Leading the Church through Grief of Sin
Repentant Christians grieve sin. They remember times of iniquity. A place, person, or conversation can trigger these memories.
Driving to visit my parents, I pass a house where, as a teenager, I gathered with other teens to engage in sin.
Or, my Facebook feed updates me about a guy that I bullied in high school.
Or, my daughter remarked when learning the fifth commandment, “Dad, you’ve always honored your mother and father, haven’t you?” Yeah, right.
All these things, when I stop to consider them, cause grief.
Surely, the Christian life is filled with the joy of forgiven sin. Yet that joy can only grow out of the soil of sadness, a sadness that results from reflecting on our betrayals of God and others, present and past.
If you are a pastor, one of your jobs is to teach and lead your congregation in grieving sin. Do you?
GRIEVING IN SCRIPTURE
We grieve sin because God grieves sin. The Prophets are filled with the Father’s groans over his people’s sin. Isaiah tells us the Holy Spirit grieves sin (Is 63.10; also, Eph. 4.30). The Son came to bear humanities grief: “Surely he has borne our griefs and carried our sorrow” (Is. 53:4). And we see him weeping over Lazarus’ death and grieving the sins of Jerusalem.
We also watch Peter grieve his own denial of Christ. The third time Jesus asked Peter if he loved Jesus, the Scripture says, “Peter was grieved …” (see John 21:15-19). The trigger for Peter was the third request of his love. It reminded him of his three denials.
Yet grief in Scripture is not just an individual activity, it’s a corporate activity, led by church leaders. Peter preached the first gospel message with an aim of producing grief over sin. He accuses them of crucifying and killing Jesus (Acts 2.23, 36). Their response? “They were cut to the heart…and said, ‘Brothers, what shall we do?’” (v. 37). They experienced grief of sin, which produced repentance (v. 38).
Paul, too, observes that one of his letters caused the Corinthians to grieve. And he rejoices because it led to repentance: “I rejoice, not because you were grieved, but because you were grieved into repenting. For you felt a godly grief…for godly grief produces a repentance that leads to salvation (2 Cor. 7.9-10).”
This text is not directed to an individual. It points to corporate sin and corporate grief. The Greek text uses the plural pronoun “you” over and over in this passage. (See Judg. 10.10ff, 1 Sam. 7.6; Neh. 1, and Dan. 9 for other instances of corporate confession.)
And notice, godly grief produces repentance, which leads to salvation.
LEADING YOUR CHURCH THROUGH GRIEF
It is appropriate, therefore, for us to include opportunities to grieve, confess and repent sin in our church’s corporate gathering. Unless miserable sinners are brought to grief, they will not experience relief.
Here are a few suggestions to help our congregation grieve sin in our worship services.
1. Grieving Sin through Corporate Prayer
Dedicate an entire prayer to confessing sin. The pastor or another trusted leader should lead the congregation through this prayer. Nehemiah 1 and Daniel 9 are excellent examples (Mark Dever often begins his prayers by reading a slightly amended version of Daniel 9:18-19). Both Nehemiah and Daniel grieve the sin of Israel and confess this sin to God on behalf of Israel.
Some ideas for executing this include: praying a Scripture that confesses sin such as Psalm 106.6 or Ephesians 2.4, using another’s prayer such as a Puritan prayer from the Valley of Vision, or writing your own prayer.
2. Grieving Sin at the Lord’s Table
A natural place to grieve sin is during the Lord’s Table. There we remember that Christ drank the full cup of God’s wrath against sin on our behalf (Ps. 75.8; Matt. 20.22, 26.39).
Whoever facilitates the Lord’s Supper should work in time for God’s people to reflect, grieve and confess sin. Paul explicitly instructs us to examine ourselves (1 Cor. 11.27-28).
One could simply recite this confession from the Book of Common Prayer:
Almighty and most merciful Father, we have erred and strayed from Your ways like lost sheep. . . . We have left undone those things which we ought to have done; and we have done those things which we ought not to have done. . . . We acknowledge with great sorrow our many sins which we, from time to time, have committed by thought, word and deed, against Your divine majesty, provoking most justly Your wrath against us. But, O Lord, have mercy upon us. Spare all who confess their faults and truly repent; according to Your promises declared in Christ Jesus our Lord. We do earnestly repent, and are heartily sorry for our wrongs; remembering them now grieves us. . . . Forgive us all that is past.
Recall that the Lord’s Supper is not only a gospel celebration but also a participatory sacrifice of service and devotion to the body (1 Cor. 10.14-22, 11.26).
3. Grieving Sin through a Hymn or Song
Many churches only use hymns and songs for praise. But the Bible calls for songs of lamentation, too (see Carl Trueman’s essay, “What Do Miserable Christians Sing?”)
God instructs Moses to teach Israel a song that laments sin, stands as a witness against sin, and reminds them of their salvation (see Deut. 31.19-22). Try reading this song. You will be struck by Israel’s grievous sin and how this song is structured to cause Israel to grieve sin.
The Psalms, too, offer examples of lamenting sin.
Gratefully, many hymns and more and more contemporary songs include both confession and praise. Bob Kauflin and Keith and Kristyn Getty are modern day hymn writers that intentionally bring the church through the gospel starting with grief of sin. Visit WorshipMatters.com and GettyMusic.com to find songs that incorporate these elements of worship.