Growing up in a Protestant tradition I’ve noticed that we don’t have much of a concept of why confession matters and to whom we are called to confess. Most of the Protestant faith tradition today focuses primarily on the vertical relationship of an individual person with God. Our main emphasis is that if we can just get enough people into a right relationship with God, then everything else will fall into place.
Anyone who’s worked in ministry for more than a day will tell you that is hardly the case. Sure, that is the foundation necessary for transformation in someone’s life – it must start with a relationship with God. But that is just the beginning of what transformation looks like, and most of what will need to be transformed in our lives will have to do with our horizontal relationships.
Tending the Seed of the Gospel
The best analogy I can think of for the process of salvation, and specifically sanctification, is one the Bible uses: gardening or farming. We know that ultimately God is who controls the most necessary parts of the process – rain, sunshine, hot or cold weather, etc. All of that is true.
However, the other necessary part to the process involves us as humans. We must till the soil, prune the plants, potentially assist with nutrients in the soil or bees to pollinate the flowers, harvesting at the right time, etc. And this process is not an individual effort for a Christian. It involves others in our lives. John Wesley termed this as the idea of “social holiness.” He said: “There is no holiness apart from social holiness.”
What he meant, and what many others before and after him have said in different ways, is that salvation is a process that involves both God as primary actor and us as secondary actor. And when I say “us” I mean it as a plural “us” – not just you working on your salvation alone in your closet somewhere, but you working on your salvation with other believers alongside you.
So That You May Be Healed
This is where a passage in James 5 comes in that helps explain the process of healing in the life of a believer. In James 5:13-18 it says:
“Are any of you suffering hardships? You should pray. Are any of you happy? You should sing praises. Are any of you sick? You should call for the elders of the church to come and pray over you, anointing you with oil in the name of the Lord. Such a prayer offered in faith will heal the sick, and the Lord will make you well. And if you have committed any sins, you will be forgiven. Confess your sins to each other and pray for each other so that you may be healed. The earnest prayer of a righteous person has great power and produces wonderful results. Elijah was as human as we are, and yet when he prayed earnestly that no rain would fall, none fell for three and a half years! Then, when he prayed again, the sky sent down rain and the earth began to yield its crops.”
The picture we get here is of a group of believers who are pursuing healing and holiness together! Yes, this description of healing includes physical healing, but if you read closely the emphasis is ultimately on healing of the whole person. This is why confessing your sins and praying is included as a vital element to the healing process. It’s not a “spiritual formula” you use for physical results. It’s a spiritual rhythm you participate in that produces fruit.
And it is not a spiritual rhythm you can do alone! This passage implies that the full experience of the forgiveness of sins actually involves others (which should not be ground-breaking for us as Christians since Jesus’ Prayer in John also says something similar – “Forgive us as we forgive those who sin against us”).
The last part of the passage reiterates the use of the analogy of gardening or farming when it comes to our spiritual growth. It shows how Elijah joins God as the secondary actor in God’s plan of caring for the world. Paul uses this story to show how we join God as his people in his work in our lives. It’s powerful, and very humbling. But it’s God’s plan.
The lost practice of confession of sin to other believers I blame partly on the Protestant desire to separate ourselves so distinctly from the practices of the Catholic Church. However, it has hurt us that we do not have healthy contexts in which to express this vital part of the healing and holiness process.
Without someone else there to hear our confession, remind us of our forgiveness, and pray for the power of the Spirit in our lives to overcome sin, Scripture implies that our growth in those areas will be stunted.
And what it says to us from a Biblical Theology perspective is that we are being terrible “stewards” of the Gospel. Meaning we are not fulfilling God’s created purposes for our lives as stewards of his garden (our lives, his people, and the world).
To start practicing confession in your life it will certainly be awkward at first. But every important area of growth in your life is awkward at first. There’s always a hurdle to get over. Whether it’s changing your diet, balancing your budget, or in this case rediscovering Scriptural Christianity, you will have to push thru what’s uncomfortable to get to what is transformative.
So now you just have to decide whether you will or not.
Is healing and holiness what you want for your life? Do you want to be spiritually whole and on track with Jesus? Do you want people around you who fully know you (even the most difficult parts of who you are) and fully love you?
Let me tell you from experience: it’s worth it. It doesn’t make it easier. You will still want to revert back to old ways even after you get into it. But in the long run, you will notice the change in your soul as you recover the rhythm God intended to heal you of your spiritual sickness: confession and prayer.