“Therefore, confess your sins to one another, and pray for one another so that you may be healed. The effective prayer of a righteous man can accomplish much. Elijah was a man with a nature like ours, and he prayed earnestly that it would not rain, and it did not rain on the earth for three years and six months. Then he prayed again, and the sky poured rain and the earth produced its fruit” (James 5:16-18).
The church where I grew up had a Coke machine in the hallway of a building that housed Sunday School classes and administrative offices. The machine had a long, thin door on one side with stacks of Coke bottles pointing at passersby. One day, the pastor’s wife bought a Coke, pulled out a bottle and popped the top. To her dismay, someone had filled the bottle with black coffee and put a cap back on it. I learned about what had happened when the pastor called my brother and me into his office and demanded that we confess. He was certain we’d done it. Eventually, he released us, without confessions, still under suspicion, though.
By the way, we hadn’t done it, but we could have.
Confessing sin is never easy, but it’s necessary to our spiritual health. More than just clearing the air or admitting a “mistake,” confession means to agree, literally, “to say the same thing.” When we confess our sins to God, we agree with His assessment of our sins without offering excuses, blaming others, or trying to mitigate our responsibility. The same humility is essential to confessing our sins to one another.
Christ’s Spirit fosters in the church a culture of laying down our pride, our lust, and our greed, which is vital to our dying to sin. It also cultivates an ethos of forgiveness and restoration, which is essential to our sanctification. Unfortunately, human religiosity can’t reproduce the unique work of the Spirit.
Do we have to confess our sins to one another? Isn’t it enough to confess them to God? We’ve said before that, ultimately, all sin is against God. Still, we do sin against one another and we have to deal with our sins and the fruit they bear regardless.
Confession means owning our sin and calling it what it is. In terms of our salvation, only Christ’s righteousness can right the wrong of our sins, but in terms of each other, we can take steps to rectify our sins. By the way, just saying that we accept responsibility isn’t accepting responsibility. We have to call our sin what it is without offering excuses. If I randomly throw a rock that happens to break a neighbor’s window, the fact that I didn’t mean to do it, doesn’t undo the deed. Once I know what’s happened I have to own up to what I’ve done and make it right.
Confession is just half the battle, though. Notice that James said, “Confess your sins to one another, and pray for one another so that you may be healed” (emphasis added). Many problems in churches would go away if only we’d pray for one another. It’s hard to carry a grudge while praying to God for someone. Perhaps if we were more willing to forgive, others would be encouraged to confess.
Just as confession requires a lack of self-justification, forgiveness requires the absence of grudge holding. To forgive someone doesn’t mean you have to lend them more money, but it does mean that you hold them no longer responsible to pay a debt. Once a debt’s cancelled, you can’t go back and pick it up again.
To be healed is to be made whole, which is a picture of salvation. So, James reminded us that confession and forgiveness are essential to our salvation. Not that they make us “savable,” but that they validate our salvation. If we’re truly saved, we’ll want to confess our sins and to forgive those who’ve wronged us.
We won’t want anything to stand in the way of our fellowship with Christ.