The order of worship
The Presbyterian Book of Common Worship describes a four-fold shape of worship, consisting of (1) Gathering, (2) The Word, (3) The Eucharist and (4) Sending. Within these four primary movements are secondary parts of worship, such as: (under Gathering) Call to Worship, Hymns of Praise, Confession and Pardon, and the Peace; (under the Word) Prayer for Illumination, Scripture Readings, the Sermon, an Invitation to Discipleship, the Affirmation of Faith, Baptism, and Prayers of the People; (under the Eucharist) Offering, Invitation to the Table, Great Thanksgiving, Lord’s Prayer, Communion of the People; and (under Sending) Songs or Acts of Commitment, the Charge and Blessing. There is broad historical ecumenical consensus on this liturgical pattern.
The PC(USA)’s Directory for Worship offers a slight variation on this structure, describing five actions centered on the Word of God: (1) Gathering Around the Word, (2) Proclaiming the Word, (3) Responding to the Word, (4) The Sealing of the Word in the Sacraments, and (5) Bearing or Following the Word into the World. This characteristically Reformed view of worship emphasizes the centrality of the Word, and frames human actions in worship as a response to God’s initiative. Although the framework is somewhat different, this order of worship is essentially consistent with the ecumenical pattern described above.
In the Service for the Lord’s Day, the confession and pardon follow an initial expression of praise in the worship service — usually a hymn and/or prayer of adoration. This adoration of God makes us aware of our own sinfulness. As Calvin notes at the beginning of the Institutes, knowledge of God and knowledge of ourselves are inextricably linked, so that “we are prompted by our own ills to contemplate the good things of God” (I.1.i) and conversely, contemplation of God’s goodness leads us to recognize our own sinful nature. In worship, encounter with God’s holy presence comes first, prompting an awareness of human sinfulness. Therefore, we repent of our sin and ask God’s forgiveness in the prayer of confession.
Hughes Oliphant Old demonstrates that the pattern of praise and confession at the beginning of worship has its roots in Temple worship in the time of David and Solomon. According to this pattern, the pilgrims of the Temple would process to the gates with a hymn of praise, then would hear a penitential sermon which led them to reexamine their lives and confess their sin. Following this confession, the gates would be opened and they would proceed to the Temple. Old says, “It should be noticed that praise and the confession of our sin go hand in hand. Just as Isaiah when he was confronted by the presence of God in the Temple was first caught up by the seraphic song, ‘Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts!’ and then prostrated himself on the ground with this humble confession, ‘Woe is me! … for I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell among a people of unclean lips’ (Isaiah 6:5), so we approach God in both praise and confession” (Hughes Oliphant Old, Worship that is Reformed According to Scripture. Atlanta: John Knox Press, 1984, 41).
But we can never be worthy of God’s mercy. For that reason, the invitation to confession is itself an assurance of God’s mercy so that we can come to humble confession before God. We do not earn God’s forgiveness through our expressions of remorse; we have already been forgiven, and therefore we freely confess our unworthiness and receive forgiveness anew.
The actions of confession and pardon are deeply connected to baptism. “In the waters of baptism, washed in the name of the triune God, we receive God’s assurance of forgiveness and cleansing. Claiming the promises of God sealed in our baptism, we boldly confess our sin and accept forgiveness. We are confident that in our dying to sin and old destructive ways, the God of boundless grace raises us to new life” (The Service for the Lord’s Day: Supplemental Liturgical Resource 1. Prepared by the Joint Office of Worship for the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) and the Cumberland Presbyterian Church. Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1984). It is therefore appropriate to lead this part of the service from the baptismal font or at least to make reference to baptism, since it is at baptism that we first receive the promises of forgiveness and rebirth.
Some argue that confession does not need to be a part of worship every week. Since Sunday is a celebration of the resurrection, one might argue that it is an inappropriate time to have prayers of confession. Historically, however, Reformed churches have included confession on Sundays because they did away with private confession at other times during the week. Thus the confession of sin remains a normative part of Sunday worship for most Presbyterian churches.