Elements of Worship: Confession


John Dowden, the Bishop of Edinburgh in the 1880s said, “We lay down our burdens at the doorway before entering upon the praises of God.” When we approach our holy, mighty and perfect God, we become aware of the sin that we carry. The prophet Isaiah wrote about it in Isaiah 6. As he encounters the presence of God, he is suddenly aware that he is not worthy to be standing in His presence because of the sinfulness in his life. For the same reason, in the traditional Lutheran liturgy, the Confession and Absolution are the first parts of the service and they are present in every service.

The contemporary worship movement hung on to the idea of confession, but it was usually through song and was often not used to its full potential. It’s an important part of worship, but it’s also challenging. We don’t like to admit that we’re wrong or that we need help. I came across this excerpt that rightly sums up the challenge:

It’s hard to repent. And while it’s hard enough to repent before a perfect God, it’s even harder to repent before an imperfect human being. To admit that you have injured or neglected another person, then to go the person and say, “I’m sorry. I’m ashamed. Will you forgive me?”—to do this is mortifying. It kills us to do it. You need to be a big person to give it a serious try. That’s the paradox of repentance, says, C.S. Lewis. Only a bad person needs to repent. Only a good person can do it.

– Cornelius Plantinga Jr, Beyond Doubt: Faith-Building Devotions on Questions Christians Ask, 242.

Taking time to do a confession in the worship service and to properly set it up helps the worshiper to acknowledge their sin and their need for a Savior, which as 1 John 1:9-10 says, is an important part of of our walk with God.

1 John 1:9-10 NIV: If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness. If we claim we have not sinned, we make him out to be a liar and his word is not in us.

So how can we incorporate confession into modern worship? Here’s some resources to help.

Scripture

Sharing scripture about confession before a song of confession or a spoken confession helps to prepare the heart and mind for confession. Some passages such as Psalm 51 below can even serve as a confession.

1 John 1:8-9 NIV: If we claim to be without sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness.

Hebrews 10:22 NIV: let us draw near to God with a sincere heart and with the full assurance that faith brings, having our hearts sprinkled to cleanse us from a guilty conscience and having our bodies washed with pure water.

Psalm 32:5 NIV: Then I acknowledged my sin to you and did not cover up my iniquity. I said, “I will confess my transgressions to the Lord.” And you forgave the guilt of my sin.

Psalm 51 NIV: Have mercy on me, O God,
according to your unfailing love;
according to your great compassion
blot out my transgressions.

Wash away all my iniquity
and cleanse me from my sin.

For I know my transgressions,
and my sin is always before me.

Against you, you only, have I sinned
and done what is evil in your sight;
so you are right in your verdict
and justified when you judge.

Surely I was sinful at birth,
sinful from the time my mother conceived me.

Yet you desired faithfulness even in the womb;
you taught me wisdom in that secret place.

Cleanse me with hyssop, and I will be clean;
wash me, and I will be whiter than snow.

Let me hear joy and gladness;
let the bones you have crushed rejoice.

Hide your face from my sins
and blot out all my iniquity.

Create in me a pure heart, O God,
and renew a steadfast spirit within me.

Do not cast me from your presence
or take your Holy Spirit from me.

Restore to me the joy of your salvation
and grant me a willing spirit, to sustain me.

Psalm 130: 3-4 NIV: If you, Lord, kept a record of sins, Lord, who could stand?
But with you there is forgiveness, so that we can, with reverence, serve you.

Luke 18:9-14 NIV:  To some who were confident of their own righteousness and looked down on everyone else, Jesus told this parable: “Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee stood by himself and prayed: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other people—robbers, evildoers, adulterers—or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all I get.’

“But the tax collector stood at a distance. He would not even look up to heaven, but beat his breast and said, ‘God, have mercy on me, a sinner.’

“I tell you that this man, rather than the other, went home justified before God. For all those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.”

Isaiah 6: 1-6 NIV: In the year that King Uzziah died, I saw the Lord, high and exalted, seated on a throne; and the train of his robe filled the temple. Above him were seraphim, each with six wings: With two wings they covered their faces, with two they covered their feet, and with two they were flying. And they were calling to one another:

“Holy, holy, holy is the Lord Almighty;
the whole earth is full of his glory.”

At the sound of their voices the doorposts and thresholds shook and the temple was filled with smoke.

“Woe to me!” I cried. “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.”

Then one of the seraphim flew to me with a live coal in his hand, which he had taken with tongs from the altar. With it he touched my mouth and said, “See, this has touched your lips; your guilt is taken away and your sin atoned for.”

Songs of Confession

There are many songs both ancient and modern that beautifully capture the ideas expressed in the scriptures above.

