I remember the first time praying the General Confession of the 1928 BCP during an Anglican Communion service. Needless to say, as everyone read together aloud, inwardly I recoiled at what struck my modern sensibilities as an archaic, over-wrought description of confessing sinners who “bewail our manifold sins and wickedness.” “Wickedness?” The confession went on to describe the weight of our sins in such a way that, “The remembrance of them is grievous unto us; The burden of them is intolerable.” “Isn’t that simply over-done?”, I thought. As a general rule “intolerable burden” wasn’t my choice of words when it came to describing sin in my life. And the phrase, “Provoking most justly thy wrath and indignation against us”, describing God’s position on the matter seemed, well, downright medieval, as if God were some mean exacting Potentate! Within I objected... “Sure we’re sinners, but we’re not that awful. And God isn’t really that upset at us because of our sin, is He? After all, Christ has died for our sins! He loves us!”
Well, over the past several years my thoughts have changed. In fact I have become more and more comfortable with the term “miserable offender” (as found in the BCP Morning Prayer confession) as an apt description of who I am in and of myself. And on the heels of my last post where I quote Paul writing to Timothy, “Faithful is the saying, and worthy of all acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners; of whom I am chief”, I want to suggest that not only are we sinners saved by grace but, now having believed, it is still as sinners we come to God and know him. To state it more pointedly I could say that in a real way we only come to God through, and not apart from, our sinfulness. Now, before I am accused of some new heresy let me unpack that assertion.
We are created beings, owing all we are and have to God. Not a breath we take nor a day we live is outside of our dependency upon his creative and sustaining power. Now let that sink in. Nothing begins with us. And when it comes to changing anything as touches our essential nature we are the clay, not the potter. But there is something else about us. Not only are we created beings, we are fallen beings. As Scripture teaches, nothing good dwells in our flesh... the thoughts of our hearts are continually wicked... our so-called righteous and good deeds are but filthy rags before our holy Creator. [Gen. 6:5; Jer. 17:9; Isa. 6:5, 59:12-15, 64:6; Rom. 3:10-18,7:18] As Christians, we generally believe that, but only really believe that when thinking of everyone else. When it comes to our own individual sinful natures we have a more generous take. The bottom line for each of us is that we don’t think we are really that bad! “Sure I sin every now and then (goes the modern thinking)... but I’m a fairly decent guy.” Looking horizontally and compared with the vast sea of humanity, as Stuart Smalley of SNL says, “I’m good enough...” Or as my brother sometimes says, I’m “not so bad.” We don’t really see our sinfulness vertically, i.e. compared to God’s holiness. In fact we avoid doing so save for the work of the Holy Spirit in our lives. [John 16:8]
So it is not surprising that it is nearly impossible, when left to myself, to take sin as seriously as the Scripture does (unless of course someone has wronged me!). Why is that? I think it has to do with the fact that I am a sinner! Sinners sin, and sinners hide from their sin. Jesus taught in the gospels this very thing when he said,
And this is the judgment, that the light is come into the world, and men loved the darkness rather than the light; for their works were evil. For every one that doeth evil hateth the light, and cometh not to the light, lest his works should be reproved.
That is us. The fallen reality of our humanity doesn’t disappear having believed on Christ. Upon repentance and trust in Christ our sins are indeed forgiven through his blood. Justified on the basis of his merit, we are declared righteous by God as if we indeed had and are living holy lives. Yet paradoxically we remain sinners though having been born anew of the Spirit - saints. And this means that “in thought, word, and deed” we sin, while all too often minimizing the pervasive presence of the fount of those sins - our very sinful natures. Why is that? Because sinners not only sin, they also rationalize and self-justify themselves. We are invariably prone to put a better gloss on what we are by nature. This is what the Morning Prayer in the BCP is referring to when the Minister exhorts concerning repentance, “that we should not dissemble nor cloak them [i.e. our sins] before the face of Almighty God our heavenly Father .” We are by nature “dissemblers”, i.e. we hide and cloak our sin from ourselves and God under the guise of false appearances. “For every one that doeth evil hateth the light, and cometh not to the light, lest his works should be reproved.” This is the one for whom Christ came. This is who we are.
So back to my assertion that it is through our sin that we come to God and know him. We are sinners. Yet no one (saved or unsaved) having sin, can on his own come into God’s presence, let alone on his own be spared from God's “wrath and indignation.” The children of Israel pleaded with Moses, “Speak thou with us, and we will hear; but let not God speak with us, lest we die” [Exodus 20:19]. The Old Testament Israelites were given the mediation of the Temple sacrificial system for sin in order that through the priest they could approach God. Everything in that priestly sacrificial worship system existed in order to remind the Israelites of the severity of their sin and of God’s unapproachable holiness. Death was deserved and so approach could only be made through through an acceptable blood sacrifice. And concerning that priesthood it is written, “who serve that which is a copy and shadow of the heavenly things.” [Heb. 8:5] They foreshadowed the true priestly mediation of the One, Jesus Christ, who as Priest offered Himself:
“But Christ having appeared as a high priest of the good things to come, through the greater and more perfect tabernacle, not made with hands, that is to say, not of this creation, nor yet through the blood of goats and calves, but through his own blood, entered in once for all into the holy place, having obtained eternal redemption. For if the blood of goats and bulls, and the ashes of a heifer sprinkling them that have been defiled, sanctify unto the cleanness of the flesh: how much more shall the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered himself without blemish unto God, cleanse your conscience from dead works to serve the living God? And for this cause he is the mediator of a new covenant, that a death having taken place for the redemption of the transgressions that were under the first covenant, they that have been called may receive the promise of the eternal inheritance... For Christ entered not into a holy place made with hands, like in pattern to the true; but into heaven itself, now to appear before the face of God for us.”
