Brothers and Sisters,
Have you ever wondered why we do a corporate confession of sin with an assurance of pardon each Sunday morning worship service? There are sound and compelling reasons for the church practice, and this article briefly touches on several of them.
First, corporate confession is a biblical practice of the people of God testified to from the Pentateuch to Revelation. It traces back to Israel in the wilderness, shortly after the exodus, with the giving of the Law. Lv 16 sets aside an entire day each year (the Day of Atonement) where the church was to gather corporately for worship and confession of sin. Then, Lv 26:39-42 reveals the threat of the fathers’ sin bringing punishment upon the people. But, if they confessed their sins and the sins of their fathers, God would forgive those sins. In 2 Chr 6, Solomon prayed on behalf of the people, that the Lord would forgive their future sins when they corporately repent. In the Psalms, we find various prayers and songs of confession used in the corporate worship of Israel. Praying/singing together, they confessed their sin together (cf. Ps 51; 79:8-9; 106:6). Around the time of the exile of the Kingdom of Israel (722 BC), Isaiah prophesied to the Kingdom of Judah concerning the sins of the fathers along with the people’s own sin being punished by God (Is 65:6-7). This highlighted the need for corporate guilt to be corporately repented. Shortly before the exile of Judah (586 BC), Jeremiah confessed the corporate sin of the people and the sins of the fathers, and he emphasized to the people that they must repent (cf. Jer 14:20). With the destruction of Jerusalem and exile, the book of Lamentations was written basically as a corporate confession of Judah’s sin and mourning over the consequences of that sin. Ezekiel, prophesying to the exiles in Babylon, pronounced the reason for Judah’s punishment as being due to their sin and the unfaithfulness of their ancestors. And, he spoke to the future confession of sin of the people when God would bring them out of exile (Ez 20). Daniel confesses the corporate sins of the people while in exile in Dn. 9. Upon the return from exile and the reading of the law, Ezra confessed the people’s sins, and the people confessed their sin corporately (Ezr 8-10). Then, in Neh 9-10, Nehemiah led the people of Israel in a corporate confession of sin and confessed his guilt and the guilt of the whole generation.
In the NT, the Lord Jesus taught his disciples to pray using a corporate confession of sin in the Lord’s Prayer. Mt 6:12: “Forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors.” Then, there is 1 Jn 1:9: “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.” Not only do these passages call the church to corporate confession, but individual confession implied—for “us” or “we” includes “me.” Corporate confession of sin includes praying for one another (Js 5:16). The nature of priests is to intercede in prayer on behalf of his brother or sister, and disciples of Christ are a “royal priesthood” (1 Pt 2:9). Lastly, Jesus commands the church in Ephesus to corporately repent, confessing their sin of having “abandoned the love you [the church] had at first” (Rv 2:4-5).
A natural response of the people of God corporately gathered for worship before the one Holy, Living and True God is to corporately confess our sin. When we come into the presence of the Holy God in our worship, our sin is brought starkly into focus. Hence, we cannot help but bow down and confess our sins before him fully knowing we need his grace and forgiveness (cf. Bryan Chapell, Christ-Centered Worship, 88; 182). This natural response is the cry of Isaiah in Is 6:5: “Woe to me! … I am ruined! For I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips, and my eyes have seen the King, the Lord Almighty.”
United in Christ, corporate confession of sin expresses our solidarity as one body in fellowship, humble and repentant before God, completely reliant on Jesus Christ and his work on the cross for our salvation from our sins (cf. 1 Jn 1:7). In our repentance, together we grow in grace and are sanctified by the Holy Spirit. We find that we aren’t struggling with sin on our own, but are encouraged as we are “in this” together (1 Cor 10:13).
Corporate confession of sin is essential for the full gospel to be present in worship and for grace of God to be known. Chapell, 182, highlights the importance, “The grace of God has no present glory if the sin it overcomes is not a present reality, and the ministry of Christ has no significance if the sin he came to defeat will not even be faced.”
Corporate confession of sin recognizes and addresses the issue of one member of the church’s sin impacting the whole church, whether it is a secret or public sin. Likewise, the sins of the church body impact the individual member. This concept is present in the scriptures where, for example, the sins of the forefathers are visited upon their descendants who somehow bear the burden for their forefathers’ sin. Also, God considered the sin of Aachan, one man, as being the sin of the whole people of Israel (Jo 7:11), bringing disastrous consequences. Then, in Is 6:5, Isaiah not only lamented his own sin, but he lamented that he lived “among a people of unclean lips.” In the presence of the Holy God, he recognized that he was tainted by his own sin; he was tainted by the sin of the people; and the people were tainted by his sin.
Thus, the post-resurrection church has practiced corporate confession of sin throughout its history. We did it prior to the Reformation in the Roman Church, reciting the Kyrie (“Lord have mercy”), and we’ve done it since the Reformation. Luther continued the Kyrie. Calvin expanded upon it, with the ten commandments being read with the Kyrie repeated after each (also cf. WLC #194). In various forms, the practice of corporate confession has always been and continues to be essential to corporate worship.
Due to these reasons, we at MPC confess our sins corporately each week in our Sunday morning worship. The “Assurance of Pardon” then follows, emphasizing the grace of God and the forgiveness we have in Jesus Christ (1 Jn 1:9; Eph 1:7).
May God’s blessing be upon you,