ON THE SERVICES OF THE CHURCH, No. II:
ON THE GENERAL CONFESSION.
Every word here is so simple, and goes so straight to the heart, that it needs no explanation; and yet frequent and too often careless repetition has such a deadening effect upon our minds, that we may not do amiss to spend some time over this part of our service.
How childlike is the openings sentence, "Almighty and most merciful Father, we have erred;" here is no concealment or palliation attempted: we own freely we have erred, we have no wish to hide our faults, for it is to a most merciful Father that we come.
Then notice the contrast offered in the two next sentences. "We have followed too much the devices and desires of our own hearts. We have offended against thy holy laws." On one side is God's holy law, pure and spotless, the dictate of infinite wisdom, the counsel of unsearchable love. Love is its one pervading principle, but how endless the beauty and variety of its development. Now it would manifest itself in holy zeal, now in gentle tenderness: here in free condescension, there in lowly submission; here in a community of joy, there in a sympathy of sorrow. No jarring interests could then arise: each performing the part assigned to them of God, must contribute to the happiness and beauty of the great whole. Dwell for awhile on this rich and varied harmony, and when your whole soul yearns towards it, then turn to the devices and desires of our own hearts —our foolish short-sighted wayward hearts, guided by passion and caprice, ever meeting in opposition the devices and desires of other hearts as weak and wandering. There seems to me a holy contempt and indignation concealed beneath those words, "the devices and desires of our own hearts." Christian, when you contrast them with God's holy law, does not your soul respond to the confession, we have followed them too much. Too much, for they have robbed our Saviour of his glory—too much, for they have often cheated us of his smile of loving approbation—too much, for they have turned the lamps, kindled of God, to be the light of the world, into darkness. "We have followed too much the devices and desires of our own hearts."
"We have left undone that which we ought to have done, and we have done that which we ought not to have done." Observe how none of these petitions refer to particular sins, of which the consciences of some might feel comparatively guiltless. It is in the strictest sense, a general confession: there is no word which may not meet with a hearty response from every heart. But that our response may be heartfelt, the words, so general in their own meaning, must become particular to us; we must dwell on our own individual neglected duties; on the particular sins into which we have fallen. Here I would suggest, whether the few minutes which intervene between our entering the house of God and the commencement of the service,—minutes so often a prey to wandering thoughts, which the first sound of the minister's voice fails to check,—might not be profitably employed in self-examination, preparatory to the general confession. The prophet bids us stir up ourselves, and lay hold on God; and the apostle speaks of Epaphras, who laboured fervently in prayers. Do we enter the house of God as a field of labour, where a great work is before us?—or having so beautiful a form prepared for us, are we content with a mere external observance of it?
Sins of omission are apt to be far less regarded by us than sins of commission. An untrue word, an unkind remark, even a slight deviation from the path of honour and rectitude, leave a sting in our conscience, which will often drive us to the mercy-seat for pardon. But we are comparatively indifferent to the vast difference between our own attainments and those of apostles of old, and even of eminent saints in our own day. We cannot say they have done too much: they have not been a whit more holy, loving, and devoted, than they were in duty bound to be; what then are we? All the difference between us is, on our part, a sin of omission: we have left undone that which we ought to have done, and our Church teaches us to own it with equal humility, to that with which we acknowledge that we have done that which we ought not to have done.
"And there is no health in us." Here the last resource of self-love is snatched from us. We can confess much, if only something be left to us. We will willingly allow ourselves guilty of too much pride, while we secretly exult in the lofty independence of character, with which we flatter ourselves it is connected. We can acknowledge we are too backward to reprove sin in others, while secretly we commend ourselves for an amiable unwillingness to give them pain. The same may be said of many other sins, for the shifts of selflove are endless, but here it is laid quite bare. Every thing must be given up: "there is no health in us." Not that the Christian must lose sight of the work which God has wrought in him, more than of that which has been wrought for him; but then he will take none of the honour of that to himself: it is not his own holiness, his own meekness, his own zeal, but his heavenly Father's gift. It is a gift given by infinite love to one most unworthy, and is therefore rather humbling than exalting.
