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Learning To Confess – Ministry Spot

I remember the joy I felt as a young man, leaving the legalistic world I was raised in for the depths of the Reformed faith. Instead of a sub-culture obsessed with abstaining from alcohol, I now had Christian freedom. Instead of an ethic focused solely on abstaining from sex outside of marriage, I now had a Kuyperian appreciation for how every sphere of life was claimed by King Jesus. Instead of moralistic sermons offering tips on relationships, I now had Christ on every page of the Bible. But after decades of delighting in this new-to-me environment, I discovered more than just a few soft spots in my sanctification. What practical help could I offer a friend with a drinking problem? What specific counsel could my church offer me in dealing with lust and anger? Should a sermon’s only take-away lesson be to rejoice yet again in the fact of our justification? I was rightly persuaded that the gospel which saved me would be the same gospel that would sanctify me, but I was unsure how it would do so.

I went to the psalms. Psalm 119:9 asked and answered my question in general terms: “How can a young man keep his way pure? By guarding it according to your word.” And Psalm 51:10 began to teach me how to pray prayers of repentance: “Create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a right spirit within me.” When preparing to play the role of Martin Luther in a youth ministry drama, I noticed that the very first of his 95 theses was focused on personal repentance: “When our Lord and Master Jesus Christ said, ‘Repent’ (Mt 4:17), he willed the entire life of believers to be one of repentance.” I had been raised to think of repentance as something sequestered to the time of conversion. Luther was telling me it was to be a daily discipline.

Teaching Your Congregations to Confess

How can pastors encourage their congregations to confess their sins and then bolster their spirits with assurance of God’s forgiveness? We know we need to preach the gospel to ourselves every day, but how? One way is to include confession of sin in the liturgy of the Lord’s Day worship service. While the James 5:16 command to “confess your sins to one another” is situated in a more private setting between a church member and the elders, we will repent more thoroughly in private if we are taught how to do so in public. Just as our Sunday morning corporate expressions of praise equip us to worship the Triune God all week long, so do corporate prayers of confession model how we can repent all life long. If your convictions about what is biblically appropriate in corporate worship preclude any congregational reading of pre-written prayers, I respect that. You could adapt what follows by supplying your congregation with sample prayers in a different venue – at a prayer meeting, in a small group, in a blog post on your web site.

Regardless of when we teach each other how to repent, the need is there. I grew up with the ACTS acronym for prayer—adoration, confession, thanksgiving, and supplication. But I never heard anyone at home (I was a preacher’s kid!) or at church actually praying any “C” prayers. Then, while I was a young church planter, a friend introduced me to a selection from the Book of Common Prayer: 

“Almighty and most merciful Father, we have erred and strayed from your ways like lost sheep. We have followed too much the devices and desires of our own hearts. We have offended against your holy laws. We have left undone those things which we ought to have done, and we have done those things which we ought not to have done, and there is no health in us. But you, O Lord, have mercy upon us, miserable offenders. Please spare those, O God, who confess their sins.  Please restore those who repent, according to your promises declared unto mankind in Christ Jesus our Lord. And grant, O most merciful Father, for Christ's sake, that we may hereafter live a godly, righteous and sober life, to the glory of your holy name. Amen.”

Notice how it begins by extolling both God’s sovereignty and His grace. The line comparing us to lost sheep captures both our sinfulness and our weakness. This prayer admits that our hearts are not to be trusted (Jer 17:9), that sin is not merely a mistake but is lawlessness (1 John 3:4), and most helpfully for me: it puts a spotlight on sins of omission. The line—“we have left undone those things which we ought to have done”—never fails to convict. The prayer goes on to anchor our hope not in how well we are repenting but in God’s mercy and Christ’s promises. The prayer’s closure acknowledges that a righteous life will have to be a God-given gift, not an achievement we attain on our own.

The Problems with Corporate Prayer

Two potential problems with this venerable prayer: 1) it could become a mindless mantra; 2) its beautiful generality lacks specificity. So I began writing more specific prayers for my congregation. Our wicked hearts are cleverly resistant, never facing the truth about our own besetting sins. While praying “forgive me for doing those things I ought not to have done,” I can be thinking about only the relatively “minor” sins in my life. I need someone to help me see that the Ten Commandments are not a technical list I can minimize and thus never be convicted by, but rather a summary of God’s moral law that expansively addresses all my sins.

For inspiration in writing more specific confessions I went to the Westminster Larger Catechism’s section on the Ten Commandments and began paraphrasing it into my prayers. One example:

“Gracious and almighty God, keep me from bearing false witness against my neighbor. Help me to care about their good name, especially in legal matters. Keep me from giving false evidence, spreading gossip, promoting an evil cause, or stretching the truth, from declaring someone innocent or guilty without having sufficient evidence. May I not call evil good or good evil, but rather have a love for that which is wholesome, transparent, and helpful. When I sign my name, may I sign only that which is true. May I speak when justice calls for exposure, concealing nothing; may I not speak when I lack sufficient context. Since you have told me the hard truth about myself, give me courage to confront others in love. Thank you for revealing to me the truth of who you are, and of all you’ve done for me in Christ. In His name I pray, Amen.”

While writing prayers such as this, I’ve made real mistakes. I’ve written prayers that were too political, that forced the person to adopt my peculiar perspective on current issues. While writing, I’ve been more upset with the sins of others than with my own sins. I’ve introduced prayers that probed too deeply too fast, without first building trust so that my congregation knew this was not my sneaky way of scolding them but rather my earnest desire for all of us to grow. For some parishioners these prayers have been life-giving. Others have responded defensively: “How dare you suggest that we all have sinned in this way!” I usually direct them to a memorable series of Old Testament prayers all found in “chapter nine.” Daniel 9, Ezra 9, and Nehemiah 9 all feature lengthy prayers of confession. Though Daniel, Ezra, and Nehemiah are not personally culpable for most of what they confess, because they belong to the covenant community, they rightly own the sins of their people.

While sanctification is much more than repentance, and repentance is more than confession, I hope that either in public liturgy or private prayer we will repent specifically and frequently. When we find ourselves in the position of the John 8 woman caught in adultery—humiliated and shamed—we need to hear Jesus’ assurance of pardon to us personally: “Neither do I condemn you; go, and sin no more.”

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