I became a Christian at the age of 15.

When I began to go to church, we used the 1662 Book of Common Prayer, and prayed the prayers from it each Sunday.

Here’s what we said:

A general Confession to be said of the whole Congregation after the Minister, all kneeling.

ALMIGHTY and most merciful Father; We have erred, and strayed from thy ways like lost sheep. We have followed too much the devices and desires of our own hearts. We have offended against thy holy laws. We have left undone those things which we ought to have done; And we have done those things which we ought not to have done; And there is no health in us. But thou, O Lord, have mercy upon us, miserable offenders. Spare thou them, O God, who confess their faults. Restore thou them that are penitent; According to thy promises declared unto mankind in Christ Jesu our Lord. And grant, O most merciful Father, for his sake; That we may hereafter live a godly, righteous, and sober life, To the glory of thy holy Name. Amen.

(From The Order for Morning Prayer, Daily Throughout the Year, BCP, 1662. Thomas Cranmer was the man responsible for collating the original 1552 prayer book, and authored most of the prayers. See Tony Payne’s comments on the same prayer.)

Here are three observations:

  1. We prayed this every week, except for when we had the Lord’s supper, in which case, we prayed this:

    ALMIGHTY God, Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, Maker of all things, judge of all men; We acknowledge and bewail our manifold sins and wickedness, Which we, from time to time, most grievously have committed, By thought, word, and deed, Against thy Divine Majesty, Provoking most justly thy wrath and indignation against us. We do earnestly repent, And are heartily sorry for these our misdoings; The remembrance of them is grievous unto us; The burden of them is intolerable. Have mercy upon us, Have mercy upon us, most merciful Father; For thy Son our Lord Jesus Christ’s sake, Forgive us all that is past; And grant that we may ever hereafter Serve and please thee In newness of life, To the honour and glory of thy Name; Through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

  2. In every church I have been part of since those days, we’ve remained committed, in theory and often in practice, to the ideas behind these prayers.
  3. Nowadays, however, we don’t pray this prayer, nor anything like it. Most of the time, we don’t even confess our sins, except in the briefest and most perfunctory way. When we do, it is usually as one request amongst many.

So why do you think we’ve stopped confessing our sins publicly? My own theory, for what it is worth, is that there is a part of us that can’t really believe that we’re as bad as the Bible says we are (Dan 9:9-10).

This means that when we prayer leaders receive the email giving us the list of things to pray about in church on Sunday, and confession is one of about a dozen important things on that list (for some others, see 1 Timothy 2:1-7), we just forget.

That’s not so good, is it? And if my theory is right, it means that, like Cranmer, we ought to reinstate public confession as the first thing we do in our church meetings, right after and in response to the reading of the word of God. For:

If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness. (1 John 1:8-9)

Amen to that.

18 thoughts on “Confession

  1. Cranmer intended the prayer of confession to be ‘stand alone’ and not part of the other prayers of the congregation.  He wanted people to learn that from our hearts come those things that cause us to sin.  ‘Heart’ was a key word for Cranmer.  Only by the transforming work of the Holy Spirit could we live the redeemed life and only by resting on the work of Christ on the cross could we have the assurance of the forgiveness of sins. 

    These are vital truths, and Cranmer knew that we learn them when they we acknowledge them regularly when we meet together. 

    I’d like to see congregations saying such prayers regularly, although, in my view, there is a good argument not to have such a prayer every single time we meet. We don’t want people to get the idea that a prayer of confession is an essential rite without which we are not forgiven. 

    I’d also suggest such a prayer be used at different times in the meeting: sometimes as a response to the Bible Talk, sometimes early on (as found in Cranmer’s Morning and Evening Prayer), sometimes before sharing in the Lord’s Supper (again following Cranmer) and sometimes in response to a Bible Reading. 

