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What Does It Mean to Confess Our Sins to One Another? (Part 4 on James 5:16)

By A. B. Caneday

If we become seduced by popular teaching to confess private and secret sins publicly, we unwittingly promote more sin, especially the sin of gossip. After we have confessed a sin, if we confess it again to others against whom we did not commit the sin, we stumble into another sin, for we hand others knowledge that Jesus Christ designs his procedural steps of Matthew 18:15-18 to confine. We are living among humans who are corrupted with sin. We’re not living among holy angels. Consider your own heart. Are you and I not also corrupted with sin? We’re hardly perfected. Are we? What do we do with reports of sins committed by others? Oh, sure, in our best and most holy moments we pray for others, as James 5:16 exhorts us. But once we receive knowledge that someone has committed this or that secret or private sin, we have acquired knowledge that we should not possess and that we too readily fumble sinfully by indulging temptation to gossip.

A strong memory is a great blessing, but it also has a downside. Undesirable things also remain lodged in memory. Indelibly etched on my memory are confessions of private, even secret sins, foolishly made by young and immature believers who allowed themselves to be swept away with the emotional heat of “revivals.” On more than one occasion, both as a young Christian and as an adult believer, I have witnessed what takes place when what is commonly called a “revival” breaks out on a Christian college campus, in a campus ministry event, in a dorm Bible study, or in a church meeting. My first exposure to these phenomena occurred during college years. I came to learn what to anticipate. So, when “revivals” have erupted in meetings that I have attended subsequently, as soon as I have an opportunity to depart without disruption, I do so. Why? It is because I am fully persuaded from Scripture that a flood of violations of proper gospel procedures and godly and loving restraints will sweep over everyone attending. I have to guard my heart and memory, for few things once registered leave my memory. I desire not to have inscribed into my memory knowledge of secret and private sins committed and confessed by my colleagues or students. I have no need of such knowledge that is injurious to my relationships with them and to my own godliness. I also have some sense that the allurement of hearing others pour out confessions of secret and private sins, usually quite salacious, will appeal to pride, my own pride. Embarrassing as those confessions often are, to hear them tends to induce elevated spiritual sanctimony concerning our own attainments of godliness as with the Pharisee who prayed, “God, I thank you that I am not like other men, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector” (Luke 18:11, ESV).

Despite efforts to guard my heart, it is difficult to escape some exposure to confessions of secret and private sins that catch hearers unaware. For example, during several meetings I have been caught without warning and have been made a voyeur by many men, young and mature, who have publicly confessed enslavement to pornography and to accompanying sinful activity. Confession of sin is to be made in order to receive forgiveness of sin which no human has any authority to bestow, except those against whom the sin is committed. Public confessions of private and secret sins violate the gospel’s ordained means of forgiveness. Secret sexual sins should be confessed to the Lord alone, and if godly wisdom is required on how to put to death such sins (Romans 8:13), it should be pursued privately from godly and mature individuals. Such public confessions make “voyeurs” out of all who hear them, and those with strong memories do not readily forget voyeuristic imposition or those who do the imposing.

After being swept away with “revival” enthusiasm and fervor to make public confessions of private and secret sins, some have come to me weeping profusely after they regain their senses and realization of what they have done crashes upon them. Embarrassment and shame rushes in to fill the void left after spiritual passion dissipates. Sometimes the shame is so overpowering that individuals cannot face those people to whom they have provided knowledge that should never have been conveyed them. They find a way to escape that group of Christians without being seen, burdened with profound regret, regret that often haunts them for years with crippling spiritual impairment.

Christian leaders, whether in churches, in campus ministries, in Christian camping, in Christian colleges or universities, or elsewhere have a responsibility to teach and to lead by example concerning confession of sin and forgiveness of sin. We must lead by obeying and by admonishing others to obey the Lord Jesus Christ who appointed the requisite procedures for how believers within community are to conduct themselves in relation to one another when sinned against or after committing a sin (Matthew 18:15-18). We are responsible to lead by behaving in keeping with the gospel, publicly confessing our publicly committed sins and privately going to individuals against whom we have sinned privately. We are to send fellow believers to those who wronged them and not allow them any hearing that bypasses our Lord’s three-step procedure, which if followed will rarely reach the third step, if even the second. We are obligated both by the gospel of grace and by the grace of our leadership appointments to be quick to confess wrongdoing when brought to our attention, within properly restricted spheres of course, and also never to forsake the procedures of Matthew 18:15-18, regardless how tempting it may be, given our authority and rank. We are obligated by love for others to follow the gospel’s procedures with the expectation that God’s Spirit will bring about repentance, confession, and reconciliation through our Lord’s appointed means which he designed principally to bring about restoration, not excommunication.

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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