Confess your sins to one another and pray for one another, that you may be healed. The prayer of a righteous person has great power as it is working. —James 5:16
Sin is a prison. It isolates a person. It shuts a person into a private world of shame and hiding and fear of exposure. To be alone with our sins is to be terribly alone. We can come to church and smile and sing and serve and, all the while, the heart can be sick with sin and alone with it. But then Christ enters in. His gospel tells us that a church is not a fellowship of the pure but a fellowship of desperate sinners whom God loves. Christ did not come to call the righteous but sinners. He has nothing to say to righteous people. Righteous people don’t need him. Sinners love him. Sinners can dare to be real and honest with him, because sinners are the only people he loves. Immanuel Church is a safe place where sinners can be loved by Christ and by other sinners. We can come out of hiding, admit the truth, receive prayer and be powerfully healed by the love of God.
We’re learning The Immanuel Playbook. When a Dallas Cowboy becomes a Minnesota Viking, he doesn’t bring his old playbook with him. He learns a new set of plays. We have a playbook. Each play answers a question. So far, we’ve asked, What is a Christian? What is a church? What is the Bible? What is prayer? And today, What are sin and confession? How can sinners thrive at Immanuel Church?
What is sin?
The very word “sin” is embarrassing by now. Today we like to think that we’re in control, and if we have the right information we can make the right choices and life will work. That’s what we’re told every day. But if life is really that simple, why isn’t it working? The truth we need to know about ourselves is, for us modern people, almost beyond belief.
The Bible says, “All have turned aside; together they have become worthless; no one does good, not even one” (Romans 3:12). Worthless? No one does good? What about the good I’ve done? What about my worth? The biggest barrier to a new beginning with God is not our failures but our successes, not our badness but our goodness – as we see it. But at the same time we have a persistent fear that our positive self-image might not be true. So we give all the boys on the soccer team a trophy, even if they didn’t play well, because “If you don’t feel good about yourself, you have nothing.” We decorate the walls of our minds with our trophies of self-established worth. But that inner world isn’t true. The truth we don’t know about ourselves is what the Bible calls sin.
Sin is not primarily “doing bad things.” The essence of sin, the root of sin, is refusing to be loved by God, refusing to be loved in terms of grace, refusing to be who I am before God and satisfied with his love. The essence of sin is turning away from God as all I need to be okay and then clinging to my own self-constructed value. When we decorate our minds with our own hard-won trophies that make our lives worth living, we move quickly toward disillusionment and anger and blaming and fear of exposure. But above all, that inner thought-world trivializes God.
What do you cling to as essential to your whole concept of your life? Your children? Your career? Being admired? Getting justice? Whatever you consider definitional of you – if it isn’t God himself in his glory, then that shining, splendid whatever is keeping you from the love of God, and that is where sin enters in with power. And the worst thing that can happen is not for your life to fall apart. The worst that can happen is for you to get what you want and succeed and be admired and you make it to the top and all your dreams come true and you’re even upright and the next morning you wake up and – guess what – you’re still the same empty person you were before. Here is how we end up in the surprise called hell: refusing to fall into the arms of God right now. He is offering you total okayness now and forever on the basis of his love for desperate sinners, for his own glory. If your heart can be forever stabilized and satisfied in the love of God, why isn’t that enough?
What does God do about our sins?
The Bible says, “God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that we might become the righteousness of God in him” (2 Corinthians 5:21). In other words, “At the cross, God treated Christ as if he had committed all our sins, so that now God would treat us sinners as if we had all of Christ’s righteousness.” The cross is why God now announces in the gospel, “Let’s change the subject. Your life is no longer a heroic quest for more trophies to display in your thought-world of self-exaltation. From now on, your life is about the display of Christ’s love for you, a sinner. Your life is about him. He lived a perfect life and died a guilty death in the place of sinners, for the sheer glory of it. And if you will receive him with the empty hands of faith, here’s what I do. I transfer your wrongs over into his condemnation at the cross. Your guilt becomes his. And I write into your story all the advantages of his perfect life. His righteousness becomes yours. That’s what I do. Your part is simple. Receive it. And start learning how to live on this joyful new basis every day.”
