Confessing Your Sins (James 5:13-16)
Topic: One Truth: Walk in Truth Passage: James 5:13–5:16
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I. Training in Righteousness
Listen to what Paul tells Timothy about the power of God's word: All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness... (II Timothy 3:16). Is that how you think about the word? Is that what you seek from the word?
For the past couple of weeks, we have been looking together at passages that call us, as followers of Jesus Christ, to some hard but holy habit. I believe these habits (or practices, or disciplines) are part of what Paul had in mind when he encouraged Timothy to, “train yourself [or discipline yourself] for godliness”; and several verses later, “practice these things, immerse yourself in them” (I Timothy 4:7, 15).
This morning we want to continue that discussion by looking at yet another hard but holy habit. We find this one in James chapter 5. Turn there if you haven't already.
II. The Passage: “Confess Your Sins to One Another” (5:13-16)
Let's start by simply looking at the first sentence in verse 16. That's where we find a description of another hard but holy habit. James, the half-brother of Jesus, writes to his Jewish readers:
Therefore, confess your sins to one another and pray for one another, that you may be healed.
Now clearly this one verse is part of a larger context. The first word we find here, the word “therefore”, simply reminds us of that fact. But let's begin with this one sentence, and then expand out, allowing the context to help us better understand what James is prescribing here; more importantly, what God is prescribing here.
1. “Confess Your Sins” (v. 16a)
“Therefore, confess...” Confess what? “Confess your sins...” To confess is to admit to or acknowledge openly. Did you know that confession is an indisputable feature of the godly life? David exemplifies this for us in Psalm 32:5, where he declares,
I acknowledged my sin to you, and I did not cover my iniquity; I said, "I will confess my transgressions to the LORD," and you forgave the iniquity of my sin.
These reassuring and redemptive truths are found in the NT as well. The Apostle John reminds believers about God's gospel-grounded promise in regard to this godly habit. I John 1:9...
If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.
But what James has prescribed in this passage is not simply confession of one's sins before God. He writes, “confess your sins... to one another”. But what exactly does that mean? Confess which sins? Confess to whom specifically? Confess when? There are many questions unanswered here. A basic question we might ask in light of this verse would be, “Does the NT describe confessing sins to one another as a regular practice within the believing community?” Well... not quite.
There are two instances in the NT where we read about public confession of sin. One is a description of John the Baptist's ministry:
Then Jerusalem and all Judea and all the region about the Jordan were going out to him,  and they were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins. (Matthew 3:5–6)
The second instance is in the context of the church. We read this in Acts 19 about the church in Ephesus:
...many of those who were now believers came, confessing and divulging their practices.  And a number of those who had practiced magic arts brought their books together and burned them in the sight of all. (Acts 19:18–19)
But these examples seem unique, and aside from James 5, we have no others instructions from Jesus or the Apostles about confessing one's sins to other believers. The practice is not mentioned by Paul, or John, or Peter, or any of the other letter writers of the NT. Does that make the practice illegitimate? Absolutely not. It simply a reminder that we need to be careful we understand what it means and cautious about prescribing it too narrowly or dogmatically.
But notice what we also learn from verse 16: if we confess our sins to one another, then according to James, we should couple that with prayer for one another. I think that says something important about the spirit and 'God-wardness' of this kind of confession. Also notice the goal of these practices: “that you may be healed”. What does James have in mind when he writes about being healed? Well, I think the context can help us answer that.
2. “The One Who is Sick” (vs. 14-15)
Look with me at the verses leading up to this verse. We read in verses 14 and 15:
Is anyone among you sick? Let him call for the elders of the church, and let them pray over him, anointing him with oil in the name of the Lord.  And the prayer of faith will save the one who is sick, and the Lord will raise him up. And if he has committed sins, he will be forgiven.
In the twenty-eight times that word “healed” appears in the NT, it usually means physical healing from physical illness. But it's also used in reference to a release from demonic possession, as well as spiritual healing or deliverance in general. But with the word “sick” so close by here in the context, the word seems to be connected to this discussion concerning someone who is physically infirmed.
Now, I'm not going to spend a lot of time this morning talking about James' prescription here, except to say that when someone is seriously ill (notice they have to call for the elders to come to them, rather than going to the elders... when someone who is seriously ill) calls for the elders, that they would come and pray and anoint (a symbolic act to set apart for special blessing)...
When someone makes this request, it's a beautiful example of humility and faith; one often neglected in the church. But what does this have to do with our focus on confessing one's sins?
Well, look back to the final phrase of verse 15: “And if he has committed sins, he will be forgiven.” I think the word “if” in that sentence is a reminder that though not all sickness, or maybe even most sickness, is NOT the result of a specific sin or sins... some of it is. One clear example of this is from the Corinthian church. Many of the Christians in Corinth were guilty of treating the Lord's Supper like any other meal, and in doing so, selfishly neglecting the needs of other believers and the unity of the body. The result was God's judgment: I Corinthians 11:30, “That is why many of you are weak and ill, and some have died.” As Paul would state two verses later, this was not a condemning punishment from God. It was loving discipline.
