For many churches in these last days, corporate prayer has been left behind. Yet for centuries, local churches have prayed not only public prayers of praise, thanks, and request, but also prayers of confession.[i] Don’t get nervous—nobody’s advocating an open-mic confessional. Even so, one good practice is to have an elder or another exemplary church leader pray a thoughtful, articulate prayer, on behalf of the whole congregation, that confesses how we all commonly sin during the week. But in the coffee-shop vibe created by upbeat lyrics and downtown music, isn’t corporate confession a bitter dark roast in a frappe world? Why keep doing it? Besides, why should Christians confess their post-conversion sins at all if we’re already forgiven?
1. Why keep on confessing if we’re already forgiven Christians?
Scripture itself comforts us in Eph 1:7: “In Him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses” (emphasis added). We have it … already. Hebrews 10:14 goes so far as to say, “For by a single offering he has perfected for all time those who are being sanctified” (emphasis added). And John assures us, “I am writing to you, little children, because your sins are forgiven” (1 Jn 2:12, emphasis added).Yet he tells these same forgiven people in 1 John 1:9 that “if we confess our sins, God will forgive . . . (emphasis added). Why then does Jesus tell his own disciples to ask for forgiveness in prayer if Scripture says elsewhere that all those in Christ are forgiven and perfected?
a. Because ongoing repentance from ongoing sin is God’s ongoing expectation. Jesus expects his disciples to ask God to forgive their current sins, even though both He and His apostles preached repentance for the forgiveness of sins (Mk 1:14-15; Acts 2:38). Confession is the acknowledgement that we still need to repent—that we are not done repenting just because we prayed a sinner’s prayer decades ago. This point was the first of Martin Luther’s 95 theses: “When our Lord and Master Jesus said ‘Repent’ (Mt 4:17) He willed the entire life of believers to be one of repentance.” Yet we cannot persevere in repenting unless we admit that we still have sins from which to repent. Confession agrees with God that we should repent from our most current sins. To confess our sins is to say the same thing (homologeō) about our sins as God says about them. To refuse to confess our current sins, then, is to maintain a disagreement between us and God—and a delusion in our own hearts.
b. Because our current sins damage our fellowship. Isa 59:1–2 says, “The Lord’s hand is not shortened, that it cannot save, or his ear dull, that it cannot hear; but your iniquities have made a separation between you and your God, and your sins have hidden his face from you so that he does not hear.” Yes, nothing can finally separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus. But our sin offends our Heavenly Father just like disobedience offends our earthly fathers, and it calls down his fatherly discipline (Heb 12:5–11), which interrupts our intimacy with Him and exposes us to his severity. We need to admit our remaining sins to him and ask his forgiveness for them regularly in order to maintain our fellowship with Him. We might object that God already knows our sins before we confess them, so why go through the motions? “Before a word is on my tongue, O Lord, you know it altogether” (Ps 139:4). Exactly. He already knows, so there’s no use ignoring or hiding it. We should respect God’s omniscience, not presume upon it.
c. Because our current sins defile our hearts.“Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity, and cleanse me from my sin…. Wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow…Create in me a clean heart” (Ps 51:2, 7, 10). That’s the prayer of a defiled but confessing, repentant heart. When Jesus was about to wash the disciple’s feet, Peter wanted nothing to do with it. Jesus told him in John 13:10, “If I do not wash you, you have no share with me.’ Simon Peter said to him, ‘Lord, not my feet only but also my hands and my head!’ Jesus said to him, ‘The one who has bathed does not need to wash, except for his feet, but is completely clean. And you are clean, but not every one of you.’” We have already been washed and forgiven—no need to be saved all over again. But we still defile ourselves with new sins, and we need to bring these new sins to Jesus for him to wash them away and cleanse us afresh.
d. Because we are not yet glorified. John assumes and crystalizes the paradox. If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive our sins and cleanse us of all unrighteousness (1 Jn 1:9, emphasis added). That’s a true promise. And yet he goes on to say just a few sentences later, “I am writing to you, little children, because your sins are forgiven.” (1 Jn 2:12, emphasis added). That is a true statement. It appears, then, that we are forgiven, we are being forgiven, and we will be forgiven. We have already been forgiven or released from the penalty of eternal damnation by the death and resurrection of Jesus through our initial repentance and faith. We are being forgiven of new guilt and pollution from new sins, along with their temporal consequences and God’s fatherly discipline that we still experience from time to time. And our forgiveness will be consummated and confirmed by universal divine proclamation on the last day, in a way that cannot happen until then. In this sense, forgiveness is just like our salvation or redemption—we have been saved, we are being saved, and we will be saved.
