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Entries in confession (6)


A Modern Trinitarian Confession Song, with Some Tradition Sprinkled In

In my chapter, "The Worship Leader and the Trinity," in Doxology and Theology, I try to give feet to how the people of God encounter Him as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit in worship. Sometimes, as church leaders we think too narrowly about the ways in which people can learn of and actually know God more deeply. We can think that our only recourse for people understanding and engaging God as Trinity is didactically, in the wooden sense of imparting knowledge and ideas through teaching and hearing. "Here, let me teach you that God is Triune, and let me unpack what that means"...kind of like a textbook, a chapter in a systematic theology, or a catechism. Classroom-style teaching like this is wonderful, but it is not the only way that people learn of and experience God as Triune. 

I began to wrestle with all of this several years ago, and it led me to several questions, including: 

  • What would it look like for the people of God to confess our sins in a Trinitarian shape?
  • Are there qualities of the Three Persons worth highlighting in the moment of confession?
  • What would three-ness-in-oneness look like in our confession?

My friend, Bruce Benedict of Cardiphonia, and I began answering those questions in the form of a song. It became a confession that pulled in some historic words that the church has used in moments like these, as well.  It's called, "Father, Only in Your Power." We sing it all the time at Coral Ridge, and it's always powerful. Listen here, and allow me to explore the text.

Confessing to God the Father

1. Father, only in Your power
Can we ascend to You.
Help us, Father, we are helpless
To pay our righteous due.  

Among other things, God the Father is Law-maker, Law-articulator, source of Justice, and (along with Christ) Judge. He sets the standard and shows us the bar. As Father, he sets the pace for His household of kids (us). It makes sense, then, to highlight the helplessness which is immediately exposed when we encounter God the Father.

Confessing to God the Son

2. Jesus, only in Your weakness
can we your kingdom claim
Help us, Jesus, we are reckless
in self-destruction’s chains

Jesus, as Son, is our picture of Divine humility. He demonstrates God's love and power as self-sacrifice and submission. In His ministry on earth, Christ turned our concepts of power upside-down (well, really, rightside-up), exposing that we go about life all the wrong way. He gave us a vision of THE Kingdom that looks completely different than all the kingdoms we erect and admire, both in our individual hearts and in our corporate institutions. Our recklessness in seeking our own kingdom's gain is ultimately self-destructive, and it is the antithesis of the "abundant life" of the Son's Kingdom. We are exposed, again.

Confessing to God the Spirit

3. Spirit, only in Your presence
can we true union find.
Help us, Spirit, we are restless
Our soul’s divisions bind.

The Holy Spirit is the Spirit of peace and unity. He joins and unites the affections of the Father and Son (think about the fact that when Jesus prayed His most intimate prayer to the Father in John 17, he did so in the Spirit; or think about how at the beginning of Jesus' ministry, the Spirit descended when the Father declared His pleasure in the Son). He joins us in union with God the Son that we might have fellowship with the Father. He unifies the Church as the Spirit of Truth. His presence exposes our discord, factiousness, barriers, and walls. He reveals our penchant for division with the other members of Christ's Body, and He casts a spotlight on all our internal division and self-conflict. We are internally and externally restless. We confess these things and more to the Spirit who is actively working to pursue the opposite in our lives and in our Church.

The Kyrie and Agnus Dei

Lord, have mercy
Christ, have mercy
Lord, have mercy 

Lamb of God,
Who takes away the sins of the world
Have mercy on us
Lamb of God,
Slain before the dawn of the world
Have mercy on us 

The Church, historically, had one very simple response to the problem of sin...the ancient cry, "Lord, have mercy." It's a cry that acknowledges helplessness, and it is the soil in which sola gratia (the doctrine of grace alone) grows. It is translated from the Latin, Kyrie, eleison.

Then, sung three times, the historic Agnus Dei (Latin for "Lamb of God"), which builds off Revelation 5 & 13, intensifies the plea of the Kyrie.