So if some physical illness is the result of God's gracious correction, then as James indicates, the sick individual should not simply seek prayer. He or she should also search their heart and confess those hidden sins that God may be mercifully driving into the light through such discipline. Also notice the reassurance that James offers here. He doesn't say that such 'confessors' may or may not be forgiven. He declares, “he will be forgiven”. That is a gospel promise. That is reassurance for the repentant in light of the cross of Christ. Amen!
So it's that reassurance that leads directly into the “therefore” of verse 16; into James' call to “confess your sins to one another”. But is James still focused simply on those who were sick?
3. “Let Him Pray” (vs. 13, 16b)
I think the answer is yes and no. Notice how this section begins in verse 13:
Is anyone among you suffering? Let him pray. Is anyone cheerful? Let him sing praise.
It seems clear that James is calling his readers to turn to God in every circumstance. If you are suffering in some way, don't immediately look for some earthly solution. Go to God in prayer! If you are rejoicing in some way, don't simply count your blessings. Sing praise to the Blesser! And if you are sick, trust God for how he might work through his shepherds and their prayers.
Do you see how the practice of prayer is the connecting thread in all these verses? It's mentioned in every single verse from verse 13 down to 18. With that in mind, think about the three kinds of prayer described and prescribed by James here: first, there is praying for oneself, second, there is being prayed for by the elders, and third, there is praying for and being prayed for by other brothers and sisters in Christ.
And so, the focus of verse 16 has shifted from just elders praying for a sick believer, to believers praying for one another. Why is that important? Because it moves the ministry context beyond just the bedridden believer. I think what James may be saying is this, “If God is disciplining you, whether through sickness or by other means, and the heaviness of that correction is bringing about conviction of sin, then confess that sin to a brother or sister, and have them pray for you, so that you might experience God's healing work of forgiveness and restoration.”
Why not simply confess on your own and pray for yourself? Notice the final words of verse 16, in their original context: “The prayer of a righteous person has great power as it is working.”
III. Confession in Your Context
So what might God have you take away from this passage in terms of actually practicing this hard but holy habit? And undoubtedly, we are talking about a hard habit here, aren't we. As Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote in his book Life Together, “Confession in the presence of a brother is the profoundest kind of humiliation. It hurts, it cuts a man down, it is a dreadful blow to pride. To stand there before a brother as a sinner is an ignominy that is almost unbearable.” So what might we take away from this passage this morning? Let me share some points of application:
First, confess to God before you confess to a brother or sister. Encouragement from a brother or sister is a wonderful thing, but we should be looking first for the forgiveness, healing, and assurance only God can give. A repentant spirit eager to obey God is the very thing that should drive us to practice the hard but holy habit of James 5:16, not simply a desire to unload our baggage and receive some kind of earthly reassurance.
Second, confess especially those sins that clamor for healing. I don't think God, through James, is directing us here to confess every sin to a brother or sister. I think instead that James has certain situations in mind. For example, as the context seems to indicate, if you find yourself entrenched in certain patterns of sin, especially unrepentant sin, patterns that have brought (or may bring) God's discipline, this is an important time to confess your sins to a brother or sister, and have them pray for you.
Why? Because God wants us to help each other bring such things into the light. As Paul wrote to the believers in Ephesus: But when anything is exposed by the light, it becomes visible,  for anything that becomes visible is light. (Ephesians 5:13, 14) You see, we give sin added power when it remains hidden in the darkness. Bonhoeffer described this powerfully: “Sin wants to remain unknown. It shuns the light. In the darkness of the unexpressed it poisons the whole being of a person.” In such cases it's so easy to find ourselves caught in a web of self-deception and self-justification. But as we've seen this morning, God calls us to confess. Again Bonhoeffer: “Our brother breaks the circle of self-deception. A man who confesses his sin in the presence of a brother knows that he is no longer alone with himself; he experiences the presence of God in the reality of the other person.”
Other times when confession to a brother/sister would be important is when the sin is question is sin against them personally, or sin that affects them personally. Public confession would also be important in cases of public sin. All of these sins, in some sense, clamor for healing.
Third, confess to “a righteous person” and a praying person. Be discerning about the brother or sister with whom you confess. Immature believers may treat your sin lightly, or they may be too severe (i.e., judgmental), or they may share information without your permission. Instead, find a trustworthy elder or mature believer who can both reassure you and refresh you in light of the gospel; and who will pray to those ends.
You see, this biblical confession of sin is not an 'I'd feel better getting this off my chest' or 'I'm so sorry I failed you' kind of habit. It is a gospel-grounded habit for a gospel-grounded community; a community of believers who treasure Jesus, who treasure his death and resurrection for sinners like us, and who are eager to spread the wealth with any brother or sister who is feeling impoverished by sin. Is that how you feel this morning? Even if you've rarely ever or have never confessed sin to a brother or sister, remember James 5:16. Remember that God wants to use others in your life in this way. Will you pray about taking this step? I'd love to pray for you.