    Such prayers ought to convey how serious our sin is and a request God enable us to live a godly life in response to his mercy (as Cranmer’s prayers did).  The language ought to be personal, not perfunctory.  Again, Cranmer achieved this with language like: ‘remembrance of them (our sins) is grievous unto us; The burden of them is intolerable.’  Many modern prayers of confession lack this, and that means they can sound inauthentic. 

    Finally, when not using a prayer of confession, it is good to remember the Lord’s Prayer also contains a petition requesting forgiveness, and saying the Lord’s Prayer sometimes, even though it is essentially a model prayer, can be very helpful.

  2. In our worship service at Mount Gambier Presbyterian we use a either a prayer or song of corporate confession with pronouncement of absolution after our opening praise.
    Recognition of God’s person, holiness and saving love toward us brings a response of confession and trust in the saving work of Jesus.
    We do this because our time together on Sunday morning is understood to be a meeting with God and a response to His revelation to us.
    Doesn’t the absence of a corporate prayer confession flow from an understanding that Christians do not gather for a worship service but meet for mutual encouragement and teaching? (Although I suppose they can confess their sins to one another.)
    Theology produces the practice of God’s people when they gather, and what God’s people do when they gather nourishes their theology.
    While I have no doubt that a commitment to the theology behind those prayers is being maintained, if they have fallen from use then some theology has changed somewhere. In the light of that change where is the nourishment for the theology behind them to be continued?
    Thanks for the encouraging thoughts.

  3. <Doesn’t the absence of a corporate prayer confession flow from an understanding that Christians do not gather for a worship service but meet for mutual encouragement and teaching?>

    I don’t think so, Gary.  I don’t believe the way to descibe why we gather together is to ‘worship God’ or to engage in ‘corporate worship’ but I do believe that God is in our midst as we meet and that we meet as those who are saved by his mercy, rely on his mercy, and need his mercy.  We can only ever have access to him through his Son because the Lord Jesus is our mediator and the one who laid down his life as our substitute ransom for our sins.

    I think the reason as to why prayers of confession are now rare is because we tend to downplay sin, judgment and the Lordship of Jesus Christ.  That I think is the culprit.

  4. Do you know where I can pick up a copy in actual real book form of the one you used in your Anglican church growing up?

  5. Thank you Gordo for a post that needs discussing!
                I must be in the early stages of dementia.What have I not understood when I read that I don’t go to church to worship? I do go to church to worship as well as everything else I do before, during and after the service/meeting (am I allowed to use the word service?)  Admittedly the current format which appears to depend solely on the views of the current minister, features changes in format from week to week,often disrupted by a “half-time ” break which completely disrupts one’s concentration on what has been said prayed or taught up to that point does sometimes make it harder to worship the God who is there in our midst. Our worship of God as an individual and within the gathered community is the most important thing we do.All else flows from that truth.
    I believe the Sydney Diocese has a committee
    preparing some possible formats for use within the diocese for the weekly meeting/service.I await its suggestions with great interest.

  6. So why do you think we’ve stopped confessing our sins publicly? My own theory, for what it is worth, is that there is a part of us that can’t really believe that we’re as bad

    I quite like how Calvin puts it

    For (such is our innate pride) we always seem to ourselves just, and upright, and wise, and holy, until we are convinced, by clear evidence, of our injustice, vileness, folly, and impurity. Convinced, however, we are not, if we look to ourselves only, and not to the Lord also – He being the only standard by the application of which this conviction can be produced. For, since we are all naturally prone to hypocrisy, any empty semblance of righteousness is quite enough to satisfy us instead of righteousness itself.

    So, regular confession, in whatever form such as prayer, response, creed, Bible talk, song, at church, in small groups, by yourself, etc, is essential to remind us of how broken we are and lead us to cry out “Lord, have mercy on me, a sinner”.

  7. Well said, Brett!
    Calvin saw the danger in human self-delusion. No wonder at the moment there is a tendency for sin to be redefined as a failure to reach our full potential for God (as I heard it explained at another church recently) rather than rebellion against our holy God.