Martin Luther put it this way in a letter to a friend who was struggling:
My dear brother, learn Christ and him crucified. Learn to pray to him and, despairing of yourself, say, “You, Lord Jesus, are my righteousness, but I am your sin. You have taken upon yourself what is mine and have given to me what is yours.” … Beware of aspiring to such purity that you will not wish to be looked upon as a sinner… for Christ dwells only in sinners.
It is so freeing to become a sinner before God. We can finally admit the truth about ourselves and start getting healed. But that’s a group project, which is what James explains in our text.
What does God want us to do about our sins?
How then does the saving work of Christ become our experience? How does our union with Christ become felt union? How can we experientialize for ourselves the finished work of Christ on the cross? That is the question James answers. It’s a matter of honesty, prayer and powerful healing.
“Confess your sins to one another.” It does not say, “Show off your sins.” Exhibitionism is a selfish desire for attention. It does not say, “Confess one another’s sins.” We’re not here to embarrass each other or corner each other or accuse each other. It’s so simple: “Confess your sins.” What disempowers and discredits a church is not sin but concealed sin, hidden sin, coddled sin, sin that goes unconfessed.
What does the word “confess” mean? James’ word means to agree. Confession means we step around to God’s side and actually start disagreeing with ourselves. When the Holy Spirit whispers, “What you just did was sin,” we can be honest and agree with God and call it sin and be forgiven and forsake it. And this verb “confess” is in the present tense, which means that confession is something we go on doing – not just at the moment of conversion but every day, moment by moment. Christianity is a lifestyle of endless confession. How can we accept that? Our righteousness is in Christ. The objective exteriority of our okayness is how we can get real with God today. We can agree with him whenever the Holy Spirit pierces our conscience. We can receive it, not evade it, because our peace with God is based on Christ alone. Christians can be the most non-defensive people on earth. We can and must be honest people about our sins. The deal-breaker is not sins but dishonesty about sins.
And it says, “Confess your sins to one another.” Sin thrives in dark, hidden places. But when sin is dragged into the light by open confession, it loses its power and mystique. When we confess our sins to one another, we no longer live in isolation and fear and secrecy. A confessing sinner is no longer alone. He’ll never be alone again. Not that confession is easy. Our pride fights like mad to save face. It’s almost unbearable to admit before a brother things we’re so ashamed of. But there is healing in humility. When sin is admitted, hated and forgiven, joy returns, certainty returns, peace of conscience returns. All things become new. We get traction.
These amazing words – “Confess your sins to one another” – are very broad. James gives no particular guidance about how to do this. So here is a general guideline: The reach of the sin determines the extent of the confession. A sin against God should be confessed to God. A sin against a brother should be confessed to God and to that brother. A sin against the church should be confessed to God and to the church. But confession should not exceed the range of the sin. Nor does it help, let’s say, for a man to confess to some woman that he’s been having lustful thoughts about her. That only embarrasses her. He should confess that to God, and if it would help, to another man. Nor should we confess to another person who would be destroyed by knowing what we know. The Bible says, “All things [in the life of a church] should be done for edification” (1 Corinthians 14:26). Everything in a church should be constructive and helpful.
How can confession make a positive difference as a lifestyle for you and me and our church? It says here, “. . . and pray for one another, that you may be healed.” It doesn’t say, “Judge one another.” It doesn’t say, “Patronize one another.” It says, “Pray for one another.” What every broken sinner needs is the healing only God can give. James is not talking about catharsis. He’s pointing the way to miracles in answer to prayer. God is ready to do this. And your prayer can bring that power into someone’s life.
