The missing note is not of course primarily musical, but we often express it in the minor key. Confession of sin no longer has the place that it once had in Christian worship. We’re thinking of corporate confession of sin to God through prayer or praise.
Increasingly, this note is drowned out or else has faded. One recent article notes the seriousness of this. It says that confession is “one of the defining marks of a Christian’s identity”. While non-Christians refuse to confess their sins to God, Christians must repent of their sin. Another article speaks of it as an essential element of response to the gospel.
1. Lost Language of Confession
But why have churches (that profess the gospel) stopped confessing sin in worship? We need to understand the problem so that we can make sure it is addressed. This is not merely an important omission but something that empties worship of its reality. No confession, no true worship. God will not accept our worship without confession (Psalm 66:18). We cannot expect to have fellowship with God and enjoy His presence and blessing without it.
2. Lost Language of Faith
The way we worship reflects what we believe and vice versa. Perhaps confession of sin is disappearing due to a false view of the gospel and forgiveness. For instance, there is the popular idea that if we have been justified we don’t have to confess our sins, they have been pardoned already.
In Truth’s Victory Over Error, David Dickson counters this error from Scripture. Along with the Westminster Confession of Faith, he asserts that everyone is bound to make confession of their sins to God and pray for pardon.
1. Whoever calls on God the Father in their prayers ought to seek daily forgiveness of sin (Luke 11:2-4).
2. God commends and delights in, serious confession of sins and grief for them (Jeremiah 31:18-20; Luke 7:44; Isaiah 66:2).
3. There is a promise that the sins that justified believers confess will be forgiven (Proverbs 28:13; Psalm 32:5; 1 John 1.9).
4. Those that mourn are declared blessed (Matthew 5:4).
5. If the Spirit dwells in us He works in us continual groaning and sorrow for sin. He is greatly weighed down with the burden of our sins (Romans 7:23-24; Romans 8:26).
6. True repentance renews the image of God which was lost (or at least greatly defaced) by committing sin. The renewal of the image of God is not perfected in sanctification, it is only begun. It daily increases through the power of Christ’s death and resurrection (Ephesians 4:19-24).
7. Believers such as David, Josiah, Peter, and others confessed their sins. They grieved for them and begged forgiveness as justified Christians (2 Samuel 12:13; Psalm 51; 2 Kings 22:19; Nehemiah 9; Mark 14:72).
Where biblical emphasis on repentance has been lost, this note of confession will disappear from worship. Where the Westminster Confession is neglected or discarded, this clear teaching will diminish over time.
3. Lost Language of Worship
Evangelicals have largely lost the ability to define worship in terms of what Scripture requires. Worship is now focussed around what pleases man and makes him comfortable. It is not surprising that confession of sin has been lost as a consequence. Genuine confession is not a comfortable experience.
Only God can appoint the worship that pleases Him. We have lost the biblical principle that God not man defines worship. As a result, we have lost the note of confession that God requires.
If we paid attention to the forms of prayer in Scripture it would be clear to us. Confession is an indispensable element within the prayers of Scripture. This note would then be within the warp and woof of our prayers in private. We would see the need for confession of sin in prayer. It would have a vital place in family worship also (see our published guide Family Worship for guidance on confession in family worship)
It is no surprise that David Dickson refers to Psalm 51:4,5,7,9 and Psalm 32:5-6 as key verses that prove confession is sin is necessary for believers. The Psalms are full of confession. Many of them begin in confession and end in praise. They were appointed for public worship. This fact alone makes it unmistakably clear that Scripture requires confession in public worship.
This is why the Westminster Assembly produced guidance on public worship that emphasises confession in public prayer. Their Directory of Public Worship is explicit. In the updated language of the booklet Reformed Worship it reads.
“The minister who is to preach is to try to get his own and his hearers’ hearts to be conscious of their sins and truly grieved for them. This is so that they all mourn before the Lord and hunger and thirst after the grace of God in Jesus Christ. The minister should do this by leading the congregation in prayer. He calls on the Lord and confesses sin publicly with shame and holy confusion of face”.
The article first referred to above considers that confession isn’t “a requirement in every worship service”. Apparently, this “could give the impression that God is constantly angry with us and we can only approach Him after doing penance”. The question is: do we or do we not constantly sin? Omitting confession gives the impression that we don’t sin daily in thought, word and deed. It suggests we may sometimes be free from the guilt of sin. Neglecting confession diminishes the holiness of God in our eyes. It ignores the hardening power of sin. That it is exceedingly sinful and deceitful. What does God’s Word say? God has said clearly that He will not receive our prayer without confession (Psalm 66:18). It should, of course, go without saying that any true confession must lay hold of “the mercy of God in Christ”.
4. Lost Language of Praise
Having lost the Psalms from public worship, the evangelical Church has lost the key to the language and character of true worship. We are taught about the structure of our worship in the Psalter. The Psalms also put the Holy Spirit’s language of confession into our mouths. Yet contemporary churches discard these in favour of man-made songs that may or may not include confession of sin. Even when they do so, the language may or may not be biblically accurate. When we sing the Psalms we can be confident that we are confessing sin in the right language to the right extent and proportion.
The growing neglect of confession of sin in public worship is only a symptom of deeper problems in the Church. Key truths and principles that undergird this practice have also been neglected. These are the principles that we need to recover if we seek genuine worship that honours God and enjoys His blessing.
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