Confession of Sin
In worship services across the denominational spectrum I encounter corruptions of "confessions" that say things like "we are not able to love our neighbors" or "we do not treat our neighbors [or ourselves!] well." The first sample sounds almost like it's our Creator's fault that we have wronged our neighbors because we weren't made capable of doing better, and the second downplays how violent is the evil we have done to others by SINNING against them.
Cornelius Plantinga's superb book aimed at recovering our sense and the language of sin parodies modern confessions with these examples: "Let us confess our problem with human relational adjustment dynamics, and especially our feebleness in networking" or "I'd just like to share that we just need to target holiness as a growth area" (Plantinga, NOT THE WAY IT'S SUPPOSED TO BE, Eerdmans, 1995, x).
On the opposite side of the corruption spectrum are confessions that leave us in the depths of despair because we hear no specific, direct word of forgiveness. The point of acknowledging our sin is not to make us feel terrible, but to free us, by means of absolution, from the grievous haunting of guilt. A lot of people in our society walk around with huge burdens of remorse because they've been so busy euphemizing their sins that they haven't really faced them, admitted their responsibility and the depth of their sinfulness, and gotten rid of the encumbrance in the freedom of gracious deliverance.
We confess because we are invited to. Grace precedes it, grace makes it possible, and grace forgives what we acknowledge. Then, because we are liberated, grace works ever more thoroughly in us to keep us from the same misdeeds, offenses, violations, rebellions, faults, and vices.
Our church services need confessions something like this:
Almighty God, we confess that we are in bondage
to sin and cannot free ourselves. 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 love our neighbors as ourselves. For the
sake of your Son, Jesus Christ, have mercy on us.
Forgive us, renew us, and lead us, so that we may
delight in your will and walk in your ways, to the
glory of your holy name. Amen.
What a great confession! It's thorough enough to catch me every time, strong enough so that I know how deeply I've sinned, general enough so that no one can escape its power. It's terrible bondage, this sin problem. The only way out is deliverance, liberation, forgiveness!
—Marva Dawn, TALKING THE WALK: LETTING CHRISTIAN LANGUAGE LIVE AGAIN. Grand Rapids: Brazos Press, 2005, 66-67. ISBN 1-58743-061-4. Highly recommended.
[Many in my own evangelical tradition acknowledge the need for confession of sin—but only by the unsaved person at the point of conversion. The problem with this view is that it leaves out much of what the Bible says about the power of sin and the need for confession and forgiveness—even in the life of the believer. O my! What freedom we have in Christ to pray, "Lord, I have sinned against you (again). I am sorry! Have mercy on me. Lead me; guide me in your ways—more and more into the light of Christ." Don't forget that haunting story that Jesus told: Luke 18:9-14. Ouch!]
Have a great week.
Director, Institute for Christian Worship
School of Church Music and Worship
The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary
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