Even among reformed worshippers, one of the most controversial parts of the worship service is the corporate confession of sin. In this is the part of the service, we together read and confess to God our sin and plead His forgiveness. I can give you a number of reasons why this practice should continue.
First, and most importantly, one can plainly see from the Bible this part of worship exercised. The Psalms are the hymnbook of the Old Testament saints. They include penitential prayers. Here are a number of examples.
Remember, O LORD, thy tender mercies and thy lovingkindnesses; for they have been ever of old. Remember not the sins of my youth, nor my transgressions: according to thy mercy remember thou me for thy goodness’ sake, O LORD. Good and upright is the LORD: therefore will he teach sinners in the way. The meek will he guide in judgment: and the meek will he teach his way. All the paths of the LORD are mercy and truth unto such as keep his covenant and his testimonies. For thy name’s sake, O LORD, pardon mine iniquity; for it is great. Turn thee unto me, and have mercy upon me; for I am desolate and afflicted. The troubles of my heart are enlarged: O bring thou me out of my distresses. Look upon mine affliction and my pain; and forgive all my sins.
Who can forget David's psalm of repentance.
Have mercy upon me, O God, according to thy lovingkindness: according unto the multitude of thy tender mercies blot out my transgressions. Wash me throughly from mine iniquity, and cleanse me from my sin. For I acknowledge my transgressions: and my sin is ever before me. Against thee, thee only, have I sinned, and done this evil in thy sight: that thou mightest be justified when thou speakest, and be clear when thou judgest. Behold, I was shapen in iniquity; and in sin did my mother conceive me. Behold, thou desirest truth in the inward parts: and in the hidden part thou shalt make me to know wisdom. Purge me with hyssop, and I shall be clean: wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow. Make me to hear joy and gladness; that the bones which thou hast broken may rejoice. Hide thy face from my sins, and blot out all mine iniquities. Create in me a clean heart, O God; and renew a right spirit within me. Cast me not away from thy presence; and take not thy holy spirit from me. Restore unto me the joy of thy salvation; and uphold me with thy free spirit.
Here is one of the Songs of Degrees, a song probably sung by pilgrims on their way to worship at the temple.
Out of the depths have I cried unto thee, O LORD. Lord, hear my voice: let thine ears be attentive to the voice of my supplications. If thou, LORD, shouldest mark iniquities, O Lord, who shall stand? But there is forgiveness with thee, that thou mayest be feared. I wait for the LORD, my soul doth wait, and in his word do I hope. My soul waiteth for the Lord more than they that watch for the morning: I say, more than they that watch for the morning. Let Israel hope in the LORD: for with the LORD there is mercy, and with him is plenteous redemption. And he shall redeem Israel from all his iniquities.
Now you may say that all these songs reflect the individual sins and that corporate sins have no place in the Bible. Consider then Daniel's prayer.
O Lord, the great and dreadful God, keeping the covenant and mercy to them that love him, and to them that keep his commandments; we have sinned, and have committed iniquity, and have done wickedly, and have rebelled, even by departing from thy precepts and from thy judgments: neither have we hearkened unto thy servants the prophets, which spake in thy name to our kings, our princes, and our fathers, and to all the people of the land. O Lord, righteousness belongeth unto thee, but unto us confusion of faces, as at this day; to the men of Judah, and to the inhabitants of Jerusalem, and unto all Israel, that are near, and that are far off, through all the countries whither thou hast driven them, because of their trespass that they have trespassed against thee. O Lord, to us belongeth confusion of face, to our kings, to our princes, and to our fathers, because we have sinned against thee. To the Lord our God belong mercies and forgivenesses, though we have rebelled against him; neither have we obeyed the voice of the LORD our God, to walk in his laws, which he set before us by his servants the prophets. O Lord, according to all thy righteousness, I beseech thee, let thine anger and thy fury be turned away from thy city Jerusalem, thy holy mountain: because for our sins, and for the iniquities of our fathers, Jerusalem and thy people are become a reproach to all that are about us. Now therefore, O our God, hear the prayer of thy servant, and his supplications, and cause thy face to shine upon thy sanctuary that is desolate, for the Lord’s sake. O my God, incline thine ear, and hear; open thine eyes, and behold our desolations, and the city which is called by thy name: for we do not present our supplications before thee for our righteousnesses, but for thy great mercies. O Lord, hear; O Lord, forgive; O Lord, hearken and do; defer not, for thine own sake, O my God: for thy city and thy people are called by thy name.
Notice the pronouns. Daniel uses the first-person plural to emphasize the corporate sin of the people. The Bible acknowledges the confession of sin and the corporate sin of God's people. The place of this confession in the Psalms and the use of the Psalms in worship conclusively proves the place of corporate confession of sin in biblical worship.
Secondly, look at the reality of corporate sin. Daniel's prayer loudly proclaims that God's people can sin together. The church is called a unity, Christ's body. (Ro.12:5; I Cor. 12:27; Eph.3:6; 4:12) As a unity, we work together. Even so, our corporate activity does not always meet the demands of God's law the way it should. We fail to do what we ought and we do that which we ought not. The church does not always look like the body of Christ. We do not reflect our namesake. As such, the body of Christ needs to confess its sin, to repent of its sin, and to seek God's forgiveness.
