Confession belongs at the beginning of the liturgy. We enter into God’s house, invited for a meal, and we need to clean up before we do that. Cleansing was a requirement for the priests of the OT before they entered the sanctuary to minister (Exodus 30:17-21). When Yahweh appeared at Sinai, Israel had to prepare through cleansing (Exodus 19:10-15).
The most direct link with the OT pattern of worship, however, is with the sin or purification offering, which was an offering that purified the altar and the worshiper in preparation for an ascent (Leviticus 4). In the New Covenant, this translates into an act of Confession, for “if we confess our sins, He is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness” (1 John 1:9).
Why do we need to confess our sins? Aren’t we already forgiven? John Frame offers this argument in his book, Worship in Spirit and Truth. He worries that the liturgy can obscure the reality of the once-for-all accomplishment of redemption: “The great fact governing the worship experience from beginning to end is that Christ’s work is complete, that he is raised from the dead. Doubtless there is a place in worship for asking God’s forgiveness of our continuing sins for the sake of Christ. But worshipers should not be led to suppose . . . that the work of redemption needs to be done over and over again. All churches need to take pains to counter that misunderstanding, but especially churches that lead worshipers week after week through the reading of the law, the confession of sin, and the assurance of pardon” (pp. 68-69).
I agree with Frame that the atonement is once-for-all, but the application of the effects of that atonement is repeated. Calvin said that justification and forgiveness need to be repeatedly given: “Therefore, God does not, as many stupidly believe, once for all reckon to us as righteousness that forgiveness of sins concerning which we have spoken in order that, having obtained pardon for our past life, we may afterwards seek righteousness in the law; this would be only to lead us into false hope, to laugh at us, and mock us. For since no perfection can come to us so long as we are clothed in this flesh, and the law moreover announces death and judgment to all who do not maintain perfect righteousness in works, it will always have grounds for accusing and condemning us unless, on the contrary, God’s mercy counters it, and by continual forgiveness of sins repeatedly acquits us” (Institutes 2.4.10). We are in Christ, and therefore forgiven, but it is also true that we continue to sin, and God forgives sins as we go.
Kneeling for confession is quite traditional in the church, of course, but only in Psalm 95 is it mentioned in Scripture in the context of worship. The more common posture is “bowing” or “prostration” (Exodus 34:8; Psalm 22:29; 45:11; 72:9, 11; 138:2; Isaiah 45:23). Biblically, prostration would be preferable to kneeling, but there are logistical difficulties in churches that use pews or chairs.
Still, kneeling is part of worship at least in Psalm 95, and that’s sufficient biblical warrant. And it makes sense as an act of contrition. We make ourselves low to manifest in a bodily way our humility in sin before a holy God. Further, there is an implicit petition in our kneeling; we make ourselves low before God and call on Him to pick us up, to raise us from the dust to serve Him. That is what happens in the absolution.
The prayer of confession is a collective prayer. “We,” spoken together by the congregation, confesses both the fact that each of us has sinned against God, and the fact that we collectively have sinned against Him by not living as His people together. The best confessions are simple and short, but also comprehensive. We pray for all sorts of sins, and even ask God to forgive us for those sins that we cannot name and of which we are only dimly aware (cf. Leviticus 5:2, 4; Psalm 19:12).
Having placed ourselves in the dust in humility, the minister invites us to stand at the doorway of the Lord’s house, rising to new life and the promise of forgiveness. Worship begins with death and resurrection.
The absolution is not an additional prayer for forgiveness. It is a declaration that our prayers are heard, and an assurance that the Lord has forgiven us. It is a declaration of the gospel. It should be phrased as a declaration. Not “let us beseech him to grant us true repentance, and His Holy Spirit, that those things may please him that we do at this present.”
Rather: “I declare to you that your sins are forgiven” or “he pardons and absolves all those who truly repent and unfeignedly believe his holy Gospel.” The minister, as the authorized spokesman for Christ in the midst of the congregation, declares Christ’s forgiveness. He bears Christ’s authority and should speak with that authority.
As pastor in Idaho, I pronounced absolution by quoting a Scripture text and then declaring: “Our heavenly Father, in His infinite mercy, has sent His only Son into the world for Your salvation, and for His sake forgives you all your sins. Therefore, by the authority of Jesus Christ and in His name, I declare to you that your sins are forgiven, in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.”
The Kyrie (“Lord, have mercy”) is used in many historic liturgies, often at the beginning of the liturgy. In our Theopolis Vespers service, the Kyrie follows the absolution.
It is a prayer for mercy, frequently arranged in a Trinitarian pattern of “Lord-Christ-Lord.” I once found this explanation of the Kyrie, but have since lost track of its source: “Though there have been occasions when these words have been used as a plea for forgiveness, the primary use of Kyrie eleison has been from the biblical perspective [about God’s mercy to us]. Confident of God’s mercy, we call on him and hold him to his promise to show mercy.” Thus, “Through its continued use, the Kyrie reminds us that our God is merciful, gracious, compassionate, slow to anger, etc. Though the world would love to tempt us to take this mercy for granted and to rely on ourselves, this ancient voice of the liturgy gives us a truly biblical perspective as we come into God’s presence.”
At the beginning of the worship service, in the midst of confessing our sins and receiving God’s assurance of cleansing, we recognize our need for God’s mercy. And we are reminded of the biblical assurances that His mercy is everlasting.
At Theopolis, we use an Eastern form of the Kyrie, which has become popular in Lutheran liturgies. Again, the same source provides a helpful explanation: “Here we plead for God’s mercy, not just for ourselves, but on behalf of others as well. We pray, indeed, for our salvation. But we also pray that God would grant peace to our troubled world. We pray for the Church and for all who come to God’s house to receive his good gifts and to thank and praise him. Throughout, the refrain is the same: Lord, have mercy.”
With the Kyrie closely tied to the confession, our prayer of confession is not only a confession of our own sins and a plea for mercy for ourselves and our church; it is a recognition of the disorder, the peacelessness, that characterizes the world under sin, and a plea that the Lord would show mercy and bring peace, the shalom of the kingdom.
The church worships not only for herself but on behalf of the world. At the feast of booths, Israel offered 70 bulls during the course of the week, representing the 70 nations of the ancient world. Israel kept her temple as the “house of prayer for all nations.” Through our evangelism, we summon the nations to join with us at the house of God, but our prayers for mercy extend even those who do not believe or, at least, have not yet responded in faith.
Peter Leithart is President of Theopolis Institute