The biblical instruction to “confess your sins to one another” is an important part of what it means to be a Christian. What did James mean by it?
“I’m sorry. I was wrong.”
Those are not easy words to say.
Neither are the words that need to come after them:
“Will you forgive me?”
And yet, as Christians in progress, we understand that these are incredibly important words. The ability to own up to our failings—to acknowledge our mistakes and poor decisions to others—plays a key role in our identity as disciples of Jesus Christ.
Biblical examples of passing the blame
Some people seem incapable of accepting blame. They always have a reason something wasn’t really their fault. They can always point to something else—another person, an event they couldn’t control—to absolve themselves of any real responsibility. No matter how cut-and-dried things look, they refuse to be held accountable for their actions.
If you’ve ever dealt with someone who refuses to admit to being wrong, then you know what a frustrating experience that can be.
But it certainly isn’t a new experience.
In fact, it’s one that shows up over and over again in the pages of the Bible.
God charged King Saul to destroy the wicked Amalekites and all their possessions—but when the prophet Samuel pointed out that Saul and his army had kept back “all that was good” for themselves (1 Samuel 15:9), Saul was quick to point the finger at those who served under him. “The people spared the best of the sheep and the oxen, to sacrifice to the LORD your God; and the rest we have utterly destroyed” (verse 15, emphasis added throughout).
While Moses was on Mount Sinai, receiving the 10 Commandments from God, his brother Aaron buckled under pressure from the people of Israel and crafted a golden idol for them to worship in Moses’ absence. When Moses returned and confronted Aaron, it seems as if Aaron blamed the idol itself: “So [the people] gave [their gold] to me, and I cast it into the fire, and this calf came out” (Exodus 32:24).
But the most glaring example of all is probably the earliest example of all. In the Garden of Eden, after eating fruit from the forbidden tree and attempting to hide from God out of shame, Adam shifted the blame toward his wife and even God: “The woman whom You gave to be with me, she gave me of the tree, and I ate” (Genesis 3:12). Eve was quick to redirect as well: “The serpent deceived me, and I ate” (verse 13).
The people disobeyed. The idol popped out all on its own. The woman You gave me set me up. The serpent tricked me.
Never their own fault. Always someone else’s.
What it means to confess our sins to one another
It’s hard. It’s hard to take ownership of a failure—intentional or not. Our human nature nudges us to get the blame off our plate as quickly and as completely as possible—to redirect the failure to someone else like an ethical hot potato.
But that approach never accomplishes much. It rarely ever fools anyone—it just makes us look foolish. People are pretty good at spotting those who can’t admit their own missteps—because they usually look as silly as Aaron trying to convince his brother that a golden calf emerged from the fire on its own.
Besides that, it gets hard to trust people who shrug off blame. It doesn’t matter how talented or useful they are—when something goes wrong, trying to get to the bottom of things can quickly turn into a detective drama.
In contrast, God calls us to take ownership of our mistakes.
James urged members of the Church to “confess your sins to one another and pray for one another, that you may be healed” (James 5:16, English Standard Version). This was part of a bigger discussion about healing, where James talked about prayer and anointing as a way to seek healing from God (verses 14-15).
There seems to be an implication here in James’ words—specifically, that we confess our sins to those we have wronged.The concept of how health problems can sometimes be tied to sin is beyond the scope of this article—but sickness aside, this idea of confessing our sins to each other is an important one. What did James mean, and how are we supposed to do it?
It’s probably best to start with what he didn’t mean. Since all sin is against God, spiritual forgiveness can come only from confessing to God. No human intermediary is required in this process. (For more on this, see “What Does It Mean to Confess Your Sins?”)
Also, “confess your sins to one another” can sound like a pretty intense instruction, but this isn’t a commandment for all Christians to share their personal history of sin with every Christian they meet. (There’s tremendous value in having trustworthy friends who can pray for you and help you in your spiritual struggles, but literally confessing all your sins to everyone in your congregation would be a logistical and emotional nightmare.)
There seems to be an implication here in James’ words—specifically, that we confess our sins to those we have wronged.
This is in line with Christ’s instruction for those on the other side of the equation: “If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault between you and him alone. If he hears you, you have gained your brother” (Matthew 18:15).
There’s a high value placed on privacy here. Although potentially there are further steps in addressing sin (verses 16-17), the goal is always to keep the number of people involved as low as possible.
The Church as a whole doesn’t need to hear you acknowledge your sins—but a brother you’ve sinned against does.
What is confession?
That’s what confession is, really. To confess something is to admit to it and acknowledge it as the truth.
Paul wrote about a future day when every tongue will “confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father” (Philippians 2:11).
The author of Hebrews told us to “hold fast the confession of our hope without wavering” (Hebrews 10:23).
The Lordship of Jesus Christ, our hope in the coming promises of God—these are things Christians ought to confess, to freely acknowledge.
In addition to that, we must confess our sins to one another.
That can be so much harder than acknowledging Jesus as our Lord. It requires us to push past that very human instinct to deflect and shift blame, and to instead truthfully say to those we’ve sinned against, “I’m sorry. I was wrong. Will you forgive me?”
Human nature doesn’t like to confess
In the biblical examples we looked at, Saul didn’t do that. Aaron didn’t do that. Adam and Eve didn’t do that.
We must be able to do that.
When we make a wrong choice, it’s easy to start scrambling to save face. The people did it; the calf came out on its own; the woman I didn’t even ask for suggested it. Things happened. I was just a victim of circumstance. It’s not my fault.
That’s not what Christians in progress do. Christians in progress take an honest look at themselves and accept the blame they deserve. They confess their sins to the ones they’ve hurt, seek forgiveness and then look for ways to make things right.
That first step—being able to say, “It was me. It was my fault. I messed this up and I admit it”—is vital to everything that comes after.
Confession, prayer and healing
What about the other side of things? What happens when others come to confess—to admit—their sins to you?
Jesus warned His disciples, “If you do not forgive men their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses” (Matthew 6:15).
When we sin, we can’t move forward until we can own up to those sins and repent (see “How Repentance Will Change the World” in this issue for more). And when others come to us with their sins, we can’t move forward until we can extend the same kind of forgiveness God has extended to us.
And then James’ instructions highlight the next step of this process: “Pray for one another, that you may be healed.” Beyond extending and accepting heartfelt apologies for sin, God expects us to actively pray for one another. In that process, James explains, we find healing.
Physical healing? Yes—sometimes. But even more important than that is the spiritual healing we find in our care for one another—in our desire to rebuild and restore the relationships that connect us as God’s people, “that there should be no schism in the body, but that the members should have the same care for one another” (1 Corinthians 12:25).
It’s not easy to admit when we’re wrong.
It’s not easy to confess our sins to each other.
But if we’re serious about following in the footsteps of Jesus Christ, it’s the only way forward.