A Changed Confession
Last February I changed the confession of sins that was to be used in the worship services. I regularly assist at Grace Lutheran Chapel in Bellefontaine Neighbors (a north suburb of St. Louis), and that weekend the three services were to use Creative Worship from the Synod. Since the congregation is vacant, I was the pastor on site. I was sent the bulletin and this was the printed confession:
O Lord our God, we confess that we have sought to keep you out of our lives, separating ourselves from both Your will and Your grace. We have set our minds on earthly things. So often our thoughts, words and actions label us as “enemies of the cross of Christ” (Philippians 3:18b). Do not reject us; rather for the sake of Jesus and His sacrifice, have mercy on us so that we may come to the joys of Your heavenly Jerusalem.
I did not use it even though it was in the bulletin.
Two items led me to substitute the hymnal’s confession in its place. First, Philippians 3 does not accuse the baptized believers of God gathered together to worship of being enemies of God. The Bible is simply misused in this confession. The passage encourages the people to imitate Paul as he presses forward toward the goal of the upward call in God in Christ Jesus. He is writing to those who are citizens of heaven. To label the contemporary worshippers as enemies is an errant application of this text.
The second is more subtle. It is the word “separating” in the first line. Now, I realize this could have the sense that we are currently separating ourselves and that the separation process is not complete. But I as I read it, my first reception was that we had separated ourselves from God because we had sought to keep God out of our lives. Then to read the sentence about being labeled enemies confirmed that understanding. I simply could not have the people of God, those whose baptisms had brought them into the Church –which the Invocation had just reaffirmed, admit they were separated from God.
So I had the people open the Hymnal. In doing so, I did not criticize the printed confession but, since I had already incorporated the well known confession into my sermon, I simply said I wanted the congregation to use that confession to tie into the sermon.
Now I’m not a strict liturgical advocate, and I fully participate in Grace Chapel’s late service which uses a praise band and contemporary service, with the hymns/songs and liturgy projected on a large screen. Whether to make use of only the hymnal or the appropriateness of using other worship materials are not the points of this piece.
Instead, I am concerned that somehow our Lutheran categories of Law/Gospel can become so formulaic and predetermined that the intent of the Biblical text and a theologically apt depiction of God’s people are too easily lost. A brief elaboration:
At times it seems that the approach is to search a text for whatever can be used to accuse someone, regardless of the text’s intent. For example, in Phil. 4 Paul exhorts us to rejoice in the Lord always. However, the use of the text in sermons and devotions is forced into the categories of accusing law and forgiving Gospel such that Paul’s exhortation becomes accusation (we don’t rejoice as we should). The text is not treated with integrity as a result. True, the Law always accuses, but that is not all it does. And when the text’s obvious and primary intent is to instruct or exhort, we need to be faithful to the text’s use, not force it into a predetermined Law/Gospel formula. In the case of the confession, the text was twisted by taking the accusation describing those outside the church and applying it to those in the church. In stark contrast, Paul’s address to those in the church was encouraging and exhortative.
The second issue is how people are viewed. The people in church are, for the most part, the baptized people of God. The Spirit has been at work in their lives. Faith has been engendered and even grown by God’s grace. Jesus has made them friends by His cross and resurrection. True, they are still sinful. But that makes them saint and sinner at the same time, not enemies of the cross. Not separated from God. What I am calling for is a theologically accurate depiction of God’s people, not a formulaic use of Law and Gospel toward a generic, sinful humanity. Another way to say this – take our baptismal theology seriously when a text is applied to the people who have been redeemed by Christ and welcomed into His Church.
Anyway, in that late service, the one with the praise band and screens for projecting the words of the service and songs, some of the children from Grace’s Day School were singing a special anthem. They were sitting right behind me in the front pews. Early in the service a familiar song was song and the kids were singing louder than the congregation – or so it seemed. Their voices were singing praises to Jesus. They were His friends. They were His children. At that moment, those youthful voices confirmed my decision to change the confession that morning.