Why You Shouldn’t Start Worship With Repentance: A Response to Sam Bray

Recently here at Ad Fontes, Sam Bray wrote an excellent two-parter on the logic and dynamics of the opening sentences of the 1662 Book of Common Prayer (which Sam recently co-edited in a gorgeous new International Edition, which everyone should buy and use).

The 1662 BCP begins Morning Prayer with sin and confession, offering eleven short Scripture passages–known as “The Sentences”–to be chosen from and read to begin the service (whether in private or public use, Morning Prayer being something for every day). Rather than a call to worship, the service begins with an announcement of our sinfulness and need for forgiveness (which is then followed by a call to worship, in both Morning and Evening Prayer). But the 1662 BCP makes a point of placing the Sentences first. Why? Sam explains:

Over and over the Scriptures teach that human beings cannot just waltz into the divine presence. God is holy, but we are not. Among the many implications of that truth is one about worship. Before the priests could offer sacrifices, they had to be cleansed in the laver (Exodus 40). Before Isaiah could receive the divine commission, he had to be cleansed with the burning coal (Isaiah 6). Before Jesus’ disciples could eat the Passover with him, he washed their feet (John 13). This is the logic of starting with sin and forgiveness at the beginning of Morning and Evening Prayer.

This is, of course, bang on the money in many ways. We cannot just waltz into God’s presence, even as Christians. In our day and age–which minimizes guilt and sin, and teaches us that all of life can be tailored to our preferences with a few taps of the screen–it’s not hard to see that the seriousness of the Sentences is a necessary tonic. The logic of the Sentences is not aping that of Roman Catholic confession, as if we need to be cleansed of accrued venial sins. We certainly should repent of recent or ongoing sins as we come to worship (as part of our progressive sanctification), but not as if they’ve built up to the endangerment of our souls. Rather, the logic of the Sentences is more of a replay of how our sins were once and for all washed away in salvation (as part of our initial sanctification). Such a practice honours the way the verb “to sanctify” is used in both past and present tenses in Hebrew 10:10-14 (see the ESV).

And yet, I felt the need to offer a brief, good-hearted rejoinder to Sam (which I am aware equates to a brief rejoinder to the whole of the 1662 BCP–something I am distinctly unqualified for. Maybe I should have paid more attention to John Ahern’s recent piece on the site about being reluctant to speak).

In short: I don’t think you should start worship with repentance.

Well, not quite. That’s the hard form of the argument. To soften and elaborate: I think there are good reasons not to start worship with repentance and that, in our current context, these reasons edge out the benefits of the 1662 approach.

Let me lay out my chief theological reason first, followed more briefly by a contextual one.

Everything Starts With God

As we’ve touched on: worship services reenact, in myriad ways, things which have already happened. They are not self-contained, entirely occasional events, concerned only with what has happened since we last worshiped. The 1662 service, via the Sentences, replays the drama of the Gospel. By beginning this way, it begins where we all begin within our mother’s wombs: in sin (Ps. 51:5), by nature objects of wrath (Eph. 2:3). As far as any of us are concerned, life does rightly begin in the Sentences (and for this reason, I think they are a laudable and valid way to start a service).

Yet, ultimately, this is to begin in media res. And that’s fine–many great stories do. But the story of the universe does not begin in sin, but with God. He is the Alpha and the Omega. In fact, before the story even began… God was, and he was Good. He is eternal, simple, a se–all the big doctrine-of-God-things.

God is always and ever prior to us. He was here before us, and before there even such a thing as “before”. The drama of the Gospel begins in his movement of grace toward us. Even the Law, read to us in the Sentences, is a gift of grace arising from the profound priority of God (cf. Jn 1:16). Our arrival to worship–whether at home on a weekday, or at church on a Sunday morning–only occurs because God first moved and called us.

Beginning with the Sentences, whilst not contradicting any of this, seems to squeeze it out. Of course, the priority of God will be communicated elsewhere in the liturgy and in preaching, but liturgy by definition acknowledges an importance in where things are said, not simply what is said or how. Is the fitting place for God’s priority not at the start of the service?

Calvin explicitly considers this tension between beginning-with-God and beginning-with-man with regard to theology (rather than worship) in the opening of the Institutes. “Our wisdom, insofar as it ought to be deemed true and solid Wisdom, consists almost entirely of two parts: the knowledge of God and of ourselves. But as these are connected together by many ties, it is not easy to determine which of the two precedes and gives birth to the other” (1.1.1).

Calvin points out that man cannot contemplate himself without being swiftly directed to his maker. And yet the knowledge of God instantly smites us with knowledge of our sinfulness, and it becomes immediately evident that God is beyond our grasp both intellectually and morally. What then to do? Calvin concludes: “But though the knowledge of God and the knowledge of ourselves are bound together by a mutual tie, due arrangement requires that we treat of the former in the first place, and then descend to the latter” (1.1.3).

