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

Posted by on Oct 12, 2011 in Ardel Caneday, sin | 34 Comments

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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34 Comments

  1. What I Read Online – 10/13/2011 (a.m.) | Emeth Aletheia
    October 13, 2011

    [...] What Does It Mean to Confess Our Sins to One Another? (Part 1 on James 5:16)- Credo Magazine [...]

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  3. Tyler
    January 5, 2012

    (1) Would you mind elaborating on the point you made about reputation being ruined when a person confesses sin? To be honest, I am leery when I hear someone talk about maintaining an image – reputation. By no means am I making a judgment quite yet, but it reminds me of the Pharisees. And it seems like confessing sin – even internal thoughts, lust, etc – is valuable in relating to one another, dispelling feelings of shame, and in maintaining a humble spirit.

    Also, (2) I hear your concern over sinful ideas planting in another’s mind/heart when sin is confessed. It’s a good point, and something to be aware of for sure. But I don’t know if that’s what Prov 18:8 and 26:22 are referring to. What do you think?

    Thanks so much for the article, and please respond if you can find some time! I need help following God.

    Tyler

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  4. A. B. Caneday
    January 31, 2012

    Tyler,

    I’m sorry that I missed your comment. Because my reply is so late, you may not find it. Nevertheless, I should respond.

    I believe that your question focuses upon the following portion of my article. 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.

    Of course, it is fitting to acknowledge publicly in a general manner our own sinfulness. It is quite another matter to confess specific private sins in public in the hearing of people who have no need to know. What’s the point of such confession? People against whom we have not sinned cannot bestow forgiveness for private sins of thought or act. Only one can grant forgiveness for such sins, Christ alone.

    My interest is not the maintenance of a “reputation” or an “image” (your word) at the expense of harboring sinful thinking or private sinful behavior. That is not at all my interest. Rather, my concern is that we can do severe injury to a properly God-honoring reputation, which is a good and desirable thing, by foolishly falling prey to the psycho-therapeutic culture that surrounds us that would induce us to confess a very private sin that will likely inflame gossip and incite rumors that will needlessly do injury to ourselves. The notion of “transparency” that we routinely encounter in our culture is psycho-therapeutic in origin, not biblical.

    As for my use of Prov. 18:8 and 26:22, I am persuaded that I have properly used the two passages. In my article I did not say that these two passages refer to the planting of sinful ideas in the minds of others by way of confessing sins privately committed. Rather, my point is that confessing privately committed sins is akin to spreading gossip, and gossip, regardless its origin, is sought after like choice morsels that lodge deeply in the recesses of the heart of those who welcome gossip. Why would we be so foolish as to feed lovers of gossip? My use of the two passages is fully in keeping with their plain-sense meaning, regardless the source of the gossip which is like choice morsels.

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    • Paula
      March 10, 2014

      “Of course, it is fitting to acknowledge publicly in a general manner our own sinfulness. It is quite another matter to confess specific private sins in public in the hearing of people who have no need to know. What’s the point of such confession? People against whom we have not sinned cannot bestow forgiveness for private sins of thought or act. Only one can grant forgiveness for such sins, Christ alone.”

      I’d like to make two comments regarding the author’s quoted response above.

      1. What’s the point of confessing to someone whom you have not wronged? I think it can be helpful, not so much as a confession of sorts and receiving forgiveness upon confession, but more in the way of seeking advice and bringing things to light in order that we may be helped. I can confess a “private” sin to a friend. We may discuss this sin and highlight the struggles and the root cause or situations that tend to occur when we give in to these temptations. Then arrive at ways to avoiding repeating the same sin. It is for our spiritual benefit. Sometimes people need that kind of support – sometimes. Other times, people are quite capable and effective at doing these analyses on their own. So this notion of “confessing to someone whom you have not wronged” can be done on a situational basis.

      2. Only God can forgive sins. This goes for ALL sins, whether “private” or not because all sins are offences against God. Sometimes, the sin is in our heart or involves no one else. Other times the sin can be directed toward someone, stealing for example. If you steal from me, I cannot forgive you for stealing from me, for I have no power to blot out your transgressions (that is, bestow forgiveness). Only God has the power to do that. However, my ATTITUDE toward you regarding the offence should be one of forgiveness, whereby I keep no record of wrong (that is, hold a grudge) or seek revenge. Forgiveness toward our fellow man means releasing the other person from blame, leaving the event in God’s hands, and moving on.

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  31. BARBARA VOROBEL
    December 29, 2013

    Are you stating in your article about what it means to confess one to another that if you commit a sin against one human being you must confess that sin to them even though your confession to them would seriously hurt them or your relationship? Or could you confess “one to another” directly to God for forgiveness and have true repentance?

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    Thanks for the article, My pastor recently Informed The congregation we need to tell our secrets sins to our children, or they/we will remain in bondage. he used the scripture James 5:16

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