Why A Weekly Confession of Sin

Modified, from my sent folder in answer to the question “What are your best theological arguments for a weekly confession of sin?”

Pray without ceasing.

And anyone who is opposed to weekly confessing their sins probably needs to be confessing their sins more than that.

I’m assuming that you’re talking about during the Sunday worship service and corporately reciting a prayer together. If that’s the case, I would be unwilling to make the argument that the practice is necessary. However, confessing sin in the worship service is required by scripture.

1. Prayer is required in public worship (cf. WCF 21.3-4). A lot of the argument is going to hang on liturgical hermeneutics. Is prayer as described in the Bible, the New Testament especially, a private or a corporate affair? The Reformed tradition (history is theology) has said that prayer is part of worship and is corporate, not only private. “Our Father…” So when we see prayer prescribed in the New Testament, especially the epistles, it is aimed at the church gathered.

2. Prayer by definition includes confession of sin (cf. WLC 178, 185, 194). “Forgive us our debts…” Ergo, prayer in the worship service must include prayer with a confession of sin, or it does not meet the biblical definition of prayer.

3. That does not necessitate a corporate recitation of pre-selected prayers. Prayer in worship should be primarily led by the pastor. This is how the Westminster Directory of Public Worship expected things to be handled, and it was written against the backdrop of the Anglican Book of Common Prayer. No non-Anglican Reformation liturgy included a corporate recitation of a confession of sin. Hughes Old in Leading in Prayer makes the case against the practice of corporate recitations of prayer. His argument is that there is a) no biblical evidence for the practice of corporate, liturgical confession and b) the pastor should include the confession of sin as part of the other prayer(s) he’s leading.

4. However. One underappreciated reason for the lack of corporate prayers during the Reformation was illiteracy and the expense of having bulletins printed in advance, which is what you would need without a prayer book. One corporate prayer that was recited weekly since it was memorized (and sometimes twice in one service!) was the Lord’s Prayer, which includes a confession of sin. The principle of a corporate recitation of a pre-selected prayer, albeit a scriptural one, was in place during the Reformation.

5. The psalms are primarily the songbook of the church, but they are also intended as teaching and prayer guides, as we see in the New Testament (cf. WLC 186). There is debate over whether there are any examples in the psalms of call and response, but no one debates that they are designed for corporate recitation. Psalm chanting versus singing demonstrates how close the use of the psalter really is to corporate prayer.

6. If we affirm that the whole of scripture, including the psalms, is intended to direct us how to pray, and biblically prayer is first a corporate and liturgical practice, then we can conclude that the corporate nature of psalm recitation provides a biblical example of corporate recitation of prayers. And since prayer includes the confession of sin, corporate recitations confessing sin are appropriate.

7. Weekly? The Bible commands us to admonish one another, confess our sins to one another, bear one another’s burdens, and to confess our sins to God in repentance. If prayer is primarily liturgical and corporate, and if these things are necessary to prayer for it to be biblical, and if prayer is a necessary part the Lord’s Day worship, then we can conclude that it is wise and good and keeping with the biblical example to confess our sins together when we gather weekly for worship.

8. But corporate confession can happen through the pastor’s prayer rather than congregational recitation. In my congregation we shifted the confession of sin from being something that the pastor alone prayed on behalf of the congregation to a congregational recitation for the simplicity of consistency: The more varied our practice, the more difficult it would be to establish a rhythm with the congregation. I still exercise the pastoral office in selecting all of the prayers in advance, of course. Interestingly, John Calvin in his liturgy has the same prayer of confession each week, and he prayer it by himself. It began “My brothers, let each of us come before the face of the Lord, with confession of his faults and sins, following my words with his heart.”

9. Pastorally, the confession of sin and assurance of pardon/absolution of sin (no confession without absolution!) are some of the most important parts of worship. They teach weekly that we are still sinners in need of a savior and have found him, that we must never grow complacent with sin, and that God is ever ready to forgive and assure us of that forgiveness. Beyond teaching this, they train us to live that way and enact what they say.

10. There should be no be a coming to the Lord’s Table without the confession of sin. Whatever that confession looks like is fine (pastoral, corporate, silent and private), but there ought to be no admission to the Table without a liturgical examination of our hearts. At the very least, the minimum frequency of liturgical confession of sin is the frequency of the administration of the sacrament.