There is much misunderstanding and confusion when it comes to James’ next topic – confession. Because of the errors of the Catholic Church concerning confession to a priest, much of evangelical Christendom has reacted too strongly the other way and have ignored confession altogether.
James is moving from physical healing to spiritual healing, and a major part of spiritual health is mutual accountability.
(Jas 5:16) Confess your faults one to another, and pray one for another, that ye may be healed. The effectual fervent prayer of a righteous man availeth much.
There is something comforting to know that other righteous believers are approaching the throne of grace on your behalf.
There is so much good teaching here in this verse. Let’s break it down so we can understand both what it is teaching and what it is not teaching.
1. It is teaching mutual accountability? Notice that is one on one. A person is not standing before the church or a crowd airing dirty laundry.
We wonder how much sin would be avoided if one would go to a trusted brother or sister and ask for prayer and accountability for something that they are struggling with.
However, this should only be done with a mature believer. There are several reasons for this:
Immature believers should not be asked to carry burdens that they are not ready for.
This also is a dangerous place for gossip to start, so a trusted mature believer is really important.
The person must have already established themselves as a person of prayer, and is described as righteous. They are godly people.
- This mutual accountability helps us bear each other’s burdens.
(Gal 6:1-2) Brethren, if a man be overtaken in a fault, ye which are spiritual, restore such an one in the spirit of meekness; considering thyself, lest thou also be tempted.
Bear ye one another's burdens, and so fulfil the law of Christ.
The law of Christ is the law of love repeated throughout the NT.
Helping each other with their burdens fulfills this law. Too often we go our own way and allow people to sink under the weight of their burdens.
3. There are some dangers here that must be addressed as well. This verse in no way teaches that confession to each other is for forgiveness of sins. The Catholic Confessional model is not taught out of this verse. Let’s look at the key differences between the Catholic model and the Bible teaching on this verse
First of all, we are to confess to each other. The idea here is reciprocal, not just one sided. This is mutual accountability.
Secondly, as stated, this is not for forgiveness of sins, only help and accountability. Jesus is all we need for forgiveness of sins.
Consider these verses.
The only mediator (go-between) we need is Christ. (1Ti 2:5) For there is one God, and one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus;
(1Jn 1:9) If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins, and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.
Another danger is getting into the lurid and messy details. This is not what this verse is teaching. The word ‘fault’ literally means side-slip. It is ‘a going off the path.’ We ask for prayer and help in a certain area, but we leave the messy details out of it. This is because we as human beings have a propensity to sin, we don’t need any help. We don’t need our minds filled with sinful thoughts.
While God knows all about it, when asking for prayer from a trusted person let’s be specific in topic matter but vague in details. We don’t want to be a stumbling block for others.
A final reminder is that the power in our spiritual lives is not from confessing, but from the prayer that follows it.
This is vital to spiritual accountability and vitality.
Ryan King is pastor of Bethel Baptist Church in Westville and a columnist for The News.