In the spirit of manufacturers today who set forth their products anticipating potential misuse or abuse of their products, I offer my own disclaimer with this article—not for the spiritually squeamish or faint of heart. I say that because I’m going to talk with you about “confession,” a long lost spiritual discipline within the Protestant ranks of the church. When most believers are presented with the idea of confession, it summons images of a Roman Catholic confessional booth where persons purportedly anonymously confess their sins to a priest. Although most Protestant believers are not averse to the idea of confessing their sins, they seldom think of this activity in terms of an accepted practice or discipline of the faith. If the confessing of one’s sins is truly a biblical mandate, then its omission could potentially leave believers seriously spiritually deficit in their Christian walk.
We turn to James’ epistle for our precedent in attempting to further understand the significance of this concept of confession.
Therefore, confess your sins to one another, and pray for one another so that you may be healed. The effective prayer of a righteous man can accomplish much (Ja 5:16 NASB).
This verse directing believers to confess their sins is not an isolated, stand alone verse; it has a context in the preceding verses. Leading up to this directive is a discussion about how we are to address affliction and sickness which involves calling upon the church for prayer and ministry. It also brings out the correlation between life’s afflictions and sin in one’s life. The idea of healing here is directly related to the forgiveness of sins. This concept was first set forth by Jesus in his healing of the paralytic who was lowered through the roof where Jesus ministered.
“Which is easier, to say to the paralytic, ‘Your sins are forgiven’; or to say, ‘get up, and pick up your pallet and walk’”? (Mk 2:9 NASV)
James verse on confession follows directly on the heels of addressing affliction and sickness. In the more modern translations the word “therefore” is supplied at the beginning of the verse. I believe this is a perfectly understood and correct rendering which captures the appropriate meaning of the verse. If we desire healing and wholeness, we should solicit the ministry and prayer of the church and then in keeping with that action we should confess our sins.
I believe a brief caveat would be in order at this point. In seeking to more fully understand the significance of personal confession as it relates to our walk with Christ, we need to see that this issue is much broader than simply obtaining physical healing for our bodies. As with all teachings in Scripture, we should couch it within the meta-narrative of God. We should always keep the larger picture of God’s ultimate intention as our context. Jesus’ sacrificial death and resurrection wasn’t just about securing our place in heaven. It was principally about bringing us fully into the same kind of relationship with Father God that Jesus himself has always enjoyed. It is all about the full stature life in Christ, about being fully conformed to his image. Considering this, we can see that the New Testament concept of healing—drawing upon Thayer’s Greek Lexicon—means to make whole, to free from errors and sin, to bring about one’s full salvation.
Returning to our James 5 passage, we learn that what NASV translates as “sins” could just as easily be rendered offenses, trespasses, fall or faults. In matter of fact, the Greek paraptoma is translated by Thayers as: a lapse or deviation from truth and uprightness; a sin, misdeed. This corresponds closely with our understanding of “healing” as that which brings us into the ultimate fullness in Christ. Taking these several verses together from James 5, I think it is reasonable to aver that coming out of our aberrant ways into a modality leading to full stature life in Christ minimally involves intra-church ministry and personal disclosure of how we have been spiritually errant. Confession is functionally both individual and corporate. However, this does not mean that all confession is necessarily public.
Summing up where we have come in this study so far, we can see that James has introduced a very challenging—if not threatening—spiritual discipline to the church. This discipline—confessing personal sins one to another—ties together the concepts of total wholeness and the need to reveal undisclosed sin in one’s life. Confession is an intra-body ministry and resolves to bring persons fully into conformity to the image of Christ.
Many believers struggle with understanding exactly what it is in their lives that deserves confession. Most Christians tend to over simplify the definition of sin as that which is outward, palpable and socially condemned. This viewpoint of sin is not only erroneous but will always leave believers far short of reaching the spiritual depths and maturation Jesus died to bring them into. As point of clarification, I am assuming here by definition that true believers would not be intentionally, knowingly involved in biblically defined sin such as is delineated in the Ten Commandments. Sin literally means missing the mark. Sin is broadly speaking anything in our hearts, attitudes, thought life and behavior that in any measure precludes Christ from assuming his rightful place on the throne of our hearts.
