“Confess your sins one to another and pray for one another that you may be healed” (James 5:16). This passage has stirred much controversy over the years, giving rise to at least two false doctrines. First, some have taken this passage to refer to a “confessional” system in which Christians must confess every sin to some kind of a leader, “discipler,” or priest. Second, some well-meaning brethren have taught and believed that every individual sin must be made known before the church before forgiveness can take place. While there ARE times when a public confession of sin is warranted, a Biblical view of these matters can give us a better sense of what responses are appropriate.
What is Confession? — Confession comes from a Greek word (homologeo) that literally means, “to speak the same,” or, “to agree with.” Thus, a confession is nothing more than our agreement with and acknowledgement of something that is already true. John says, “if we confess our sins, He is faithful and just to forgive us our sins, and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness” (1 John 1:9). To confess our sins to God, then, is simply to say the same thing about our thoughts and actions that God already knows to be true! Confession is agreement with God’s divine verdict in our lives. John goes on to say that, “if we say we have not sinned, we make Him a liar, and His word is not in us” (1 John 1:10). These Scriptures make clear that our forgiveness is partly based on our agreeing with God. We must say the same thing about sin that God does, or the truth is not in us.
Must We Publicly Confess All Trespasses? — Confession of sin is not just a matter between man and God. In fact, Jesus commanded us to, “first be reconciled to your brother, and then come and offer your gift” (Matt. 5:24). The implication is that sin can directly affect relationships between brethren, and when that happens, confession is necessary for a restoration to take place. There is no Biblical precedent for sweeping sin under the rug and acting as if nothing happened. Rather, when our actions and attitudes have offended others, we need to “speak the same thing” that our brethren already know! Public confession is a mutual recognition of something that has deeply hurt individuals. May God give all of us forgiving hearts when sin is among us (Matt. 6:14)!
When, Then, Must We Respond Publicly? — Since confession is an agreement, a mutual recognition of a truth, we must always be ready to confess sins to God (Acts 8:22), for He knows everything about our hearts (Ps. 139:23-24). If our sin has hurt other individuals, we must be willing to make things right with the concerned parties as well (Matt. 5:24). Sometimes, however, our sin is so great that it affects the local church. There seem to be several circumstances under which a public confession of sin is needed. (1) When our attitudes and behavior in the community have brought reproach upon the name of Christ and the local church (Matt. 5:16; 1 Pet. 4:1-4). (2) When our attitudes and behavior have created strife and division within the local church (1 Cor. 1:10). (3) When our moral life has been an occasion of stumbling for others (1 Cor. 5:1-13). (4) When we have willfully and consistently refused to encourage our brethren by forsaking the assembly (Heb. 3:13; 10:25). (5) When our conscience, guided and convicted by God’s word, tells us we need to make things right before God and the church (Rom. 14:23).
Not every sin demands a public confession, but I suspect that God would be glorified and churches would be strengthened if there was more Godly sorrow in us all (2 Cor. 7:14) — JB