This is Part 3 of a four-part blog on the Liturgy at Emmaus. Last week we looked at the Call to Worship, the Song of Praise, the Scripture Reading and the Songs of Response. This week we will look at Corporate and Private Confession, the Assurance of Pardon and the Song of Response.
Simply put, we confess corporately for at least three primary reasons:
(1) after reading about, and singing about, the glorious, holy, Triune God, and all that he has accomplished in the gospel, we are compelled to confess our sins. The gospel works itself out in our lives, and as we meditate on what God has done in Christ to interrupt our sin and rebellion and helpless, to die the death we should have died, and to bring us into his Father’s family as brothers and sisters, one of the works of the gospel is ongoing repentance. There is a contrast between who God is and who we are, and with the clearest view of that contrast—with a full awareness of the fact that we often persist in faithlessness despite God’s unshakable faithfulness—we repent. However, this kind of repentance isn’t a shame-filled, guilt-ridden kind which leaves groveling criminals trembling for fear of what the judge’s verdict might be, but a hopeful and genuinely sorrowful kind of repentance, which leaves a child humbly heart-broken over the fact that he has disobeyed his father.
(2) the whole of a Christian’s life is marked by continued repentance. We want for our corporate gatherings to, in a way, be a microcosm of the Christian life. Confessing and repenting corporately is a way for us to set a precedence and an expectation for what we do as a Church. We are teaching one another what kind of people we are—namely, that we are a confessing people; a people who bear their sins to one another and to God; a people who do not hide their sin but rather search for it, bring it out into clear daylight, and execute it in public; a people who never despise weakness and neediness on the one hand, and who never minimize the sinfulness of sin on the other. In confessing corporately, not only are we praying corporately (one of the necessary biblical mandates you will recall from a previous post), we are teaching each other what to do with sin—i.e., we shamelessly bring it to Jesus, the only one who can actually deal with it.
And (3) when we corporately confess our sins to God, with one mind and heart, we are owning the fact that we are not the hero of the story. Don’t miss the counterintuitive irony about the situation: after three songs of singing with hands in the air, bellowing with loud triumphant-sounding voices, we decide to corporately admit our failures and our neediness, and confess our sins to God. Our community is an oxymoron. It is an army of soldiers who fight by dying. We proudly come together to sing about how weak and desperate we are. With boldness and shameless enthusiasm, we are united by our utter allegiance to—and dependence upon—a King who conquers by being conquered. This is the folly of the cross, the power of God unto salvation, and it is helpful to be reminded of this fact week after week. Corporate confession is thus a corporate exercise in humility.
After we confess our sins corporately, we allow for such an act to set in and do the work on us at the individual level. This extended period of private, silent meditation is intended to be a period of unearthing. Week after week, we come together as a people who have been battered and bruised by sin (be it sins we see, sins committed against us, or sins we commit ourselves), and this period of the service is an opportunity—within the context of corporate worship—to do business with God. I fully expect that through the course of the preceding liturgical elements (call to worship, Scripture reading, corporate songs, corporate confession), God has been at work convicting his people and revealing idols. Because of this, it is important that we have the opportunity to respond to such conviction and revelation. So in private confession, we do just that.
Assurance of Pardon
The assurance of pardon is even more important than the confession itself, for it is the outright promise that those in Christ have a rock-solid justification. Despite the subjective reality of what we may be feeling when we confess our sins, the assurance of pardon reminds us that an objective reality has been holding us secure throughout—if we are in Christ, we are forgiven. In this way, the person who is leading the liturgy is speaking as an ambassador of Christ to administer priestly comfort and peace, and it is not presumptuous either, for the entire declaration is predicated not on the speaker, but on Christ and his atoning work. In this way, the assurance of pardon fits both under the command to read the Scripture, but also to teach/preach the Scripture; the speaker not only reads the text, he goes on to apply its various implications to the believers present (“your sins are forgiven through Christ!”).
Recently, I had a member ask me why we typically don’t give any warning with the assurance of pardon. “When you start reading Scripture, I’m not really sure what the procedure is,” he said, “like, are we still praying or not?” The abruptness of the assurance of pardon is, as you might expect, intentional. Why do we not say “amen” before administering the assurance of pardon? Simply this: we want for you to be interrupted by grace. We want for the very first thing you hear, almost in a disruptive sort of way, to be God’s gracious words of assurance for those who have been united to Christ by faith. This is, in and of itself, an opportunity for us to demonstrate the gospel once more; God did not wait for us to clean ourselves up and make ourselves presentable before taking it upon himself to redeem us, rather he came while we were still weak and enemies. Likewise, I have no intention of waiting to administer the assurance of pardon until after the congregation has divulged all of its sins to God. I want the congregation to hear the grace of God drowning out their sins like a bear-horn while their confessions are still on their lips. This why the assurance of pardon will often include something like, “those sins that you have just confessed, are already forgiven in Christ. They have been nailed to the cross and buried in the grave, and you are one with the resurrected Christ!”
Song of Thanksgiving
Does anything make more sense than this? I mean honestly, when we’ve just been interrupted with such grace—when we’ve had such a declaration of God’s kindness showered upon us as a people—singing a song of thanksgiving is just about the most logical thing we could do. So this song is typically one of the most explicitly gospel-rich songs we sing.
Next week we will continue our exploration of Emmaus’ liturgy by looking at the Sermon, Communion, the final Song of Response, and the Benediction.