The Unifying Solution: The Blood of Christ

4. Father, Son, and Holy Spirit
Our ancient curse we own
Broken in the blood of Adam
The blood of Christ now show

As the song finishes, we "own our curse" by acknowledging we are culpable as blood-heirs of the first Adam, yet seeing hope in the blood of the Second, Greater Adam. As a true confession, it does not offer the words of God's gracious pardon to us (many modern songs of confession go there), but anticipates and demands them. This song needs to be followed up with God's gracious Word. We often sing "Nothing But the Blood" after a song like this.

"Father Only In Your Power"
Words & Music: Zac Hicks & Bruce Benedict, 2013
©2013 Unbudding Fig Music (ASCAP) / Cardiphonia Music
CCLI song #7006730

On Worship That Makes Us Feel Lousy

Worship should be uplifting, right? It should make us feel great, right? Well...sort of. Worshipers and worship leaders need to take a good, hard look at the Scriptures and ask, "What is the Bible's vision of worship?" THAT starting point--not what worship we grew up with, not what worship gives us goose bumps, not even what our favorite worship leader or blogger tells us--is the only way to begin finding healthy, wholesome answers.

So, for example, we open up to the Psalms, God's only inspired grouping of top-150 worship songs. What do we see? What fills its contents? What language does it employ? What are its postures? What emotions spread across its spectrum? Well, among other things, there is a whole lot of not-so-pleasant feelings. Dark feelings. Honest feelings. Lousy feelings. And there's a reason for that. 

Over at the Worship Cohort, I spring off a wonderful quote by Matt Redman and explain why good worship should make us feel painfully scrutinized, uncomfortably exposed. In fact, if you've experienced a worship service where you haven't felt like a helpless mountaineer atop a cave-less mountain peak during a lightning storm, you haven't experienced worship's fullness.

In this post, I explore Isaiah's own journey into lousy-feeling worship, and I explain how the Biblical and Reformational dynamics of Law and Gospel are at play when we gather corporately as God's people. Here's a choice, quote, but please go read the post.

Do we worship leaders recognize that part of worship’s job is to make us feel uncomfortable for a time? Contained in a well-balanced, full-bodied worship service should be at least a moment where each and every one of us feels jerked to a halt under the white-hot scrutiny of God’s holy eye. The holiness of God should feel, among other things, like the unrelenting sun in a shade-less desert. You can’t run from its blistering rays.


Confession Song Based on the Book of Common Prayer

I want to share with you a little bit about what drove us to write and record "Most Merciful God" off our EP, His Be the Victor's Name. (You can listen to the song below.)

When I arrived at Coral Ridge, one of the things that I and the other leadership began to discover is that God was leading us into a season of expanding our worship vocabulary. Particularly, we discerned that our church needed to be able to have a wider range of expression for the way that we confessed our sin and lamented the brokenness of the world. 

In the immediate years prior, Coral Ridge had not had much regular language for confession, and we knew that for some people from some backgrounds the idea of confession in a worship service would feel foreign and maybe even a little too "spooky-turgical." Over the years, I've discovered a consistent bridge that modern worship leaders can employ when they get the bug to introduce content into the worship that may be a bit foreign: make it a song. Sing that element.

Why We Must Confess

Time and again, I've seen people's guard come down when they are able to sing it. Perhaps this is because singing bypasses some of the normal filter-processes and goes straight to the heart. In all honesty, I do think that one of the regular "oughts" of a worship service is Confession of Sin, but I also know that some traditions have fostered the (ultimately soul-killing) idea that worship is supposed to be happy, joyful, and uplifting. I don't disagree with that idea. In fact, worship's uplifting, joyful nature is another "ought" for me. But the big question I have is, "How does the Bible say we get there?"

How do we get to a place of true joy in worship? When will our worship services feel most uplifting? It happens most accutely when worship is Christ-centered in the deepest sense...which means that it is Christ-mediated. We must come to the end of ourselves to recognize that we can't mediate our own worship. We can't usher ourselves into the service. We must be brought in by the covering of Another. Christ must stand in the gap. The end-of-myself moment in worship happens when we confess our sin, when we say, "I have no right to stand before You in worship, God; in fact, the one thing I deserve now is your righteous judgment and wrath." As long as we hang on to a sense of worthiness and fitness, we've come to worship with far too much bravado. (I discussed this idea in a post a few months back, "Do I Qualify for Worship?")

