An insightful question about confession was asked after reading James 5:16, the person asked, “Do we have to confess all our ‘faults’ or just some and which ones do we confess and to whom do we confess?” Not uncommonly, worshipers have seen a penitent individual walk down the aisle to respond to the invitation given by the preacher and confess some fault on his/her part while asking for forgiveness and prayers from the church on the person’s behalf before God. How often should people who have sinned walk down the aisle and confess their sins before the congregation? When is it sufficient just to pray to God privately and ask for forgiveness? Why should a person tell others about the sin?
The scriptures clearly teach that every sin, of whatever nature, must be confessed to God if one is to repent properly (Acts 8:20-24). Any sin, every sin, unrepented will create a barrier between God and the one who has sinned (Isa. 59:2; Rom. 6:1,2). David said, “If I regard iniquity in my heart, the Lord will not hear” (Ps. 66:18; compare John 9:31). However, “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). God graciously forgives and reconciles to Himself every erring child who genuinely repents and acknowledges his/her sin.
Forgiveness is dependent on, and may be obtained only by asking, which implies confessing the wrongdoing (Matt. 7:7; 21:22). Sinners humble themselves by asking God to forgive them, which puts them in a more malleable position to submit themselves to God and follow His way (James 4:7-10). There is something about confessing the sin, saying the fault out loud, even if it is just to God, that makes the transgression feel real and helps to alleviate the burden. Research shows that those who make a full confession as opposed to those who make no confession or even a partial confession find themselves more creditable and ultimately feel better (Peer, E., Acquisti, A., Shalvi, S. “I cheated, but only a little’: Partial Confessions to Unethical Behavior.’ in Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 106, no. 2 (2014): 202–217). Confession provides an avenue of change and reinvention (Prov. 28:13).
To what extent should sins be confessed to the brethren and to the congregation? James 5:16 states, “Confess your faults one to another, and pray one for another, that ye may be healed. The effectual fervent prayer of a righteous man availeth much.” Firstly, this verse, in context, applies only to the saved, not the unsaved (alien sinner), so people who have never obeyed the gospel cannot JUST confess and pray their sins away. Initially, sins must be washed away in the blood of Christ through baptism (Rev. 1:5; Acts 22:16). Secondly, the verbs in James 5:16 are present imperatives, and thus mean, “Keep on confessing your sins one to another, and keep on praying one for another…” These confessions are those that Christians make throughout their walk in Christ, not the initial confession of salvation (Rom. 10:9,10). Furthermore, the passage does not deal with confessions to God (though it is implied that it should be done in the previous verse, James 5:15), nor does it deal with confessing specifically or solely to the elders or the preacher, but to the brethren in general. However, take note that the Christians in the Bible who sinned and were told to confess or repent publicly committed public sins (Acts 8:22-24; Gal. 2:11-14; 1 Cor. 5:1,5). Sins known only to God should be confessed only to God; sins known to one or a few, should be confessed to one or the few. Public sins, known to all, should be confessed publicly and before the church because most may already know about it.
The public confession and repentance shows the brethren as a whole that the sinner regrets and is ashamed of the sin and wishes to be forgiven by the church and God (2 Cor. 7:10). Such acts allow the church to defend their brethren to those who would speak ill of them (Titus 2:7,8). It gives the brethren the opportunity to say, “My brother/sister has made it known that he/she did wrong and has repented.” Thereby keeping the reputation of the church and the repentant Christian pure (1 Peter 3:16,17). Sins should be confessed and repented as publicly as they are committed.
Finally, the purpose clause of James 5:16 is significant. Why are Christians to confess our faults to one another? “That ye may be healed.” God does not want someone to go through the trials of life alone and without help (Gal. 6:1,2). People are more likely to endure trials and temptations when they have loving people who encourage them and guide them.