  8. At the church where I newly serve as pastor (in the U.S.), I’ve just recently begun including prayers of confession into our Sunday morning gatherings. Suffice it to say, the response has been mixed, with most people equating a liturgy which includes confession of sin as a part of their Lutheran (where I live, regrettably liberal) upbringing. Sadly, most American Christians simply aren’t used to such public confession of sin (which Platinga’s book Not the Way it’s Supposed to Be: A Breviary of Sin makes painfully clear).

    Gordon, you made the comment: I don’t believe the way to describe why we gather together is to ‘worship God’ or to engage in ‘corporate worship’ but I do believe that God is in our midst as we meet and that we meet as those who are saved by his mercy, rely on his mercy, and need his mercy.”

    I realize it’s not directly related to this post’s topic, but might you briefly elaborate on how you would describe why you gather with God’s people on Sunday mornings (or whatever time you meet)?

  9. “Nowadays, however, we don’t pray this prayer, nor anything like it.”

    Speak for yourself!  My church certainly does.  We had a visiting Baptist who was most impressed with the wording (AAPB).

    The question to ask might be:  when did my church STOP saying the General Confession, and why?

  10. I realize it’s not directly related to this post’s topic, but might you briefly elaborate on how you would describe why you gather with God’s people on Sunday mornings (or whatever time you meet)?

    May I recommend the article on church and worship in the Briefing, no 237?

    Tony Payne and Don Carson discuss the issue you have raised.  Don Carson argues: ‘But the locus of worship in the Old Testament was bound up in the cultic system; in the New Testament it is bound up with offering all of our lives all the time to God.’ ‘We are constantly in the presence of the Lord.’ (Romans 12:1-2, Hebrews 12, Ephesians. Moreover, we now worship ‘in Spirit and in truth’ (John 4), and, in context, this supersedes debate over where one worships.  The priestly worship/ ministry of the Apostle Paul is evangelism. 

    Now Carson wants to keep the term worship for church and call it corporate worship.  But Tony Payne argues convincingly, in my opinion, thast the theological category of worship is not used by the New Testament writers in describing church.  The worship terminology has at its heart bowing down before and in the presence of God.  When we are in heaven, then,(but not now) as we read in Revelation 4-5, we will fall on our faces in such worship, but in this age we worship God all the time as those in whom the Spirit of Christ dwells all the time.

  11. I always appreciate reading your input Philip.I like to be challenged in my thinking which at my age is both needed and exhausting!

    Just a few point arising from your comments.

    The” gathering” of the early church was made up of worship activities which we, in various ways ,follow today.

    Yes” we worship God all the time” , at least in theory if not in practice and so we worship God when we gather together as a community of God’s people ,essential not only for our own spiritual well-being but as a witness and example to non christians meeting with us.When all of life is worship ,gathered worship with the body of Christ is at the heart of a life of worship The goal is to bring us face to face with God.It is to be God-centred and its purpose is to honour God.As Gordon suggested one expression of this is the importance of the regular Prayer of Confession because it, among other things,reminds us so clearly of who God is and who we are and so we respond accordingly in praise,thanks and intercession.

    “Worship has not occurred when the external duties are performed of reading,praying,singing,hearing sermons and the like, even zealously,but only when our hearts are affected and our love captivated by the free grace of God.”
                            Jonathan Edwards.

    ” Corporate worship is only true and affective when it leads to the “all of life” worship of doing justice,living generosity Heb13;16,loving our neighbour,welcoming the poor,thestranger,the marginalised.Our actions in gathered worship will strongly influence our actions in scattered out in the world worship.”

                      Tim Keller.

  12. Hi Warren
    You are right about it being challenging and exhausting!

    I find it helpful if I seek to answer the question from scripture: What do the scriptures teach about the gathering of Christians? I just start with a blank piece of paper and write down everything I can find in the Bible that answers that question.

