Originally published in Clarion Year-End 2007 as part of my series “A Guide to Reformed Worship.” I’ve made a few revisions since then. My goal is to eventually have these articles expanded to be a book on the subject.
A Guide to Reformed Worship (3) – the Law, Confession of Sin, Assurance of Pardon
Isaiah 6 is one of the most remarkable and powerful passages in Scripture. The prophet Isaiah was somehow able to look into the throne room of the Holy God. He saw angelic creatures (seraphim) crying out, “Holy, holy, holy is the LORD of hosts!” The place was shaken and filled with smoke. Isaiah had come into the presence of God. When he recognized this, his reaction was one of fear and trembling – he was acutely aware of his own sins and the sins of his people and he confessed this before God.
When we come into the presence of the holy God today, we are not all that impressed with the visuals that accompany this experience. Perhaps we have a nice church building, but we certainly don’t see seraphim, the earth doesn’t shake, and there is definitely no smoke. Yet, we are in the presence of the holy God just as Isaiah was. Consequently, we need to adopt the same posture as Isaiah: one of humility and reverent fear in recognition of God’s holiness and our innate lack thereof.
In their book, “With Reverence and Awe,” D. G. Hart and John Muether note that the worship of Reformed believers ought to embody their confessional commitments. One example they give is that of the Creator/creature distinction. They write, “The vast gulf separating God from his creation means that God alone is infinite and independent, and that we are finite and dependent. This will restrain the notions of individualism, self-confidence, and assertiveness that our culture privileges. Instead, humility and self-denial will characterize our comportment” (p.14). That was Isaiah’s posture in God’s throne room and it needs to be ours as well. We may and should come into God’s presence with joy, as the Psalmist says (95:2), but we must also come with humility. This is crucial when our sinful hearts, our corrupt culture, and our compromised ecclesiastical sub-cultures constantly lure us back to the idol of pride.
The Reading of the Law
God brings us to this posture of humility through his Word, particularly through his law. We confess in the Catechism (Lord’s Day 2) that we know our sin and misery “from the law of God.” The law is given as a rule of thankfulness, yes, but also as a mirror into which we look and see our need for redemption. It is there to humble us before God, that we would know our sin and misery and our great need for a Saviour in Jesus Christ. This need is not just there at the beginning of the Christian life, but it remains for as long as we have life and breath on this earth. We have a constant need to be brought to our knees, recognizing our sin and therefore our complete dependence on the gracious salvation of God.
For this reason, after the introductory block of elements, we have the reading of the Ten Commandments. This is done either with Exodus 20 or Deuteronomy 5. The Ten Commandments have always had a special place, so using other “law” passages in their place should only be done irregularly. However, in most of our congregations, the words of Matthew 22:37-40 are often appended, showing both the depth and the simplicity of God’s law. Other passages that might be used in the same way include Deut. 6:6-9, Luke 10:25-28 or Matt. 5:48. Whatever the passage or passages chosen, the goal is the same: to have the congregation look again only to the righteousness of Jesus Christ.
The song after the reading of the law should complement that passage. Because a prayer typically follows the song, we’re actually looking at a two-part response to the law. Here there is some room for flexibility and creativity on the part of the minister. The song could be an expression of praise for the beauty of God’s law (e.g. Psalm 19:3) and then the prayer could be a confession of sin and a supplication for God’s blessing on the reading and preaching of the Word. Or the song could be a confession of sin (e.g. Psalm 51) and the prayer could be a expression of praise for God and a request for his blessing. At any rate, the song will complement the reading of the law in some way and formulate part of the congregation’s response to it.
Confession of Sin
Furthermore, at some point there does need to be confession of sin in response to the reading of the law, whether in song or in prayer. We see numerous examples of such confessions throughout Scripture and they have always historically been a part of the worship of the Church. The prayer of confession is another element that the Reformers held on to from the medieval and patristic church. They recognized it not only as traditional, but as a sound biblical practice.
One thing often forgotten about the confession of sin in public worship is that it is not first and foremost an individual activity. Rather, this confession of sin is corporate. This is what distinguishes our daily prayers wherein we confess our sins and seek God’s forgiveness (as the Lord’s Prayer teaches us to do) from the prayer of confession on Sundays. When we gather on Sundays, the confession is done as a congregation. We confess our sins as a body and we seek God’s forgiveness as a body – after all, we have come to worship him as a body. There is an individual aspect as well, but the emphasis is on the body.
Assurance of Pardon
Following the prayer of confession, in most of our congregations the minister goes directly to the reading of Scripture in preparation for the sermon. Especially if the confession of sin is taken seriously and done in a meaningful way, this creates a liturgical dissonance. There is a gap.
Looking back to the Reformation, this gap was filled with reading a brief Scripture passage through which the minister declared that the sins of the congregation were indeed forgiven. He did not forgive the sins himself, but declared (as a minister of Christ) that those sins were forgiven by God. We call this the “assurance of pardon,” and it is worth recovering, particularly if we do take the confession of sin seriously. How wonderful it is to be disarmed of your own intrinsic “righteousness,” flee to the cross and then hear the comforting promise of the gospel each Sunday again and again! There are so many different passages of Scripture that are appropriate for this purpose – just to name a few: 1 John 1:9, Acts 10:43, and Hebrews 7:24-25. Where the Assurance of Pardon is practiced, congregations are less likely to take the gospel for granted, but rather will cherish it and embrace it anew every week.
Whenever we gather for worship, we need the holiness of God impressed on us repeatedly. Without an understanding of God’s holiness, our worship runs the danger of becoming irreverent or mechanical. The block of elements wherein we hear God’s law, confess our sins, and are comforted with the gospel ensures that we never become flippant about worshipping the great and mighty Yahweh.
For more on the reading of the law, the confession of sin and assurance of pardon, see Fulfil Your Ministry, K. Deddens (Premier, 1990), pp.71-85.