Some of the New Testament’s one another commands sound good to us and, at least in our mind, seem enjoyable to obey. Take the last verse we looked at: Be at peace with one another. Everyone likes the idea of being at peace with one another. But not all one another verses appeal to us as much, and perhaps the most unappealing of them all is James 5:16
Therefore, confess your sins to one another and pray for one another, that you may be healed.
There are parts of this command that sound good to us, particularly being healed. There’s something refreshing in that last bit. To get to the enjoyable part, however, you have to go through the uncomfortable part—confess your sins to one another. Of all the one another verses, perhaps this one in James prompts the most hesitation. No one likes airing their dirty laundry. No one enjoys publicly admitting their sins (whether it is to one person or a group of ten seems not to matter). It’s no surprise that Christians struggle to obey what God says here; but as with all the difficult things God says to us, this command is for our good. And there is no way to bypass the hard work of confessing our sins to one another if we want to be healed. So, let’s take a closer look at what God is saying to us and then think about why we must confess our sins to one another to be healed.
What is God commanding us to do?
Confess. To confess means to make an admission of wrongdoing and always involves at least three things—a wrongdoing, a heartfelt knowledge that what you have done is indeed wrong, and a person outside of yourself that you admit these things to. Confession cannot exist where one of these three is missing. No wrongdoing means you have nothing to confess. No heartfelt knowledge of your wrong and you fail to see anything to confess. And no person outside of yourself means there is no one to confess your wrongdoing to.
Confess sins. James is specific here. He does not leave the idea of confession open; rather we are commanded to confess our sins. There’s a textual variant here that shows through in our English translations. Most English translations use the word sins, while a few use the word faults or transgressions. The reason for the difference is because all the Greek manuscripts do not agree on what word is used here (some use the word for sin with others use the word for transgression). As with the overwhelming majority of textual variants, there is no theological difference either way. Over and over again we see the Greek word for transgression being used as a synonym for sin. Jesus was delivered up for our transgressions (Rom 4:25), the many have died because of Adam’s transgression (Rom 5:15), and through the blood of Jesus we have the forgiveness of our transgressions (Eph. 1:7). Sins and transgressions are the same thing, they are individual acts where we rebel against the God of heaven, choosing to be our own king and making up our own mind about what is good and what is evil rather than submitting to God. This, James says, we are to confess.
To one another. Who we confess to seems equally important as the confession itself. Christians are to confess their sins to one another. The word one another does not always mean the body of Christ in the New Testament, but it does here in James. James’ letter is written to the twelve tribes in the Dispersion (James 1:1). Long story short, James is using Old Testament imagery of Israel to refer to followers of Jesus. When James uses the word one another, then, he has in mind a specific group—the church. We’re not given a specific number of Christians we must confess to. Whether we are confessing to one or two or ten isn’t the point. The point is we are confessing to fellow followers of Jesus.
Why we confess our sins to one another
Before we can go any further we need to make sure we do not misuse what James is saying. The catholic church has used this verse and others to teach that in order to be forgiven of our sins we must confess to an official representative of the church, such as a priest. That’s not at all what James is saying. Confessing my sins to other Christians isn’t about being forgiven by a holy God. If you want to be forgiven by God you must ask God to forgive you, for he is the one all of our sins are ultimately committed against. So confessing our sins to one another is not about securing God’s forgiveness of our sin. Why then do we confess our sins to one another?
James tells us: that you may be healed. To be healed means to be restored. Restoration, as it is used here, has nothing to do with your unshakable standing with God (your justification). James is writing to Christians who have already been reconciled to God through the death of Jesus, so restoration in this context has nothing to do with whether or not in the final judgment God will find you guilty or innocent through the blood of Jesus. What then is restoration? I think in the broader context of James it is most likely the act of coming away from our sinful acts. If sin is straying off the narrow path and falling into a hole in the ground then restoration is getting out of the hole and back to the path. (For more on being healed specifically as it relates to the “sickness” James mentions in 5:14 see Andy Bowden’s article here.)
We’ve worked through a lot, but we’re finally at the place where the rubber meets the road. God intends to use the confession of our sins to other Christians as a means to pull us out of sin and to steer us away from sin. Let me wrap up this article by giving you two practical ways confessing your sins to another Christian can help you overcome that sin.
First, confession brings our sins into the light. The power and allure of sin is always stronger in the darkness. Often we don’t see how foolish and deadly our sin is until we hear an explanation of it come out of our own mouths. But what is more, the power of sin is always stronger when it is secret. The temptations of a secret sin will always pull harder. The hopelessness of a secret sin will always feel deeper. And the lies of a secret sin will always sound more convincing. But something happens to sin when we put it out on the table in front of other Christians. It withers in the light. Have you ever woke up in the middle of the night and been absolutely overwhelmed with a problem in your life? I have. In the night nothing seems clear and everything feels hopeless. It’s amazing how a simple sunrise can change everything. Problems I thought were overwhelming seem so much smaller in the light of day. So it is with sin. When you confess your sins to one another you bring them into the light, and you will see them wither before your eyes.
Second, confession allows your brothers and sisters in Christ to pray for you. It’s no mistake that the command to pray for one another comes in the middle of this verse. When a brother or sister hears of your struggle with sin the most natural and compelling thing for them to do is pray. Equally true is that your brothers and sisters cannot pray for your battle against sin if they are not aware of it. James leaves us no room for vague prayers, or to put things in our christinese, James isn’t ok with unspoken prayer requests. Those unspokens are often our way to try and get the benefits of confessing our sins without having to confess them! If you have an unspoken request, go find a Christian and speak it to them. Don’t underestimate the importance of others praying for you. Praying for one another is vitally important in our battle against sin because prayer has great power as it is working (James 5:16-18).
I want to wrap this up by asking a simple question. The sins that you struggle with the most, the persistent sin that keeps growing back like the worst kind of weed, do you make a habit of confessing them to other Christians? If your answer is no, then your struggle with that sin will likely not come to an end anytime soon.