If we seriously want to grasp what it is in our lives that qualifies as confessionable, we simply need to look no further than identifying content in basically two areas. One is to bring indictment to every area in one’s life where there is a demonstrable failure to overcome according to biblical standards and the expectations of God. If we are failing to aspire to overcome in ways that are biblically mandated and that reflect the heart of God for us, then we are spiritually culpable in these ways. The second is to mark those areas of one’s life wherein God has been in any manner excluded or prohibited from assuming his rightful place in one’s heart. Maybe another way of viewing this is to discern in one’s life in what manner is conformity to the image of Christ being ignored, thwarted or denied.
In considering the above two categories, it is imperative that we keep our focus on the matters of the heart. We are enjoined in Proverbs to guard or watch over our hearts with all diligence since everything in life flows out of that. Jesus warned the Pharisees about cleansing the outside of the cup while ignoring the inside. He explained to his disciples that the origin of all corruption resided in the heart.
I want to qualify here that a proper understanding of confession must necessarily embrace sincere repentance. Without repentance—a turning and going the other way—confession simply turns into scrupulosity and becomes a farce. It becomes a kind of religious excessive-compulsive disorder wherein a pathological guilt arises over attention to misdeeds sans any intention to correct one’s heart and behavior. Without true repentance, confession is reduced to simply attempting to assuage one’s false guilt. Confession that arises out of godly sorrow and authentic repentance opens the way to emendation in one’s journey unto completion in Christ.
Confession is principally a matter of light and darkness, about things open and above board versus things buried and hidden, about that which produces spiritual health and well being as contrasted with that which is pathological in nature. The simple truth is that we are not going to overcome, mature and progress spiritually as long as unresolved un-Christ likeness continues to reside within our hearts. Any thoughts, attitudes or behaviors which fail to pass muster with respect to the righteousness of God and his holiness allowed to remain un-confessed and un-repented of will not only stymie current spiritual progress but will also become the grounds for even more extensive continuing spiritual damage in our lives. Un-confessed sin—anything in our lives that precludes Christ’s ascension in our hearts—provides Satan legal grounds for continuing his pathological activity in our lives.
Reconciling ourselves with this challenging discipline of confession will take intentionally rejecting the world’s concepts of how we perceive ourselves and how our understanding of personal significance and value are formed. The world’s concept of one’s significance is basically found in what one does and what others think. Since everyone’s emotional, psychological and spiritual well-being is very much dependent on a healthy self-perception, it is an ongoing struggle to effectively reject notions of self-worth based on one’s performance and what others think. If we adopt the world’s standards, we will find ourselves unconsciously and falsely covering up all detracting traits in our lives. The antidote for this spiritual malaise is in finding our significance—our sense of worth and value—fully in our relationship with Christ. When our self-perception is grounded purely in the love and acceptance of Christ and what he has done for us, we will be free to be fully integrous in all aspects of our lives and relationships.
The drive to be admired, appreciated and accepted by others is nearly insatiable. All persons dread that sense of disappointment conveyed from others when failing to meet—in their eyes--expectations and measure up to whatever degree. It is fascinating that when Adam and Eve committed that original sin, their first response was to “cover up.” Unfortunately we are still continuing this destructive practice. One of the principal functions of the church is to create such an environment of love and acceptance—a safe zone—that persons will be released and encouraged to live personally integrous lives free of all pretensions and pseudo-personas. I believe this may be the major reason there are so many admonitions in the New Testament to “love one another.”
In considering further what should be guiding our confession one to another, I want to draw upon the types and shadows in the Old Testament.
Now these things happened to them as an example, and they were written for our instruction, upon whom the end of the age has come (1 Cor 10:11 NASB).
There is so much understanding to be found in the exploits of ancient Israel corresponding to the church. For example, God’s ultimate intention for his people—to be fully conformed to the image of Christ—is wonderfully depicted in Israel’s deliverance from Egypt and subsequent possession of the Promised Land. Multiple times God conveyed to the people of Israel that he brought them out to take them in. Their deliverance wasn’t principally about coming out from under Egyptian bondage; it was first and foremost about getting them into the Promised Land. This is so strongly developed in the Old Testament that one could make the case that without their moving on to possess Canaan, there was no purpose in coming out of Egypt. It was Israel’s entering the Promised land that prefigured our coming into full maturation in Christ.
