The very first of Martin Luther’s 95 theses was on repentance: “Our Lord and Master Jesus Christ, when he said [to repent], willed that the whole life of believers should be repentance.”
Is Luther right? Is repentance our whole life?
There’s wisdom in this statement. If it is true, and a believer is a repenter, then it would stand to reason that someone who is not a repenter is not in fact a believer. This gives us great cause to consider the importance of repentance, does it not?
Now, there are few evangelicals who would argue that repentance is not a necessary aspect of receiving justification (and those who would argue this are called “non-lordship” folk, but they're hard to find these days—bless their souls—because they’ve been hiding out ever since the 80s, when John MacArthur showed ‘em a thing or two). The real question is this: how important is this practice after the initial moment of conversion? Should we really continue to perpetuate mini-conversions over and over again? Confess, repent, celebrate in forgiveness, repeat.
The answer is yes; not only because Luther tells us so, but because the Bible tells us so. Consider just two examples: When Jesus is asked by his disciples how to pray, he gives them the instruction to ask for forgiveness (Matt. 6:9-13). This is not a one-and-done prayer; its very structure implies that it’s a template for a regular prayer life. The second example is basically the first chapter of 1 John, in which John informs his readers (his Christian readers) that if they insist that they have no sin to confess, they are big fat liars, but if they confess their sins, they are offered forgiveness and cleansing at the hand of their advocate, who just so happens to be Jesus Christ the Righteous.
Now, if confession and repentance should be a regular part of the Christian life on an individual level, why on earth should we think that this should be any different on a corporate level? Shouldn’t James 5:16 at least give us reason to consider incorporating this in our regular gatherings?
I am not a very old man, but I have attended more than a few churches in my lifetime, and I have hardly seen confession woven into the corporate gatherings of God’s people. Why is this? Whenever I ask this question to contemporary evangelicals, I pretty much get one answer (dressed up in different garb to disguise itself as different answers): it’s too Catholic. Seriously, that’s the answer. I’m sorry, but I only have one word to describe the rejection of such a theologically rich, biblically merited, and practically helpful activity on such trivial grounds: lamesauce.
Our position as a church should be pro-biblical and, by succession, pro-sanctifying; rather than anti-liturgical. If a practice can be used in a worship gathering as a consistent means of grace, and if there is scriptural merit for it, then we should enthusiastically endorse it. I may be running the risk of flattening too many theological concepts here, but if we, as believers, are made into a royal priesthood by virtue of our union with the Great High Priest, then we should understand some priestly privileges as being assigned to us. Obviously we are not offering any atoning sacrifices on behalf of each other, but the act of declaring the trustworthiness of Christ’s atoning sacrifice does lie with us. There is a sense in which God is speaking to us, by speaking through us. To borrow from one of R.C. Sproul’s stories, the Catholic practice of confessing one’s sin to a priest and receiving the assurance of pardon from him is not all that unbiblical, as long as one responds to said priest with, “OK, your turn.”
At our church, we regularly confess our sins corporately, and we regularly hear God speak through our pastors when they preach the gospel faithfully. When the confession of our sins is followed by a declaration of the gospel, our pastors are essentially saying to us, “If you are in Christ, the sins you have just confessed are forgiven.” This is not presumptuous either, because the entire surety of one’s sins being forgiven hinges on one’s union to Christ; the one declaring the truth puts the forgiving prerogative entirely on Christ, where it belongs.
There is something truly powerful about this pattern; confessing sins, and then hearing the rock-solid declaration of God’s forgiveness of those sins is a glorious thing to experience. In that moment, the speaker stands in place of God and speaks his grace; and as long as the words are biblical, and contain gospel truth, the hearer can receive them confidently with joy.