(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 (as is illustrated in vv. 17‑18 by the case of Elijah).
(19) Brethren, if any of you do err from the truth, and one convert him;
(20) Let him know, that he which converteth the sinner from the error of his way shall save a soul from death. and shall hide a multitude of sins (5:16‑20).
Confession One To Another
J.E. Huther observes in Meyer’s Commentary that verse 16 adds “a new thought” growing out of what precedes in the context:
From the special order James infers a general injunction, in which the intervening thought is to be conceived that the sick man confessed his sins to the presbyters for the purpose of their intercession; Christians generally are to practice the same duty of confession toward each other… allelois (“one to another,” RH) can only be referred to the relation of individual believers to each other … The passage treats not of human, but of the divine forgiveness; and thus of sins not as offences against our neighbor, but as violations of the law of God … among allelois are certainly to be understood not only the sick, and James indicates by nothing that his injunction refers only to them … the prayer of the presbyters does not exclude the common intercession of the members of the church, and … the efficacy attributed to the latter is not less than that attributed to the former (The General Epistles of James, Peter, John, and Jude, pp. 159-60).
Verses 15‑16 assume but do not mention the conditions of repentance and confession to God, without which there can be no forgiveness, but the passage treats the blessings of open and “public confession of certain sins to one another,” as A.T. Robertson notes in Word Pictures of the New Testament (VI:65). Another Greek scholar, Henry Alford, points out that the sin to be forgiven in verse 15 “would of necessity have been confessed to the presbuteroi (elders, RH), before the prayer of faith could deal with it.” Expanding on the benefits which flow from confession in that specific situation, the Spirit offers a much broader injunction–“’generally,’ says the Apostle, in all similar cases, ‘and one to another universally, pursue the same salutary practice of confessing your sins … not only to the presbyters in the case supposed, but to one another generally'” (The Greek Testament, IV:327‑28). W.E. Oesterley in The Expositor’s Greek Testament, edited by W. Robertson Niccoli, views these verses in the larger context of intercessory prayer throughout the Bible “private as well as public confession was enjoined, and many forms of confession, both general and particular, exist … ” (IV:475).
The practice enjoined is broad enough to include a confession to one person, to a small group, or to the whole church in its assembly. The passage is not discussing the private confession of a heart to God, but our confession “one to another.”
[Guy N. Woods comments:] There is nothing in the word “confess” itself which indicates whether the confession is public or private; but the context in which it appears does, inasmuch as it is to one another; and this, by implication, means that the confession is to be as public as the sins committed. The reason for this is obvious. We are to pray one for another. We may, however, effectively do so, only when a brother confesses his sins and turns away from them … It is necessary in the nature of the case that those who have known of the sins should have equal knowledge of the penitence. But, this we can know only through a confession of the brother involved. It is, therefore, a practical rule that the confession should be as public as the sin (Guy N. Woods, The Epistle of James, p. 305).
The Assembly and “One Another”
Other duties performed one to another often include some expedient arrangement and provision in the assemblies of the church. The assembly provides us a wonderful opportunity to “edify” and “admonish” one another (Rom. 14:19; 15:14). The happy individual may “sing psalms” even in private, but especially do we come together in order to teach and admonish “one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs” (Jas. 5:13; Col. 3:16). In order to share the Lord’s Supper, there must be an assembly and that makes it necessary for us to “tarry one for another” (1 Cor. 11:33). When we “consider one another to provoke unto love and to good works,” we will stedfastly join in “the assembling of ourselves together … exhorting one another” (Heb. 10:24‑25). The assembly is one important and essential provision for the practice of James 5:16– “confess your faults one to another, and pray one for another.”
We must never forget that sin is, above all else, an offense against God Himself. When the prophet Nathan forced David to face his sins, David did not send Nathan aside and offer a private confession which could be known to God alone, but David confessed in the presence of Nathan, “I have sinned against the Lord” (2 Sam. 12:13). This does not mean that David treated Nathan as the “God” who forgives him. On the one hand, any effort by David to conceal admission of guilt from Nathan, who knew about the sin, would have been clear proof that David had not truly repented. On the other hand, David’s open confession is clear evidence of genuine penitence– without which there is no pardon. David had sinned against God and man, but in pleading divine mercy he recognized where the primary offense lay: “Have mercy upon me, a God . . . For I acknowledge my transgressions … Against thee, thee only, have I sinned, and done this evil in thy sight” (Psa. 51:1‑4). This confession does not nullify the fact of offenses against man any more than a confession in the presence of man nullifies the recognition by the penitent sinner that his every transgression is primarily against God.
