We Protestants don’t use confessionals. Apparently, Martin Luther thought the confessional booth was a good idea, but of course he was careful to make the practice voluntary and not binding. More recently, John Stott commended the practice of regularly confessing sins to a trusted pastor. So maybe a rare Anglican church here or there has a confessional, but on the whole, Protestants don’t practice auricular confession of our sins to a minister. So what place should private confession of our personal sins to others, to fellow Christians, play?
The question comes from Nathan, who asks, “Pastor John, thank you for enriching my walk with Christ by your obedience to the truth and faithfully serving the body of Christ with your gift of preaching! For the past few years I have been struggling with a text and a drumbeat sounding in the campus ministry I work for and church I attend. James 5:16 is the drumbeat, that we need to confess our sins to each other. Now, I am thankfully aware of Psalm 51:4 and 1 John 1:9. (I have preached on 1 John 1:9 many times.) There is one mediator between God and man, the man Christ Jesus (1 Timothy 2:5)! Here are my main questions. What exactly is James commanding in James 5:16? What does it mean, ‘that you may be healed’? And could you give us a brief theology of relational-confession practices on the whole?”
Let’s do the brief theology first. Let’s begin broad and general and collect some building blocks for the theology of relational confession and then get down to the specifics of James 5.
People of Truth
I would start with the truth that, owing to our new birth and our new creation in Christ, through faith, we are now children of God. “God is light, and in him is no darkness at all” (1 John 1:5). In union with him, we are children of light.
“Since we’re children of light and part of light is truth, Christian community won’t be marked by secretiveness.”
Paul says, “At one time you were darkness, but now you are light in the Lord. Walk as children of light (for the fruit of light is found in all that is good and right and true)” (Ephesians 5:8–9). The fact that we are children of light and part of light is truth that the Christian community will not be marked by secretiveness or cloaking ourselves or our motives so that people don’t know who we really are. We won’t be hypocrites. We won’t try to look on the outside what we are not on the inside.
That necessarily includes being truthful about our sinfulness and our struggle with sin. It doesn’t mean you need to broadcast to the whole world your specific sins. That wouldn’t be good for them, and it wouldn’t be good for you.
It does mean that you need to be known as an open book, appropriately read by accountable, mature people in your life. You’re not a secretive person, a hypocritical person. Ephesians 4:25 says, “Therefore, having put away falsehood, let each one of you speak the truth with his neighbor, for we are members one of another.”
That’s going to include doctrinal truth, relational truth, truth about God, truth about others, truth about circumstances, and truth about our own souls. We are people of truth. That would be a foundational building block in the theology of relational confession.
Right the Wrong
Now, what follows from this humble truthfulness about ourselves and others is that we will seek to confess and make right any ways that we have wronged others.
Matthew says, “If you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go. First be reconciled to your brother, and then come and offer your gift” (Matthew 5:23–24).
Confess it. Go tell him you wronged him, and get it worked out.
Get a Confession
Being children of light also implies that we will not be ashamed to pursue reconciliation by drawing the attention to the sins of others against us in the body of Christ. Matthew 18:15 reads, “If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault, between you and him alone. If he listens to you, you have gained your brother.” In other words, get a confession from him if you can because then you preserve the relationship. We try to help others confess when we know about their sin.
“We try to help others confess when we know about their sin.”
Galatians 6:1 generalizes it: “Brothers, if anyone is caught in any transgression, you who are spiritual should restore him in a spirit of gentleness. Keep watch on yourself, lest you too be tempted.” Restoring somebody caught in a sin is clearly going to involve helping them confess it.
If they lie about it or hide it, then nothing is achieved. Confession is clearly implied in this brotherly effort to right wrongs we have or others have done by helping them confess.
Forgive One Another
Then Ephesians 4:32 gives a real broad application. Paul describes a community spirit in which confession and forgiveness is regularly happening. He says in Ephesians 4:32, “Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you.”
The words “forgiving one another” assume that confession is happening. You don’t go around a church forgiving people who haven’t given any indication that they’ve sinned against you. That would be the most offensive thing in the world — “I forgive you; I forgive you,” and they don’t even know what you’re talking about.
Clearly, forgiving one another implies there’s confession going on. People have come to you, they’ve admitted they’ve sinned, and you’re forgiving them. This bring us now to James 5.
Don’t Keep Silent
James has just said that the elders are praying over a sick person. If they are given the gift of faith for that person, they are healed. God will raise them up. Then he adds this, “And if he has committed sins, they will be forgiven” (James 5:15).
“Honesty and purity of heart involve continual admission and confession of sin to appropriate people in our lives.”
It appears that in the encounter with the elders, sins emerge, which were somehow connected with this illness. We’re not told how. It may be that James intends, in addition to the healing (which is literally the word σῴζω, saved), you will save the sick man. He intends that healing happened in the fullest sense — spiritual as well as physical.
That’s why sins are brought up here. There was physical healing. Then there was emergence of these sins that were somehow involved and those were taken care of as well in this encounter with the elders.
Then James draws out this inference. “Therefore” — that’s a key word — “confess your sins to one another” (James 5:16). Just like what happened when the elders were having that prayer meeting, you confess your sins to one another and pray for one another that you may be healed.
I take this to mean simply that in the normal life of the Christian, honesty and truthfulness and purity of heart involve continual admission and confession of sin to appropriate people in our lives. The result of this will be greater than physical. It will include spiritual health as well because Psalm 32:3 makes the physical and the spiritual connection clear.
I had a real experience like this with a man in our church. This text really came alive for me when he used it to describe his misery. The text goes like this: “When I kept silent, my bones wasted away through my groaning all day long.” See what happens? I’m silent. I’m not confessing. And it’s having this awful physical effect on me. “For day and night your hand was heavy upon me; my strength was dried up as by the heat of summer.” Then here comes the solution in verse five: “I acknowledged my sin to you, and I did not cover my iniquity; I said, ‘I will confess my transgressions to the Lord,’ and you forgave the iniquity of my sin.”
Now the principle there — I know it’s confession to the Lord there — between physical well-being and a locked up sin that nobody knows and you’re trying to hide from the Lord and you’re keeping from other people is clear. The principle is that dishonesty and hiddenness and privateness about our sins brings both spiritual and physical misery. God would spare us that, and so he teaches us to confess our sins to God and to one another.