Finally, there remains the principle that our individual sin affects others. We do not sin in isolation. As you cannot break your foot without it hindering your entire body, one member cannot sin without it impairing the operation of the whole church. That is one reason what Paul is so adamant about removing unrepentant sin out of the church. (I Cor.5:7) The church cannot function without dealing with its sin.
If this principle governs the operation of the church, then sin must also hinder the church's primary activity, worship. Thus, confession of sin must come early in the arrangement of worship. Naturally, we ought prepare for worship with repentance, but early in our corporate worship, we ought to confess together our sin and express our desire for that right relationship with God which fuels our worship. "Having our hearts sprinkled from an evil conscience, and our bodies washed with pure water," we may then approach the throne of grace. (Hebrews 10:22)
When we read the confession of sin together, we are speaking the Bible to God. We use scripture because of the reasons outlined in the post discussing the call to worship. Because we are requiring a verbal statement from the congregation, we must only require them to say that which binds every man's conscience, the Bible. As a pastor, I cannot require you to profess agreement with my opinion on the color of the church walls, but I can require you to profess agreement with what the Bible says. It never burdens the Christian's conscience to read the Bible.
Why should we read a printed prayer aloud in unison? As we sin together, we ought confess together. We confess to one another that we are not perfect people. So often this devilish mentality quietly slips into our identity. I once asked a group of young men to identify the attitude that hinders our witness. One of them answered the attitude of superiority. He got it absolutely right. We cannot allow the idea that we are anything better than sinners to pervade our corporate mentality. We are only sinners saved by grace. We remain sinners daily in need of God's forgiveness freely given in Christ. Every week, we hear each other, even the pastor, admit our failure.
Does this mean we remain in our failure? Absolutely not! Our character is determined not by our not falling, but in our reviving. A Christian is not one who never dies, but whom God always resurrects. When we fall into idolatry (for that is the root of every sin), God returns us to the worship of Himself and to obedience. Grace never leaves us in disobedience.
Connected to this corporate confession of sin follows the assurance of pardon. We must properly understand and articulate what we do here in contrast to the "te absolvo" of the Romanist. This Latin phrase is used in the penitential system by the priest who asserts Christ's authority given to him to absolve the penitent. This contradicts the testimony of scripture that God alone forgives sin. (It was one of the few things the Pharisees got right. See Matt.9:1-8; Mark 2:1-12; Luke 5:17-26. Jesus forgave sin only because He is God.)
The assurance of pardon does not come as a declaration of the minister of the Word. Rather, the minister of the Word does just that, minister the Word of God. Just as the confession of sin comes from the Bible, so also the assurance comes from the Bible. We confess our sin to God with the Bible. God speaks to us the assurance of forgiveness from the Bible. There are so many examples, we need only view but a few.
Bless the LORD, O my soul: and all that is within me, bless his holy name. Bless the LORD, O my soul, and forget not all his benefits: who forgiveth all thine iniquities. The LORD is merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and plenteous in mercy. He will not always chide: neither will he keep his anger for ever. He hath not dealt with us after our sins; nor rewarded us according to our iniquities. For as the heaven is high above the earth, so great is his mercy toward them that fear him. As far as the east is from the west, so far hath he removed our transgressions from us. Like as a father pitieth his children, so the LORD pitieth them that fear him. For he knoweth our frame; he remembereth that we are dust. As for man, his days are as grass: as a flower of the field, so he flourisheth. For the wind passeth over it, and it is gone; and the place thereof shall know it no more. But the mercy of the LORD is from everlasting to everlasting upon them that fear him, and his righteousness unto children’s children; to such as keep his covenant, and to those that remember his commandments to do them.
Psalm 103:1-3, 8-18
If thou, LORD, shouldest mark iniquities, O Lord, who shall stand? But there is forgiveness with thee, that thou mayest be feared.
Come now, and let us reason together, saith the LORD: though your sins be as scarlet, they shall be as white as snow; though they be red like crimson, they shall be as wool.
Then will I sprinkle clean water upon you, and ye shall be clean: from all your filthiness, and from all your idols, will I cleanse you. A new heart also will I give you, and a new spirit will I put within you: and I will take away the stony heart out of your flesh, and I will give you an heart of flesh.
Who is a God like unto thee, that pardoneth iniquity, and passeth by the transgression of the remnant of his heritage? He retaineth not his anger for ever, because he delighteth in mercy. He will turn again, he will have compassion upon us; he will subdue our iniquities; and thou wilt cast all their sins into the depths of the sea.
But God commendeth his love toward us, in that, while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us. Much more then, being now justified by his blood, we shall be saved from wrath through him.
There is therefore now no condemnation to them which are in Christ Jesus, who walk not after the flesh, but after the Spirit.
And you, being dead in your sins and the uncircumcision of your flesh, hath he quickened together with him, having forgiven you all trespasses; blotting out the handwriting of ordinances that was against us, which was contrary to us, and took it out of the way, nailing it to his cross; and having spoiled principalities and powers, he made a shew of them openly, triumphing over them in it.
And of course…
If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins, and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.
I John 1:8-9
Both the confession of sin and the assurance of pardon constitute necessary elements in worship. To have one without the other will not do. We need both law and grace. Both combined articulate the gospel. "While we were yet sinners [the judgment of the law] Christ died for us. [the activity of grace]" Let us always remember the gospel in our worship of the God who saved us.