“What’s the Deal With … the Prayer of Confession?”

(part of an occasional series on aspects of being Presbyterian)

Every now and then, someone asks about the Prayer of Confession. You have the Call to Worship, you have what’s usually a pretty energetic opening hymn, everyone is feeling fired up, and then… you drop the Prayer of Confession on them! What’s with that?

Presbyterians have always been very committed to the Prayer of Confession, from the beginnings of the Reformed Tradition under John Calvin in Geneva. The Prayer of Confession is important not just because of what it is, but where and how it is. “What it is” is not complicated; it is telling the truth about how we’ve sinned and continue to fall short of what God wants us to be, asking God’s forgiveness, and being assured we’ve received it.

“Where it is” is important, too, though. The Prayer of Confession comes right after the opening of the service because, theologically, we need to be reconciled to God before we can really hear God’s Word in the Scripture readings and the sermon. If that hasn’t happened, then the rest of the service is a bit like having a nice dinner hosted by someone whom you’ve wronged in some way; you can’t appreciate the meal because you’re too busy thinking about feeling bad about what you’ve done or not done and wondering if the person knows or how they are going to react. But if you’ve confessed the problem beforehand and received their assurances of forgiveness, and they’ve reiterated their invitation to you, you can come and enjoy that hospitality with a clear conscience and full heart.

“How it is” also means a lot more than we might realize. One of the core values of the Reformation is that we do not need special priests to mediate between us and God. Rather, there is a “priesthood of all believers,” in which we each mediate the presence of Christ to each other through our baptisms. Thus, we do not confess our sin privately to an ordained priest, but instead confess our sin publicly. In that unison prayer, then, we are simultaneously offering our own confessions and hearing the confessions of each other as priests. The unison prayer focuses on things that all of us do, while the silent confession allows us to confess our particular sins to Christ himself, our “great high priest,” as the book of Hebrews puts it.

So, when you’re in worship, take a moment to consider how the Prayer of Confession not only cleanses us from our sin but helps prepare us to hear and respond to God’s Word (in fact, its content is usually tied in some way to the upcoming Scripture and sermon!), and how doing so as a community of priests, embodies Christ’s grace, mercy, and love to and for each other. See you in church!

Grace and Peace,