Liturgy Series: Part 6 – Confession & Pardon
This week’s installment in our “Liturgy Series” (Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, Part 5) brings us to a very important part of the service: the confession of sin and the assurance of pardon. It is very common for churches to follow a similar outline as we are when it comes to the flow of their liturgy. It is often after the announcement of the Law (as we looked at in Part 5) that the congregation then moves on to a confession of sin and an assurance of pardon.
While last week we looked at the law from an angle that is often overlooked by the modern church (the fact that the law is a gracious guide given to us by our creator) this week we will also hone in on the fact that the law does, in many ways, reveal our shortcomings to us and drive us to confession & (thankfully) assurance of pardon. As we have been prone to do thus far, we will continue to look to James K.A. Smith’s wonderful work Desiring the Kingdom for insight into this portion of the liturgy. Let's start with Smith's connection with how the announcement of the law naturally drives the congregation toward confession and (ultimately) assurance of pardon:
The announcement of the law and the articulation of God’s will for our lives not only chastens our penchant for autonomy; it also reminds us of our inability to entirely pursue or measure up to this good. Now that we have been invited into a relationship with a gracious God and been reminded of what he requires, a bright spotlight is shone upon not just our failures and trespasses but also our inability to do otherwise on our own. (pg. 176, emphasis mine)
To start, we see that Smith looks back to the law. As the congregation is presented with the law in the liturgy they, at first, are drawn up in to the beauty, glory, and goodness of God’s order (as we looked at in Part 5). Yet, as this brightness shines forth from God’s law, we sinful creatures are simultaneously presented with a dreadful circumstance: our sin. Even though this reality will often hit us like a ton of bricks Smith shows, as we will look at later, that the dialogue between God and his people continues in the liturgy as He calls his people into confession rather than moving past the sin of his people as many secular liturgies are prone to do. Here’s how Smith puts it:
Rather than repressing this stark, haunting fact—of which we’re not a little embarrassed and ashamed—rather than papering over it or ignoring it, the practice of Christian worship calls us to own up to it in open confession, where we are honest with God about our transgressions and agree with God that they are violations of his law. (pg. 177)
The Christian liturgy of confession neither ignores the sin of God’s people nor eases God’s requirement of them. Rather, it calls for an honest and open admittance of violation against God’s law. Smith goes on to sight a famous and historical prayer of confession from the Anglican Book of Common Prayer to display just how openly the people of God are called to be before the holy God they have sinned against:
Most merciful God,
we confess that we have sinned against you
in thought, word, and deed,
and by what we have left undone.
We have not loved you with our whole heart; we have not loved our neighbors as ourselves.
We are truly sorry and we humbly repent.
For the sake of your Son Jesus Christ,
have mercy on us and forgive us;
that we may delight in your will and walk in your ways,
to the glory of your Name. Amen.
This timeless prayer goes deeper than the sinful actions of the people of God. The confession goes down to the heart. Smith states that “Disordered action is a reflection and fruit of disordered desire, and our misdirected desires are as much a violation and transgression as sinful actions.” (pg. 177) The people of God must not only repent of their sinful actions and non-actions, they are also called to repent of the sinful motives of their hearts, the very core of their being.
While all of this might sound pretty straight forward (and for the most part it is) it is from here that Smith takes a turn that might not be on the forefront of most minds when the topic of corporate confession is at hand. Smith makes the connection that the disordered desires of a people result not only in individual sins but ultimately take shape in the world we inhabit. Too often we limit the scope of our sin to our personal relationship with God, or (a little better) to the ways our sins affect our closest relationships. Now, while sin certain does have a (powerful) affect on those things, Smith points out the cultural and cosmic effects of sin as well:
We confess not only personal or private sins and transgressions; the moment of confession owns up to our complicity with all sorts of evil that disorders the world and corrupts creation. In short, we humans confess our failure to heed the call to be human, to be God’s image bearers to and for the world. As a result, sin is not only personal and individual (a violation of a relationship); it also becomes inscribed into the cultural institutions of our human making (a refusal of our commission to be God’s vice-regents). (pg. 178)
When God created humanity in Adam he commissioned our race to be his stewards on earth. A steward is one who acts on behalf of their lord. In our case, God, as creator and ruler over all things, commissioned mankind to care for, cultivate, and beautify the earth. This is what theologians call the “creational” or “cultural” mandate. When sin entered the world our ability to rightfully carry out this commission was deeply scarred. This means that even while humanity naturally carries out this cultural/creational mandate the results of our culture-making are not what God intended from the beginning (the Tower of Babel story in Genesis 11 is an example). Again, Smith:
Culture-making—unfolding the latent possibilities that have been folded into creation—is a vocation given to us as image bearers of God…The cultural urge does not go away—it gets pointed in the wrong direction toward the wrong ends; its teleology is sent off-kilter, and this skewing of creation is reflected in the cultural products that we produce. As a result we create organization and institutions that are wrongly ordered, fostering systemic racism or patriarchy or exploitation of the poor. The practice of confession owns up to systemic sin as well [as individual sin]. (pg. 178)
All in all, Smith shows how true confession of sin goes both deeper into the individual and further out into the world than many are comfortable with. Or, perhaps, Smith brings together two things that have (unfortunately) been separated by many Christian thinkers: the individual & the world. True confession sees the connection between the disordered loves and desires of our collective heart as the people of God and the broken down cultural institutions that have become so prominent in our society.
