Growing up in the church, confessing sin was not a strange idea. It was just part of what we did. The Bible commanded it (1 John 1:8-9). The church sang it in songs like Create In Me A Clean Heart from Psalm 51, or Kyrie Eleison which is Latin for ‘Lord, have mercy.’ I knew myself to be a sinner in daily need of God’s grace and forgiveness. However, I always assumed that confessing sin was a private, individual thing; corporate confession was a foreign concept.
I always assumed that confessing sin was a private, individual thing
Yes, I knew that praise and thanksgiving was a corporate aspect of Sundays – something we did together as a Church. I knew that listening to God’s Word read and preached was too. But seeing as we never set aside time for corporate confession of sin, I assumed that it was something we were meant to do privately.
We Do So Much Together, Why Not Confession?
I was recently reflecting on this. How come we set aside time for praise, thanksgiving, and prayer every Sunday but not the corporate confession of sin? Why do we set time aside for the reading and preaching of God’s Word, but not to confess our sin together? How come we set aside time for prayers of petition and supplication, asking for God’s help, but not prayers of confession, asking for God’s forgiveness?
From The Mouths of Babes
When I was a youth pastor I was confronted by some students who had been going to a Christian boarding school. At their school, confession of sin was built into the liturgy of their Sunday chapel services. This wasn’t surprising, seeing as their school was started by Christian missionaries in the early 1900s.
I didn’t do the hard work of taking their question seriously, before answering it biblically and theologically.
When they were home for the holidays, these teenagers asked me why we didn’t set aside time for corporate confession of sin in any of our church services.
Quite frankly, I’d never even thought of having confession of sin built into our services. I can’t remember exactly how I answered them. But I’m pretty sure I gave them the thoughtless, “confession is an individual, private thing” answer. Unfortunately I didn’t do the hard work of taking their question seriously, before answering it biblically and theologically.
Why Have Churches Cancelled Corporate Confession?
We can speculate about why the practice of corporate confession of sins has fallen out of popularity in our churches.
For starters, many are trying to grow their churches numerically rather than spiritually. Thus the term “confession” is now often associated with ‘positive confessions’ about how good we are. Actual confessing of our sins before God does not square well with this.
Do we imply, “By the way, God we’re perfect”? For a lack of confession could be understood in this way.
Our Sunday programs, or liturgy, are stocked full with biblical elements. We readily profess or sing:
- “God, you’re amazing” (praise)
- “God, we’re so grateful” (thanksgiving)
- “We need you, God” (supplication)
- “God, we hear you” (Bible reading and preaching)
But do we also imply, without saying it, “By the way, God, we’re perfect”? For a lack of confession could be understood in this way.
If we don’t confess our sins corporately it’s likely our congregants won’t confess their sins privately.
The Danger of Neglecting Corporate Confession
The true Christian should be mortified by how arrogant that sounds to our Lord and God. However, I have come to realise if we don’t confess our sins corporately before the Lord, the likelihood is our congregants will not confess their sins privately. By our practice we may be teaching them to disobey or disregard the Lord God (1 John 1:8-9).
A Call To Regain The Practice
Corporate confession of sin is a beautiful gospel illustration. For in the gospel, sinners who acknowledge their sinful state repent; they respond rightly to a holy God by turning away from their sin, and trusting in Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of their sins. This process leads to reconciliation with God. The result is they are forgiven, adopted into the family of God.
Through confession we are able to enjoy eternal fellowship with Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
When we confess our sins we are acknowledging that we are sinners. But we are also presenting ourselves as repentant sinners
As a local church, when we confess our sins we are acknowledging that we are sinners. But we are also presenting ourselves as repentant sinners. We are so sure of the forgiveness that we have at the cross, we throw ourselves upon God’s mercy. We are assured of the sanctifying work of God. Thus we know he will continually cleanse us from unrighteousness.
We are sure that He who began a good work in us, will be faithful to complete it (Philippians 1:6). For God does not leave us to languish in our sin. We are sure that he is more than ready to forgive us than we are ready to sin. Therefore we can unashamedly confess our sins to him, and before one another.
The Joy Of Confessing Your Sins Together
This forgotten practice can be a source of deep trust in the Lord for our congregations. Corporate confession is also a vehicle for teaching and forming believers. They can trust that the God who saved them, loves them – and will forgive them – when they confess their sin.
Our heavenly Father invites us to say, “I’ve messed up, I better call my dad.”
As Africans, we tend to think of our heavenly Father like a traditional African father. Our fathers were wonderful, strong men. But they could also be very unforgiving and unyielding. It was common to hear our friends say in high school, “I’ve messed up, I can’t call my dad.” Our heavenly Father invites us to say, “I’ve messed up, I better call my dad.” Confession is us calling on our heavenly Father, knowing we will find grace and forgiveness.