    My understanding is that when we gather it is about God blessing us through the sharing of the gifts that our Father has so generously given to his people. He is blessing us. Gathering is about God coming to us rather than our response at that time…  he speaks to us through scripture, using teachers, pastors and so on and we encourage and exhort one another with the gifts each of us has to serve others with. We teach each other, remind each other to repent, help each other to keep on submitting to God and to not give up, for it is a difficult and evil age.

    We may be suffering, we may be being tempted to live for the treasures of this world, we may be confused…so our Father so very kindly gives gifts to us to share to build each other up in Christ.

    It’s like all the gifted people around us have been given by God to serve us…and so us for them and all and the body grows in in love.
    (From Ephesians)

    Perhaps we could say we are being equipped to worship!!


  13. Afternoon Dianne!  I hadn’t replied until now as I have limited use of a computer and little expertise! Thank you for your comments.

    Is it not marvellous that Christians can study the scriptures and come to such a wide range of conclusions,sincerely held and as necessary,defended.

    Our gathering together as a community certainly means we are blessed by the sharing of God’s gifts to us in all the ways you mentioned.

    I believe God is there ant coming to us BUT we need and are to come to Him as the body of Christ.This appears to be a point of difference.

    Yes love should be the most important defining characteristic of our church so that all may know that we are God’s people.

    In one sense as God’s children we are already equipped to worship Him but our sinfulness keeps getting in the way. Also as you suggest,the sharing of our gifts equips us to better worship Him in this life until in the life to come we will worship with ALL our heart,soul and strength.


    I believe God is there and not coming to us…..

  15. If I might dare move back towards the original topic… wink

    One of the theological questions exercising our household at the moment is “What is forgiveness?”. Human forgiveness often varies a great deal. Some can, indeed, forgive and forget. Most of us simply choose not to react negatively when wronged—but still cherish some kind of grudge.

    But what about God? Does Colossians 2:13–15 suggest that he forgets entirely: “He erased the certificate of debt” (HCSB)? (So, too, when we seek absolution in Psalm 103:11–12.) Or does Revelation 20:12–15 leave us worried about what God still has recorded (though equally rejoicing that he won’t act on this)?

    I’ve found that one diagnosis of this is how one reads Romans 7. Can one who is thoroughly forgiven still be enslaved to sin? Some insist, “yes”; others, “no”.

    In my mind, Cranmer and some of the Anglican prayers have not worked hard enough to distinguish between (what I label) ‘Sin’ and ‘sins’. Sure, I continue to screw up and offend God’s sensibilities on a daily basis, and for this I need regular confession. But does some of the language of the Prayer Book (and even of OT passages like Daniel 9) smack of a reversal of, or a lack of appropriation of, God’s gracious forgiveness in Christ?

    Yes, I’m aware of the perils of over-realised eschatology! But I’ve recently found myself wondering if many evangelicals are marginally under-realised. It’s as if we’ve spent so long preparing our ‘prodigal son speech’ (“I am no longer worthy”) that we completely ignore the father’s kind offer to reinstate us as part of the family…

  16. Andrew, your comments are very thought provoking in a helpful way!

    I would make two comments: I think in Cranmer’s mind he wanted to make the point that even as Christians we remain corrupted by sin inwardly (what the reformers meant by Concupiscence).  As a consequence the confession is always worded very strongly. 
    However, the confession is accompanied by the prayers of absolution, which, in my view, deal with the issue you have raised. They make it clear that Christians can have the ongoing full assurance of the forgiveness of sins and the enabling of the Spirit to live new lives.

    All that said, some of the newer confessions produced by Sydney have included wording like: ‘We praise you for adopting us as your children and making us heirs of eternal life.  In your mercy you have washed us from our sins and made us clean in your sight.  Yet…  and the confession of sin follows.

  17. Thanks, Philip, for that ‘Sydney update’. I really like that wording (along with most Anglican forms) which actually approaches the confession prayer in the light of our existing relationship with God. It puts everything in a much more useful (and, IMHO, more accurate) light than those occasions when a confession prayer is employed in isolation.

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