The Confession of Sins

The Churches of Christ, my faith tradition, isn't a liturgical tradition. Lots of people in the CoC lament this. I don't...much. I love liturgy, but only in doses. (We like to go to a local Episcopal church on holy days.) I don't think I'd like liturgy every Sunday. In this, I guess, I'm just reflecting where I come from.

That said, there are certain things in Christian liturgy that I think are absolutely essential which  are missing in my church and in many other non-liturgical Protestant churches. That is to say, while I don't think we need to do full liturgy week in and week out there are critical components of the liturgy that I think can't be ignored. And yet we do.

An example here is the confession of sins.

Without liturgy I don't know when low-church Protestants ever get around to confessing their sins. Sure, there are often small group venues where prayer requests are shared. But more often than not, people tend to share life-stressors rather than sins.

And to be clear, I don't think liturgical and communal confession is a cure-all for this, but at least it's something.

From the Episcopal Church:
Let us confess our sins against God and our neighbor.

Most merciful God,
we confess that we have sinned against you
in thought, word, and deed,
by what we have done,
and by what we have left undone.
We have not loved you with our whole heart;
we have not loved our neighbors as ourselves.
We are truly sorry and we humbly repent.
For the sake of your Son Jesus Christ,
have mercy on us and forgive us;
that we may delight in your will,
and walk in your ways,
to the glory of your Name. Amen.
The confiteor from the Catholic Church:
I confess to almighty God
and to you, my brothers and sisters,
that I have greatly sinned,
in my thoughts and in my words,
in what I have done and in what I have failed to do,
through my fault, through my fault,
through my most grievous fault;
therefore I ask blessed Mary ever-Virgin,
all the Angels and Saints,
and you, my brothers and sisters,
to pray for me to the Lord our God.
A few years ago I was visiting with our worship committee and shared with them my feeling that we needed to add the confession of sins to the beginning of our worship. And being from a bible-driven tradition I told them that we didn't need to use the words used in liturgical churches. We could use the words of Scripture by using various penitential psalms.

Sadly, my church hasn't taken up this suggestion.

Now why, you might be wondering, do I feel that this is so important?

I think the confession of sins pushes back on the triumphalism and self-righteousness of the church. See, I have this hunch. My hunch is that the most triumphalistic churches out there don't have the confession of sins in their worship service. Not that saying the confession is a panacea and fix-all. But it has to have a salutary spiritual effect to take a moment each week to corporately say "We've sinned."

We've sinned, often grievously so, against our neighbors by not loving them as we love ourselves in both what we've done to them and what we've failed to do for them.

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17 thoughts on “The Confession of Sins”

  1. I have never confessed and am not religious.  But confession seems clearly valuable to me, now that you've brought it to my attention.  Admitting a sin is painful, so knowing any wrongful action will later be shared should discourage it for pain avoidance.  As well allowing a solemn reflection.

  2. Confession in the origianl is about proclaiming what is true. I've worshipped in a number of denominations over the years and agree with you. We need to tell the whole truth that God is loving, we are sinful, life is difficult, and Jesus came to redeem it all.

  3. I appreciate hearing your take on liturgy in worship, Dr. Beck.  I'm very drawn to it.  My religious history has been all over the map, from Baptist (fundamentalist) to Catholic and several points in between.  In my current church, not only the liturgical tradition but also the physical place -- architectural features, stained-glass windows and other religious art -- make me feel "at home."  That probably sounds shallow...but that's the truth of it.

    The value of corporate confession, to my sense of community and spirituality, promotes a vibe of mutuality and authenticity.  The ritual of standing together, heads bowed, reciting words of penitence in an attitude of humility has great potential for building unity...  As if to say, "We're all in this sorry boat together."  We fail.  We fall.  We are forgiven, and thus learn mercy and compassion for others.

    In casual conversation with a friend last week, I spoke of the pain of feeling alone and unsure of myself (decisions, direction, etc.) during an especially hard season of life.  My friend suggested that God uses those times of uncertainty and fear to draw us closer to Him, and to humble us in our relationship with Him.

    I countered with the idea that more than simply shaping our vertical relationship, "dark valley" experiences help us to learn forgiveness, mercy, and compassion for others who are having similar lost and lonely experiences.  Faith in God's "omni" power and presence are wonderful *ideas.*  But in the worst of times, we need real flesh and blood people -- friends, if you will, and a *whole* authentic community of loving fellowship -- to be "Jesus with skin on" *with* us.  People who will suffer *with* us.  If we don't have a sense of our need for God's forgiveness, mercy, and compassion, -and- having experienced it, we will have a hard time understanding or expressing such forgiveness, mercy, and compassion toward others whom we perceive have "sinned" against us (both commission and omission varieties).

