Puritan Gems

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Elements Of Reformed Worship #4

Confession and Absolution

"In the year that King Uzziah died I saw the Lord sitting upon a throne, high and lifted up; and the train of his robe filled the temple. Above him stood the seraphim. Each had six wings: with two he covered his face, and with two he covered his feet, and with two he flew. And one called to another and said: "Holy, holy, holy is the LORD of hosts; the whole earth is full of his glory!" And the foundations of the thresholds shook at the voice of him who called, and the house was filled with smoke. And I said: "Woe is me! For I am lost; for I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips; for my eyes have seen the King, the LORD of hosts!" Then one of the seraphim flew to me, having in his hand a burning coal that he had taken with tongs from the altar. And he touched my mouth and said: "Behold, this has touched your lips; your guilt is taken away, and your sin atoned for." And I heard the voice of the Lord saying, "Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?" Then I said, "Here am I! Send me."” (Isaiah 6:1-8)

"Accordingly, until God reveals himself to us, we do not think that we are men, or rather, we think that we are gods; but when we have seen God, we then begin to feel and know what we are. Hence springs true humility, which consists in this, that a man makes no claims for himself, and depends wholly on God." - John Calvin

How easy is it to pronounce “Woe” to those who live wicked lives in rebellion to the Lord, and not consider our own deformity? Isaiah, prophet of God, spent five chapters prophesying two sets of triple “Woes” against Judah and Jerusalem (Isaiah 5:8-23). In Hebrew, repeating a word is tantamount to a superlative (ie. Holy of Holies), and using a word 3 times has special emphasis beyond the superlative. The woes of Judah can be contrasted by the “Holy, Holy, Holy” description of God given by the seraphim, a God whose majesty is such that even sinless angels must cover their faces.

When Isaiah experiences this awesome presence, the focus of his pronouncement of judgment changes to himself; “Woe is me!” Isaiah, being a lowly creature, keeps his eyes low, and thus can only describe the activity at the feet of God, the train of His robe. At this point, Isaiah cannot but confess his sin, because “... my eyes have seen the King, the LORD of hosts”. Thus I would think it fair to surmise that any “worship” service where confession of sin is not made either has no knowledge of God’s holiness, or just doesn’t take sin seriously.

“When you come to appear before me, who has required of you this trampling of my courts?...Wash yourselves; make yourselves clean; remove the evil of your deeds from before my eyes;” (Isaiah 1:12, 16)

The “confession” of sin need not be made to an earthly priest, but to the one and only High Priest. In many Reformed Churches, the corporate confession of sin is proceeded by the Reading of the Law, since it is by the law that we can clearly see our unworthiness. This confession may be silent meditation, or a reading of Scripture such as Psalm 51, or another corporate confession.

O Lord,

My every sense, member, faculty, affection is a snare to me,
I can scarcely open my eyes but I envy those above me, or despise those below.
I covet honour and riches of the mighty, and am proud and unmerciful to the rags of others;
If I behold beauty it is a bait to lust, or see deformity, it stirs up loathing and disdain;
How soon to slanders, vain jests, and wanton speeches creep into my heart!
Am I comely? What a fuel for pride!
Am I deformed? What an occasion for repining!
Am I gifted? I lust after applause!
Am I unlearned? How I despise what I have not!
Am I in authority? How prone to abuse my trust, make will my law, exclude others’ enjoyments, serve my own interests and policy!
Am I inferior? How much I grudge others’ pre-eminence!
Am I rich? How exalted I become!
Thou knowest that all these are snares by my corruptions, and that my greatest snare is myself.
I bewail that my apprehensions are dull, my thoughts mean, my affections stupid, my expressions low, my life unbeseeming;
Yet what canst thou expect of dust but levity, of corruption but defilement?
Keep me ever mindful of my natural state, but let me not forget my heavenly title, or the grace that can deal with every sin.

(Self-Deprecation from “The Valley of Vision”.)

While our sin is ever before us, all of this is a precursor to the good news, and assurance of pardon. Immediate after Isaiah confesses his sin, he receives absolution. “Your guilt is taken away, and your sin atoned for". As such, it is befitting to read a portion of the gospel that speaks wondrously of this assurance.

“Blessed is the one whose transgression is forgiven,
whose sin is covered.
Blessed is the man against whom the LORD counts no iniquity,
and in whose spirit there is no deceit.
For when I kept silent, my bones wasted away
through my groaning all day long.
For day and night your hand was heavy upon me;
my strength was dried up as by the heat of summer. Selah
I acknowledged my sin to you, and I did not cover my iniquity;
I said, "I will confess my transgressions to the LORD," and you forgave the iniquity of my sin. Selah” (Psalm 32:1-5)

As glorious as Isaiah’s vision was, we have even a more glorious revelation through Christ, who is “… the radiance of the glory of God and the exact imprint of his nature” (Hebrews 1:3). “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.” (1 John 1:9). It is then that Isaiah may answer the call of God "Here am I", or literally "Behold Me". What a change, from "Woe is me" to "Behold me"!

"he has now reconciled in his body of flesh by his death, in order to present you holy and blameless and above reproach before him," (Colossians 1:22)

Recommended Reading: With Reverence and Awe: Returning to the Basics of Reformed Worship by Hart and Muether

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