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The Church 4: Confessing Sin as Congregational Testimony

The Church 4: Confessing Sin as Congregational Testimony

Introduction:

Ah, confession of sin in the weekly worship service!  Here is a division between various forms of worship in Evangelical churches.  Some churches do, some do not—and who knows why anymore? Here follows my appeal to reinstitute this practice where it is not present, and to understand one role it plays in the worship service where it is already practiced: congregational testimony.

I have been a part of a great variety of worship forms over the years: Assemblies of God, Baptist, Evangelical Free, Presbyterian, Kaley Heywet, and Anglican in particular.  High Church worship—liturgical worship—and Reformed theology seem quite comfortable with a confession of sins by the congregation.  Confession of sin is an ancient part of Christian liturgy.  Theologically, it fits well with a Reformed ecclesiology that sees the local church in covenantal terms: that is, as consisting of “Israel” and the “elect” within Israel: not all in the church are believers.  It makes sense within a theological tradition that stresses human depravity, sanctification as a process not completed in this life, and for a view of salvation that distances grace and faith from works.  On the other hand, churches stemming from the Wesleyan and especially holiness tradition have a different notion of what the local church and Christian life are.  The local church is an assembly of true believers, saints, challenging each other to holiness.  The Christian life is more than just forgiveness of sins; it is transformational and a walking in step with the Spirit.  In such a tradition, confession of sins seems defeatist: are we going to go back to “Go” every Sunday rather than press on in our faith?

Speaking personally, in the higher Church and more Reformed churches, I used to feel the challenge of the holiness churches that we should be beyond confession of sin, while always feeling grateful for a time to confess sin!  In the more holiness church traditions, on the other hand, I feared the danger of triumphalism in the spiritual life and nevertheless, like everyone else, sought out times to confess my sins privately.  Just how do we resolve this tension between liturgies and theologies?  Well, not in a brief essay, but here is an initial attempt to speak to the issue.

Eschatology

For the past fifty or so years, Evangelicals have learned to speak of Christian eschatology as “already/not yet”: we live in the overlap of the ages, when we are not yet done with this world while also living out the life of the age to come through the Spirit.  We live between the first and second coming of Christ.  We have not reached a perfection in our own lives even if, in Christ, we are perfected already.  We stand before God not in our own righteousness but in the righteousness of Jesus Christ.  The solution to the situation of the believer is not a static theology but a dynamic theology, such as Paul states in Philippians:

Philippians 3:10-14   10 I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the sharing of his sufferings by becoming like him in his death,  11 if somehow I may attain the resurrection from the dead.  12 Not that I have already obtained this or have already reached the goal; but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own.  13 Beloved, I do not consider that I have made it my own; but this one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead,  14 I press on toward the goal for the prize of the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus.

Ecclesiology

The local church is not a hospital for convalescing sinners.  It is a fellowship of the people of God that has removed the “yeast” of sin in order to celebrate the Passover sacrifice of Jesus Christ.  As Paul says to an all-too-sinful church in Corinth,

1 Corinthians 5:7-8   7 Clean out the old yeast so that you may be a new batch, as you really are unleavened. For our paschal lamb, Christ, has been sacrificed.  8 Therefore, let us celebrate the festival, not with the old yeast, the yeast of malice and evil, but with the unleavened bread of sincerity and truth.

The church is the righteous remnant itself, not the covenant community in which might be found the righteous remnant.  It is not the field in which grow wheat and tares side by side (Mt. 13.24-30; in this parable, the field is the world, not the church—despite many a misguided commentary and sermon!).  It has authority to deal with sin and can exclude persons from fellowship—which is Paul’s point in 1 Cor. 5 and is also something we hear reflected in other New Testament passages (e.g., Mt. 18:12-20; 2 Cor. 2.5-11; 1 Jn. 5.16-21).  Such passages involve church judgement, restoration, ostracism, and prayer for sinners.  The church is a community dealing with its own sin.  As Paul says,

Galatians 6:1  My friends, if anyone is detected in a transgression, you who have received the Spirit should restore such a one in a spirit of gentleness. Take care that you yourselves are not tempted.

Soteriology and Sanctification

The relationship between “justification” and “sanctification” has been articulated in a variety of ways, often in terms of 16th century theological concerns more than Biblical theology.  While affirming that the semi- or all-out Pelagianism in some quarters of the Roman Church of the 16th century was way off base, we need to realize that an unhealthy separation of salvation from sanctification is a frequent challenge for many Protestants.  Such was the concern of Lutheran Pietists, Calvinist Puritans, Anglican Wesleyans, and holiness Methodists. At one extreme, there is a hyper-grace notion that almost celebrates sin because it emphasizes all the more the grace of God.  This is, however, a sad misunderstanding of grace as forgiving grace without understanding grace as also a transforming grace, and Paul rightly rejected it with one of his emphatic “May it never be!” statements in Rom. 6.1.  As he continues in the same passage, he explains how grace is transformative, a dying and rising with Christ—and in Rom. 8 he explains further that the body of those in Christ is “dead” and they have “life” through the indwelling Spirit (vv. 10-11).  The moral life is not our option to show gratitude for God’s grace; the moral life is the life of the indwelling Spirit of God for those in Christ.  Those who do not have the Spirit do not belong to Christ.

