of confession and assurance. In Psalm 32, David extols the happiness that a forgiven person can experience. However, he explains from his own experience how easy it is to delude ourselves, hide our sins and refuse to make confession. Such delusions cut us off from the rich experience of knowing God's forgiveness. Similarly, the apostle John explains that we live in self-deceit when we refuse to admit we have anything to confess. However, we may trust that God is faithful and righteous and more eager to forgive our sins than we are to confess them. The corporate conversation of God with his people, which we call worship, should include this part of the conversation early in the service.

It is in the Service of Confession and Renewal that the good news of pardon through the finished work of Jesus Christ comes through so personally and pastorally. This part of the worship service should not be seen as a negative element, but a time to prepare us for receiving the Gospel with all its assurance.

However, we have observed two challenges that we must consider in dealing with this step in our worship. First, our culture has lost its awareness of sin and guilt. Ever since the fall in Genesis 3, sinning and guilt have been a part of life. The Bible makes it clear there is no peace and happiness without confession and forgiveness. Yet, both in the world and in the church our awareness of this seems thin. With the loss of our awareness of sin comes the tendency to omit confession in our liturgies.

The second challenge is the embarrassment that many Protestant churches seem to feel about the confession of sin in a worship service. Some are afraid that speaking of anything but grace will turn seekers away.

Vital and healthy worship will require that planners carefully assess whether they have adequately dealt with these two challenges.

Good Reasons for Confessing

There are very good reasons for retaining the Service of Confession and Renewal in worship liturgies.

1. Theologically, when we worship, we come before the Triune God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, who is holy and pure. Yet we are sinful. We can either be

  • self-deluding and refuse to acknowledge this,
  • intentionally dishonest in that we know this but deny it,
  • try to ignore it and assume it won't influence our relationship, or
  • make honest confessions and receive the assurance of his gracious pardon that has been made available through the atoning work of Jesus Christ.

The basic teaching of the gospel is that only those who make confession of their sin receive the pardon of God's grace. Consider Psalm 32, 51, 1 John 1:9, 2:1 and other passages. Repentance precedes justification!

2. Pastorally, both in Scripture and in observed behavior today personal health is directly related to our ability to make confession of our failures, own our culpability, and receive cleansing. As we plan and lead worship, we ought to remember that many worshipers are dealing with a crippling sense of failure in their moral life, family life, marriages and business. Though most have never been free to admit this to others, the burden within them eats away in the same way that David experienced in Psalm 32. For all of these, the greatest cleansing and healing will come with clearly pronounced words of assurance of pardon after honest confession. These acts can make the worship liturgy richly pastoral! True, it is not pleasant to make confession of our sin. But, as Cornelius Plantinga, Jr. observes, "The problem is that sin is like garbage. You don't want to let it build up. Confessing sin is like taking out the garbage. You want to do it regularly because taking out the garbage is an extremely healthy thing to do" (Beyond Doubt, Cornelius Plantinga Jr., Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2002, p.54).

In both of these considerations, let it be clear that we do not make our confessions in fear that perhaps God will hold these sins against us. We make them confidently as those who are standing on friendly ground, in the presence of a gracious God, who has provided the atonement in Christ, and is eagerly waiting to speak to us of his pardon! So we confess knowing that pardon has already been extended!

Elements in the Service of Renewal

It is wise that the service of renewal be similar in structure each week, for its sameness will speak to the confessing worshiper of security and safety. Yet, freshness and variation in the words and music that are used will retain its vitality. It is also wise to alternate the elements expressed in words and those in music. For instance, if the call to confession is sung, let the prayer be verbal, and vice versa. Normally the structure will involve elements like these:

1. The Call to Confession is brief words, either from the presider or Scripture or a song, which bid us to confess.

2. The Prayer of Confession will take different forms. It may be spoken by the presider, printed and read by all in unison, sung by the congregation, a time of silence for personal confession, and/or a responsorial with the "Kyrie" or some similar historic sung prayer.

3. The Assurance of Pardon is a recitation of promises directly from Scripture on the basis of which the assurance of pardon can be given to the confessors, normally by the ordained pastor.

4. A Response of Praise and Thanks allows worshipers to pass the peace to one another and/or sing of their thanksgiving.

5. A Commitment to Grateful Living gives those who are assured of God's pardon the opportunity to hear God's call to live grateful lives. This will likely include the reading of God's law or some other passage that calls us to obedience.

Perhaps it is helpful for us to clarify the uses of the Law of God (from Exodus 20 or Deuteronomy 5). In some congregations it has been customary to read the Ten Commandments before making confession of sins. The questions should be raised about the purpose of the Ten Commandments. Historically, we have held that there are three possible functions of the Ten Commandments:

  • a civil function in which it aims to restrain sin in society and make civil society possible,
  • a teacher of sin, and
  • a teacher of the life of gratitude.

If we view the law in the second function, it can be used as a call to confession. If we view it in the third function, it serves as a guide for us to know how to live out our gratitude for God's pardon. Those who are familiar with the Heidelberg Catechism will note that the study of the Ten Commandments shows up in the third section of the Catechism, the section describing how we are to thank God for our deliverance. (See Lord's Days 42-44).

As you design the variations in the Service of Confession and Renewal each week, we suggest that you consult The Worship Sourcebook, pages 81-138, for an abundance of resources and suggestions.

Tips for Discussion Leaders

As the leader for the discussion in your group, we encourage you to have the intent of this lesson clearly in mind. Remember that our intent is to focus on the deep meaning and purpose of worship (what worship really is!) and how well that is being communicated in the worship liturgy. It will probably be helpful to briefly review the ideas of last month concerning the Opening of Worship. It may also be helpful to look at the overview of a worship service provided in Lesson 4 of "Worship Insights" on "The Pattern of a Worship Service."

After you have done that, turn your attention more specifically to the Service of Renewal. It will probably be helpful to have copies of several recent worship services for each member of your group. If your congregation does not regularly include a Service of Confession and Renewal, you will obviously want to discuss that subject. If you do, then spend your time together sharing insights and evaluations of how vital a part of the worship it is and how better to communicate to worshipers the purposes of the time of confession and assurance.

Discussion Starters

1. Do you have a Service of Confession and Renewal regularly, occasionally, or seldom? Discuss the reasons for your practice and how your practice developed.

2. Discuss the reasons that some give for not including the confession of sin in worship ("it makes worship negative…we've heard too much about sin in the past…it will turn seekers away"). Share your insights about such matters for your congregation.

3. Is the Service of Confession and Renewal pastorally helpful in your worship? Do you think those who come with a burden of guilt will actually find release from it? How does that happen?

4. Evaluate the variations that are incorporated in your worship from week to week. Are they adequate? What other suggestions would you make? Put your suggestions together in a list as a help to your worship planners.

  • Is the Call to Confession varied each week? 
  • Do the prayers of confession invite us in to make them our own? 
  • Does the Assurance of Pardon present the gospel promises clearly and joyfully? 
  • What other suggestions do you have for our response of praise and thanks? 
  • How can we more clearly hear God's call to grateful living?

5. Does your worship include the Passing of the Peace? If so, is it done meaningfully? How could that be improved? If you do not include it now, should you consider doing so? And where should it be placed in the liturgy? What is the difference between “Passing the Peace” and saying "Good Morning" to others around you?

6. Have a discussion about how you can best educate your congregation to both the need and the value of having a Service of Confession and Renewal.

Further Reading

"Confession and Assurance = Sin and Grace," in A More Profound Alleluia, ed. Leanne Van Dyk (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2005), pp. 31-54.

Lesson 4
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