Throughout America, Christians are called to confess their sins to each other, as a practical outflow of an accountability group or small group. But is this practice biblical? Why do we confess our sins to each other? One of the main passages used to teach the practice of confessing your sins to your fellow believers, regardless of their involvement in the situation or their being sinned against, is the first part of James 5:16, “Therefore, confess your sins to one another, and pray for one another…” But there is a context to that verse that has been sorely ignored. It is my belief that James is not calling for a general confession of sin between believers on a regular basis but rather that he has limited this confession to those who are sick and to them alone.
Quite a few commentators and pastors throughout history that have understood this verse in James to be a general teaching given to the Church telling everyone, regardless of their health, to confess their sins to each other. John Wesley, among others, sees James as saying that we should confess our sins to each other, “whether ye are sick or in health” (Wesley, 788). But the very fact that Wesley stated that believers should confess to one another whether they are sick or healthy reveals his own difficulty in making this passage speak only to some type of spiritual weakness rather than actual physical sickness (which is how some deal with this passage). For why would Wesley even take the time to specify the believer’s physical condition (sick or healthy) if it is clear in the text that James is only referring to “spiritual diseases” (Wesley, 787)? It is my belief that the reason for Wesley’s difficulty is because the passage, simply read, is clearly speaking of physical sickness. So when a person tries to read other, perhaps more “theologically clean,” notions into the passage, they will run into problems. John MacArthur, in his own commentary on James, seeks to “spiritualize” this passage, as well as the larger context, doing his best to combat those of a more charismatic theological bent from using the passage to state their argument for “faith healings” and the notion that if a person just has enough faith, God will heal them. MacArthur writes: “If sin has contributed to or resulted from spiritual weakness and defeat of a fallen believer, that sin will be forgiven him when he cries out to God for forgiveness” (MacArthur, 279); implying a contrast to confession to mere men. But what spiritual weakness has not come about as a result of sin, or what sin has not contributed to spiritual weakness? MacArthur runs into a problem, for if a person sins, it is patently obvious that they are spiritually in trouble – but what is not clear, and what James is pointing out, is whether a person is sick because of that sin or not. Therefore the only thing that would make logical sense for James to be speaking about is physical sickness. Sickness is not always related to a specific instance of personal sin, but what James is saying is that is it possible. But the interpretations do not end here, some even choose not to come down on any clear understanding, stating that James, “is purposely vague in this statement; that is, he fails to mention whether he means physical or spiritual healing…” (Kistemaker, 179). I believe that all those who read a spiritual notion of healing in this passage or claim James is too vague to understand ignore the simple reading of James, as well as other major portions of Scripture that affirm what James is saying. But in order to prove this, we must enter into a deeper study of the passage itself, starting with a few word studies.
The words we will look at will not only be in James 5:16, but will include key words in other passages in the context because context is king in determining what is meant by what James said in the passage we are focusing on. And so, the first word we need to take a closer look at is ἀσθενέω, which shows up in James 5:14. It can mean “to be sick,” or “to be weak” both literally and figuratively (Arndt, Danker, Bauer, 142). In the Gospels, which had the most influence on James’ content and theology, ἀσθενέω always refers to physical illness (Matt. 10:8; 25:36, 39; Mark 6:56; Luke 4:40; John 4:46; 5:3, 7; 6:2; 11:1, 2, 3, 6). It is also important to note that when ἀσθενέω is used to denote spiritual weakness outside of the Gospels it is made evident by a qualifier (“in conscience” in 1 Cor. 8:7; “in faith” in Rom. 14:1-2) or by context. A second word involved in this discussion is ἰάομαι which occurs in James 5:16, and can mean “to heal,” or “to restore” both figuratively and physically (Arndt, Danker, Bauer, 465). It is interesting again to look at the usage of this word in the Gospels to find that out of nineteen occurrences, only two denote figurative healing, and both times they are used within quotes of Old Testament passages (Matt. 13:15; John 12:40). So both of these words are shown, in the context of James and the larger context of the Gospels from which James gets much of his material, to lean towards a physical understanding rather than a spiritual one. James uses another word to refer to the sick in verse 15, κάμνοντα and some have pointed out the only other usage of this word in the Bible as proof that we should take the whole passage as referring to spiritual weakness (MacArthur, 278), but that is a weak argument, first of all because the word is only used twice, and therefore context must take precedence (hence looking at the other words in the context of James referring to the sick), as well as the fact, that the passage where this word is found is modified by “ταῖς ψυχαῖς ὑμῶν” (“in your souls”) making it clear that it is not so much the word itself that makes it have a spiritual connotation, but the context. We continue, looking at the phrase, “anointing him with oil” in verse 14, and find that it is a phrase only mentioned one other time in the New Testament, and in that passage it is used as a means of physical healing (Mark 6:13). The evidence is lining up on the side of understanding what James has said to be a reference to physical illness, rather than some type of spiritual weakness.
