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Why do we keep doing these prayers of confession?

Two theologians join the Presbyterian Association of Musicians to talk about the why and how of weekly confession

by Mike Ferguson | Presbyterian News Service

Photo by Bundo Kim via Unsplash

LOUISVILLE — Two thoughtful theologians — Dr. Martha Moore-Keish, the J.B. Green Professor of Theology at Columbia Theological Seminary, and the Rev. Dr. David Gambrell, Associate for Worship in the Office of Theology & Worship — put their brains and their hearts on display Thursday during the Presbyterian Association of Musicians’ town hall, “Why do we Keep Doing these Prayers of Confession?”

The webinar, attended by more than 50 people, was especially timely in that Moore-Keish published an article by the same name in the journal Call to Worship. She’s been speaking to colleagues wondering about the efficacy of calls and prayers of confession and assurance of pardon in most PC(USA) congregations. “They don’t necessarily seem to change us,” her colleagues said. “Why are we doing it if it doesn’t actually change us?”

We confess each week because we’re human, she said, and the human condition has at least four complexities, which Moore-Keish learned years ago from the Rev. Dr. Serene Jones, the president of Union Theological Seminary:

  • We are created good in the image of God
  • We are distorted (individually and collectively) by sin
  • We are forgiven and redeemed
  • We are drawn toward the future in hope for a day when all Creation will be made new.

“When we confess our sin, it is confession of one aspect of our truth, but it’s not the only thing,” Moore-Keish said. “Sin is framed by grace. Grace precedes and follows our confession of sin. It tells the truth about the way we fail to love one another, God and this world that God has entrusted to our care.”

Dr. Martha Moore-Keish

“Handled rightly,” she said, “confession can be a genuine opening to grace — not an opportunity to wallow in shame or despair.”

Sometimes we fall in the trap of believing that “if we just get the contrition right and say, ‘I’m sorry’ enough times, then God will forgive us,” Moore-Keish said. It’s not an “if-then” proposition, but a “because-therefore” situation. “Because God has already offered to forgive us,” she said, “therefore we are free to confess our sins.”

When Gambrell asked her if we can really know whether we are changed by confessing our sin and then reminding ourselves that our sins are indeed forgiven, Moore-Keish drew from a story a pastor friend once shared with her.

A member came to this pastor to say he and his family were in terrible debt. He’d maxed out credit cards and declared bankruptcy, then maxed out his daughter’s credit cards so that she too had to file for bankruptcy. The man told the pastor he was crippled by guilt and had contemplated suicide.

What saved him was coming to church week after week “to confess his sin and tell the truth about his dishonesty and the harm he had done to others — and to do this in the company of others,” Moore-Keish wrote in her article. “Telling the hard truth about our sin, and doing so with other people, was for him literally life-saving.”

“Confession,” Gambrell said, “can be a life-saving gift.”

Confession “is not perpetuating shame or saying, ‘You are a terrible person,’” Moore-Keish said. “It’s about freedom that can come from acknowledging what we know can be true — the harm that we have done to other people. That is in itself freeing — particularly if it’s framed by ‘God loves you anyway.’”

The Rev. Dr. David Gambrell

Gambrell introduced Aja Romano’s article from Vox, “Everyone wants forgiveness, but no one is being forgiven.” Is confession and forgiveness, he wondered, “a gift the church has to share with society? Confession is something that’s seen as a stodgy old churchy thing, but what if it’s a gift the church has to offer the world?”

Later he strapped on his guitar to lead participants through confessional hymns found in Glory to God, including “Jesus Knows the Inmost Heart” from Pakistan and “Search Me, O God,” originally from Psalm 139 and written by the Taiwanese composer I-to Loh.

“There are beautiful ways,” Gambrell said, “to sing our confession.”

The act of confession, according to Moore-Keish, is done each week during worship “not to beat us up or say we are just worms.” Rather, it’s done so worshipers can confess “what is true about the world in which we live and about our own lives.”

“But the good news is that God is always already there. It’s important that we recognize it’s a gift, not something we’re entitled to. We receive it precisely because we don’t deserve it.”

“There it is,” Gambrell said, “and thanks be to God.”


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