Serious Christians would never discount the importance of confessing our sins to God as a vital spiritual discipline. They have, however, debated the place of such a practice in corporate worship.
Many worship services are structured around what church leaders believe will fill the most seats and make the most people happy—and let’s face it: publicly voicing sins can be awkward. Prayers of praise fire people up, but prayers of lament and confession are more likely to bum them out. Why include something in our weekly worship that’s going to inevitably dredge up painful memories of days past or uncomfortable truths about ourselves?
If we plan worship with consumers and not Christians in mind, then human wisdom will balk at the thought of addressing such raw and vulnerable matters in church. But viewing the issue through a biblical lens will prove corporate confession to be something much more beautiful, even a necessity for God’s gathered people.
Here are five reasons you should include a time of confession in your prayers as a church on Sundays.
1. Divine Holiness
In corporate worship we meet with God, encountering him in all his majestic glory and holiness, which inevitably reveals our unworthiness and sin. When we enter into worship, then, we should have Abraham’s words on our lips: “Behold, I have undertaken to speak to the LORD, I who am but dust and ashes” (Gen. 18:27). Beholding the thrice-holy God, Isaiah likewise laments: “Woe is me! For I am lost; for I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips; for my eyes have seen the King, the LORD of hosts!” (Isa. 6:5). Nor is this the experience for individuals only. When all the Israelites learned of God’s holiness from the prophet Ezra, they “bowed their heads and worshiped the LORD with their faces to the ground. . . . For all the people wept as they heard the words of the Law” (Neh. 8:6, 9).
If we plan worship with consumers and not Christians in mind, then human wisdom will balk at the thought of addressing such raw and vulnerable matters in church.
Most fundamentally, what necessitates confession is the fact that God is holy and we are not. If during the worship service we feel no need to laud God as holy and lament our condition as rebellious, we’d do well to ask if we have really met with God at all.
2. Historical Precedent
In addition to these biblical models, the rich wisdom of our ecclesiastical heritage commends the practice of corporate confession. This has manifested itself in a variety of liturgical methods throughout church history. In Strasbourg, John Calvin structured his liturgy to include a confession of sin immediately following the call to worship. Thomas Cranmer placed confession before the distribution of the Lord’s Supper. In the Directory for the Public Worship of God, the Westminster divines didn’t include a separate prayer of confession, but rather suggested it be included along with other petitions in the “great prayer” (what we might today call the congregational or pastoral prayer) leading to the sermon.
There are numerous ways to approach this important aspect of worship—the critical thing is that confession is present. Our earliest liturgical window into the post-apostolic church is in a first-century document known as the Didache, Greek for “teaching.” Its comments on confession are brief but profound. They summarize the importance of this discipline: “Confess your sins in church, and do not go to prayer with a guilty conscience. This is the Way of Life.”
3. Spiritual Catharsis
David recognized this in Psalm 32. He saw that confession was the way of life—and to abstain from it was tantamount to a slow, agonizing death: “For when I kept silent, my bones wasted away through my groaning all day long. For day and night your hand was heavy upon me; my strength was dried up as by the heat of summer” (vv. 3–4). Silence over sin will mean suffering. But the moment we open our hearts and our mouths and confess our guilt, we receive healing, as David experienced: “I acknowledged my sin to you . . . and you forgave the iniquity of my sin” (v. 5).
Far from being awkward, offering a place for confession in corporate worship gives helpless sinners in bondage the freedom they so desperately need.
We might foolishly conclude that we are doing churchgoers a service by removing any elements from worship that might make them feel uncomfortable. But the reality is that everyone needs to confess, and deep down everyone knows this need to confess (Rom. 2:15). Many just don’t know how. Far from being awkward, offering a place for confession in corporate worship gives helpless sinners in bondage the freedom they so desperately need.
4. Mutual Support
Communal confession also pierces into our gloomy, self-centered spiritual introspection and reminds us that we aren’t in this alone. There is an entire congregation struggling through this “dying to sin” thing, too. There is great consolation in recognizing our fallen condition together as a community.
In his classic book Life Together, Dietrich Bonhoeffer writes, “He who is alone with his sin is utterly alone.” Even in a bursting congregation, a lack of confession means a lack of community. In fear of admitting to others what sins beset us, Bonhoeffer says, “We remain alone with our sin, living in lies and hypocrisy. The fact is that we are sinners!” Without acknowledging this, people will be either unwilling or unable to truly reach out to others, thereby missing out on one the blessings of belonging to the church in the first place—“bear[ing] one another’s burdens” (Gal. 6:2).
5. Gospel Identity
Bonhoeffer’s lament is that worshipers can be unwilling to come to terms with who they really are. We are sinners, but in Christ Jesus we are something much more: sinners saved by grace. The weekly rhythms of worship, including these elements of repentance and restoration, are vital in impressing on our hearts this gospel identity.
And it’s an identity that belongs to the church as a corporate body. Public worship causes us to look outside of ourselves and remember that Jesus came to “save his people from their sins” (Matt. 1:21). While we’re here on earth, that salvation isn’t complete. The church is still a work in progress, so she must pray. For now, when we gather as Christians, we must gather as confessors as well.
“Forgive us our debts” is the call of the faithful community. And what a wonderful thing to hear Christ’s beautiful promise in response: “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness” (1 John 1:9).
This article is adapted from Jonathan Cruse, What Happens When We Worship (Reformation Heritage, 2020)