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What Does It Mean to Confess Our Sins to One Another? (Part 1 on James 5:16)

By Ardel Caneday

Recent publication of the booklet, Must Christians Always Forgive? A Primer and Grammar on Forgiveness of Sins, prompted a reader to inquire concerning the admonition of James 5:16. James exhorts, “Therefore, confess your sins to one another and pray for one another, that you may be healed” (ESV). The question posed does not concern the verse’s connection with the context, which calls for its own consideration. Rather, the question concerns how a Christian should use the verse with reference to confessing sins to one another. To whom and to what extent are we Christians admonished to confess our sins? What follows entails my response to the question with expansion for Credo Blog readers.

Initially I responded by explaining that the gospel obligates us to confess our sins to one another but clearly, because James does not explain the procedures of confession, it is apparent that he expects that his readers know why, when, how, and to whom confession of sin is to be made.

Why? If we sin against others we must confess our sin in order to be set right (reconciled) with those against whom we have sinned.

When? We are obliged to confess our sin whenever we commit sin against a fellow human, especially against fellow believers, the case James has in view.

How? We are to confess the sin unequivocally with a request for forgiveness of the sin that we have committed.

To whom? We are required to confess our sin to the individual or individuals against whom we have sinned. Because only those against whom we sin have the right to forgive the sin we commit against them, confession of sin is to be made to them, not to people against whom we do not commit the sin. Even the Scribes understood that humans have no authority to grant forgiveness of sins not committed against them (Mark 2:1-12). Only God has that authority because every sin that we commit is against God, he alone has authority to forgive every sin (Psalm 51:4). So, if the sin I commit is a sinful thought confined within my heart alone and not an outward deed against any fellow human, to the Lord and to the Lord alone I am to confess my sin. Because every sin is against the Lord, every sin is to be confessed to the Lord to receive his forgiveness (cf. 1 John 1:9). But consider the injury that would almost surely be done if I confess to a fellow believer an evil thought I might have entertained against that believer. If I sin privately against my wife, privately I must confess this sin to her and to her alone before the Lord. If I sin against my family, I must confess this sin to my family and to them alone before the Lord. If I sin against the whole church, to the whole church I must confess my sin and to the church alone before the Lord.

But what frequently occurs among Christians? Evangelicals tend to suppress and privatize publicly committed sins that affect many, especially sins that pastors and leaders commit, and to publicize privately committed sins that should be confessed either to the Lord alone or to one or two individuals against whom the sin was committed. How difficult it is to confess a sin to the many against whom the sin was committed! Yet, many Evangelicals teach believers to confess secret sinful thoughts to others, not to the Lord alone. They also teach us to confess to others those sins that we have privately committed against a single individual alone. Is it not obvious that such practices have several injurious consequences? Is it any wonder that gossip blights churches, that relationships are destroyed, and that reputations are ruined? And some injury to reputation is self-inflicted by confessing secret and private sins to individuals who have no need or right to know. How seductive it is to fall prey to the therapeutic notion that secret sins should be publicly confessed to “accountability partners” who have neither any right to bestow forgiveness of such sins nor any need to know (cf. Psalm 90:8; 19:12). How delicious are the morsels received from those who, like whisperers, confess their private sins to others, thus handing them morsels that lodge deep in their memories (Proverbs 18:8; 26:22)!

Ardel Caneday (Ph.D., Trinity Evangelical Divinity School) is Professor of New Testament Studies and Biblical Studies at Northwestern College in St. Paul, Minnesota. He has served churches in various pastoral roles, including senior pastor. He has authored numerous journal articles, many essays in books, and has co-authored with Thomas Schreiner the book The Race Set Before Us: A Biblical Theology of Perseverance and Assurance (Inter-Varsity, 2001).

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