In my post yesterday I talked about confessing our sins to God. Today I want to touch on confessing our sins to each other. Although the practice of confessing sins to a priest in order to receive absolution is patently antibiblical, the practice of confessing sins to other believers is not.
“Therefore, confess your sins to one another and pray for one another, that you may be healed. The prayer of a righteous person has great power as it is working” (James 5:16, ESV).
This verse can be wrought with confusion, and it is no wonder. For one, confession of sin is not a lengthy topic in the New Testament. You could skim just a few pages in the Psalms and find more accounts of confessing sin than you’ll find in the New Testament. Most passages that speak of confessing something are usually talking about making a public profession of allegiance to Christ.
This is really the only explicit passage about confessing sins to other believers, and it is set in a context that has been misinterpreted and misapplied by many groups, especially people you see on the television with slicked up hair and a 1-800 number you can call to give a “gift”.
So what does this mean? Does this mean we need to start a confession group at church that meets Tuesdays before work? Should we incorporate a meet and greet and confess time into our Sunday services?
Before we launch into application, we need to take a brief look at the context of James 5:16.
“Is anyone among you sick? Let him call for the elders of the church, and let them pray over him, anointing him with oil in the name of the Lord. And the prayer of faith will save the one who is sick, and the Lord will raise him up. And if he has committed sins, he will be forgiven” (James 5:14-15).
I’ve heard some of my more charismatic friends say that it is never God’s will for believers to be sick. If they are, they should go through an anointing ritual with oil and the church leaders and they will be healed. The only time healing doesn’t take place, so they say, is when the prayer is not “of faith” and the ones praying doubt the miraculous power of God.
I’m all for praying over sick people. I do believe that God answers prayer and nothing is too difficult for Him. Yet there are times that trials, including sickness, are part of God’s will for our lives (just see James 1:2-4 and 1 Peter 4:19). I don’t believe James’ words can be taken as an absolute anymore than Jesus’ words that “If you ask me anything in my name, I will do it” (John 14:14).
My intention isn’t to debate the finer points of prayers for the sick. My intention is to link James 5:16 with the verses preceding it. We have the context of praying for the sick. Notice what it says in verse 15: “And if he has committed sins, he will be forgiven.”
We learn from 1 Corinthians 11:29-30 that sometimes believers get sick and even die because of sin in their lives. James is making that same connection here. Sickness is sometimes God’s judgment on our lives because of unrepentant sin. That’s why James begins verse 16 with a “therefore”. He’s making a logical statement. In essence he’s saying, “In light of this, do this.”
“Therefore, confess your sins to one another and pray for one another, that you may be healed…”
Confession of sin may be what is required for us to get well. And not just confession to God, but to others. Laying it out on the table.
Why does James call us to do this? For what reason?
Look at one of the closing verses in this section:
“My brothers, if anyone among you wanders from the truth and someone brings him back, let him know that whoever brings back a sinner from his wandering will save his soul from death and will cover a multitude of sins” (James 5:19-20).
Confessing our sins to each other holds us accountable. It keeps us in line. If I am open and honest about my shortcomings with other believers who will hold me accountable, I can stay rooted in the truth and avoid committing even more sin.
We find sin shameful. And we should. But the cross of Christ allows us to face that shame because Christ bore our shame on the cross. It is through Jesus’ sacrifice that we can approach the light and have our deeds shown for what they are.
James doesn’t call for a specific practice here. He’s not telling us to start accountability groups or confession hour. He’s telling us to expose our sin and shame to other believers who will hold us accountable. Maybe that means I can’t share with some people who would use the information to malign me or to harm the church. But whatever it doesn’t mean, it does mean that I can’t really be a part of God’s community when I’m not being held accountable for my sins. And the only way to do that is to confess them to others, even if that is painful.
Our churches today don’t typically advocate this kind of confession. When we confess our sins, we try to keep it general. We try to avoid the shame aspect, not by going to the cross, but by hiding it under the rug. We look for support, not accountability. It’s time to stop.
“That is why many of you are weak and ill, and some have died” (1 Cor. 11:30).
I don’t want to be a needless casualty.