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What Does it Mean to 'Confess Your Sins to One Another' in James 5?

two men talking on sidewalk, confess your sins to one another

“Therefore, confess your sins to one another and pray for one another, that you may be healed. The prayer of a righteous person has great power as it is working.” James 5:16 ESV

The miracle of salvation is that God involves us in His eternal plan. The only way we become righteous people is through Christ Jesus. We lay down the pursuits of the world and instead follow Him home to eternity. The life-long path of discipleship isn’t easy, as many biblical people recorded in their pursuit of holiness on this earth. Every day we face our humanity, which exists under the curse of sin. We cannot fully shake it this side of heaven, and so Jesus made a way for us, through Him, to confess our sins and stand in the presence of our Holy God. Confessing our sins leads to healing and restoration, both attributes are worth seeking.

What Does James Mean by 'Confess Your Sins to One Another'?

And I tell you, everyone who acknowledges me before me, the Son of Man also will acknowledge before angels of God, but the one who denies me before men will be denied before angels of GodLuke 12:8-9 (ESV).

Confession, according to Easton’s Bible Dictionary, is defined as “an acknowledgment of sins to God, and to a neighbor whom we have wronged.” Confession is an everyday process. We are adopted into the family of God when we freely receive the gift of salvation. God has purposefully placed us in families and communities because He knows it is not good for us to be alone. There are sins we will only take straight to the Father, but when we sin against each other, we must also confess to one another. Forgiveness is important to God! We have been forgiven, and so we must lend that same forgiveness to each other.

We’ve all witnessed stories of people who have held secrets in for years, sometimes full lifetimes. In some instances, we can psychologically bury things so successfully we forget they happened. The process of remembering, of getting to the source of a wound in order to heal it, is a healthy process but one that takes great wisdom and care, both spiritually and psychologically. Pastors and counselors are gifted by God to help usher in those healings to our lives. We must be so careful in whose lap we lay our burdens. We prayerfully need to consider who God has placed in our lives to bear them with ease so they don’t become their burdens, too.

“Since we’re children of light and part of light is truth,” Pastor John Piper explains, “Christian community won’t be marked by secretiveness.” Our faith in Christ grows as we find people to hold us accountable, and counsel us through strongholds of sin. The apostle Matthew wrote, “If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault, between you and him alone. If he listens to you, you have gained your brother(Matthew 18:15 ESV). Maturity in Christ allows us the strength to be honest about sin and provides us with the proper perspective to know what is appropriate to confess out loud to another person. In all we do, we are to bring glory to God.

Prayer is powerful. “The ‘righteous man’ here referred to is the one whose sins have been confessed and forgiven. His prayer is fully able to secure results, such as healing of the sick” (Expositor’s Bible Commentary). There is no doubt God hears our prayers and answers them! The intimate relationship we have with God as Christ-followers means He knows the full scope and condition of our hearts and thus the root of our prayers. His heart is moved by the prayers of the righteous.

How Are We Supposed to Confess Our Sins to Each Other?

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.” Galatians 6:1 ESV

When my older daughter corrects her younger sister, I remind her she already has a mother. We must be careful to guide each other to God’s feet when we see sin in someone else. Christ warned us to take the log out of our own eye before we look at someone else’s life critically. And as Paul reminded us, we all fall short of the glory of God (Rom. 3:23).

When we live our lives in pursuit of Christ, God places us purposefully in the lives of those around us. “To confess your sins to each other is not necessarily done in public, but here it does seem to be a part of the restoration process involving the elders,” John F. Hart wrote for The Moody Bible Commentary, “Healed is sometimes used for physical healing but is also used metaphorically for spiritual restoration, the metaphorical sense being preferred in light of James’s apparent emphasis on spiritual strengthening.”

Advising another Christ-follower of sin in their lives can be extremely helpful, saving them from the consequences of it. However, Scripture warns us to do so in love, without tearing each other down or lofting ourselves above one another. We already have a Father in heaven who holds all authority over our lives. He knows every human heart and the struggles of sin that lurk there to wreak havoc.