Coral Ridge, being a church that champions the message of the Gospel--God's free grace for train-wrecked sinners--recognized that we needed to more fully embody the Gospel in our worship. We knew we needed to come confessing.

The Beauty of the BCP's Confession

One of the standard confessions of the Book of Common Prayer (BCP, the liturgical guide-book used by Anglicans and Episcopalians for worship) functions for confession in a similar way to how the Lord's Prayer functions for praying. From an early age, I was taught that the Lord's Prayer was a model-prayer, designed to walk us through the various aspects of prayer (e.g. worship, kingdom-oriented entreaty, individual-oriented supplication, etc.). The BCP's confession has functioned very similarly for me. Its headings help me to understand the ways I can sin ("thought, word, and deed") and how I can sin ("by what we have done...and left undone").  It helps me to understand what my sin ultimately boils down to (neither loving God nor my neighbor) and how to feel while confession ("we are truly sorry"). Sometimes, when I feel like I'm stuck in my own personal confession, I will walk through the BCP's confession in my own mind to prime my confession pump. It almost always does the trick of excavating things I hadn't thought about. That's the beauty of the BCP's confession.

Our Song

So it seemed fitting that one of the first confession songs that Coral Ridge would learn to sing in this new dawn for our church would be an adaptation of this prayer. And that's precisely what we did. I tried to keep us as close to the text as possible while allowing it to be singable and memorable. I also added a very Anglican-like litany at the end, moving us out of confession into asking for mercy to be the kinds of people we should be under grace. But even then, those prayers are a kind of confession themselves, because we know we're not those things.  This song is in regular rotation at our church. Take a listen to it, and feel free to grab some of the free resources below. I think the melody is very adaptable to different situations, from choir-led traditional services, to uber-hip ambient-indie services.

Most Merciful God

chord chart | lead sheet


1. Most merciful God
We confess that we have sinned
In our thoughts and words and deeds
We’ve broken Your law
By the things that we have done
And the things we’ve left undone

Have mercy
Have mercy 

2. We have not loved You
With the fullness of our heart
Nor our neighbor as ourselves
We lack the goodness
To feel sorrow as we should
To repent and turn to You

Have mercy
Have mercy

For the sake of Your Son
Have mercy on us
For the sake of Your Son
Have mercy on us 

May we joy in Your will
Have mercy on us
May we walk in Your ways
Have mercy on us

May we love as You love
Have mercy on us
May we weep as You weep
Have mercy on us

May we serve as You serve
Have mercy on us
May we speak as You speak
Have mercy on us

May we go as You go
Have mercy on us
May we care as You care
Have mercy on us

Make us one as You’re one
Have mercy on us
Father, Son, Holy Ghost,
Have mercy on us

Words: Zac Hicks, 2013, based on the Book of Common Prayer
Music: Zac Hicks & Julie Anne Vargas, 2013
©2013 Unbudding Fig Music (ASCAP), Julie Anne Vargas

Rightly Parsing "Being a Clean Vessel" for Worship Leaders


Sometimes we evangelicals forget how much we "ghetto-ize" our vocabulary. Videos like this one humorously remind us of how foreign our conversations can sound. One of the phrases that often gets tossed around in ministry circles, especially in the spheres of worship leading, is "being a clean vessel."  We pray prayers like these before worship services:

Lord, we just want to be clean vessels this morning as we come to You.  We don't want our sin to get in the way of people worshiping You, so please forgive us and use us as channels of Your mercy.

It's a good prayer.  It's an honest prayer.  I've prayed it many times myself.  I've come to the conclusion, though, that this prayer could mean a bunch of things we don't want it to mean.  I think there are probably honest and formative ways to pray such a phrase, but to me it can too easily mislead us down roads we don't really want to go.  I know it has misled me.

Where Does the Phrase Come From?