Hymns: (One day, I’ll arrange these for worship teams)

Modern Songs

Spoken Confessions

When looking for sources of written confessions for the congregation to speak aloud, your denomination’s hymnals are a great place to start. These are some from the LCMS‘s Lutheran Service Book:

  • Most merciful God, we confess that we are by nature sinful and unclean. We have sinned against You in thought, word, and deed, by what we have done and by what we have left undone. We have not loved You with our whole heart; we have not loved our neighbor as ourselves. We justly deserve Your present and eternal punishment. For the sake of Your Son, Jesus Christ, have mercy on us. Forgive us, renew us, and lead us, so that we may delight in Your will and walk in Your ways to the glory of Your holy name. Amen.
  • O almighty God, merciful Father, I, a poor, miserable sinner, confess unto You all my sins and iniquities with which I have ever offended You and justly deserved Your temporal and eternal punishment. But I am heartily sorry for them and sincerely repent of them, and I pray You of Your boundless mercy and for the sake of the holy, innocent, bitter sufferings and death of Your beloved Son, Jesus Christ, to be gracious and merciful to me, a poor sinful being.
  • Holy and gracious God, I confess that I have sinned against You this day. Some of my sin I know – the thoughts and words and deeds of which I am ashamed – but some is known only to You. In the name of Jesus Christ I ask forgiveness. Deliver and restore me that I may rest in peace.
While they are certainly appropriate, they are by no means the only or “right” words to use. The important part of confession is that we acknowledge our sinfulness and our need for a Savior and we repent of our sins. There are other orders of service and resources that contain printed confessions. One is The Worship Sourcebook. Here are a few confessions I have used from various sources:
  • Holy and merciful God, in Your presence we confess our sinfulness, our shortcomings, and our offenses against You. You alone know how often we have sinned in wandering from Your ways, in wasting Your gifts, in forgetting Your love. Have mercy on us, O Lord, for we are ashamed and sorry for all we have done to displease You. Forgive our sins, and help us to live in Your light and walk in Your ways, for the sake of Jesus Christ, our Savior. Amen.
  • We have sinned against You in thought, word, and deed.  We deserve Your punishment.  We seek Your forgiveness.  In the name of Jesus, and because of His sacrifice for us, forgive us our sin.
  • Most merciful God, we confess that we are impure in heart.  We have done what is detestable and false, and do not deserve to enter into Your presence.   We have not always been humble in spirit or merciful toward others. We have failed to be peacemakers and have hungered for the gratification of our flesh rather than thirsted for Your righteousness.  We are indeed poor, miserable sinners.  We are sorry for our sin and sincerely repent of it.  Remember us in Your mercy, Lord, for the sake of Your only-begotten Son, Jesus Christ, who shed His blood for us on the cross that our names might be written in Your Book of Life. Forgive us and renew us, Lord, that we may come before You with clean hearts and rejoice in Your eternal presence.
  • Gracious God, our sins are too heavy to carry, too real to hide, and too deep to undo. Forgive what our lips tremble to name, what our hearts can no longer bear, and what has become for us a consuming fire of judgment. Set us free from a past that we cannot change; open to us a future in which we can be changed; and grant us grace to grow more and more in Your likeness and image; through Jesus Christ, the light of the world. Amen.
  • Gracious Father, we stand before You today guilty of many things in thought, word, and deed.  Our own selfishness weighs heavy upon our hearts.   We know people who are hurting and in need, and yet we have failed to address those needs—choosing rather to use our time and resources to satisfy our own desires.  Forgive us for our sin and empower us by Your Spirit’s work in our lives to see those around us as You see them and use us to be a blessing to others.
  • Eternal God, we confess that often we have failed to be an obedient church: we have not done Your will; we have broken Your law; we have rebelled against Your love; we have not loved our neighbors; we have not heard the cry of the needy. Forgive us, we pray. Free us for joyful obedience. Through Jesus Christ, our Lord. Amen.

Your Thoughts

This is certainly not an exhaustive list of resources for confession. What other songs, scripture readings and confessions are out there that should be shared? Leave your thoughts in the comments below.

Find resources for other elements of modern worship here.

About Matthew Starner

Matthew Starner is pastor of Journey of Faith Church in Grand Rapids, Michigan, where they help people take their next step on their journey with Jesus.

6 Comments

  1. Matthew, thanks for providing this great overview and collection of resources. It wasn’t until my last church that I fully understood the value of this aspect of worship. It is definitely important. I hope that this post is an encouragement to many to include this in their liturgy.

    • Thanks Chris! I hope it encourages others to use it too. I know at our church, it hasn’t always been very prominent in the service, but we’ve been slowly tweaking that and the response has been favorable.

  2. Pingback: Modern Worship Resources: Holy Week | MatthewStarner.com

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  4. Can we use some of the wording that you’ve shared here?

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