When someone comes to you and says, “I’m not doing so well. Could we talk?”, you’re stepping together onto holy ground. And here is how you can help. You sit down together in a comfortable, quiet place, and you listen. Listen without interrupting. Let your friend get it all out, in detail. General confessions are worthless. Only detailed confessions can set a conscience free. That may take time. When the confession is over, then you say, “Is there anything else?” And once all the sin is out in the open, then do not trivialize that confession by saying, “Oh, we all do that. That’s just normal. You shouldn’t feel so bad.” That person’s heart is heavy with a guilt they think is serious enough to confess as sin against God. They’re scared. They need something real and true and hopeful. So what do you say? You look that person in the eye and say, “Yes, you have sinned. But Christ is a great Savior of sinners.” And then you get down on your knees together and you pray for that person. Here’s how you can pray:
Father in heaven, you have said that if we confess our sins, you are faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness. You have said that a bruised reed you will not break. You have said that, when we open our hearts to you, you open your heart to us. I ask you now to look upon my friend here, who has sinned and has now confessed. I ask you to look upon this brokenhearted sinner with reviving mercies for the sake of Jesus, who died for him. Do not regard this man as he is in himself, but regard him as he is in Christ, and as this prodigal son comes home to you now in repentance I ask you to run to him and embrace him and kiss him and put on him the best robe and a ring on his hand and restore to him the joy of your salvation. Bury this sin in the fathomless depth of the blood of Christ, never to return again and breathe into this man’s soul new assurance in your love and joyful certainty as to his place in your heart. And I ask you to guard him from this sin in the future. Let the memory of it not damn him but let it warn him. And fill him so full of the Holy Spirit that there’s no room left for this sin to get back inside. And I ask you to keep me from sin and to help me to remain faithful in prayer for my brother here. We praise and thank you for the finished work of Christ on the cross for us. We praise and thank you for his empty tomb. We thank you for our place in heaven on high. We thank you that nothing, not even our sins, will ever separate us from your love in Christ. And we now rededicate our lives to you and we want to live flat-out for you today. And if the devil starts sneaking around and accusing this brother of guilt you have taken away through Christ, give this forgiven man the joyful strength to look beyond himself to see Jesus on high, whose righteousness satisfies you so wonderfully. So we thank you for the privilege of confession and prayer right now. And we look to you for great things in this man’s life from now on. In Jesus’ name. Amen.
Then you stand up, look your friend in the eye again and say, “Your crucified Savior says to you, ‘You are forgiven.’ He says to you, ‘Whenever you sin, bring it to me, bring it on, and I’ll lift that burden away.’ Jesus Christ has forgiven you, he’s a strong Savior, and you’re going to be just fine. Go in peace.” Then, if you have time, go have some fun together. Get a cup of coffee and have some laughs. Hey, forgiveness has come to town! What a wonderful ministry this kind of praying is! James says, “The prayer of a righteous person has great power as it is working.” When you have sin to confess, you don’t need a priest. You just need a righteous person, and you decide who that would be. The prayer of an ordinary man or woman righteous in Christ will work with power in your life. Here is a command, that we confess our sins to one another and pray for one another, with a promise that we will be healed. God puts his power here.
The city of Nashville needs a massive cleansing only God can give. Our pride and failure and lack of faith and mediocrity as churches – it is all so obvious to everyone, except us churches. But when the good news that Someone Else has given us all the righteousness we need – when that message gets into our hearts, we are set free to be honest about ourselves. That’s when we have the courage to confess our sins and pray for one another, that we may be healed. What we desire is not that one group or denomination ends up looking better than another. What we want is freedom for all, a new beginning, revival and healing by the power of God.
I was moved the other week by an account from the church in Korea in 1907. A Presbyterian missionary named William Blair was at a meeting of about 1500 Christians who were under the conviction of sin that God was giving. He wrote,
Then began a meeting the like of which I had never seen before, nor wish to see again unless in God’s sight it is absolutely necessary. Every sin a human being can commit was publicly confessed that night. Pale and trembling with emotion, in agony of mind and body, guilty souls, standing in the white light of their judgment, saw themselves as God saw them. Their sins rose up in all their vileness, till shame and grief and self-loathing took complete possession; pride was driven out, the face of man forgotten. Looking up to heaven, to Jesus whom they had betrayed, they smote themselves and cried out with bitter wailing: “Lord, Lord, cast us not away forever!” Everything else was forgotten, nothing else mattered. The scorn of men, the penalty of the law, even death itself seemed of small consequence, if only God forgave. We may have other theories of desirability or undesirability of public confession of sin. I have had mine; but I know now that when the Spirit of God falls upon guilty souls, there will be confession, and no power on earth can stop it.
Whether or not that scenario should play out again in exactly that way could be debated. But I know this. We are sinners in desperate need of God’s forgiveness, and nothing else really matters. He has provided a way to healing. That way is simple and completely unobstructed on his end: open confession, with prayer. This is our blood-bought inheritance in Christ. Let’s go get it.