Why Does Your Church Have Catholic Rituals? Part 1

 

Confession

For evangelicals, these three words conjure up a nightmare of a confessional, adoration of the host, and other forms of Roman Catholic sacerdotalism. James asked me about these things:

Please tell me what your church’s position is (in practice) on the following issues:

1. Confession and absolution.
2. The nature of communion, or Lord’s Supper.

I thought that a discussion of these matters would profit not just James but others who are wondering what a Reformed church is all about. So instead of just answering his email, or post my answer on Facebook, I’m posting my brief answers here.

"The Confessional" by Giuseppe Maria Crespi (1665-1747)

"The Confessional" by Giuseppe Maria Crespi (1665-1747)

Our Reformed liturgy actually starts with a corporate Confession of Sin followed by Absolution. These are preceded by a Reading of the Law. The Law reminds us of God’s holiness and our sinfulness, points us to Christ’s obedience for us, and guides us in our obedience to God’s commandments. It also helps unbelievers see their sinfulness and condemnation (Exod 20:1-17; Deut 5:6-21; Matt 5-7; Gal 3:1-5, 10-12; Matt 22:34-40). The Ten Commandments are read often.

Just over a decade after the Apostle John died, already Pliny the Younger’s letter to Trajan (ca. 111-3 A.D.) implies that the Decalogue was regularly read in the early church’s liturgy. He observes what they do regularly on “a fixed day”:

[T]hey were accustomed to meet on a fixed day before dawn and sing responsively a hymn to Christ as to a god, and to bind themselves by oath, not to some crime, but not to commit fraud, theft, or adultery, not falsify their trust, nor to refuse to return a trust when called upon to do so. When this was over, it was their custom to depart and to assemble again to partake of food—but ordinary and innocent food.

Because the Law exposes our sins, we confess them and repent before God. The Didache, written in the second century, says this about confession: “first confessing your transgressions, that your sacrifice may be pure.” This confession may be sung, prayed or recited corporately at first, then followed by silent, personal confession.

This humbling start to a church’s worship liturgy has much Scriptural precedence. When God called Israel to assemble for worship at Mount Sinai, they were forbidden to approach the mountain lest they die. They must first offer bloody animal sacrifices to be able to go up the mountain

(Exod 24:1-9), a foreshadow of Christ’s sacrifice for our sins so we may be able to “have confidence to enter the holy places by the blood of Jesus” (Heb 10:19).

Obviously, the Reformers took their cue from this Mount Sinai and other Old Testament accounts, opening their worship with confession of sin. John Calvin, in his Institutes 3:4:11, tells us of the importance of this opening confession:

Seeing that in every sacred assembly we stand in the view of God and angels, in what way should our service begin but in acknowledging our own unworthiness? … For though the ceremony which the Lord enjoined on the Israelites belonged to the tutelage of the Law, yet the thing itself belongs in some respect to us also. And, indeed, in all well-ordered churches, in observance of an useful custom, the minister, each Lord’s day, frames a formula of confession in his own name and that of the people, in which he makes a common confession of iniquity, and supplicates pardon from the Lord. In short, by this key a door of prayer is opened privately for each, and publicly for all. 1

So the description of the liturgy of the Reformed church in Strasbourg, of which Calvin was pastor from 1538-41, says

When the congregation is assembled, the Pastor enters … and begins the Common Worship, [saying] “Make confession to God the Lord, and let each one acknowledge with me his sins and iniquity.”

Next: Why Does Your Church Have Catholic Rituals? Part 2: Absolution

 


Notes:

  1. John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, ed. John T. McNeill, Ford Lewis Battles, trans. (Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1960).
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