Now that we have taken a closer look at some of the important words in the passage we turn now to the immediate context. It is my belief that the context of this passage has been sorely ignored, and holds most of the weight of the argument that James is not calling for universal confession of sin within the Church regardless of health. So this portion of the argument will be lengthier than the others, divided into manageable sections, because context is so key to my argument.
The first section begins with three questions posed by James “Is anyone among you suffering…cheerful…sick?” (James 5:13-14). Each question comes with a specific answer, those who are suffering should prayer, those who are cheerful should sing, and then James breaks off into a more detailed answer in regards to those are sick. It should be noted that the instructions James gives to those who are sick implies a serious illness, for if someone was only slightly ill, it would not be prudent to call the elders to come anoint him with oil and pray for him; for the elders can only do so much.
As we enter into a discussion about the nature of healing, some get caught up in the mere mention of oil in this passage. But it is clear that the focus is prayer – not so much the anointing of oil, for even the anointing is to be done, “in the name of the Lord” (James 5:14).
An issue comes up in reference to the promise that is seemingly conveyed in a very strong nature in verse 13: “the prayer offered in faith will restore the one who is sick, and the Lord will raise him up,” but as we look at the book of James as a whole, the proverbial nature of the book is clear, and this statement should be taken within the parameters of interpreting proverbial literature within Scripture. So just as we do not take Proverbs 10:3 to be an absolute promise when it says that “The Lord will not allow the righteous to hunger,” (for righteous people have starved to death) neither is there need to take James 5:13 to be an absolute promise, but rather it should be taken as a general proverbial statement that should be viewed within the parameters of the rest of Scripture. For the notion that just having enough faith will ensure a positive answer to our prayers is easily seen to be false just by a quick examination of Scripture. James lands more on the line of Jesus’ teaching (as was said before, he emulates the Gospels in many aspects), when Jesus says, “Ask, and it will be given to you” (Matthew 7:7). But no one understands what Jesus said to be a license to ask for whatever we want, for as John makes the statement, speaking of the same matter, it is if we ask anything according to his will (1 John 5:14) that we will receive a positive answer. But probably the quickest way to show that James is not making some sort of unqualified promise of healing, is to look at his own words in the beginning of the book in regards to prayer, “You ask and do not receive, because you ask with wrong motives, so that you may spend it on your pleasures” (James 4:3). Just because someone asks God for something does not guarantee that they will receive it. There are qualifications, and James speaks of some of them here. So there is no merit in saying that James is giving a promise of unmitigated healing when someone prays with enough faith; but rather, James clearly is speaking generally, and is not saying that if someone just has enough faith, they will be healed.
Moving on, we find more evidence for the case that James is speaking of physical illness, because another phrase, “and the Lord will raise him up,” gives the notion that the person who was sick was bedridden, and that he will no longer be laid low, but will get up. The notion of actually physically getting up that the Greek word ἐγερεῖ in this phrase conveys is especially true in contexts where healing is involved (Matt. 8:15; 9:5, 6, 7, 19, 25, etc.). While it is true that ἐγερεῖ can also mean “to awaken” or “to arouse” (MacArthur, 278), saying that such a meaning is the correct choice in this passage ignores all major English translations, as well as the clear context that tell us that healing and sickness is involved here, not that someone was asleep (i.e. Matthew 8:25 where Jesus is sleeping in the boat and his disciples wake him up fearing for their lives).