[Hebrews 9:12-16, 24]
The only man who can and has approached God in the holy place is the sinless man Jesus. The only means of approach to God for sinful man is by the one Man Jesus Christ and the sacrifice of himself on our behalf. The only place of meeting between sinful man and God is in the one Mediator Christ Jesus. It is only there in Him where the painful dilemma of our fallen nature has been completely and forever resolved. In this life we never graduate from coming to God through Christ as miserable sinners ("Oh wretched man that I am"). The spiritual blessings poured out on the forgiven are only known there, in and through him. We are believers because we’ve trust Christ as the divine cure (his death and resurrection) for our infirmities. And the Cure is efficacious only for those who are infirmed (Matt. 9:11-13). Only sinners need apply. Only sinners need come... daily. This is the seeming paradox of our faith. We’re not able in and of ourselves to escape or change “the body of this death” [Rom. 7:24] of which the Law disqualifies us. Yet by owning the very disqualification of our present sinful nature are we qualified for cleansing of our sinful natures and full acceptance before God in Christ.
“And their sins and their iniquities will I remember no more. Now where remission of these is, there is no more offering for sin. Having therefore, brethren, boldness to enter into the holy place by the blood of Jesus, by the way which he dedicated for us, a new and living way, through the veil, that is to say, his flesh; and having a great priest over the house of God; let us draw near with a true heart in fullness of faith, having our hearts sprinkled from an evil conscience: and having our body washed with pure water, let us hold fast the confession of our hope that it waver not; for he is faithful that promised.” [Hebrews 10:17-23]
And this new and living way of coming to God, inaugurated for us by Christ, never changes nor ceases for the saint yet sinner. And in fact it becomes our boast in the Lord.
For behold your calling, brethren, that not many wise after the flesh, not many mighty, not many noble, are called: but God chose the foolish things of the world, that he might put to shame them that are wise; and God chose the weak things of the world, that he might put to shame the things that are strong; and the base things of the world, and the things that are despised, did God choose, yea and the things that are not, that he might bring to nought the things that are: that no flesh should glory before God. But of him are ye in Christ Jesus, who was made unto us wisdom from God, and righteousness and sanctification, and redemption: that, according as it is written, He that glorieth, let him glory in the Lord. [1 Cor. 1:26-31]
General Confession - Holy Communion:
ALMIGHTY God, Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, Maker of all things, judge of all men; We acknowledge and bewail our manifold sins and wickedness, Which we, from time to time, most grievously have committed, By thought, word, and deed, Against thy Divine Majesty, Provoking most justly thy wrath and indignation against us. We do earnestly repent, And are heartily sorry for these our misdoings; The remembrance of them is grievous unto us; The burden of them is intolerable. Have mercy upon us, Have mercy upon us, most merciful Father; For thy Son our Lord Jesus Christ's sake, Forgive us all that is past; And grant that we may ever hereafter Serve and please thee In newness of life, To the honour and glory of thy Name; Through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen
Declared by the Minister:
ALMIGHTY God, our heavenly Father, who of his great mercy hath promised forgiveness of sins to all those who with hearty repentance and true faith turn unto him; Have mercy upon you; pardon and deliver you from all your sins; confirm and strengthen you in all goodness; and bring you to everlasting life; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
A General Confession - Morning Prayer:
ALMIGHTY and most merciful Father; We have erred, and strayed from thy ways like lost sheep. We have followed too much the devices and desires of our own hearts. We have offended against thy holy laws. We have left undone those things which we ought to have done; And we have done those things which we ought not to have done; And there is no health in us. But thou, O Lord, have mercy upon us, miserable offenders. Spare thou those, O God, who confess their faults. Restore thou those who are penitent; According to thy promises declared unto mankind in Christ Jesus our Lord. And grant, O most merciful Father, for his sake; That we may hereafter live a godly, righteous, and sober life, To the glory of thy holy Name. Amen.
Declared by the Minister:
ALMIGHTY God, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who desireth not the death of a sinner, but rather that he may turn from his wickedness and live, hath given power, and commandment, to his Ministers, to declare and pronounce to his people, being penitent, the Absolution and Remission of their sins. He pardoneth and absolveth all those who truly repent, and unfeignedly believe his holy Gospel.
Wherefore let us beseech him to grant us true repentance, and his Holy Spirit, that those things may please him which we do at this present; and that the rest of our life hereafter may be pure and holy; so that at the last we may come to his eternal joy; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.