Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Confession and Assurance of Pardon as a Part of Worship

When I began attending a Presbyterian church for the first time 17 years ago, one of the primary reasons for that decision was an interest in learning about worship.  In my years as a Baptist pastor, I never had been satisfied that I had a good understanding of what corporate worship should look like. Don't misunderstand:  I am not blaming the Baptists for what I had failed to learn.  There were things that perhaps I should have known, but did not.  Nonetheless, in the intervening years, I have learned a great deal.  Most of what I have learned is not unique to Presbyterianism, and much of it could have been done in Baptist churches -- I am sure it is done in some of those churches, but I had not really seen it in my experience. 

Thus, when I was pastoring, my unfortunately limited view of worship essentially bifurcated the service into two parts -- the singing and the sermon.  Sure, we did other things:  we had some prayers, took an offering, did the Lord's Supper every quarter, baptized as needed, etc.  However, I admit that I placed too little value on corporate prayer and the other weekly worship activities, and while I appreciated the importance of baptism and the Lord's Supper, the Baptist understanding of them as matters of our proclamation rather than God's means of grace somewhat limits their force.  Thus, I tended to see the worship hour primarily in terms of singing and preaching.  As a result, other than the preaching, the main thing that was needed was music that coalesced around a theme, preferably one that would support the sermon.

That is horribly deficient.

While I could write about many things in this regard, today I have one in particular in mind. One of the common elements in a reformed worship service is a time of confession of sin and assurance of pardon.  While the way of doing this can change from week to week and from church to church, a typical format would involve the minister reading a biblical text that confronts us with the reality of our sin and making some brief remarks about it.  This is followed by a time of prayer, which may be silent, a prayer offered by the minister, or a congregational reading of a prayer of general confession. This is followed by words of the minister, who usually reads a scripture promising forgiveness and makes remarks about God's promise of pardon for those who confess their sins and have their only confidence in Christ.

Though I never had this in a service when I was a pastor, I now feel cheated when I am in a church service that doesn't include it. Like Isaiah, I realize that coming into the worship of a holy God brings before me the reality of my own uncleanness, and as Isaiah's confession was followed by an assurance from God's throne of His cleansing grace and power, I need to hear that my sins have been forgiven through the death of Christ and that my heart has been cleansed so that I, too, may worship.  This portion of the worship service functions both to assure me of God's promises and to teach me about the power of the Gospel.  I need this teaching and these promises and assurances regularly.

Our tendency is to think of worship as a time when we bring ourselves and our praises to God.  Fair enough.  But God also brings His gifts of grace to His people.  I arrive with an awareness of my sin, and He pronounces me forgiven in Christ.  With that, I am prepared to worship.

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