    Besides corporate confession and prayer, I have been so moved by my church's way of doing communion at the altar -- very high church style.  I know it is only ritual, but I feel so much more a part of the corporate body to go, kneel with them, give thanks, get blessed, and be sent out, together into the world, to be Christ's body.  It is a deeply spiritual and simultaneously tangible experience for me.  I look around at the people around me and think, I love them and feel grateful to have been welcomed and enfolded into the community.  Now if we can only revive the ritual of foot washing...  ~Peace~

  4. Absolution follows confession and is important, too --- as a reminder that sin, if acknowledged, need not corrode but is by grace forgiven, freeing us to mend the tears, hopefully with joy. Substance often fails me (or I fail it), but the liturgy never has. Thanks be to God!

  5. Well said.  It reminds of what Stanley Hauerwas wrote: "The disciples are not to judge because any judgment that needs to be made has been made. For those who follow Jesus as if they can, on their own, determine what is good and what is evil is to betray the work of Christ. Therefore, the appropriate stance for the acknowledgement of evil is the confession of sin. We quite literally cannot see clearly unless we have been trained to see “the log that is in [our] eye.” But it is not possible for us to see what is in our eye because the eye cannot see itself. That is why we are able to see ourselves only through the vision made possible by Jesus—a vision made possible by our participation in a community of forgiveness that allows us to name our sins."

  6. The last two lines of your post are a good paraphrase of the liturgical confession in the (then "American") Lutheran church of my youth. That confession was followed by the (unknown to me as a child) Psalm 51 lament. The words in the hymnal, which were sung in haunting plainsong, may be the most deeply etched in my mind of all words and all melodies:

    Create in me a clean heart, O God;
    and renew in me a right spirit.
    Cast me not away from Thy presence,
    and take not Thy Holy Spirit from me.
    Renew in me the joy of Thy salvation, 
    and uphold me with Thy free Spirit. 

  7. I follow a sort of very 'low' liturgy based on the Methodist Worship Book. I alter things around, ad-lib like mad, but I use it as an outline. So I always do, for instance, have a prayer of confession, even if the words differ from those in the book. Like you, I think it's vital.

  8. This is an astute observation. I too was deeply impressed by exposure to public liturgical confession. One thing the free church tradition experienced in revolting from high liturgy was to, in insisting on being biblical and occasional, was developing a rather definable set of worship traditions, which often sevved as insulators from the whole gamut of scriptural and relational coverings the lecturn and books of worship provide. This, as you wisely observe, is a loss....not a gain. In running from Rome we bolted past Jerusalem...and sadly small group confessings just aren't the same as corporate outpourings, repeated just as the Lords's prayer...which thankfully we got back in the cannon after discovering that dispensationalist theology can really be a bummer when coupled with a fundamentalist view of scripture.

  9. As someone who has found freedom in confession of sins, I totally agree with your post. I believe also that God's redemption does a full work in us when we confess specific sins, not a general overview. Last week in Bible study one of the participants gave us an example of when her daughter had broken a family rule, because of that she wasn't allowed to go to a class party. She came out quite unrepentant and told her mother that she was sorry, not because she had acknowledged what she did was wrong, nor did she come out with the plan of not doing it again, she simply wanted to go to the party. That story hit home to me, how many times have I asked God to forgive my sins in a general way, not really knowing what I was asking forgiveness for, but I just wanted to go to the party. I have such a desire to walk a closer walk with God each day, and ask Him to show me where I am sinning, my bad choices, so then I can with a repentant heart, ask for forgiveness, and come back into alignment with Him, not giving Satan a foothold, nor thinking that the confession of my sins don't really matter, cheap grace as I have heard it called. I believe that just as we expect our kids to learn from their mistakes, and we help them do better next time, God wants us as His children to learn from ours, name them, repent, allow Him to do His work of forgiveness, and move forward with Him. It truly is God's grace and mercy at work, and it is beautiful.

  10. I think, too, that there is an important difference between saying, "We are sinners," and, "We have sinned this week." In the first, we admit an ontological fact that applies to all humans; as such, it allows us to still believe ourselves better than other sinners (and also makes us think of other sinners as sinners rather than people, which probably has a psychological effect on how we treat them?). In the second, what we admit must be personal and immediate; it does not allow us to separate ourselves from our neighbours. Indeed, if we say the second, we've informed the first in such a way that seeing others as sinners would allow us to say, "Yes, me too," rather than, "But for the grace of God..."

  11. My synagogue recently made the decision to move the Al Chet into the weekly Shabbas service rather than reserving it for Yom Kippur.  I'm a little afraid that it

  12. Dr. Beck, just curious -- have you by chance read Ched Myers book "Who Will Roll Away the Stone?  Discipleship Queries for First World Christians."  (I know you've mentioned the earlier book "Binding the Strong Man" in previous posts.)