Public Confession of All, Some, or No Sin?
Confession one to another is essential in all cases of sin, some cases of sin, or in no case. Which is it? The sin of looking on a woman with the desire to commit adultery should the opportunity arise may be known only by the sinner and God (Matt. 5:28). Nothing is necessary for pardon except confession to God alone and prayer for mercy, though no principle of truth precludes the privilege of asking others to join with us in prayer should we feel the need. Matthew 18: 15‑20 deals with a different kind of problem. Each one of us who feels that a brother has sinned against us is taught to “go and tell him his fault between thee and him alone.” Acknowledgment by the sinner to his brother is absolutely essential in this case. If the admission is not made, the offended brother is to take witnesses and renew his plea for correction. If this fails, the Bible says, “Tell it unto the church.”
The sinner who decides that private confession to God is sufficient in all cases, that public confession is only a legalistic or pharisaical tradition, and that he does not need to confess this sin to any man blocks his own pardon by both God and the offender brother. Penitent confession in such cases, both to God and to man, are essential conditions for mercy:
Take heed to yourselves: If thy brother trespass against thee, rebuke him; and if he repent, forgive him.
And if he trespass against thee seven times in a day, and seven times in a day turn again to thee, saying, I repent; thou shalt forgive him (Lk. 17:3‑4).
To pose the question, “What if the sinner dies before he completes the conditions of penitent confession to God and man, and of request for mercy?” is to venture into a realm reserved for God alone. The living must teach and practice the conditions of pardon precisely as God revealed them. “What if a man repented and wished to pray to God but could not immediately reach the brethren he had offended and rejected?” Then let him make whatever correction he can at the moment, trusting himself to God, and let him take every possible step until correction is completed. He may seek the grace of God immediately, but not without the determination to seek the pardon of his brethren as quickly as he can under God’s providential care.
Wherever we find the erring brother, we must urge him to begin by obedient faith to make whatever correction is needed. If we find him in the public assembly of the church, we should urge him to step forward to make the amends needed without delay. Whether the sinner requests pardon by God first or by man first, or by both at the same time as is done in the public assembly, does not matter. What matters is that every effort at correction be made toward God and man.
Other passages relate to this matter of public confession. When the church withdraws its fellowship from unruly members who refuse to repent, the necessary action includes a public statement of reproof’ “when ye are gathered together” (1 Cor. 5:4). This necessarily implies that a public confession of error is essential for such brethren to be restored to the grace and service of God. The godly sorrow which produces repentance and pardon includes a determination to clear away all the guilt and scandal resulting from sin (2 Cor. 2:1‑11; 7:8‑12). Public action is necessary both to the discipline and to the restoration processes.
Another instance requiring public confession is recorded in Galatians 2. When Peter temporarily compromised with the Judaizing teachers, Paul “withstood him to the face, because he was to be blamed,” and rebuked “Peter before them all” (vv. 11, 14). Could Peter have remedied his public sin after this public rebuke by making only a private confession to God? Certainly not! Paul does not say explicitly whether Peter rectified his error, but what we know of his subsequent life positively proves that he did.
Acts 19: Purifying the Church at Ephesus
When Paul defeated the superstitious magicians at Ephesus, the whole community took notice and the number of the disciples continued to multiply. “Many also of those who had believed kept coming, confessing and disclosing their practices” (Acts 19: 18; New American Standard, which gives close attention to verb tenses). Not only did alien sinners obey the gospel and put away their evil deeds, but also “those who had believed kept coming”–one after another–to make “the fullest and most open confession” of their own superstitious errors (M.R. Vincent, Word Studies in the New Testament, p. 270).
Some writers such as J.W. McGarvey in his New Commentary on Acts (1892) cannot bring themselves to think that Christians could have countenanced such sins, but he himself said in his original Commentary on Acts (1863), “The believers who ‘came and confessed anddeclared their practices’ had not, till now, realized the impropriety of those arts, which their heathen education had taught them to regard with reverence.” McGarvey respected H.A.W. Meyer’s works, a writer who could not reconcile the idea of penitent, baptized believers being entangled in magic (Meyer, Acts, p. 371). But the Holy Spirit guided Luke as he described that deplorable situation and even today experience verifies the reality of such weaknesses among saints, as noted by many commentators like Greek scholar Henry Alford, R.J. Knowling in The Expositor’s Greek Testament, R. Tuck and others in The Pulpit Commentary, R.B. Rackham, B.W. Johnson, and others. Some commentaries side step the need to clarify whether erring saints or alien sinners are referred to in verse 18.
