Two-Way Confession

William C. Brownson Uncategorized

READ : James 5:16

We all know the importance of confessing our sins to God. What about confessing them to each other?

Mutual Confession

I want to think with you now about a practice that is highly rewarding, yet quite unpopular. It can generate untold joy, but is usually neglected. What I have in mind is the mutual confession of our sins. Listen to these words from James, chapter 5, verse 16: “Confess your sins to one another, and pray for one another, that you may be healed. The prayer of a righteous man has great power in its effects.”

I suppose that most of us have at least some idea of what it means to confess our sins. The word confess means literally to “speak the same as.” When we confess sins, we say about them the same thing that God says. We call them what he calls them. When we confess, we frankly admit that we have rebelled against him, disobeyed his will, spurned his fellowship, and gone our own way. The specific wrongs we do are all expressions of this basic heart attitude, this willful estrangement from God. His written Word, the Bible, reveals to us where we transgress or fall short. When we then confess our sins, we are saying yes to his estimate of us. We agree with his verdict.

Some of us are familiar perhaps with various forms of public confession. A member who has committed some serious offense may be required to acknowledge his wrong before the whole body of believers. We were in a church in Soviet Russia some years ago where those who became Christians were expected to pray a prayer of penitence before the gathered congregation, confessing aloud their sins and failings.

What James refers to, however, is something different. He calls us to confess our sins “to one another.” This is a mutual act. The people who make confessions to their fellow Christians are expected to hear theirs as well, while all who hear are responsible also to confess. There is nothing forced or official about this. It is left to the discretion of the erring person as to when and where he makes his confession, but it’s always in a setting where others engage in the same honest sharing.

The Values of It

Why does James recommend this practice? Aren’t other forms of confession sufficient? Each surely has its place but also its limitations. If confession is made, for example, only to the clergy, the sense of mutuality and fellowship is lost, and we may come to identify God’s forgiveness too closely with religious rites and human authority.

If, on the other hand, we confess our sins only to God, we may gain a sense of his forgiveness but miss the support of the Christian fellowship. We may come to see ourselves as spiritual “lone rangers” rather than as members of one body.

Confession, whatever form it takes, can be a liberating experience. When we suppress our guilt and refuse to face it honestly, it doesn’t just go away. It tends to control, to enslave our lives in hidden ways. It may make us terribly afraid. As Fulton Sheen once said, “There are tens of thousands of persons today suffering from fears which in reality are nothing but the effects of hidden sins.” Guilt may make us hostile, bitterly critical of others. It may plunge us into discouragement and eat away our zest for life. Hear how King David expressed his experience when for long months he tried to conceal his wrongdoing:

When I declared not my sin, my body wasted away through my groaning all the day long. For day and night your hand was heavy upon me; my strength was dried up as by the heat of summer.

Psalm 32:3-4

An inner sickness, a fearful sense of pressure, the withering of joy and gladness – all that came from sin unconfessed. I wonder how much physical illness and mental anguish in the lives of people today can be traced to the same cause.

Confession, on the other hand, brings release and relief. How blessed it is not to have to hide or pretend any more, to make excuses or blame someone else! How freeing to come out of the darkness of concealment into the light of truth! It’s like a huge debt canceled, a dreadful burden lifted when we confess our sins and find forgiveness. Have you experienced what that can be?

Confession, especially mutual confession, can also be a powerful deterrent to sin. Concealing sin makes it worse, adding shamelessness and obstinacy to the original fault. When we don’t confess, we are likely to become increasingly careless and hardened. But to bring that offense out into the open is to build a defense against repeating it. When I admit to someone the lie that I have told, I’m fortified to some degree against future deceptions. When I admit to another person that I have injured him, I’m far less likely to hurt him again. Confession expresses and reinforces my purpose to change.

It’s easy for us who are Protestants to become smug in the fact that we “confess our sins to God through Christ” and have no need of human mediators or confessors. Yes, but our avoidance of confessing to fellow Christians may trap us in an isolating form of pride. We may loudly acknowledge that we are sinners saved by grace but never own up to any specific failures. We are miserable offenders, we say, but just let anyone try to point out a specific wrong in our lives! We’ll scream in protest or be ready with a counter-accusation.

