Confession is good for the soul

Recently I came across a somewhat unusual birthday card. On the front was a picture of two old nuns, with one saying to the other ‘The Lord died for your sins”. Inside were the words: “So you might as well enjoy them. Have a great birthday!” I confess that I smiled – but at the same time felt a little guilty about smiling. Wasn’t this somewhat sacrilegious? Certainly no right-living Christian would ever seek to ‘cash in’ on the death of Jesus in such a way.

Yet as I was reflecting upon this card, it seemed to me that a good number of Christians today have effectively developed a different response: the Lord has died for our sins, “So we might as well not bother taking sin too seriously on a Sunday morning”. As a result, in many non-liturgical churches there are often no prayers of confession within the main Sunday worship service.

By contrast in the liturgy of the Church of England worshippers well and truly confess their sin. To quote one such prayer of confession from Common Worship:

Father eternal, giver of light and grace,
We have sinned against you and against our neighbour
In what we have thought,
In what we have said and done
Through ignorance, through weakness,
Through our own deliberate fault.
We have wounded your love
And marred your image in us.
We are sorry and ashamed
And repent of all our sins.
For the sake of your Son Jesus Christ,
Who died for us,
Forgive us for all that is past
And lead us out from darkness
To walk as children of light. Amen

Or to quote the prayer of confession from the ‘First morning service’ in The Book of Order of the Church of Scotland:

Merciful God, you made us in your image, with a mind to know you, a heart to know you, and a will to serve you. But our knowledge is imperfect, our love inconstant, our obedience incomplete. Day by day we fail to grow into your likeness; yet you are slow to be angry with your children. For the sake of Jesus Christ, your Son, our Saviour, do not hold our sins against us, but in your tender love, forgive.

I believe that the omission of confession from the public prayers of the church is indefensible. Worship inevitably should lead to penitence. In the words of the prophet Isaiah: ”I saw the Lord seated on a throne, high and exalted… ‘Woe to me!’ I cried, ‘I am ruined! For I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips, and my eyes have seen the king, the Lord Almighty’” (Isaiah 6.1, 5). In Isaiah’s vision, ‘confession’ was then followed by ‘absolution’: a seraph touched Isaiah’s mouth with one of the live coals and said, “Your guilt it taken away and your sins atoned” (Isaiah 6.7). Likewise in Christian worship the congregation needs to confess their sins and to be assured of their forgiveness in Christ.

Precisely at what stage in the service there should be prayers of confession has been a matter of debate. My practice has been to place them close to the beginning – normally after the opening hymn of praise. Others believe that by putting the prayers of confession near the beginning of the service runs the risk that they will be vague and abstract; they prefer to put the prayers after the sermon on the basis that it is not until we are addressed by the word of God that we know the concrete things we have to confess.

But wherever we put the prayers, confession is good for the soul. If Scriptural justification for this is required, then what about the words of the angel to the church in Ephesus: “Remember then from what you have fallen; repent and do the works you did at first” (Rev 2.5). Note, incidentally, that in the underlying Greek the first verb is a present imperative, while the other two verbs are aorist (simple past) imperatives. The implication is that remembering involves an ongoing necessity for spiritual recollection and review – this necessity is met by the Sunday by Sunday ritual of confession, which leads worshippers then to repent of their sin and reset their moral compass for living. Here is what is described as ‘the cycle of contrition and restoration’ which Christians need to repeat Sunday by Sunday.

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