“Open Confession is good for the soul,” or so the maxim goes. Perhaps it might also be said, “Open Confession is good for your relationship with God and men.” While Scripture supports both of these statements, there is something of a haze that lays across the surface of the meaning of such statements in Scripture as, “Confess your sins to one another and pray for one another, that you may be healed” (James 5:16). Is James speaking of going around and confessing any sin that you can point to in your life to just about anyone you are in fellowship with in the church so that they will pray for you? Or, does he have in mind the practice of “keeping short accounts” with the brethren? Does he mean going to an offended brother or sister and asking forgiveness for a particular sin that was committed against them? Or, as the context might indicate, is James instructing individuals in the congregation to come to the elders and confess particular sins of a scandalous nature in order to be healed of a sickness with which they had been chastened by God? While we may not come to a completely settled agreement on the precise meaning of James 5:16, there are 2 dangers and 3 applications of our duty that we should be able to agree upon when reflecting on this subject.
1. There is a danger of treating believers like personal priests. When confession of sin becomes penance rather than repentance, there is a danger of turning to others to help us quiet our guilty conscience. Instead of turning to Christ and seeking for the cleaning of His blood–which alone quiets a guilty conscience before God, we can turn in penance to others to get that quieting. In his book Repentance: A Daring Call to Real Surrender, C. John Miller made the following astute observation about this danger:
“Penance seeks out a human priest other than Christ…All too often religious leaders are flattered into accepting the role of by sympathetic parishioners who admire their gifts and graces. In accepting this role they harm themselves and the ones for whom they attempt to mediate…Christians who witness with power and effectiveness will find that others will look to them to do the work of Christ for them. For instance, as the pastor must take care not to become priest to needy people in the congregation, so the youth worker must be careful not to become priest to the young people.”
This is nowhere seen as much as it is in the realm of biblical counselors. When I was an intern at Tenth Presbyterian Church, I asked Paul Tripp for advice in biblical counseling. I’ll never forget the line he threw out: “Don’t become the fourth member of the Trinity for people.” This is one of the real dangers we face when we broach this subject.
I would take Miller and Tripp’s warnings even further. I believe that we can do this with any wise and sympathetic Christian friend–not simply with pastors and biblical counsellors. When we’ve found a godly and compassionate ear–even the ear of someone who will pray for us–we can all too easily start to go to that person for relief of a guilty conscience and then not go to Christ for forgiveness. When we do the former and not the latter, we have fallen into the trap of turning a friend into a personal priest.
2. There is a danger of inadvertently tempting others, or being tempted ourselves, to sin.
“The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately sick, who can know it” (Jer. 17:9). Jeremiah is not simply speaking of unregenerate men and women–though it is supremely true of them. While the believer has been given a new heart and is a new creation in Christ, he or she still has a sin nature. We are, as Luther aptly put it, simul iustus et peccator (simultaneously just and sinful). Since this is so, the Scriptures give us warnings about how one believer may be tempted to sin by the sin of another believer. For instance, in Galatians 6:1, the Apostle Paul writes, “Brothers, if anyone is caught in any transgression, you who are spiritual should restore him in a spirit of gentleness. Keep watch on yourself, lest you too be tempted.” Paul warns against the danger of adopting a self-righteous response when he warns, “keep watch on yourself, lest you too be tempted.” We are ever in danger of falling into sin even as we seek to help others who have sin in their lives. While Galatians 6:1 is speaking of confronting a sinning brother or sister about his or her sin, it has application to how we might respond to someone confessing sin to us as well. This is seen in the way in which the Corinthian congregation was initially responding to the repentant brother who had been previously excommunicated. When he returned and confessed his sin publicly, Paul charged the congregation:
“For such a one, this punishment by the majority is enough, so you should rather turn to forgive and comfort him, or he may be overwhelmed by excessive sorrow. So I beg you to reaffirm your love for him. For this is why I wrote, that I might test you and know whether you are obedient in everything. Anyone whom you forgive, I also forgive. Indeed, what I have forgiven, if I have forgiven anything, has been for your sake in the presence of Christ, so that we would not be outwitted by Satan; for we are not ignorant of his designs” (2 Cor. 2:6-11).
There is also a very real danger of falling into the same sin that is being confessed to you by virtue of coming into contact with too many details about a particular sin in the life of another. Jude may have this in mind when he says, “have mercy on those who doubt; save others by snatching them out of the fire; to others show mercy with fear, hating even the garment stained by the flesh” (Jude 22-23). On the phrase, “hating even the garments stained by the flesh,” Calvin noted:
[Jude] would have the faithful not only to beware of contact with vices, but that no contagion might reach them, he reminds them that everything that borders on vices and is near to them ought to be avoided: as, when we speak of lasciviousness, we say that all excitements to lusts ought to be removed. The passage will also become clearer, when the whole sentence is filled up, that is, that we should hate not only the flesh, but also the garment, which, by a contact with it, is infected.1
As Calvin explains, “when we speak of lasciviousness, we say that all excitements to lust ought to be removed,” so we must realize that we may be tempting a brother or sister to fall if, in the act of confessing sin, we inadvertently stir up in their own sinful desires by speaking in too much depth about a particular sin. There is a call for great caution here.