Biblically, a "vessel" (especially in the King James) is "something which contains," like a jar, pot, or vat.  The Pentateuch is filled with references to "vessels," particularly for holy use by the priests.  They were containers for holy water (Num 5:17), or oil (Num 4:8; Matt 25:4), for instance.  They were sprinkled with blood (e.g. Heb 9:21) to be set aside for holy use.  They even became the receptacle for the spilled blood of a sacrificial animal (Lev 14:4-6).  Vessels were the "props" of worship, liturgical instruments whose care and maintenance were charged to the Levites (Num 1:50; 3:31). Not only were vessels made out of clay; they were also made of precious metals, which is why the vessels of the sanctuary were often taken as the spoils of war (2 Kings 4:14).  Vessels were precious, and their cleanliness and purity, especially when it came to worship, were important.  They were "the holy vessels of God" (2 Chron 22:19). In contexts of prophetic judgment, Isaiah contrasts "clean vessels" with Israel's unclean offerings (Isa 66:20).

We Are Vessels

We start to see the crossover of "vessels" as a metaphor for "people set aside to be used by God" in places like Acts 9:15, where Saul-about-to-be-Paul is named God's "chosen vessel."  Romans 9 famously and puzzlingly depicts God's sovereign providence over "vessels of mercy" and "vessels of wrath." 

We get more specific in 2 Cor 4:7, where Paul talks about believers being ordinary "earthen vessels" who get to paradoxically contain the "treasure" of God.  But perhaps the verse that most accurately mirrors our prayers is 2 Tim 2:20-21 (KJV):

But in a great house there are not only vessels of gold and of silver, but also of wood and of earth; and some to honour, and some to dishonour.  If a man therefore purge himself from these, he shall be a vessel unto honour, sanctified, and meet for the master's use, and prepared unto every good work.

There we have it.  It appears that our prayers for "being a clean vessel" are derived from ceremonial-liturgical language of holiness, set-apart-ness.  We "prepare for the good work" of worship by asking God to make us a "vessel meet for the master's use."  

Praying Down Wrong Roads

The difficulty of asking God to "make us clean vessels" lies in some unhealthy theology we may be unknowingly buying into when we employ this phrase.  Though this prayer seems like just an echo of 2 Tim 2:21, the way we pray it often gives off the air that a worship service's success is riding on whether or not we've adequately confessed our sin to God.  We often pray to be "clean vessels" with the metaphor in our minds of a dirty or clogged pipe through which the power and presence of God cannot travel, so long as it's plugged.  Our prayer asks God to roto-rooter our souls with the snake of His grace so that His holy presence can rush forth through us as we lead worship.

If we're thinking this way, we're thinking dangerously too highly of ourselves. We're starting to transgress the edge of territory that is reserved for Christ alone.  Worship leaders often get caught up in language and thinking that puts us in the position of "mediators of God's presence."  We can unknowingly pray in such a way that reveals that we believe that we, or the worship band, or the music somehow mediates God's presence to His people. Suddenly, we've reverted back to the Old Covenant where the priestly mediators (who prefigured Jesus), functioned as the connection point between God and the people.  But Christ has shut those temporary operations down once and for all at the cross, becoming both priest and sacrifice (Heb 9).  Why would we want to set up shop again at the construction site, when the work is finished?  We need to be very, very careful not to begin to think of ourselves as mediators of God's presence.  We are nothing of the sort.  Such "secondary mediators" include things like preaching and the Lord's Supper, in which there is indeed human involvement.  But my fear is that we worship leaders go farther.

Some of us pray to be "clean vessels" as if the whole worship service is dependent upon our personal confession. The truth is that the Holy Spirit is a gracious, incremental revealer of the depths of our sin.  If we knew just how deep our depravity was, we would probably be overwhelmed to the point of spiritual, even physical, paralysis. If the worship service is dependent upon whether we've gotten all that sin exposed out the way, we're sunk before we've even started, because we don't know the half of it.  

The reality is that God does what He does in worship much more in spite of us than because of us.  The whole point of us being called "earthen vessels" and "jars of clay" is precisely SO we recognize that we are broken, not whole; dirty, not clean.  God's glory shines much more magnificently as we realize our weakness, not as we try our darndest to get clean.  

