We regularly implement times of corporate confession in our services. But not everyone agrees it is valuable. I’ve received pushback along the lines, “You don’t know my heart; you can’t force me to confess to those things…” Such critiques are understandable, but they stem from a misunderstanding of the purpose of congregational confession.
When the church confesses sin corporately, we are not indicting every individual in the congregation with committing every one of these sins. It is not a blanket accusation. To be sure, there are some leaders whose modus operandi consists of accusing and damning their people. But that’s not gospel alignment; that’s the devil’s work. Corporate confession, when done correctly, is an instrument of grace designed to help God’s people honestly assess the state of their hearts.
Unveiling our Hearts
I treasure the Lord’s Prayer (Matt. 6:9–13). It beautifully and helpfully orders and directs my oft-distracted prayer life. And each day, as I work through it point-by-point, I arrive at the fifth petition: “Forgive our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors.” I am reminded of the kindness of God lavished on me, and the need for reflexive and reflective forgiveness to spill out of my own life. But my admission of sin is often vague. Sure, there are a few things I remember off-hand. But I am pretty good at avoiding the particulars and focusing on the generic. In other words, I’m pretty good at obscuring my own sinfulness.
Why is this a problem? Isn’t the cross sufficient for all my sin? Of course it is! Then why worry about obscuring the particulars? Because the cross doesn’t free me from the need to confront my still-present sinfulness.
We know that the cross-work of Jesus Christ liberates me from bondage to sin (Rom. 6); from fear of its power (Heb. 2:15); from obsessing over whether I’ve sufficiently atoned for it (Eph. 2:1–9). But it is naïve to imagine that my sin is just someone else’s problem. It still clings closely (Heb. 12:1) and calls to us (Rom. 6:11–14). And yes, we still stumble into its lying embrace (Jam. 3:2). This is why Jesus builds daily confession into the prayer He taught (Matt. 6:10); why we are urged to honestly assess our lives (1 Jn. 1:8); and why mutual confession is commended to us (Jam. 5:16).
When we obscure the particulars of our present sinfulness, we move against the grain of Scripture, and deny both our continued and present need along with the means to meet that need.
An Instrument of Grace
Corporate confession points us back in the right direction, as an instrument of grace. It does this in several ways.
First, it aligns us to the reality revealed in the gospel. The thing about blind spots is, well, you can’t see them. This is precisely why the regular gathering of the people of God is so essential. The rhythm of gathering on Sunday morning routinely confronts us with realities we are so prone to forget. And so, when I stand with other Christians and collectively acknowledge my sin, my tendencies to underplay my own sinfulness are confronted; my self-righteousness is undercut; and I am reminded again and again that I have entered into the truest and best of stories: Jesus died and rose for a sinner like me.
Second, it provides us with tools for self-exploration, to see ourselves well. In other words, a good confession challenges us and helps us to honestly interrogate our lives. How does my life line up with the life Jesus saved me for? Where have I fallen short this week?
Consider the way this prayer from the Valley of Vision does this:
“O Lord, my every sense, member, faculty, affection, is a snare to me, I can scarcely open my eyes but I envy those above me, despise those below. I covet honour and riches of the mighty, and am proud and unmerciful to the rags of others; if I behold beauty it is a bait to lust, or see deformity, it stirs up loathing and disdain; How soon do slanders, vain jests, and wanton speeches creep into my heart!” (Valley of Vision, “Self-Deprecation,” 74)
Or these words from Lead Us Back (Sojourn Music):
Falling down upon our knees / Sharing now in common shame
We have sought security / Not the cross that bears your name
Fences guard our hearts and homes / Comfort sings a siren tune
Weʼre a valley of dry bones / Lead us back to life in you.
A good prayer or song of confession gently prods and picks at our lives, asking us to consider where we too have been guilty of such sin. Not to accuse or damn like the devil, but to bring us to repentance. To own and turn away from the behaviors, thoughts and desires that ultimately draw us away from our true treasure, Jesus.
Third, good corporate confession always leads us back to the source of our confidence and assurance. For some, this prodding and probing feels more like a battering ram swinging against their overactive conscience. I’ve been there. Having wrestled long with spiritual anxiety, I know the sinking questions, “Is there no end to my failures?” and “Is the cross big enough for me?”
Believe me: it is. It is always big enough for you, if you will come to Him. And a well-written confession will always lead you right back to the Savior who daily proves it.
“My transgressions and short-comings present me with a list of accusations, but I bless [You] that they will not stand against me, for all have been laid on Christ.” (Valley of Vision, “Confession and Petition,” 77)
“My iniquities are increased over my head: my trespasses are known in the heavens, and there Christ is gone also, my Advocate with the Father, my propitiation for sins, and I hear his word of peace.” (Valley of Vision, “Mortification,” 80)
The beauty of the gospel is that it creates the one safe space for honestly acknowledging our sin. I will never tire of the vision of repentance portrayed as Christ knocking on the door (Rev. 3:20), waiting to be let in. Christ already knows your sin. He felt the judgment for each and every one. He bore it in love. And Jesus will never be surprised by your failure. He knows them all.
And He still wants you.
So we confess. Confidently. Boldly. Together. Because we know the deceitfulness of our own hearts. But more, we know that Jesus is always better.
“Searcher of hearts, it is a good day to me when thou givest me a glimpse of myself; sin is my greatest evil, but thou art my greatest good” (Valley of Vision, “Self Knowledge,” 69)