Following Israel’s deliverance form Egypt they entered into the wilderness and faced various trying circumstances often leading to rebellious and unfaithful responses. Although God continuously met their needs in supernatural ways, they doubted and questioned the goodness of God and his benign intentions for them. Sometimes it was an issue of water or food. At other times they were confronted with the possibility of being overcome by an enemy. Israel’s typical response in these trails was to turn on their leaders, impugn the character of God and wish they were back in Egypt. God clarified that he allowed Israel to be tested in order to purify their hearts and bring them into absolute obedience.
Although Israel was punished for their moral failures in each of these scenarios, the most severe chastisement they received came at the border of Canaan in the face of the pejorative report brought by the ten spies. You can read the full account of this situation in Numbers 14. In this case, the people completely disbelieved God, accused him of bringing them out into the wilderness to kill them, made plans to return to Egypt and sought to stone Caleb and Joshua who attempted to persuade them of God’s true heart, intentions and ability to see them through whatever obstacles they faced.
In Caleb’s argument to the people, he strenuously warmed them about rebelling against God. The Hebrew word for rebel, marad, is defined in Strong’s thusly: to be contumacious, rebellious, seditious. Contumacious carries the following meaning: to be stubbornly perverse and rebellious; to be willfully and obstinately disobedient. Sedition is the act of leading others to rebel against authority. This is what Caleb was passionately warning the Israelites to avoid in their response to the spies’ report. As if this weren’t horrific enough, it gets even worse. Later in Numbers 14 we see God’s response to the rebellion of the people. “And the Lord said unto Moses, how long will this people provoke me”? What does it mean to “provoke” God? We mostly think of the term provoke as meaning to upset or possibly incite someone. However, the Hebrew renders this term thusly: to deride, to despise, to reject with contempt and derision. It is almost impossible to think of anyone intentionally, consciously treating God in this manner. However, this is exactly how God perceived the Israelites’ response.
Let’s see if we can summarize this situation and ascertain its significance for our discipline of confession today. God acted upon his eternal desire to form a people whom he would fill with his very presence by calling Abraham. From Abraham God amassed a people for himself shaping and refining them in the fires of affliction (Egypt) and ultimately delivering them through miraculous deeds. God made known his purpose to Israel of dwelling among them as his special people to whom he would provide an inheritance known as the Promised Land. At the border of the Promised Land and in light of the spies’ unfaithful report, the Israelites treated God with contempt, derision, perversion, obstinate disobedience, sedition and dispisableness. For these responses, for their refusal to enter the Promised Land, for their failure to believe and trust God, for their outrageous impugnment of the character of God, the people were disinherited and condemned to wander in the wilderness until all those over the age of twenty had died off. It would be hard to imagine a more final and ultimate punishment than to be cut off from God’s eternal intent and design to be filled with the fullness of his life with all of the ramifications appertaining thereto.
God’s ultimate intention has never changed or wavered. Being filled with the fullness of Christ, being conformed to his image, growing up into the full stature of Christ still remains Father God’s eternal desire and focus for our lives. Although there are myriad ways in which we can sin—far short of the glory of God—there is none more eternally fatal than refusing God’s overtures to bring us into the same relationship with himself that he enjoys with his only Son, Jesus. In determining the deepest egregiousness of sin, all one need do is ascertain to what degree a behavior, belief or attitude deters or precludes one’s progression into the fullness of Christ—the Promised Land.
Confessing our faults one to another is fully meant to help us discover and rectify the things in our lives that interdict God’s eternal work of taking his rightful place on the throne of our hearts. The consequences of not doing so are too monumental to contemplate. Working out the particulars of how confession is practiced in one’s life is mostly a personal matter. It is time to focus on that which is truly eternal, set our pride aside and cooperate with the eternal heart of almighty God.
Dr. F. Stoner Clark