In our prior lesson we began sharing an excellent article from Jeffrey W. Hamilton regarding confessing sin. At this time we will continue where we left off.
Christians are encouraged to solicit help on their behalf. "Confess your trespasses to one another, and pray for one another, that you may be healed. The effective, fervent prayer of a righteous man avails much" (James 5:16). There are going to be times when the gravity of your sin is going to make you feel unworthy to approach the Father of all to ask for forgiveness. It is proper to ask your brethren for aid in pleading your case before the Almighty.
Unfortunately, many have formalized this practice beyond what is mentioned in James. There is nothing in this passage about going before a church to admit your sins. Nor is there any indication that every sin must be mentioned by name. I know many people who have committed grievous sins, who talked to me in detail about what happened and why. They needed someone to share the burden with and someone who could direct them in repairing the damage that they've done. This is the type of confession that James was talking about. But it remains a private matter because the person had turned away from their sins, repented, and desires forgiveness. Love demands that the damage already done be minimized as much as possible.
"Brethren, if anyone among you wanders from the truth, and someone turns him back, let him know that he who turns a sinner from the error of his way will save a soul from death and cover a multitude of sins" (James 5:19,20).
The idea of covering a sin is not one of hiding the fact that sin occurred, but burying the details of a repented sin. There is shame associated with sinning, and we ought to be sensitive to sparing a penitent brother of that shame. Concerned brethren ought to be thinking about rebuilding a brother's reputation, not dragging his guilt out into the limelight.
This often annoys some in congregations. They don't feel a sin has been dealt with until they were told all the specifics. Yet this is the foundation of gossip--wanting to know the bad in others so that you can feel better about yourself. Upon what passage can one turn to state that every person in a congregation needs to know about every sin? Or when a person has sinned publicly and states "I've sinned," upon what passage do we look to say that he must state before all a list of his sins?
One preacher gave a good illustration of this:
"A few years ago, during a congregational assembly, an elderly sister in Christ who was senile in some regards became upset at the elders because of a doctrinal, yet expedient, decision they had made. She, in front of all who were present (about half of the entire congregation), told them (unjustly) that they should resign. When it was my turn to speak, I kindly but firmly rebuked her in front of everyone. As soon as the meeting was over, she immediately came up to me and apologized, and then went to each of the elders and apologized. They accepted her apology. However, a few weeks later, I found out that there was a brother (a sound, good man) who was there who demanded that she come before the entire congregation and confess her sin. He said, "This was a public sin, and the Bible says, 'As public the sin is, that's how public the confession should be.'"
What happened? Well, the sister did give me a letter to read before the entire congregation, but at the same time it dragged out, to the chagrin of her and her family and the elders, something that, as far as Scripture is concerned, was resolved the moment she penitently confessed her fault to her God and to the ones she had wronged. There was no scriptural need for her to go in front of the entire congregation, and saying that there was (a common belief in the church today) is erroneous and adding to God's word."
If the brother in this example was concerned that the matter was not resolved, he should have gone to the sister directly. He would have learned that she had repented and apologized to those involved. Then the matter would have been properly dropped. Instead, a repented and forgiven sin was repeatedly recalled because third parties, not involved in the problem, felt they had to be involved.
In all that we do, the aim is to get a sinner out of his sins and back on the track of righteousness. To do that, a sinner must confess his faults to God, repent of his sinful ways, and walk the proper path once again--that gains him forgiveness for his sins. When a person harms another, he confesses his fault to that person, repents of his sinful way, and walks the road of righteousness with his brother once again.
What about someone who has sinned such that "everyone" knows about it? Ask yourself, do you know that he admitted he was wrong, even if you don't know the details? Do you know that he has changed his ways? Then what more is needed, seeing that he didn't harm you? If you don't know that he has changed, then go talk to that brother because the most important thing is making sure he is back on the road to heaven. What a public confession simply does is get the word out quickly that a person has left his sins behind. It is not required; it can be handled by talking to people one-on-one or in small groups as the issue arises.