    I just unpacked an Amazon book order shipment, in which this title was included, and got absorbed with casually "previewing" the content.  My "ears" perked up at Part Two, Denial, 4. "Why Could We Not Cast It Out?"  The gist of the message that got my attention is our socio-political complicity (no feigned innocence or triumphalism), and our need for confession that *heals*, which moves us from rage/anger and unforgiveness, to mourning, and finally from a sense of paralyzing helplessness to *response-ability*...  Otherwise, we're doomed to unconsciously and compulsively repeat the more tragic historical sins/injustices at a collective level, as well as individually.

    Fascinating!  Particularly pages 105-110.  WWRATS is a hefty book with tiny print.  The content is substantive and deep, and I'll be hard-pressed to find time to read it in full -- but so far, seems well-worth the time and effort to bump to the top of my reading list.  ~Peace~

  13. Agreed. Many years ago I worshiped in an Anglican church for one year. Every Sunday we read together what you have above (if I am remembering correctly). When I read it again after all these years it reminded me of how meaningful it became. 

  14. I find this post and the "letter to Highland" post on women interesting in light of your post back in June, where you expressed frustration ("weary tired") of people expressing what they like and don't like regarding church, mostly with worship service and preaching. And then there are two posts pretty close to each other expressing dislikes regarding both of those things! :) I say that for two reasons. (1) I am in total agreement with you on both issues (liturgy/a communal expression of confession & the lack of the presence of women preaching) of course, and (2) the June post admittedly bugged me.

    One important aspect of liturgy that I have come to appreciate in the 14-15 yrs I have been worshipping in that tradition (in addition to the language, the communal aspect of liturgical worship, and many others) is that it helps to mitigate one of the serious weaknesses of contemporary, "evangelical" forms of worship. It is so easy for it to become about the personalities of the people (in Churches of Christ, men) who are on the stage "leading." It becomes a cult of personality. In liturgical worship, if the sermon isn't the greatest thing, it doesn't really matter that much. If the the hymns are ok, or the offertory music or anthem doesn't go that well, it's not the end of the world. The format, the language, the communal act of worshipping with liturgy creates an environment where the individual personalities are serving the greater whole, be it the readers, the musicians, the priest, etc. That doesn't mean the personalities, choices, and delivery of those do not have an effect - on the contrary it can have a wonderful effect - but it is in service to the "whole" of the worship experience. It is true, congregational worship, and not (as much) about the personalities involved. It is a communal act of worship on the highest order, including the confession of sins. (Susan N expresses this beautifully in the comments)

  15. Points well made. I do often contradict myself.

    That said, I don't think of my stance about gender inclusion is an example of a worship preference, something I like or dislike. I think the gospel is at stake in that issue in a way that it isn't in worship styles. I don't think Jesus died so that one worship style might be seen as better than others. But I do think he died so that "there is no longer male or female" in the Kingdom.

    Regarding the confession of sins, yes, I'd prefer to have it in worship rather than not. But as I note in the post, I don't think high liturgy has to be the delivery system (e.g., I suggest in the post that reading a penitential psalm would do). That is, the issue is less about styles and liturgy and more about identifying the components of spiritual formation. Liturgy or no liturgy, I think the confession of sins is important to spiritual formation. As to how best to bring that component into our lives is an open question, and I might prefer some deliveries over others. In fact, I think many people would argue that corporate liturgical confession is the least effective way to go about it.

  16.  Yes, Richard. I don't know why Highland hasn't incorporated confession more, but I have talked to plenty of C of C elders/ ministers, and none of them have problems with the idea that we need more confession in the church. There are, however, some real questions about how to incorporate it. After all, although myself find the "high church" liturgy of confession insightful and moving, I've actually been told by people who grew up in the tradition that they are simply mouthing words--they are not "really confessing."

    I also like the messy Pentecostal system, where we confess personal, specific, individual sins in corporate worship! But neither the high church liturgy nor the C of C brand of low church really wants that sort of chaos on Sunday morning. And they may be wise to decide against it--it may lead to more gossip/ self-deception/ blaming than it is worth.

    That said, the most powerful sermon I heard at Highland modeled specific, individual confession--and got the point across better, perhaps, than a generic "reading."

    On the female issue I am also deeply torn. Of COURSE it is not simply worship preference--real, gospel issues are at stake. But wouldn't almost anyone who had any complaint about worship in their congregation claim that real, gospel issues are at stake? And are you meaning to imply--as those who complain about worship in their congregation often imply--that those who don't agree with you are not simply "wrong" but are "missing the gospel"? I'm not saying you're wrong, mind you--I just find it slightly suspicious, since EVERYONE I know says "You shouldn't make a big fuss about the unimportant stuff" but then has some airtight reason that the one issue THEY make a big fuss about is different, because. . . .

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