Another important feature of this text, helping point us in the direction that James was actually speaking of physical illness, is the conditional clause, “if he has committed sins, they will be forgiven him” (James 5:15). The reason this points to physical illness is because of the normal Jewish understanding of the time, and to be honest, an understanding that even went back to the time of Job – for his friends felt that he must have done something wrong in order to have his life ruined. Jesus’ disciples asked the question of Jesus, “who sinned, this man or his parents, that he would be born blind?” (John 9:2), showing their understanding to be one that physical ailments were connected with sin somehow. But Jesus corrects their understanding in his reply, “It was neither that this man sinned, nor his parents; but it was so that the works of God might be displayed in him” (John 9:3). And so James, reflecting the teaching of Jesus, does not say that sickness always comes because of specific sin in a person’s life, but rather that it is possible. For he says, “if he has committed sins.” The notion that Christians can become physically ill because of sin is nothing new in Scripture. The clearest example is found in 1 Corinthians when Paul condemns the Corinthians for eating the bread and drinking the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner, and explains that, “For this reason many among you are weak and sick, and a number sleep” (1 Corinthians 11:30). Sleep being clearly understood as a reference to death in the Greek language (even MacArthur takes this to be physical death in his 1 Corinthians commentary, p. 274, see also John 11:11-14;). The reason the addition of the conditional clause in James is so significant is because if anyone was experiencing spiritual weakness, there would be no question as to its connection with sin. But with physical illness, sin is not always the reason someone gets sick. And if someone wants to connote the weakness that James speaks of with the weakness that Paul speaks of in 1 Corinthians 8:7, so as to say all “spiritual weakness” is not brought on by sin, they must first recognize that Paul specifies weak in “conscience,” and that there would be no need for them to pray for deliverance from their weakness, because Paul does not say it is a problem. But the sickness here in James is not “in conscience” but is physical illness. Therefore, the evidence again comes down on the side of understanding the passage in James to refer to actual physical illness.
As we move on in our exploration of the immediate context of James 5:16, we come to our target verse, and straight away notice the word, “Therefore” (James 5:16). This is important because it shows that James is basing what will follow on his previous statements. So we read on, “Therefore, confess your sins to one another, and pray for one another so that you may be healed” (James 5:16a). While it is true that James has moved from prayer by the elders (James 5:14), to confession and prayer to a person regardless of status, his usage of “Therefore” cannot be ignored. To take this verse out of its context and say that James is instructing those who are not sick to randomly confess their sins to others does injustice to James as well as the whole of Scripture. James has a specific situation in mind, as he has told us in the context – a believer who is sick.
This brings into question the practice of the confession of sin to unrelated parties as a normal practice in the Church. For instance in a small group setting, confession of sin is a normal part, and is encouraged by many so that people can be held accountable when they sin. It really is quite surprising that so many do so, given the fact that Scripture is silent on the fact that this should be a normative practice in the life of believers, and because James has so clearly limited his instruction about confession to those who are sick. In order to show this inconsistency with Scripture more clearly, we will take some time to explore what the Bible has to say about confession and the forgiveness of sins.
The Bible clearly teaches that we are to confess our sins to God (1 John 1:9), as well as to forgive those who have sinned against us and to confront those in sin in an effort to restore them (Matthew 18:15). We are called to forgive, as God has forgiven us in Christ (Eph. 4:32; Col. 3:13). Also, it is clear in Scripture that confession of sin to another human being does not result in that sin being forgiven, for only God can forgive sin (Mark 2:7-11). But as we explore the gospels, which as was stated before, have influenced much of James’ teaching, we find that there is mention of public confession of sin by people to those who they had not directly offended: “and they were being baptized by him in the Jordan River, as they confessed their sins” (Matt. 3:6). And again in Mark 1:5 “…and they were being baptized by him in the Jordan River, confessing their sins.” This sheds some interesting light on the whole issue brought up in James, for here is a clear precedent for the public confession of sins. Also in Acts there is one instance that seems to parallel these accounts: “Many also of those who had believed kept coming, confessing and disclosing their practices” (Acts 19:18). So, with these clear statements of public confession of sin, it is clear that James is not contradicting Scripture when he instructs the sick to do so. But again, his instruction is to the sick, and to no one else, as stated before.