If our hearts as well as our lips have breathed these sentences of lowly confession, we shall be able to enter into the earnest pleading for pardon by which they are followed. "But thou, O Lord, have mercy upon us! miserable offenders. Spare thou them, O God, which confess their faults. Restore thou them that are penitent." What earnestness of desire is implied in these repeated cries for mercy. We are surrounded by dangers on the right hand, and on the left. The enemy will at times hide the promises from our view, so that with nothing but the fearful array of our sins before our eyes, we are sorely tempted to despair. But if he fails here, if he cannot stifle the sweet voice of mercy, he has another snare ready; we shall fully believe the promises, we shall be so sure that our God is ready to forgive, pardon for every sin we commit shall seem so certain, that we shall lose sight of the great danger of our sins, we shall forget that for all this our God will be inquired of by us, and so assurance will sink into carelessness, and our cries for forgiveness will grow cold and feeble. Once more then let us remember the prophet's words, and stir up ourselves to lay hold on God. Let us cry earnestly, not because he is unwilling to hear and must thus be moved towards us, but because the blessing is so great, because our need is so urgent, and because fervent prayer is acceptable unto God.
"Restore thou them are penitent." Could we alter these words? Could we pray for restoration for the impenitent? Conscience will answer at once that such a prayer would be an insult to the majesty of heaven. The rebel cannot be admitted to the presence-chamber of an earthly monarch while he still grasps the arms of rebellion. Much less can the- impenitent be admitted to the presence-chamber of the King of kings. Yet how many who have known no sorrow for sin, who still in their hearts delight in it, repeat the words of this confession with a vague yet confident expectation, that a God of mercy will forgive.
"According to thy promises declared unto mankind in Christ Jesu our Lord." Here is the sinner's only warrant; in himself he had no claim on mercy, but God has promised, and verily if it be but a man's covenant, yet if it be confirmed, no man disannulleth or addeth thereto. The bounty which was once our own, and none had a right to claim from us, when once promised to another, becomes a debt which we feel bound to discharge. Into this relation has God, in wonderful condescension, entered with poor sinners; they may now claim his mercy on a security no less than his own unchanging truth, sealed with the precious blood of his well-beloved Son.
What now remains to complete this beautiful prayer? Sin has been confessed; mercy has been pleaded, for the promises have been urged, but still the heart of the returning child is not satisfied. Love, and not fear, has drawn him to his Father's feet. He loathes his sin as well as dreads its punishment, and with the same earnestness with which he pleaded for deliverance from its guilt, he now seeks to be in future rescued from its power. "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." It would be well for us in after-life, if we could remember more constantly our infant lesson about repentance:
"For true repentance is to leave,
Our wicked ways, as well as grieve."
It would be well if each night's confession was accompanied with a solemn prayerful resolution, to watch on the morrow against the sins of which we then plead guilty; if each Sabbath these words awakened in our hearts the earnest desire to live a holier week. Progress would be then more the character of our religion. Our confession of sin would not be less humble and sincere; for the Christian, as he grows in grace, acquires a holy quickness of eye in discerning his own sin; but the sense of being idlers in our Lord's vineyard would no more rest as a dead weight upon our minds, and our repentance would be no mockery in the sight of heaven.
Who does not feel while studying our Liturgy, how very, very far we are from rising to its full spirit. It is an organ provided with pipes of every various tone, but the living breath that should awaken all their harmony is wanting. What need have we to pray for the life-giving Spirit, the breath from on high, to awaken and quicken us!
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Sunday, February 10, 2013
From The Christian Lady's Magazine, Oct. 1846
[Not from the Christian Lady's Magazine: "What is needed above all is a confession, and nothing more than that. To obtain forgiveness for its sins, mankind needs only to declare them for what they are." Marx to Arnold Ruge, September 1843.]
Posted by Sandwichman at 5:04 PM