Calvin devotes the whole first book of the Institutes to the knowledge of God–though not, I must concede, to the identity of God, which is what I seem to be driving at for a starting point. Anyone familiar with the Institutes knows that he wastes no time in getting down to just how corrupt our ability to know God is, and so it may seem that the Institutes follow the rhythm of the Sentences.

And yet, Calvin devotes Chapter 2 and 3 of Book 1 to the questions of what the knowledge of God is, and the fact that it is, on some level, built into human beings by nature (the sensus divinitas, as it’s become known). It’s only in Chapter 4 that he arrives at the corruption of this knowledge, and proceeds to the necessity of special revelation for a saving knowledge of God.

The Sentences, it seems to me, either skip Chapter 2 and 3, or merge them together with Chapter 4 but end up elliding the distinctions. Calvin’s logic begins in Genesis 1 and 2, but the Sentences begin at the end of Genesis 3. Whilst Calvin acknowledge that, on our side of the equation (looking at things from “below” as it were), we cannot “get outside” of our beginning in the Fall, he also acknowledges that, in reality, there is an outside to our situation, which God sees (“from above”, as it were). This is why the “due arrangement” is to treat knowledge of God prior to knowledge of self.

This is all perhaps reflected in Calvin’s own Strasbourg liturgy, which doesn’t begin with confession but rather a call to worship or invocation. Philip Schaff gives the outline of Calvin’s liturgy:

The service began with an invocation, a confession of sin and a brief absolution, then followed reading of the Scriptures, singing, and a free prayer. The whole congregation, male and female, joined in chanting the Psalms, and thus took an active part in public worship, while formerly they were but passive listeners or spectators. This was in accordance with the Protestant doctrine of the general priesthood of believers.The sermon came next, and after it a long general prayer and the Lord’s Prayer. The service closed with singing and the benediction.[1]

The example Schaff gives of an invocation is Psalm 124:8: “Nostre aide soit au nom de Dieu, qui a faict le Ciel et la terre. Amen” [“Our help is in the name of the LORD, who made heaven and earth”]. Now, we of course see salvation in this invocation–the LORD has given help, and is called on by his covenant name, Yahweh. Yet the verse drives us back–upwards even, to use the Neoplatonist language Calvin deploys to describe the knowledge of God in Institutes 1.1–to the LORD as the one who made heaven and earth. A danger of the approach I’m advocating for is that the opening of the service could become deistic or sub-Christian, with no whiff of Christ or Trinity. An invocation like this keeps the something of a Gospel “framing” in place, whilst driving us back to before the Gospel to God himself, who made the heavens and earth which are now to be reconciled in Christ.

This then is, for me, the chief theological reason to begin Christian worship with a call to worship rather than repentance. I think another strong case could be made that although we should not waltz into God’s presence, we can (and should) arrive confidently in the assurance of our adoption sonship, not beginning worship each time as if it is the first time we have ever approached God.

But my primary theological reason–the necessity of teaching the priority of God–is, I’ll suggest, accompanied by a contextual need.

We’re Still in a Doctrine of God Crisis

Evangelicals have, for generations, lost the priority of God. The recent resurgence of “classical theism” has been trying to address this, reclaiming an emphasis on neglected but vital theological truths pertaining to the unity of God, such as simplicity and aseity. The Davenant Institute has tried to be part of this renaissance, publishing books like The Lord is One and God of Our Fathers. Whatever folks want to say about it, the 2016 Eternal Subordination Debate has, undoubtedly, already been a net good for evangelicalism.

The loss of these theological truths was almost certainly driven by an evangelicalism which was understandably but mistakenly over-zealous about the priority of the atonement and evangelism. All the evangelical distinctives (being biblicist, crucicentric, activist, and conversionist) coalesced to make everything subservient to the need for defending and presenting the need to trust in Christ for the forgiveness of sins. And, although we live in a culture which hates the idea of sin, and although evangelicalism (principally of the American megachurch variety, I must say) can have an attitude problem where we just waltz up to God as Sam Bray warned, the fact is that we do get the Gospel. We’ve successfully drummed that in. Curiously, despite their non-liturgical character, I think that the default of my own British evangelical circles is generally to always begin worship (whether personal or corporate) in repentance much as the 1662 Morning Prayer liturgy does, and rarely with a call to worship or with God himself.

So the need of the hour within our discipleship is not, it seems to me, defending the atonement. Rather, when it comes to straight theology, it is surely the doctrine of God. Now, there are many ways we need to teach that to people. But anyone who takes liturgy seriously knows that it is a powerful teaching tool. How, then, can we muster it to the service of the doctrine of God?

Liturgy shouldn’t be changed willy-nilly of course. But it must always be somewhat contextual. Even if there’s not a “hard” theological case to be made for beginning worship with God, rather than confession, is there not a compelling contextual one?

  1. Philip Schaff, “The Liturgy of Calvin” in History of the Christian Church, https://www.ccel.org/ccel/schaff/hcc8.iv.xi.iii.html#fnf_iv.xi.iii-p14.1.


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