As we look in the Bible for more instruction regarding the connection of sin and sickness we find that 1 Corinthians 11 is a somewhat parallel passage to James, as was shown previously, because it states that members of the early church in Corinth were sick, and some had even died because of sin. Even from this passage there is a general practice among the American church to examine one’s heart before taking communion to ensure that one does not incur judgment for eating the bread and drinking the cup in an unworthy manner. But even in this instance, it seems much of the church has made an error in their interpretation, for in the context, Paul is not speaking about any random sin or “dishonor” but rather that those at the church in Corinth were brining their dinner to the assembly, and so some, who were poor went hungry, and others were getting drunk (1 Cor. 11:21)! And so all Paul is telling the Corinth church to do is, if they are hungry, to eat at home, and then come together to have the Lord’s Supper, waiting for each other, and eating it together (1 Cor. 11:33-34). It is not a normal sin that they are to confess in order that they would not incur judgment, but rather a mistreatment of the Lord’s Supper that brought judgment – for we are to always be confessing our sins to God, not just before we take communion!
In the book of Job, as we saw previously, the idea that sin is related to sickness, is nothing new, for when Bildad says to Job, “If you are pure and upright, Surely now He would rouse Himself for you And restore your righteous estate” (Job 8:6), he implies that Job must have done something to incur such “judgment,” including sickness. And again, Elihu, another friend of Job seems to lean this way when he says: “For he [Job] adds rebellion to his sin; He claps his hands among us, And multiplies his words against God” (Job 34:37). But this idea that sickness or trouble in life is always connected with personal sin is fully rejected, for God himself states that Job is “blameless” in Job 1:8 and we see that the origin of Job’s suffering is the actions of Satan, not some heinous sin. This understanding is confirmed by Jesus in his teaching about sin, making it clear that sickness is not always the direct result of a person’s individual sin, for when he was asked, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he would be born blind?” (John 9:2), he answered: “It was neither that this man sinned, nor his parents; but it was so that the works of God might be displayed in him” (John 9:3). So clearly, personal sin, or even the sins of a person’s parents are not always the cause of sickness. James also confirms this, as was stated previously, for he used the word “if” before speaking of the sin of the sick person, making it clear that sin might not be the reason for a person’s illness. The Bible as a whole aligns with a plain and simple understanding of James, and again we see that there is absolutely no need to seek after a spiritual meaning to the text.
After all of this study, it is clear that James is not condoning a regular practice of confessing sin to other brothers and sisters in the Lord, but that his instruction is specific to those who are sick, being implied that they are close to death. James is not speaking of spiritually weak but we should take him in the normal sense of the word, because it makes plain sense. There is no reason to look for some second spiritual meaning in the text, for the Bible is clear that death can result from the sin of believers. This special confession that James calls for can be public, but also the normal pattern in Scripture of asking for forgiveness of those we have hurt should not be ignored. Sickness is not always the direct result of personal sin, but it can be, and therefore the instruction of James should be followed when a Christian finds himself sick and there is sin that needs to be confessed, for what James wrote, he wrote under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit – it is the very Word of God.
Some Additional Questions for Consideration:
If one must confess sin in order to be healed from a sickness that was brought on by a lack of confession, would it not follow, that regularly confessing sin to others would prevent sickness related to lack of confession from ever coming about?
How does 2 Timothy 2:22 fit into the “small group” mentality? What does it look like to flee youthful lusts and pursue righteousness “with those who call on the Lord from a pure heart”? Would confession ever be a practical part of such pursuit?
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Arnt, William, Frederick W. Danker and Walter Bauer, A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature, 3rd ed. (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 2000).
Greenlee, J. Harold. An Exegetical Summary of James. Dallas, TX: Summer Institute of Linguistics, 1993.
Johnstone, Robert. A Commentary on James. Edinburgh: Banner of Truth Trust, 1977.
Kistemaker, Simon. Exposition of James, Epistles of John, Peter, and Jude. New Testament commentary. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 1996.
MacArthur, John. 1 Corinthians. Chicago, IL: Moody Press, 1984.
MacArthur, John. James. Chicago, IL: Moody Press, 1998.
Moo, Douglas J. The Letter of James: An Introduction and Commentary. Grand Rapids, MI: W.B. Eerdmans, 2000.
Wesley, John. Wesley’s Notes on the Bible. Grand Rapids, MI: Francis Asbury Press, 1987.