Yet this is not a static theology: it is not a spiritual graduation such that believers are simply done with the flesh, temptation, and sin.  Because of sin, people were “not able not to sin”; because of Christ and the Spirit, believers are “able not to sin.”  What is required of us, then, who have the Spirit?  We are exhorted to live as debtors (without imagining that we can pay the debt ourselves). We are to stop living according to the flesh and, by the Spirit, put to death the deeds of the flesh.  We are to be led by the Spirit of God (Rom. 8.12-14).  We are to breathe the life of the Spirit not in one breath but throughout our lives.  He continuously lives in us, expelling our sin and giving us the breath of life.

Worship

So we come to worship.  Worship is a performance of our theology, and it will be best when it captures our entire narrative of confession, forgiveness, reconciliation, and joyful celebration of the Lord Jesus Christ and the Spirit.  Whether or not we have personally sinned in the past week (and who is to be certain of such a thing?), as a people we stand before God as a confessional people.  Jesus taught his disciples to pray, “Forgive us our trespasses.”  We gather around the Table to proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes (1 Cor. 11.26).  To be a people of the Table is to be a people of confession: we need this, our confession of sin and the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, who shed his blood on the cross for our sins, a sacrifice of atonement.

John spoke of this in his first epistle.  He was writing against those who denied that Jesus had come in the flesh, whether those believing the Messiah had not come or those believing that Jesus was not human (the so-called “Docetists”).  John affirmed that Jesus did, indeed, come in the flesh, is the Christ, and has provided the blood sacrifice for our sins (1 Jn. 1.7; 2.2).

To gather together as the church also means to enter into a fellowship of love for John.  Confession of sins rightly precedes the passing of the peace in liturgical worship (cf. 1 Jn. 2.9-11): confession, forgiveness, and fellowship are enacted in preparation for the celebration of the Lord’s Table.  Love for the fellowship of believers also goes with hatred of the world—in the sense of hatred of the sinful desires of the flesh, the desire of the eyes, and the pride of riches (1 Jn. 2.15-16).  There are, says John, three who bear witness to Jesus as the Son of God: the water (cleansing birth), the blood (forgiving, sacrificial death), and the Spirit (creating new life) (1 Jn. 5.7-8).  To believe that Jesus is the Son of God is to “live” that truth in cleansing, forgiveness, and life of the Spirit.  Worship is not only about this, it is an experience of this.  Confession of sin as a people is a part of such worship.

If worship involves a congregational testimony to the Gospel itself, if it is a reenacting of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, if it is a dynamic performance of our theology and life in Christ and the Spirit, then it must include congregational confession that leads to the celebration of forgiveness around the Lord’s Table.  Those churches that have shuffled the Lord’s Table off to occasional moments in the church’s worship—tacked on after the normal service once a month or even less—have to a significant degree omitted the centrality of Christian testimony in worship.  They struggle to testify to the Gospel through a few contemporary worship songs and a self-help sermon all too often focussed more on the preacher’s personal stories than Scripture or some big idea of the text expressed through some contemporary story.  Yet even these worship services retain a vestige of confession around their occasional celebrations of the Lord’s Table, when believers bow their heads in private confession before the cracker and grape juice are passed down the aisle. 

There are good and bad performances of the same practice, and, while private confession is in order, corporate confession is still something different.  We do not take the element of the Lord’s Supper on our own—although all too often services make this as private a practice as a group can do something privately!  We pass individually broken pieces of bread or crackers and individual, little glasses of juice (wine goes in the common cup!), we confess sins privately, we sit with the back of our heads towards one another in our private pew spaces—we have taken what started out in the Church as a corporate love feast and meal and turned it into a private affair in a public space.  And we do this as quickly as possible because it is, after all, an addition to the regular worship in such churches.  No wonder we have also, in those services, lost corporate confession.  We are in such churches a collection of individual believers, not a body.  We are an audience attending church programmes, not a family of believers.  We are private disciples sharing space together because the singers and the preacher cannot give us a private audience.

When we confess our sins together, as a people of God, we confess our need for Jesus’ death.  We confess that we are not yet a perfected people.  We confess that we need the Spirit indwelling us individually and corporately.  And we proclaim the Lord’s death until He comes.

This was also one of the functions of prophecy in the early Church where unbelievers were concerned: the Spirit reproves and calls to account any undisclosed sin.  As Paul says,

1 Corinthians 14:24-25  But if all prophesy, an unbeliever or outsider who enters is reproved by all and called to account by all.  25 After the secrets of the unbeliever's heart are disclosed, that person will bow down before God and worship him, declaring, "God is really among you."

We have just suffered through several decades of “Seeker Service” church, in which anything but confession of sin and the conviction of the Spirit can be heard or experienced by believers and unbelievers alike.  Thankfully, this craze is somewhat on the wane, but we have wandered far from the concept of the worshiping church as a confessing body testifying to the truth of the forgiving, reconciling, and life-giving Lord Jesus Christ and Spirit of God.

Conclusion


The worship service, then, is, in part, a confessional service.  It is a performance of confession, forgiveness, reconciliation, and celebration around the Lord’s Table that declares the Lord’s death.  It is both private and corporate, the people of God declaring their need of and experiencing the cleansing water, forgiving blood, and life-giving Spirit of Jesus Christ.  Confession of sin is a sincere prayer for forgiveness, but it is also a corporate testimony to the Gospel itself—a Gospel that, with the Spirit’s convicting presence, may cause unbelievers to bow down before God, worship Him, and declare that truly God is among us.