The epistle of James emphasizes the power of prayer in the life of believers. It also reminds us that, even if we truly know and love the Lord, we still sin. While we remain in these earthly bodies, we will continue to battle with sin. In the body of Christ, sometimes we sin against our brothers and sisters in the Lord. James 5:16 tells us what to do when we sin against one another: “Therefore confess your sins to each other and pray for each other so that you may be healed. The prayer of a righteous person is powerful and effective” (James 5:16).
The word confess means “to agree,” “to admit,” or “to say the same thing.” Confession is saying the same thing as God does about sin or having the same perspective on sin as God does. It involves identifying sin for what it truly is, honestly acknowledging the offenses we have committed. Confession also should include an attitude of turning away from sin.
James instructs believers who are struggling with sin to seek faithful and trusted brothers and sisters in Christ who will intercede for them in their battle with sin. He is not suggesting that we confess our sins carelessly to just anyone, but to mature believers who will provide spiritual and practical support. Of course, we should also confess our sins to those we have sinned against, as we seek forgiveness and restoration.
Confessing our sins to one another in the body of Christ can break the power of secret sin. Covering up sin has no profit but yields negative consequences: “When I refused to confess my sin, my body wasted away, and I groaned all day long. Day and night your hand of discipline was heavy on me. My strength evaporated like water in the summer heat. Finally, I confessed all my sins to you and stopped trying to hide my guilt. I said to myself, ‘I will confess my rebellion to the LORD.’ And you forgave me! All my guilt is gone” (Psalm 32:3–5, NLT). Confession of secret sin should be made with discretion. Depending on the situation, there may be no need to shout the sin from the rooftops. Confession involves choosing wise and trustworthy confidantes who will handle the truth appropriately.
As regenerated people of God, we are to live in the light of truth: “For you were once darkness, but now you are light in the Lord. Live as children of light (for the fruit of the light consists in all goodness, righteousness and truth)” (Ephesians 5:8–9). Secretive behaviors and hidden sins should not exist within the fellowship of Christian believers: “So stop telling lies. Let us tell our neighbors the truth, for we are all parts of the same body” (Ephesians 4:25, NLT). To live as children of light, we must be honest with ourselves and others about who we are, including our shortcomings, failures, and struggles with sin.
Besides making us hypocrites in the world, hidden sin breaks our fellowship with God and keeps us isolated from others. Confession, on the other hand, brings God’s mercy, forgiveness, freedom from guilt, strength through fellowship, and a multitude of blessings from God (Proverbs 28:13; Psalm 32:2; 1 John 1:8–10).
Confession, while an essential part of the Christian life, does not require a priest or any other church-appointed human mediator. There is only One who can absolve us of sin, and that is God (see Psalm 130); there is only one Mediator between us and God, and that is Jesus Christ (1 Timothy 2:5). We confess our sins to one another in order to solicit prayer, exhortation, and strength along the way.
In his commentary Opening Up James, Roger Ellsworth sheds further light on why we should confess our sins to one another: “Confession should always be as wide as the sin. If we have sinned secretly, we should confess it to God. If we have sinned against someone else, we should confess it to God and to the person whom we have wronged. And if we have sinned publicly, we should confess it to God and in public” (Day One Publications, 2009, p. 162).
Private confession to God is necessary because it cleanses us and restores our fellowship with Him (1 John 1:9). Likewise, when we seek honest reconciliation with an individual we have wronged, we gain a restored relationship both with God and the other person: “So if you are presenting a sacrifice at the altar in the Temple and you suddenly remember that someone has something against you, leave your sacrifice there at the altar. Go and be reconciled to that person. Then come and offer your sacrifice to God” (Matthew 5:23–24, NLT). And as James encourages, if we have sinned against the church, we are to confess it publicly. Public confession of sin is also seen in Acts 19:18: “Many of those who believed now came and openly confessed what they had done.”
Why do we confess our sins to one another? Because a continual relationship of confession and forgiveness among brothers and sisters in Christ cultivates honesty and purity and reflects the unity the church is meant to embody: “Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave you” (Ephesians 4:32).