Confessing our sins to each other is to be done in a loving, empathetic way because we all struggle with sin. We are in this, together. “There are some sins, whether private or otherwise, that would not benefit the body of Christ or a small band of fellowship for us to air or give voice to, Stephen Nichols’ explains, “So there is a need for wisdom, discretion, and judgment to be exercised in those cases.” When in doubt, we follow Jesus, who though fully God lived a fully human life on earth. He empathizes with us. We can lead others to confess and repent as Jesus did when we operate in His strength and grace. Jesus came to free us from guilt, shame, and condemnation, so we should not heap those heavy burdens on each other.

Are We Required to Confess Sin to Church Authorities?

“And Aaron shall lay both his hands on the head of the live goat, and confess over it all the iniquities of the people of Israel, and all their transgression, all their sins. And he shall put them on the head of the goat and send it away into the wilderness by the hand of a man who is in readiness.” Lev 16:21 ESV

Jesus came to fulfill God’s law. There are many Old Testament legalities, such as animal sacrifice, no longer required because of Jesus’ once for all perfect sacrifice on the cross. It’s often wise to seek counsel from church leaders regarding struggles with strongholds of sin. However, it is not required we confess every sin to a church authority in order to be forgiven. The wonder of the Christmas story is the miraculous feat Jesus accomplished when he broke through the atmosphere to walk the earth and die for our sins. Because of God’s great love for us to send His one and only Son, we have the gift of opportunity, to confess and repent of our sins and receive forgiveness and restoration through Christ.

For God so loved the world, that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.” John 3:16 ESV

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 ESV

“Since confession of sin and the prayers of faith bring healing, Christians should confess their ‘sins to each other and pray for each other,’” The Expositor’s Bible Commentary explains, “It is not merely the elders who are told to pray here, but Christians in general.” We define time, before Christ, and after Christ. Before Jesus died and rose from the dead, defeating death once for all, humanity continually fell short of the laws God provided for us to follow. The laws were for our own good, but because of the curse and pull of sin on our lives could never be upheld. Jesus lived a life we could never live, following God’s will for Him without sin and bringing glory to God in all He spoke and did.

Confessing our sins has been made available to us by Christ Jesus, the way God provided for us to come into His holy presence and abide with Him in the intimate relationship we were designed to share. Sin cannot be in the presence of our Holy God. We have to confess it, daily. But, because of Jesus, we can come to Him freely in prayer and petition to do so. We don’t need an intercessory to tell God our sins for us, He knows our hearts better than we do. We can meet in the presence of God daily to digest Scripture and prayerfully receive His counsel in our daily lives. He has purposefully set us in communities and families in which we grow together in Christ by holding each other accountable. Confessing our sins to each other isn’t a legalistic requirement but a product of communal fellowship that produces freedom in accountably.

Jesus died on the cross to save us from our sins. It is through Christ, and Christ alone, we come to the Father for forgiveness for our sins. John wrote, “to all who received Him, to all who believed in His name, He gave the right to become children of God(John 1:12-13). We are all welcome to come to Jesus, on our own. When we confess our sins to each other, we follow Jesus’ example to love, listen, speak truth, and forgive. Because we are forgiven, we can also forgive.

Sources

  • The Moody Bible Commentary, 2014.
  • Expositor’s Bible Commentary (Abridged Edition): New Testament, 2004.

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meg bucher profile pic bioMeg, freelance writer and blogger at Sunny&80, is the author of “Friends with Everyone, Friendship within the Love of Christ,” and “Surface, Unlocking the Gift of Sensitivity,” She writes about everyday life within the love of Christ. Meg earned a Marketing/PR degree from Ashland University but stepped out of the business world to stay at home and raise her two daughters, which led her to pursue her passion to write. She has led a Bible Study for Women and serves as a Youth Ministry leader in her community. Meg, a Cleveland native and lifelong Browns fan, lives by the shore of Lake Erie in Northern Ohio with her husband, two daughters, and golden doodle.


This article is part of our larger resource library of popular Bible verse phrases and quotes. We want to provide easy to read articles that answer your questions about the meaning, origin, and history of specific verses within Scripture's context. It is our hope that these will help you better understand the meaning and purpose of God's Word in relation to your life today.

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