We also mustn't forget that God is so much bigger, His purposes for worship are so much grander, and His presence in worship so much more brilliant, than our sin and confession.  Sometimes, when we're praying to be "clean vessels," we're acting as though God's presence and power are bound by whether or not we've performed a certain prayer ritual.  If we're thinking like that, we're thinking way too small about God and His ability.  God has been in the business of sovereignly subverting our piddly little selves for millenia.  

Already Clean Vessels

The paradox of the worship leader (and any Christian, for that matter) is that we are already clean vessels by virtue of and now.  We've already been justified, already declared righteous.  God sees us as holy, perfect, spotless vessels, and He sees us as such by virtue of Another.  The good news for worship leaders is that even though we don't feel like clean vessels, even though we don't demonstrate ourselves to be clean vessels, IN CHRIST WE ARE.  Here and now.  Forever and ever.  Amen.  Luther described this "place" as simul justus et peccator, "simultaneously saint and sinner."  It's a weird place.  But it's precisely where we are.

A Better Prayer to Pray

What might we put in place of desperate pleas for God to make us clean?  I often lead our other leaders in worship with prayers like this:

God, we confess that we're unclean vessels.  We confess that we're jars of clay.  Why would You choose to use us this day?  Forgive us our sins, yet again.  We confess our inadequacy, our brokenness.  We confess that even our best efforts, left to themselves, are poisoned wells of unclean water. 

Show us Christ again today.  Holy Spirit, remind us of His great love, His great life, His great sacrifice.  Reveal the excellencies and perfections of our Great Mediator.  Make Him seen and known today.  And we will gladly be used by You, knowing that You love us, forgive us, and choose to use us, in spite of us.

Perhaps it sounds awfully the same as "make us clean vessels," but do you see the difference in posture?  In prayers like these, we're not aiming at getting right with God so that we can be used.  We're aiming at humbly asking that God use us in spite of ourselves, precisely because we are already right with Him.  The best prayer we can pray is a simple, "Show us our sin that we might confess it, but show us the Christ that is greater than all our sin."  As worship leaders, we don't need to necessarily feel more clean in order to get the job done.  Rather, we need Christ, in all His glory, to be more clear, more powerful, and more beautiful.  

Jesus is the only Clean Vessel.  Jesus is the only mediator of God's presence.  Jesus is the one true Worship Leader.  Let's make it a point to make THAT our greater confession.


The Antidote to Bad Theology is Good Worship

There’s a lot of hubbub out there in Evangelicaland about Rob Bell’s new book, Love Wins.  I have not read the book.  The accusations are that Rob Bell is a (Christo-centric) universalist—i.e. in the end everyone gets saved.  I hear these accusations from folks I trust.  Nevertheless, Bell says he’s not (see this fascinating MSNBC interview), so I’ll take his word that he’s not intending to convey the universalism it appears he does.

While I don’t side with Bell, I do not have the same fear I’ve been sensing some pastors do that this will stir up heresy in my local church, despite the fact that among our people are some die hard Nooma fans.  Why?  Because I’m my church’s primary worship-planner, and I know what our flock is fed, week in and week out.

Worship truly is a form of indoctrination.  “Indoctrination” is a four-letter word in postmodernity, for it is the unpardonable sin—forcing someone to believe what you believe.  Such doings would be grievous sin, if it were indoctrinating falsehood.  If it is The Truth, then indoctrination is not only good.  It is the right thing to do.   So indoctrination is one of the things the Church should be about.  She is the pillar and foundation of truth, after all (1 Tim 3:15).  The reason that worship is a form of indoctrination is that both the content and the form of worship train us, shape us, and teach us. 

Let’s take the test case of the present universalism scare.  Weekly, our church worships through a very specific progression of the Gospel.  We enter in, praising God for His character, holiness, perfection, and glory.  Met by such a Presence, we are immediately confronted by our own sin and brokenness.  We confess that to God, and we find Him responding by yet again proclaiming the Good News of Christ’s salvation: because He lived perfectly, we can receive his spotless record; because He died sacrificially, we can receive the Father’s forgiveness.  We respond in praise and thanksgiving, offering ourselves, in turn, wholeheartedly to God. 

