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In the next few posts, I want to provide some thoughts regarding crafting three types of prayers for worship. In this post, I’ll discuss prayers of confession. In the next two posts, I’ll say a few things about prayers of intercession and prayers of thanksgiving. Although confession, intercession and thanksgiving do not exhaust the riches of public prayer in worship, they at least cover the primary types.

Prayers of Confession

Paradoxically, the confession of sin is one of the most positive prayers in worship. In essence, it says “I can’t do it without help!” This is at the heart of Christian faith, which relies on God’s mercy and grace in Jesus Christ, and not on our own merit. Week after week in worship we confess that we can’t save ourselves, and need a helper to reconcile us to God and to one another. At the same time we express that we have such a helper in Jesus Christ – who declares us forgiven and reconciled to God in and through his healing and saving work on our behalf.


The basic movement of a prayer of confession follows a shift from contrition to petition.

Contrition is the expression of lament, remorse, or sorrowful acknowledgment of one’s sinfulness. In common prayer, this is corporate sin, and is rooted in the doctrine of original sin – that “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.”

Petition is an expression of need, a cry for help, a call for some action on the part of God in Christ on behalf of the petitioner.

Types of contrition and petition

Many of us, when crafting prayers of confession, will focus our attention on only one aspect of confession to the exclusion of others. It is best, in my opinion, to cast the net more broadly. Here are a few types of contrition and petition that will help in this process.

1. Theological

In this model, contrition expresses the separation, distance, alienation, between Creator and Creature. The prayer acknowledges the human condition and marks the emptiness of our being apart from God. Petition appeals for a mediator, a helper, an act of grace and mercy.  The classical petition at this point is the Kyrie Eleison, Christe Eleison, Kyrie Eleison (Lord have mercy, Christ have mercy, Lord have mercy).

2. Existential

In this model, contrition expresses our sin, guilt, fallen-ness, unworthiness, “ommissions or commissions.”  We acknowledge that to some extent our human condition is our own fault. Classically, in the liturgy, this was known as the mea culpa “Through my own fault, through my own most grievous fault…” Petition appeals for forgiveness, which overcomes guilt and becomes the power, ultimately, to act and to change one’s thoughts, decisions and actions.

It is absolutely crucial to remember, when confessing fault and guilt (existential sin), that sin takes different shapes for men than for women, and for those with “too much self” as opposed to those with “too little self.” Instead of being guilty of “pride, self-centeredness, etc.” existential sin might wear the face of “denying the gifts God has given, hiding behind stereotypes or roles given by church and society, etc.”

3. Contextual

In this model, contrition expresses our idolatries, our allegiance to “lesser contexts” than that of God’s Realm and purpose. This is our often unwitting conformity with environmental, cultural, social and political evil. Petition appeals for a new order, a new pattern for human dwelling, a new allegiance and new loyalties. (Calvin included the 10 commandments immediately following the prayer of confession to stress the ORDER of God’s world in relation to all other orders).

4. Epistemological 

In this model, contrition acknowledges the limits and distortions of human knowledge, wisdom, art and science. The self-sufficiency of all human meanings is called into question. Epistemological confession also expresses a profound sense of the limitations of human language and science when confronted with both the depths of human experience and the mystery of the nature and character of God. Petition appeals to God for wisdom, truth and new meaning, for art and science that express and interpret faithfully, for understanding and new symbols and language to approach God and proclaim God to others faithfully.

Invitation to Confession: 

Confession was first part of a preparatory rite done by the priest (mea culpa) at the foot of the altar.  Many of the later Reformers made this confession public, congregational and included it within the Sunday Service after the entrance psalm or hymn. The Invitation to Confession is best taken from Scripture, to indicate that this kind of prayer is warranted by our common belief in a God of grace and mercy. For instance:

 The proof of God’s amazing love is this while we were sinners Christ died for us. Because we have faith in him, (Rom. 5:8) we dare to approach God with confidence.(Heb. 4:16)

Forms of Confessional Prayer 

a.Collect Form. 

This prayer is usually in the form of a revised, multi-sentence collect (see Part II for more on the collect form). Traditionally, confessional prayers slightly expand this form to include a 6th element, confessional sentences, (contrition), between the relative clause and the petition. For example:

Eternal God (invocation),

 our Judge and redeemer (relative clause),

 We confess that we have tried to hide from you and from ourselves. We have turned from the gifts that you have given to us. Hiding from your presence in our own lives, we have failed to see your face in others. We have avoided the pain of the world, passing by the hungry, the poor, and the oppressed.(confessional sentences/contrition)

 O God, in your mercy forgive our sin

Turn us toward the life you have given to us in Christ (petition)

 So that we may live more fully into your grace and purpose;(statement of purpose)

 through Jesus Christ our Savior. Amen (conclusion) 

b.Litany Form  

It is appropriate to use a litany form for the confessional sentences each ending with a recognizable cue followed by the corporate petition. For example, the prayer above might be re-cast in this way:

Leader:  Eternal God, our Judge and Redeemer, (Invocation)

because we have tried to hide from you and have done wrong, we pray

 People:  Forgive us, Lord (confessional sentence/contrition)

 Leader:  because we have lived for ourselves and turned from our neighbors, we pray

 People:  Forgive us, Lord (confessional sentence/contrition)

 Leader:  because we have passed by the poor, the hungry and the oppressed, we pray

 People:  Forgive us, Lord (confessional sentence/contrition)

 All: O God, in your great mercy forgive our sin and free us from selfishness, (petition)

that we may choose your will, and obey your commandments; (result clause)

through Jesus Christ our Savior. Amen. (conclusion)

 c. Silent Prayer 

It is appropriate that confessional prayers provide opportunity for the confession of individual sins in silence.

Declaration of Pardon 

A Scriptural declaration of pardon can immediately follow the prayer of confession. The Presbyterian Directory for the Service of God (PCUSA) offers excellent advice about this declaration, noting that this is a declaration, not a procurement:  “Following the confession of Sin, a declaration shall be made to the people of the assurance of their forgiveness in Christ.  This declaration is not to be made in words that seek to procure forgiveness but rather in words that strongly affirm the reality of the divine mercy promised in Holy Scripture and assured by Jesus Christ to all who “come in penitence and faith.”

Expression of Gratitude 

Following the declaration it is appropriate to offer an expression of gratitude in the form of a choral response, gloria, hymn of praise, spoken response, or affirmative Kyrie (You are the Lord, Giver of Mercy, You are the Christ, giver of mercy).

The Peace 

Expressions of gratitude may also be fulfilled in expressions of reconciliation, forgiveness and love in the passing of God’s peace.