When I was a new believer, a friend of mine told me about interactions she had with a team that she was a part of on a short term mission trip that she had recently taken. One of the things she shared, that I found to be extremely odd–if not troubling–was that the group (made up of men and women) had committed to coming together every morning to confess ways that they had sinned against each other in thought or word. That sounded like a complete recipe for disaster to me. I think that I would prefer not to know every time someone thought, “Nick’s a jerk. I really don’t like it when he does this or this or that.” There may be a need to go personally to a brother and sister privately and confess a bitter or envious spirit, but to sit in a circle and do so seems entirely unwise. Additionally, if one of the less mature men said something like, “I lusted after several of the women here this week” that would potentially lead to an adulterous outbreak. Years ago, I heard the story about a minister who had embraced the idea of complete transparency with his congregation in the name of “confess your sins to one another.” One Sunday he stood up and said, “I have to confess sin to you all this morning before the service. I lusted after five of the wives in the congregation.” Not only would this lead to potential adultery, it might also tempt the single women in the congregation–who have chalked their singleness up to a lack of physical attraction–to sinful despair. Whatever James has in mind when he says, “confess your sins to one another,” this much we can say–surely this is not it.
If James does not teach treating pastor and congregation as priest for penance, or confession of sin in undifferentiated settings, what does he have in mind? Clearly we can say that there is a duty involved in the words of the text. It is a command for us to confess our sins to certain individuals. Thomas Manton, in his commentary on James, gives 3 principles concerning when and to whom we we ought to confess our sin.
1. We are to confess sin publicly before the elders and/or the church if it is scandalous and harms the ministry of the Gospel.
This is an indisputable truth associated with the words of James 5:16. This is part of the discipline process appointed by the Lord Jesus (Matt. 18:15-19). It is clear that at some point the man who was excommunicated from the church in Corinth returned, confessed his sin publicly and asked to be restored to the fellowship (2 Cor. 2:5-11).
Thomas Manton wrote:
“Upon public scandals after admission, for of secret things the church judges not; but those scandalous acts, being faults against the church, cannot be remitted by the minister alone, the offense being public; so was the confession and acknowledgment to be public, as the apostle saith of the incestuous Corinthian, that “his punishment was inflicted by many” (2 Cor. 2:6). And he bids Timothy, “Rebuke open sinners in the face of all” (1 Tim. 5:28), which Aquinas refers to ecclesiastical discipline. Now, this was to be done, partly for the sinner’s sake, that he might be brought to the more shame and conviction; and partly because of them without, that the community of the faithful might not be represented as an ulcerous, filthy body; and the church not be thought a receptacle of sin, but a school of holiness: and therefore, as Paul shook off the viper, so these were to be cast out, and not received again, but upon solemn acknowledgment. So Paul urges: “A little leaven leavens the whole lump” (1 Cor. 5:6); and, “Lest many be defiled,” &c. (Heb. 12:15): in which places he doth not mean so much the contagion of their ill example, as the taint of reproach, and the guilt of the outward scandal, by which the house and body of Christ was made infamous.2
2. We are to confess sin privately to those we have sinned against and with.
Again, Manton explained:
Private confession to men; and so, 1. To a wronged neighbor, which is called a turning to him again after offense given (Luke 17:4), and prescribed by our: “Leave thy gift before the altar, and be first reconciled to thy brother” (Matt. 5:24). God will accept no service or worship at our hands, till we have confessed the wrong done to others. So here, “Confess your faults one to another.” It may be referred to injuries: in contentions there are offences on both sides, and every one will stiffly defend his own cause, &c, 2. To those to whom we have consented in sinning, as in adultery, theft, &c, we must confess and pray for each other: Dives in hell would not have his brethren come to that place of torment (Luke 16:28). It is but a necessary charity to invite them that have shared with us in sin to a fellowship in repentance.3
3. We are to confess sin to appointed, godly and/or trustworthy persons in the church.
Here, Manton left us some beneficial concluding thoughts when he wrote:
To a godly minister, or wise Christian, under deep wounds of conscience. It is but folly to hide our sores till they be incurable. When we have disburdened ourselves into the bosom of a godly friend, conscience finds a great deal of ease. Certainly they are then more capable to give us advice, and can the better apply the help of their counsel and prayers to our particular case, and are thereby moved to the more pity and commiseration; as beggars, to move the more, will not only represent their general want, but uncover their sores. Verily it is a fault in Christians not to disclose themselves, and be more open with their spiritual friends, when they are not able to extricate themselves out of their doubts and troubles. You may do it to any godly Christians, but especially to ministers, who are solemnly entrusted with the power of the keys, and may help you to apply the comforts of the word, when you cannot yourselves.4
1.John Calvin Commentary on Jude
2. Thomas Manton A Practical Commentary, or An Exposition with Notes of the Epistle of James (London: Hamilton, Adams and Co., 1840) pp. 424-425