[I first published this essay in November 2012. — DJT]
By David Tulis
The low estate of Christianity is evident in public prayers that see man as coequal with God, that make of sin a slight thing and that make salvation a useful benefit for man to attain (if he has a mind to).
At my church we are blessed with the Lord’s Supper the first Lord’s Day of the month. Preceding the ordinance, we read together a prayer of confession of sin. For the past two months I have been thinking of repentance, and regretting having insufficiently prepared to dine with my Lord. I’ve reread the prayers the congregation read and marked the copies I saved.
Just as local economy is distinct from national economy by reason of antithesis, so a prayer of confession should contain a vigorous, painful antithesis. It should envision a vital separation between Creator and creature. Such prayer should be enlivened by the conflict between God and man.‡ It should convey an understanding of the majesty, holiness, perfection and omnipotence of God and the contrasting pitiableness, grossness and foulness of the sinner.
It should account for conflict, for gap, for chasmic division between the offender (me) and the offended (God in the majesty of His law).
How deep is ditch into which you fell?
Instead, evangelical Christianity sees the fall of man less than total, less than comprehensive. He hasn’t fallen in every area of his being. And because he is being able to do good and kind things in his life, his fall is not viewed as complete. He’s close to being dead in his sins, but is not quite dead. Man is something of a partner with God in his salvation.
Here are two prayers of confession to which I have bowed my head in public in recent weeks.
➤ Lord Jesus, I confess my need for you I know I have done wrong, and continue to live outside your will for my life. I’m sorry, and I want you to save me, and guide me from this day forward. thank you for the cross. Thank you for making a way for you and I to be in a right relationship. Please enter my life. Fill me with your Holy Spirit so that I may walk in your truth the rest of my days. Help me to understand your teachings and the purpose you have for me. May I truly understand Your love, Your forgiveness, Your grace toward me.”
The second petition:
➤ O Lord God, eternal and almighty Father, we confess and acknowledge most sincerely before Your holy majesty that we are poor sinners, conceived and born in iniquity and corruption, prone to do evil, incapable of any good, and that in our depravity we transgress Your holy commandments without end or ceasing. Wherefore we purchase for ourselves, through Your righteous judgement our ruin and perdition. Nevertheless, O Lord, we are grieved that we have offended you; and we condemn ourselves and our sins with true repentance, beseeching Your grace to relieve our distress. O God and Father most gracious and full of compassion, have mercy upon us in the Name of Your Son, our Lord Jesus Christ. And as You blot out our sins and stains, magnify and increase in us day by day the grace of Your Holy Spirit: That as we acknowledge our unrighteousness with all our heart, we may be moved by that sorrow which will bring forth true repentance in us, mortifying all our sins, and producing in us the fruits of righteousness and innocence which are pleasing unto You; through the same Jesus Christ our Lord.
One prayer reminds much of the tax collector in Christ’s parable, “standing afar off, [who] would not so much as raise his eyes to heaven, but beat his breast saying, ‘God, be merciful to me a sinner’” (Luke 18). This prayer contains the sense that the prodigal son had in his breast when “he came to himself” and repented; he said, “I will arise and go to my father, and will say to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you, and I am no longer worthy to be called your son. Make me like one of your hired servants’” (Luke 15). These parables are fresh in my mind as my sons have been reciting them in their memory toils.
Contract talks with God reach agreement
The other prayer, shall we say, is all about me. My sins aren’t as bloody as scarlet, but I “continue to live outside your will for my life.” I am not a wretch who has ruined my life and my relationships and despoiled the face of God with my crimes and my hypocrisy, but “I confess my need for you” and “I want you to save me, and guide me from this day forward.” Rather than being blinded and hopelessly lost, there is elegance, propriety, even something of a good suit: “I thank you for making a way for you and I to be in a right relationship.”
I realize God uses all sorts of weak and broken things to bring men to Himself. The seed of the word of God is widely spread, as in the parable of the sower in Luke 8. Some falls on the rock and sprouts and withers because it lacks moisture. Some falls among thorns, which choke the young plant. But some falls “on good ground.” This good ground, Christ explains, “are those who, having heard the word with a noble and good heart, keep it and bear fruit with patience.” If the Holy Spirit prepares the ground of a soul to save that man in time and space, He can use a flimsy public prayer with which to accomplish it. He even uses wrong-headed prayers and lousy theology when it serves Him, just to make clear how much the Holy Spirit is responsible for affecting salvation.
Needed in prayers: violence
Still, I cannot help but considering that the great perils our city faces, and our nation, rise from weak roots. Let me ask you, how strong is your root, your source of spiritual teaching and nourishment? Is your church faithful in teaching the goodness and sovereignty of God, and does God’s house encourage men’s hearts with earthy, violent prayers that grip the soul and show man’s true state, both in the fall and in salvation?
The picture of repentance is vividly illustrated in Luke’s seventh chapter which tells of a sinful woman at the Pharisee’s house who weeps over Christ’s feet and pours an alabaster flask of fragrant oil on them. To his refined host, the Lord narrates a famous parable asking which creditor is more thankful, one whose debt of 500 denaraii is forgiven, or the one bearing a debt of 50. “Therefore I say to you, her sins which are many, are forgiven, for she loved much. But to whom little is forgiven, the same loves little” (Luke 7:47).
‡ If an evangelical is in the business of selling religion, what better way to draw attention to his claims than by use of antithesis (God as Judge, Lord, Lawgiver and Sovereign rather than God as pal, buddy, neighbor, or insurance salesman)?
— David Tulis, a deacon at Brainerd Hills Presbyterian Church, is married and the father of four children.