When that cycle is imbibed weekly by our people, if they truly imbibed it, then I don’t need to schedule a special “Why Universalism is Bad” module into our Sunday School curriculum.  They have been drinking the antidote to bad theology every week.  The Gospel cycle presents us with the reality of hell, damnation, and judgment.  And it presents us with the true grace of heaven, forgiveness, and pardon…in Christ.  We learn in the Gospel cycle that God must judge to satisfy His holy character, or else He would not be a God of integrity.  We learn in the Gospel cycle that God has judged His Son in our place.  Love only wins if it’s set against the backdrop of God’s holiness.  Otherwise, it’s impotent, costless, insignificant, Oprah-style love.

Good, Gospel-soaked worship, in this instance, defends heresy just as well as a systematic theology course. Indoctrination certainly is not the goal and objective of worship.  But when worship is done well, indoctrination is a glorious byproduct.  Worship leaders, this begs the question: What are you feeding your people?  If all you’re giving them is the touchy-feely, lovey-dovey stuff, then maybe you should be a little concerned when the winds of heresy blow your way.

Keep her life and doctrine pure;
Grand her patience to endure;
Trusting in Thy promise sure.
We beseech Thee, hear us.

Thomas Pollock, 1871


Confession Isn’t Only About Sin (Liturgical Lessons from Isaiah 53)

I have the privilege of being part of a pretty dynamic pastoral team.  We maintain a shared leadership model, and there really is a sense of mutuality among us, despite the pastoral prefixes of “Senior” and “Associate.” Our shared leadership now extends to a more shared preaching model (a newer innovation), and with that comes shared exegetical (Bible study) and homiletical (sermon) preparation. 

A recent thought-provoking concept emerged from my colleague Marty Martin out of one of these think-tank sessions.  Marty read the following passage:

Surely he took up our infirmities and carried our sorrows,
Yet we considered him stricken by God,
Smitten by him, and afflicted.
But he was pierced for our transgressions,
He was crushed for our iniquities;
The punishment that brought us peace was upon him,
And by his wounds we are healed.

Isaiah 53:4-5, NIV

We’re Protestants, so a big part of our understanding of salvation in Christ involves substitutionary atonement and justification by faith alone.  Marty pointed out that one of the negative effects of this theological emphasis is that, in worship, it truncates Confession to be purely a confession of sin.  Of course, confession of sin is valuable and even integral to the gospel, but it is not its sum.  Philosophers would say it is “necessary but not sufficient” to display the gospel.  Marty made the point that personal sin is merely a subset of the greater package of the human problem—need.  He said that our neediness includes but goes beyond our moral sinfulness.

When we read the passage above (observing my underlinings), we notice that what Christ bore on the cross was more than our “transgressions” and “iniquities,” though, so often, that is what we truncate the gospel to.  He bore our “infirmities.”  He held our “sorrows.”  He took on our peacelessness, our sickness, and our brokenness.  It is not "by His wounds we are forgiven," but, "by His wounds we are healed."  The Gospel shares the news of a greater healing than merely the healing of our sin.  In it we hear that Christ bore my wife’s cancer, my friend’s chronic illness, my son’s autism, and my grandmother’s dementia.  Christ took on my real animosity against radical Islam in Afghanistan.  He bore the weeping of my friend going through a divorce. 

Liturgically, then, what are we saying if, week after week, all we do is confess our sin?  We are certainly saying that the Gospel is the remedy of our moral failure (which it is) and that it is also the news of a broken relationship restored between me, a sinner, and God all-holy.  But, without further explanation, that’s about where it ends.  Of course, if that’s all we say, I think we’ve done pretty well, because the Gospel’s essence can certainly be distilled into those realities.  But can’t we use the Confession as a time to prepare for receiving a more robust, full-orbed good news?

What if, from time to time, we were to shake things up and not so much have a “Confession of Sin” but a “Confession of Need?”  What if, in our silent prayers, instead of praying, “God, I repent of having done x, y, and z,” we prayed, “God, I’m really sick,” or “God, I’m really sad”?  Imagine how different the proclamation of the Gospel would sound having made those kinds of confessions.  Think about how much more glorious the life, death, and resurrection of Christ becomes in the eyes of the people of God!