Mutual confession can free us from those pretensions. We can discover the meaning of grace by letting ourselves be “found out” only to realize that we’re still loved anyway. We can abandon forever that vain image building that sets us apart from our fellow believers. We can rather take our places with them as weak, blundering, wayward people.

For this to happen, however, it’s important that the confession be genuine and unforced. When others pry and probe, when they insist that we should bare our souls, the whole blessing may be lost. When confession takes place in a circle of believers who care deeply about each other, who are at the same time honest and accepting, it can bring about bona fide miracles of renewal. I’ve seen that happen, among my own family members.

What James especially points out is that mutual confession lets others in the fellowship know about our need. We’re supposed to bear one another’s burdens, aren’t we? I heard a minister once talk about being vulnerable, about letting others know our weakness, the weights we carry. He said, “How can other people bear our burdens if we don’t even tell them what they are?” You’d be surprised at how many people in our churches feel that their failings are more glaring, their lapses more grievous, their faith more feeble than anyone else’s. They look around at others who seem to have it all together and they become discouraged about themselves. And they surely won’t be led to expend much energy in assisting people who need no help! But if they know where you hurt, if they know the temptations you struggle with, they’ll feel a sense of kinship with you, and be ready to give you the support that you inwardly cry out for.

“Confess your sins one to another,” says James, “and pray for one another, that you may be healed.” The more we open ourselves to caring brothers and sisters, the more we can expect their prayers on our behalf. That’s the great reason for these shared confessions, that they may lead to burden-bearing prayer. We let trusted friends in on our pain, our guilt, our fear, that they may come to our aid. And James reminds us that the prayers of even one person who knows God and lives before him with a good conscience can have incredibly powerful effects. No one can ever receive a gift more precious, more life-enriching than the faithful prayers of one godly man or woman.

James affirms with full confidence that whatever ills we have of body, mind and spirit, they are never beyond the healing power of God, in response to the prayers of his people. Those who confess their sins freely to their fellow Christians and enlist their prayers can expect wonderful things. In the depths of life, they will surely be healed.

Never Easy to Do

But honest confession, however much we recommend and extol it, never comes easy. It’s one of the hardest things in the world for us to do. Confession to our friends and fellow believers may be the most difficult form of all. It means taking down all our carefully built defenses, and that comes hard. It only happens, really, as an act of trust. Few people open up genuinely under pressure. It’s only love that can produce the real thing. It’s when you know that little circle of people cares about you that you’re willing to risk exposing something of which you are ashamed. You trust they’ll deal with you kindly, they won’t take advantage of what you’ve shared or try to use it against you. You put your life, as it were, in their hands.

But behind that is an even deeper act of trust. Of what value is any confession of our sins unless there is the hope of being forgiven? As long as we feel that God is angry with us, ready to condemn us, we will have little heart to turn toward him. Maybe you’ve had at times nightmares similar to some of mine. You’re being pursued, you run at top speed, you leap over hedges and fences, you dart around corners, burst into a straightaway, but you can’t gain any ground. Your pursuer is still right there behind you. It’s hard to keep from panicking. But what if you knew that God was after you on a mission of mercy, with a pardon in his hand? Why, then, you’d stop and turn toward him and receive his mercy.

Well, Christians know that God is good and ready to forgive. They’re sure of that because he gave us Christ. The death of Jesus on Good Friday is the pledge that the holy God who hates sin is also the loving Father who takes the sin upon his own heart and bears it away so that he can freely offer us his pardoning love. You can afford to acknowledge your sins to God and to people that you trust because a free forgiveness has already been provided. You don’t have to hang back in the shadows. He’s waiting to welcome you into the light.

Listen again to this glad word of the gospel:

If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness . . . The blood of Jesus, his Son, cleanses us from all sin. (1 John 1:9, 7)

I think of that wonderful promise in the Old Testament book of Proverbs (28:13), “He that covers his sins will not prosper, but he who confesses and forsakes them will receive mercy.” Beloved friends, believe this gospel through Jesus Christ, and feel free to confess your sins to trusted brothers and sisters and to God in the deep and full assurance that in Christ you are fully and freely forgiven!