While the depth and honesty of such a confession could tempt some to wallow in despair, we must always remember that we are confessing to a gracious God who is not only listening but who is eager to hear and forgive (Numbers 14:18). We must never forget the glorious dialectic nature of the liturgy. The glory of the liturgy is that God has eagerly condescended to communicate and dialogue with his people. When he speaks he waits and listens for our response. When we speak he is eager to respond as well. This means that when we speak our words of confession God is waiting for us to say “Amen” so that he can announce a grand assurance of pardon over us. Here’s Smith on the continuance of the liturgy from confession to pardon:
The dialogue continues; we have confessed our sins and God answers, “I forgive you!” If it seems a bit strange to crave confession, it certainly makes eminent sense to long for pardon. (pg. 179)
Now, when it comes to God’s pardoning of our sins, it is very important that we see how it stands in stark contrast to the secular liturgies that attempt to deal with “sin” (a word they are extremely weary to use). The Christians assurance of pardon comes solely from God. It is not something we earn, it is something graciously bestowed upon us because of the merits of Jesus.
Our assurance does not stem from our own accomplishment, nor does God’s forgiveness stem from simply dismissing the demands of justice or ignoring the brokenness of creation; rather, God himself takes on our sin and its effects in the Son, on the cross, who also triumphs over them in the resurrection. (pg. 180)
As previously stated, this view of God’s forgiveness and substitutionary grace stands in heavy relief to the secular liturgies that surround us. Smith offers fine insight to show the formative power of the Christian confession and pardon over and against the secular liturgies of our culture:
Here again, in confession and assurance of pardon, we meet a moment where Christian worship runs counter to the formation of secular liturgies that either tend to nullify talk of guilt and responsibility or tend to point out failures without extending assurance of pardon. (pg. 180)
Without the marriage of both true confession of real sin and true assurance of pardon by a real God one must over compensate in one direction or the other. Smith shows how each of these over compensations manifest themselves in our current cultural milieu:
On the [one] hand, Oprah-fied secular liturgies tend to foster an illusory self-confidence (“Believe in yourself!”) that refuses to recognize failure, guilt, or transgression, castigating such things as “negative energy” that compromises self-esteem. The “we can do it” confidence of these liturgies of self-affirmation offers assurance without confession. (180-181)
Smith sums it up perfectly there at the end: “assurance without confession.” The real issues (like enmity with God) are glossed over while those seeking relief from their sins and the consequences of their sins are assured that positive thinking and perpetual distraction from their faults will solve all their problems.
However, there is also the over compensation of the other side in our secular liturgies: confession without assurance. Which turns out to be just as brutal!
On the other hand, many of the secular liturgies of marketing play off of our deep knowledge of our faults and failures, but transform them into phenomena that yield shame but not guilt. In response, they promise not forgiveness or pardon, but opportunities to correct the problem via various goods and services. In this sense, they seem to require confession but make no promise of pardon or peace. (pg. 181)
When placed up against these two extremes that clearly attempt to find reconciliation but fall woefully short, the Christian liturgical formation of confession and pardon prove to serve as a strong formative power. Let’s conclude with Smith as he masterfully proves just that:
In contrast to both (Oprah-fied “you can do it” and Marketing manipulation), the rite of confession and assurance in Christian worship counters such secular liturgies by immersing us in a weekly practice that reminds us of a fundamental fracture that we find in ourselves and our world—and of the consequences of our choices. It forces us to be honest with God and ourselves about our complicity in injustice as well as to face up to the ways that we’ve failed to be good husbands or wives, daughters or sons, sisters or brothers, neighbors or ministers—and perhaps more importantly, how we as people, the ekklesia, have failed to be the foretaste of the kingdom to which we’re called to be living witness. Yet the practice does not leave us in despair, but rather gives us hope, assuring us of forgiveness and reminding us that the curse is being rolled back. A reordering of creation has already broken into creation in the person of Jesus Christ, and we are gathering as a people in order to practice for the arrival of the kingdom in its fullness—and thus in order to be trained to be a kingdom-kind-of-people in the meantime, as witnesses to that kingdom, in and through our work as cultural agents. (pg. 181-82)
Food for thought.