"Therefore, confess your sins to one another and pray for one another, that you may be healed" (James 5:16).
Is corporate confession of sin enough? It is, but it may not be. It all depends on who's asking. Let me explain.
Corporate confession of sin on the Lord's Day is a glorious, sin-debilitating means of grace. With solemnity, we confess as one body that we have not done the things that we should have done (sins of omission), and have done the things that we should not have done (sins of commission). Then, with joy, we look away from our past sin and set our gaze on God's faithfulness to His covenant promises in the gracious work of Jesus Christ—His humble entrance into the world, morally-perfect life, wrath-absorbing death for our sins, victorious resurrection, and ascension to the right hand of the Majesty on high, where He continually and unfailingly intercedes on our behalf. In the assurance of pardon, we receive grace and mercy in time of desperate need from our High Priest through our pastor, as the church is, once again, reminded of our mutual state of dependence on our Triune God and the imputation of Christ's righteousness. There's no doubt about it. Corporate confession of sin is enough.
Nevertheless, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, drawing heavily from the work of Martin Luther, expresses the great need for private confession of sin in the last chapter of his book Life Together ("Confession and Communion"). He explains that even though so many Christians corporately confess their sin, some (if not most) are still alone with their sin. And Christians who are alone with their sin, he reasons, are utterly alone. To Christians in sinful solitude, the church may seem like a place where only the pious dwell, as if there were a sign above its doors declaring, "Abandon all sin, ye who enter here." Frightened to be found out, they retain a veneer of external godliness while secretly keeping a tight grasp on their hidden sin. This double-mindedness only draws them away from the community of light and deeper into their own darkness. After all, confessing one's sin to another would be the profoundest kind of humiliation. People would see you for who you really are, not who you present yourself to be. That is why many avoid having to experience this dreadful blow to pride and instead confess their sins to God in private.
To this, however, Bonhoeffer asks a penetrating question: Why is it easier to confess our sin to a dreadfully holy God than to another justified sinner? The answer is simple. We are actually confessing our sins to ourselves, not God, and then granting ourselves absolution. Unfortunately, this sort of self-forgiveness can never lead to a breach with sin. We need others in the body of Christ to declare God's promises in the gospel for His people. We need others to help us wage war against the deceitfulness of sin. This is why Martin Luther adamantly declares:
"I will allow no man to take private confession away from me, and I would not give it up for all the treasures in the world, since I know what comfort and strength it has given me.... For there are many doubtful matters which a man cannot resolve or find the answer to by himself, and so he takes his brother aside and tells him his trouble.... Therefore, no man shall forbid the confession nor keep or draw anyone away from it. And if anyone is wrestling with his sins and wants to be rid of them and desires a sure word on the matter, let him go and confess to another in secret, and accept what he says to him as if God himself had spoken it through the mouth of this person" (LW, 51.99).
John Calvin agrees, stating that
"We should lay our infirmities on one another's breasts, to receive among ourselves mutual counsel, mutual compassion, and mutual consolation. Then, as we are aware of our brothers' infirmities, let us pray to God for these" (Institutes, 3.4.6).
Both Calvin and Luther knew well the emancipating truth of James 5:16. They equally affirmed and promoted mutual confession and mutual prayer as a means of experiencing the healing power of God. But they went to great lengths to deny the auricular confession to a priest, the obligatory sacrament of penance in the Roman Catholic Church. Against their use of James 5:16 as a proof text, Calvin highlights the fact that the command to "confess your sins to one another" is immediately followed by "and pray for one another" (Institutes, 3.4.6). Surely, those who confess neither listen to a priest's confession nor pray for him. How, then, can this text be used in support?
Over against this erroneous view, the private confession of sin that the Reformers promoted is voluntary and only for those who need it. As Calvin writes,
"But he should always observe this rule: that where God prescribes nothing definite, consciences be not bound with a definite yoke. Hence, it follows that [private] confession…ought to be free so as not to be required of all, but to be commended only to those who know that they have need of it. Then, that those who use it according to their need neither be forced by any rule nor be induced by any trick to recount all their sins" (Institutes, 3.4.12).
Moreover, since James 5:16 does not expressly indicate to whom we should confess, we are left with the "free choice to confess to that one of the flock of the church who seems most suitable. Yet we must also preferably choose pastors inasmuch as they should be judged especially qualified above the rest.... For, while the duty of mutual admonition and rebuke is entrusted to all Christians, it is especially enjoined upon ministers" (Institutes, 3.4.12).
Private confession of sin is a humbling yet unifying act with our brother or pastor that helps break the circle of self-deception, as the light of the gospel shines through a justified sinner to pierce the darkness and seclusion of their heart. It is humiliatingly shameful but undeniably freeing. It will generate relational bonds of true Christian fellowship that seek to mortify the flesh in community and encourage others to do the same. May we work out our salvation corporately with fear and trembling, knowing—most importantly—that God wills and works in and through us for His good pleasure (Phil. 2:12-13).
As we do so, it may be beneficial to ask ourselves these self-exposing and self-correcting questions:
- Am I alone with my sin?
- Have I confessed it to an elder or a close friend?
- Do others feel able to confess their sin to me?
- Would I be willing to match their vulnerability by confessing my sin?
Dr. David E. Briones is dean of students and professor of New Testament at Reformation Bible College.