In a recent article we explained the what and why behind the exhortation during the worship service. The exhortation precedes the confession of sin. The confession is in response to the exhortation. The congregation kneels during confession. After the minister leads the congregation in corporate prayer, there is a time for private confession, after which we rise to hear the good news of the gospel. “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness” (1 Jn. 1:9). Then we announce our common faith in the words of one of the ecumenical creeds.
During Covenant Renewal Worship, we corporately and individually confess our sins to the Lord. Praise to the Lord and the confession of sin are not separate activities. They belong together. Isaiah praises the Lord (Is. 6:3) and then confesses his sin (Is. 6:5). Augustine called on “those who govern the Church” to “have rightly appointed times of penitence.” During the Medieval Church, the Roman Mass began with The Confiteor, a general confession of sin. The Reformers rehabilitated the practice of confessing sin. The sixteenth-century Church at Strasbourg liturgy included a prayer of confession and supplication. It was a plain confession of sin, influenced by Psalm 25 and 26, and supplication for God’s mercy.
Why is it important to weekly confess sin during the Sunday service? When a person is baptized, they are inaugurated into the Christian life. Not only is their baptism a covenant sign that their sins are washed away, but it is also a call to walk in the newness of life. Walking in the “new way of the Spirit” (Rom. 7:6) means living in the power of Christ’s death and resurrection (Rom. 6:3f). This is when the Spirit empowers his people to put to death the deeds of the flesh and bring to life the deeds of the Spirit (Gal. 5:16-24). Christians, therefore, are called to a life of repentance and professing the Christian faith. This is not a one-time act, but a lifelong habit. When Christians confess their sin in prayers and profess their faith in the words of the ecumenical creeds, they are living out the prophetic sign of baptism.
There is a subjective and objective element to confessing sin. The subjective part relates to the fact that each subject must turn inward and tell the truth about themselves and their sin. The Christian life is a Spirit-empowered fight to overcome personal sins. It should cause great concern when the church is regularly overcome by sins rather than overcoming them. Part of the reason Christians struggle to overcome indwelling sin is that they haven’t been taught the habits of confession and repentance during the Lord’s Day service. All sin is against God (Ps. 51:4). We must be willing to tell God we are sorry for our sin. But this is hard for modern man, who has been taught that he is not morally responsible for his actions. The world trains him to blame biochemical, relational, or environmental factors for their behavior. Repentance from blame-shifted behavior is meaningless hypocrisy. This is why so many Christians are mastered by sin. A person cannot dodge moral responsibility and expect God to forgive them of sins. To go to God and say “I am sorry” is true communication with God on a personal level. As Calvin emphasized, true prayer proceeds first from a sense of need.
The objective part of confession relates to the fact that we turn our confessed sins outward to the completed work of Christ on the cross. Proverbs 28:13 reminds us, “The one who conceals his sins will not prosper, but he who confesses and forsakes them will obtain mercy.” Mercy is grounded in the fact that Christ died on a tree and was resurrected out of the grave. Because Christ did that, all those who believe are washed, sanctified, and justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God (1 Cor. 6:11). Our sins have earned an eternal curse (Rom. 6:23). Christ endured the curse for us (Gal. 3:13). Through faith, God declares his people forgiven and righteous (Rom. 4:1-8). Confession reawakens Christ’s forgiving power. Each time we confess our sins to God, we do so based on Christ’s redemptive work. Confession is when the Holy Spirit restores the soul to sanity by flattening the exaggerated desires of sin before the glory of forgiving grace.
Secular society doesn’t suppress religious impulses. It redirects them from the sanctuary to social media, which has made society an unrelenting echo chamber of confession. Deeds both large and small are confessed. The smallest details of life are disclosed, as are all the ways the confessor has been wronged by others. One’s “followers” hear daily confession like a priest, learning the confessor’s desires, opinions, illnesses, grievances, outrages, achievements, and victim stories. Instead of confessing real sin, penitents confess society’s trendy ones, as C.S. Lewis, said, “Men fail so often to repent their real sins that the occasional repentance of an imaginary sin must appear almost desirable.” The comments and “likes” confirm and absolve, providing affirmation of the confessor’s view of themselves. But when it comes to confessing one’s actual sins, it resembles the mafia’s omerta, a strict code of silence.
Christian confession, in contrast, is agreeing with God about sin. He who ignores his own sin feeds his vision of himself. During confession, Christians are telling God that they see their sin the way God sees it. By confessing, they are bringing their sin to light for the purpose of forgiveness and renunciation. To confess is to announce remorse and the desire to repent. In this way, confession normalizes desires and behaviors. It assumes certain things are right and wrong. The wrong ones are confessed, first for forgiveness, and second for future sanctifying effect.
There are several dangers of corporate confession of sin that must be guarded against. For one, we must be careful that we sincerely confess to God rather than put on a performance before men. Confession is not a show. Another danger is that we must be careful to remember the act of confession doesn’t save us. God does. The point of confession is to put our sin under the justifying blood of Christ (Rom. 4:25). It is the cross, not confession, that is the cause of cleansing. Another danger is if confession becomes an empty ritual of routine. If we regularly acknowledge the same sins without putting up a fight against them, the consequence is to think lightly of sin. Finally, it is a mistake to think that every sin requires a new sacrifice. Sincere Christians feel guilty for their sin and desire to make it right. They may even feel like they are supposed to pay something for a new redemption. But that’s not the point of confession. Christ’s sacrifice canceled the record of debts (Col. 2:14). The price for sin was paid in full (1 Cor. 6:19f) and never needs repeating (Heb. 7:27). Everyone who believes in Christ receives forgiveness of sins (Acts 10:43).
Despite these dangers, it is more dangerous to shun the weekly liturgical confession of sin. Liturgical confession must be done weekly because sinners are not as accountable as they think they are, and they are not as innocent as they say they are. Americans are fanatically fond of prospering, yet exhibit a mysterious dislike of the things that cause it. Refusing to confess sin to God is refusing to prosper (Prov. 28:13). To not prosper is to fall into calamity, be a fugitive until death, receive no help, fall suddenly (Prov. 28: 14, 16ff), and waste away (Ps. 32:3). Why do those who conceal sin not prosper? Because each person has a duty to be honest with God, to know themselves and who God is, to acknowledge their own faults in light of God’s holiness. In other words, confession reproduces reality—who I am and who God is. It implies that the great truth of God’s world is that he is the Good Shepherded who takes his people on the pilgrimage from sin to salvation.
Augustine, On Faith, Hope, and Love: The Enchiridion (Translated by Professor J.F. Shaw), 111.
C.S. Lewis, God in the Dock (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1970), 189.
Hughes Oliphant Old, Worship: Reformed According to Scripture (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2002), 20, 35, 46, 100.
Francis Shaeffer, True Spirituality (Wheaton, ILL: Tyndale House, 1971), 159-160.
Christopher Watkin, Michel Foucault in the Great Thinkers Series (Phillipsburg, NJ: P & R Publishing, 2018), 56-58
Jason Cherry is an elder at Trinity Reformed Church in Huntsville, Alabama, as well as a teacher and lecturer of literature, American history, and economics at Providence Classical School in Huntsville. He graduated from Reformed Theological Seminary with an MA in Religion and is the author of the book The Culture of Conversionism and the History of the Altar Call, now available on Amazon.