e. Because confessing our current sins respects God’s holiness. Psalm 130:3–4 says, “If you, O Lord, should mark iniquities, O Lord, who could stand? But with you there is forgiveness, that you may be feared.” Are we forgiven in Christ? Yes! But to what end? That we may fear him. Presumption is as sinful as idolatry (1 Sam 15:23), because it downplays God’s holiness, makes light of His commands, makes us wise in our own eyes, and then takes His mercy for granted. This is to break both the second commandment (worshipping him for less than who He is) and the third (identifying ourselves with His name, but without integrity). Confession burns off presumption and re-ignites the fear of the Lord.
f. Because confessing our current sins strengthens our faith in God’s promise. Ongoing confession of daily sins takes God up on his gospel word of promise. You can only confess confidently when you know you’re praying to a God who promises to forgive if we come clean to Him; otherwise you hide. God invites us into a relationship marked by regular seeking and finding, requesting and receiving. Faith accepts the invitation.
2. Why confess together in the local gathering?
a. Because Jesus commands us to pray His prayer with plural pronouns. “… forgive us our debts…” (Matt 6:12, emphasis added). From beginning to end, the Lord’s prayer assumes a public, plural, corporate context by using first person plural pronouns—not “I” and “mine,” but “us” and “our.” That’s not just traditional. It’s dominical.
b. Because God commands it in Scripture.“Only acknowledge your guilt, that you rebelled against the Lord your God …” (Jer 3:12–14). Hosea 14:1–2 says, “Return, O Israel, to the Lord your God, for you have stumbled because of your iniquity. Take with you words and return to the Lord; say to him, ‘Take away all iniquity; accept what is good.’”
c. Because Old Testament saints modeled it. Whether it’s in prescriptive worship (Lev 16:21; 26:40), or a representative prayer by a leader like Moses (Ex 34:9; Neh 1:6–7), or a public prayer in a gathered setting for corporate use (Ezra 9:6, 13-14; Neh 9; Ps 106:6; Jer 3:25; 14:20; Dan 9:5, 8, 13, 20), the saints have prayed corporate prayers of confession. The phrase “we have sinned” occurs many times on the lips of the Old Testament faithful, often in the gathered assembly (Jdg 10:10, 15; 1 Sam 7:6; 12:10; Is 64:5; Jer 8:14; 14:7; Lam 5:16). All those examples are for our own instruction today (Rom 15:4), and it appears the New Testament saints followed suit (Acts 2:42; Js 5:16).
d. Because it’s part of pastoral evangelism and discipling. Christians need mature models of confession as examples to follow, and they need a place in our gathered services to confess their sins so that they can listen to God’s Word in good conscience. Unbelievers need to hear our corporate confessions of sin as well, to hear the gospel applied, as a hopeful example to follow, and perhaps as a disarming admission of our own recent moral failures. In our church, we alternate between a single prayer of praise and confession, and two separate prayers, one of praise and another of confession. They’re usually based on the Scripture that was just publicly read, or some other scriptural passage as a standard that’s gone unmet. We might confess based on the Ten Commandments, the Beatitudes, the Lord’s Prayer, a Psalm, an Old Testament narrative, the point of a parable, an apostolic prayer from the New Testament, or the passage that’s about to be preached in the service. We then follow that public confession with a one-verse scriptural assurance of pardon to assure our hearts together that God hears and forgives us. Then, later, we pray a pastoral prayer, which is a prayer of supplication, asking God to sanctify His name, expand His kingdom, effect his will, build the church, and spread the gospel.
Confessing our current sins is important to both our individual fellowship and our corporate holiness. If there’s clearly a place for corporate confession in Scripture, then why shouldn’t there be a place for it in our churches?
[i] See Jonathan Gibson and Mark Eargney, Reformation Worship: Liturgies from the Past and Present (Greensboro: New Growth Press, 2018).