Thought on Public Prayer
I was on holiday for a few days last weekend and due to a failure to check service times I missed the morning service at the local Free Church of Scotland. Fortunately there was another evangelical church nearby which started later and I was able to attend there with my family.
Their service was very different from the orderly Reformed worship which is my norm. Every church, whether they acknowledge it or not, has a liturgy. Some liturgies are formal, others informal; some written, others unwritten; some rigorously adhered to, others very flexible. I knew the background of this church, therefore I could predict with a sense of certainty the unwritten liturgy, music and even the dress code.
The pastor was dressed very casually – denim jeans and sweatshirt. The music was led by a praise band. The songs had multiple repetitions; the tunes were all similar and not memorable, and if we in the Free Church of Scotland had sung at the tempo they used people would have complained at the dirge like pace of the psalms.
We sang continuously for twenty-five minutes. It seems that this was the “worship time”, so I was confused as to what the rest of the service was. However there was much that was positive and encouraging.
The preaching was biblical and did genuinely grapple with a difficult passage, (Acts 5). There were clear affirmations of fundamental biblical truths such as the holiness of God, the sinfulness of sin, the atonement as a propitiatory sacrifice and the bodily resurrection and ascension of Christ.
What did I miss? Obviously I missed singing Scripture, although there was only one Jesus is my Boyfriend type song. More significantly, I missed the prayer of confession and a biblical declaration of gospel absolution. Now this was odd – they obviously believed in a holy God and the need for confession. I knew this because at the end of the sermon we were invited to write our sins on pieces of paper and place them in buckets with the assurance that they would be burned. (I declined the invitation.) So we did acknowledge sin, but only at the close of the service.
It means we began worship entering into the presence of a holy God and did not first confess our sins and seek his assurance of forgiveness. We also lost the opportunity to have the promise of the gospel set forth simply and explicitly in a declaration of gospel forgiveness for those who repent and embrace Christ as Saviour by faith.
My hope and prayer is that evangelical congregations would embrace a more biblical pattern of worship. I am encouraged that some similar congregations are beginning to embrace such.
Here, for comparison, is the prayer of confession used by Knox and the declaration of forgiveness that followed. It provides a useful model on which to pattern our own public prayer.
Almighty God, we are unworthy to come into your presence because of our many sins. We do not deserve any grace or mercy from you. We have sinned against you, and we have offended you. And yet, O Lord, as we acknowledge our sins and offenses, so also do we acknowledge you to be a merciful God, a loving and favourable Father, to all who turn to you. And so we humbly ask you, for the sake of Christ your son, to show mercy to us, and forgive us all our offenses. Forgive the sins of our youth, and the sins of our old age. By your Spirit, O God, take possession of our hearts, so that, not only the actions of our life, but also the words of our mouths, and the smallest thoughts of our minds, may be guided and governed by you. Through Jesus Christ our Lord, to whom, with you and the Holy Spirit, be all honour and glory, now and forever. Amen.
Assurance and Absolution
This saying is true and we should believe it: that Christ Jesus came into the world to rescue sinners. He himself bore our sins in his body on the cross, that we might be dead to sin and alive to all that is good. To all those who repent, therefore, I proclaim to you the forgiveness of all your sins, in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen