Get Rid of Sin in Church
PAGES 7, 8
Several years ago I heard about a minister from western Michigan who entertained a call from a church somewhere in New York. Since they wanted to hear him preach and he wanted to check out the lay of the land, he and his wife booked a flight. The congregation was rumored to be "liberal," but then doesn't almost every church out east seem "liberal" by Midwestern standards?
Whatever else they were, the church out East turned out to be friendly. They rolled out the red carpet for the visiting couple and welcomed him into the pulpit. And from many perspectives the service went well. Though he was a bit nervous—and who isn't a bit nervous in a strange pulpit?— the sermon exceeded his expectations even as he hoped it met theirs. At the end of the service he headed for the center door in back to greet the departing worshipers as his hosts had instructed him to do.
Mostly people smiled and said nice things as they shook hands at the door. People back East have a reputation for being more polite than your average blunt Midwesterner. But one woman paused mid-handshake, leaned over, and confided her feeling about the sermon directly. "All that talk about sin in your sermon," she said, "left me feeling really dirty."
Worship is not intended to leave a person feeling dirty, though in the history of the Christian Reformed Church it has sometimes had that effect. Sermons frequently failed to speak of God's grace with sufficient clarity or at sufficient length to counter a strong preaching of sin. Further, when sermons addressed issues of holiness, they often left the impression that pleasing God amounted to reading the Bible and trying harder. And most listeners knew from experience that simply trying harder usually left them stuck in the same old sinful patterns.
Other parts of worship sometimes worked to overplay the importance of sin too. The CRC way of celebrating the Lord's Supper rightly looked to the Bible for guidance. But since much of that biblical teaching came in response to particular irregularities in the ancient church of Corinth, the CRC's looking to the Bible tended to prompt an overemphasis upon penitence in the Supper. The preparatory form that some churches still use is a special call to self-examination the week before celebrating communion. Not that there is anything wrong with self-examination, but too often the images of the joyful feast of the Lord or wedding banquet of the Lamb have been absent from these celebrations, if they could be called celebrations at all.
In the old days practically every CRC also typically featured confession of sin in worship. This section of the service usually began with a reading of the Ten Commandments employed in the spirit of Calvin's first two uses of the law: showing us our sin and prompting us to run to Jesus. The pastor invited people to examine their lives as the Commandments fell upon their ears. The confession of sin usually was concluded with a brief assurance of pardon. Yet despite this assurance, worshipers were known to have left the service thinking of themselves as wretched sinners. And they felt ashamed that their behavior had prompted the suffering and death of Jesus. After worship they were inclined to think of themselves not as those deeply loved of God, but as barely tolerated sinners.
In recent years the CRC has more and more looked beyond itself, especially in the area of worship. Worship experiences outside the denomination gave rise to the impression that CRC worship was stodgy, even dull compared to what was going on elsewhere. Christians outside the CRC, especially in the evangelical/charismatic tradition, were singing new songs accompanied by worship bands! This upbeat worship found favor especially among the newly middle-aged who were raised on rock music and also among the young. So rather than stand by and watch younger members leave to worship elsewhere, many churches moved to bring this newer worship style home.
As CRC congregations imported new styles of worship, they also discovered that evangelical charismatic churches often worshiped without enacting confession of sin and assurance of pardon. Perhaps in some instances, those in search of a new style imported this lack of confession without really thinking much about it. But something about this omission also appealed to CRC members who in the face of an overemphasis on sin had grown accustomed to leaving worship "feeling dirty." Less mention of sin came to some as a welcome relief. "We are new creatures in Christ," they argued, "so why linger over sin forgiven once and for all with Christ's death on the cross?"
This jettisoning of a time of confession also worked well with a new strategy for evangelism that suggested churches become "seeker sensitive." The rule was to make what happened on Sunday morning as inviting as possible to those who might visit. If there was risk in overemphasizing sin in the ears of seasoned Christians, non-Christians who showed up at worship services stood in mortal danger of misunderstanding and probably taking offense at a call to confession. Telling people that they were dirty sinners who needed to confess their sins seemed less than sensitive, even if it were true.
All of these pressures have left too many Christian Reformed churches today without a well-balanced time of confession and assurance of pardon as a regular feature of Sunday morning worship. The Ten Commandments are often nowhere to be heard, hell goes unmentioned, and mention of sin in the sermon is muted or transmuted into a vague sympathetic emphasis on human brokenness. Assurance of pardon often still leaves worshipers feeling dirty.
Unfortunately, getting rid of confession and assurance doesn't get rid of sin. Human beings are still sinners, individually and all together. And even though Jesus died on the cross for our forgiveness nearly two thousand years ago, sin continues to distort and interrupt our relationships with God and each other.
Most of us could think of examples without trying very hard. A heated argument with a spouse can leave us disinclined to pray. Envy of a fellow church member can make serving God together on the mission project practically impossible. Arrogance can make it difficult for others to follow us and so for God to use us in leadership. Self-regarding nationalism can make us too quick to support tactics that wrack violence upon our fellow human beings elsewhere in the world and grieve the heart of God. These sorts of sin and others like them are fully covered by the blood of Jesus, but they still need to be identified and confessed. Why?
God uses our confessing in his presence and in the presence of one another to shape us as those who live in partnership with him in his church. Practicing confession and assurance brings us more deeply into relationship with him and with those who love him, to give us life in abundance.
This sort of confession will begin by acknowledging that we need God even to begin to take an honest look at our sin. We will invite the Holy Spirit to search our hearts and to make us aware of those specific ways in which we have offended God and hurt other people. We will take the needed amount of time and not rush through it. We may use periods of silence from time to time to quiet ourselves in God's presence and give opportunity for the Spirit to move within and among us. And then we will give voice to those specific things in our lives of which the Spirit makes us aware. Being open to the Spirit and aware of our sin is a first step in beginning to change.
And we will listen for God's assurance of pardon. God uses assurance of pardon to keep us from an unhealthy fixation upon our sin. In the assurance God reminds us of who we are—not first of all sinners, but forgiven sinners, deeply loved by God, filled with and empowered by the Spirit, now living an abundant life in Christ. We are not loathsome worms, but sons and daughters of the King, freshly bathed, newly clothed, dazzlingly bejeweled with our names on God's gold-embossed invitations. Assurance of pardon underlines our identity in Christ and banishes any lingering sense of shame.
Those words of assurance will come spoken in the first person always using the teaching or words of Scripture: "I declare to you this morning that your sins are completely forgiven and God has removed them from you 'as far as the east is from the west.'" But assurance will not stop with a simple declaration of forgiveness. It will also pause to speak words that remind us of our identity in Christ and the power God provides to live out that identity. And the sermon will always move in rhythm with the music of those words reinforcing it through its overtones of grace.
Confession and assurance of pardon are powerful ways that God shapes us in our relationship with him and with each other. Along with preaching, celebration of the Lord's Supper, and other parts of worship, God uses confession and assurance to deepen our relationship with him, and make the theme of his forgiving love the dominant music of our lives.