The following observations underscore the certainty of the sad condition of many saints at Ephesus:
[A.T. Robertson comments:] Even some of the believers were secretly under the spell of these false spiritualists just as some Christians today cherish private contacts with so‑called occult powers … It was time to make a clean breast of it all, to turn on the light, to unbosom their secret habits… Judgment was beginning at the house of God. The dupes (professing believers, alas) of these jugglers or exorcists now had their eyes opened … (A.T. Robertson, Word Pictures in the New Testament, 3:319).
[Lenski comments:] (Luke, RH) turns to the most wholesome effect on the believers themselves and by using the perfect participle describes them as those who have believed and thus continue to do so. Driven by their consciences, they kept coming to the Christian assembly in order to confess and report their practices, namely that they still kept practicing magical arts of all kinds.
We still have the exact counterpart today: Christians who still resort to witchcraft for healing, for warding off evil, for directing their lives in difficulties, and the like.
Another point to notice is this: all this was done publicly. Note that Luke uses two participles in v. 18 to emphasize the idea ‘confessing and reporting’; and in v. 19 the phrase ‘before them all'” (R.C.H. Lenski, The Acts of the Apostles, pp. 796‑98).
[Shaeffer comments:] Those to whom the word pepisteukotes (“those who had believed,” RH) is applied, were certainly not persons who now only were converted, in consequence of the impression which that event had made on them (Meyer), but as the perfect tense shows, who had been previously converted and had remained believers …
It is the opinion of Meyer that they could not possibly have been converts of an earlier period … But philological considerations…do not sanction any other interpretation than that converts of an earlier period are meant. They had, to a certain extent, retained their heathenish superstition; their repentance and conversion had not thoroughly influenced all their opinions, feelings, and actions … There can be no doubt that those who confessed had been believers for a considerable time (C.S. Schaeffer, The Acts of the Apostles in Lange’s Commentary on the Holy Scripture, transl. Philip Schaff, pp. 354‑55).
Christians at Ephesus kept stepping forward to confess and repudiate the sinful superstitions which they had tolerated in their lives, until the church was purified. 1 [See note 1 at end of article.]
Preach and Practice Public Confession of Sins
The Bible plainly teaches that we are to confess our sins to one another and to pray for one another. We cannot be ashamed to teach and to practice this. As with everything taught in the Bible, expediencies and details may differ from case to case and from situation to situation.
The thing itself is lawful. Whatever the arrangements and particulars, we must obey the command if we walk by faith in God. The Bible does not say how specific a confession of sin is to be, nor that we must enumerate and explain every minute occasion of sin. The expression or wording as found in Scripture is sometimes general and sometimes more particular. But, when we have sinned and need to confess it to correct a situation, the generic escape clause “If I have sinned … ” is a poor substitute for a hearty and genuine acceptance of guilt.
We need to teach that all Christians are priests unto God and may offer the sacrifices of prayer and praise at any time (1 Pet. 2:9). A public confession is not a confession to a preacher as though he were a special priest who mediates God’s grace to us. But it is right for preachers to call on erring brethren to come forward and to make confession of sin in the public assembly, as one means of fulfilling James 5: 16, in order that we may all pray together. The man who needs to make such correction and refuses to do so has not truly repented and cannot be forgiven by God or the people of God.
1 As mentioned above, the perfect participle pepisteukotes is properly translated “those who had believed,” i.e. “those who have believed and thus continue to do so.” Greek grammars show that “the perfect tense denotes the present state resultant upon a past action” (J. Gresham Machen, New Testament Greek for Beginners, p. 1871). A bulletin article claims that the aorist participle in “practiced” – “And not a few of them that practiced magical arts brought their books together and burned them” (v. 19) – proves that they had used magic “in a point of time, but were not currently doing” so (Stand 18 [15 Aug. 1981; publ. by Annandale, Vir. Church of Christ]). But, “the aorist participle denotes action prior to the action denoted by the leading verb”
(Mechen, pp. 116‑17). The leading verb for the participles translated “practiced” and “brought together” is “burned.” The “practice” in verse 19 is thus located before the burning in the same verse, rather than before the believing back up in verse 18.
[Guardian of Truth XXVI, 17 (1 July 1982):391-394 (7-10)]