Corporate Worship: Confession of Sin

Dear Church Family,

While serving as a hospital chaplain one summer during seminary, I would pay regular visits to the patients on my assigned ward. One time, I visited with a man as he was preparing for heart surgery. I didn’t know the man, but as we talked, he told me of his faith in Christ. At the end of the visit, I prayed for him, specifically for his upcoming surgery. The next day, after the operation, I visited with him again. He told me about how everything went as well as was expected in his surgery, but then he said to me, “I wanted to mention something to you about how you prayed yesterday. It’s been bugging me, and I think you should be made aware of it. You failed to ask God for forgiveness at the beginning of your prayer. And, you know, God does not allow sin in his presence, so I wouldn’t want your prayers to be hindered by not beginning every prayer by confessing your sins and asking God’s forgiveness.”

I graciously thanked the man for his advice; it didn’t seem like the right time to point out that God had actually answered my prayers for his surgery, despite my failure to begin with confession of sin. Still, it got me to thinking. Is confession of sin and repentance a prerequisite for God’s answering our other prayers? Does He not hear our prayers unless we begin with confession of sin and repentance?

On the one hand, the Bible admonishes us to confess our sins knowing that God is faithful and righteous to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness (1 John 1:9). Also, in the Lord’s Prayer, Jesus teaches us to “forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors” (Matthew 6:12). So, yes, “it is every man’s duty to endeavor to repent of his particular sins particularly (WCF 15:5) – and often! Indeed, repentance “is of such necessity to all sinners, that none may expect pardon without it” (WCF 15:3).

On the other hand, confession of sin and repentance is a privilege that is granted to the children of God. As Jesus said, “If you ask anything in My name, I will do it” (John 14:14). For the redeemed of the Lord, the Holy Spirit helps us in our weakness, interceding for us when we don’t know how to pray as we should (Romans 8:26). Prayer is a special gift and means of communicating with our heavenly Father.

So, while we ought not to think mechanically about God’s hearing of our prayers (thinking that He only hears what we pray for after we confess our sins), we ought to also readily partake of the privilege of confessing out sins and repenting of our sins as often as we can. Indeed, we are to pray without ceasing (1 Thessalonians 5:17).

Confessing Our Sins Corporately

What does this have to do with corporate confessions of sin? Well, it tells us that confessing our sins as God’s people is not something that must precede our worship in order for our worship to be made acceptable to God. And, it also helps us to see how confessing our sins together as God’s people is a special privilege, a means by which God communicates His grace to us, and is commanded in Scripture.

At Hill Country Church (PCA), we use written corporate confessions of sin which we pray together as a congregation in unison. These prayers are derived from Scripture or Scripture-based prayers from various sources of liturgical practices in the history of the church. The practice of confessing our sins together and corporately as God’s people is rooted in Scripture. Upon rediscovering and hearing the Law of God read by Ezra (Nehemiah 8:1ff), the descendants of Israel “separated themselves from all foreigners, and stood and confessed their sins and the iniquities of their fathers” (Nehemiah 9:2). The Psalms which were (and are) sung by God’s people contain many confessions of sin (e.g. Psalm 40:11-13; 79:8-9; 86:1-7; 143; and especially Psalm 51).

Confessing Our Sins Privately

Christians ought to confess and repent of their sins daily, even immediately upon conviction of those sins. Yet, in our corporate worship, we also provide a time for the people of the church to silently offer up their particular prayers of confession. Unfortunately, confession of sin (and especially corporate confession of sin) is one of those worship practices that is more and more being omitted in the worship of many churches in our day. Yet, the Scripture is clear that godly sorrow leads to repentance without regret; and repentance without regret leads to salvation (2 Corinthians 7:10-11).

In our technological and media-saturated world, we are constantly bombarded by information and noise. Distraction has become the norm; however, it is good to quiet ourselves and slow down – to contemplate our own sin and unworthiness, confess and repent of our sins. Self-examination is an important part of worship. And the Scriptures admonish us to “not be hasty in word or impulsive in thought to bring a matter in the presence of God” (Ecclesiastes 5:2). In this way, we are humbling ourselves before our God who hears our prayers from His throne in heaven.

How to Pray?

The Westminster Confession of Faith defines prayer in this way:

“Prayer, with thanksgiving, being one special part of religious worship, is by God required of all men; and, that it may be accepted, it is to be made in the name of the Son, by the help of His Spirit, according to His will, with understanding, reverence, humility, fervency, faith, love, and perseverance; and, if vocal, in a known tongue.” (WCF 21:3)

God’s Word gives us a wonderful promise regarding confessing our sins: “If we confess our sins, He is faith and righteous to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness” (1 John 1:9). The context of this verse helps us to maintain the proper attitude in prayers of confession. On either said of this verse, we are reminded of the futility and self-deception of self-righteousness: Verse 8 says, “If we say that we have no sin, we are deceiving ourselves and the truth is not in us.” Verse 10 says, “if we say that we have not sinned, we make Him a liar and His word is not in us.”

As we confess and repent of our sins, let us do so in faith without any doubting (James 1:6). Let us remember our own humble circumstances and the promised forgiveness and salvation which is ours in Christ Jesus. Our sins have been forgiven us for His name’s sake (1 John 2:12). What a wonderful privilege that is!

May the Lord bless you as you prepare to worship Him well, this Sunday!

The Lord be with you!
– Pastor Peter M. Dietsch