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!