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God’s Word for You

James 5:16 Confession and prayer

by Pastor Timothy Smith on Thursday, September 3, 2020

16 Therefore, confess your sins to one another and pray for one another, that you may be healed.

When James tells us to confess our sins to one another, he does so because God’s will is that we ask forgiveness of those we sin against and also of God. Otherwise, he says, “I will depart until they admit their guilt” (Hosea 5:14). But he promises, “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness” (1 John 1:9). And he says, “Be kind to one another, sympathetic, forgiving each other, as God in Christ forgave you” (Ephesians 4:32).

There is no command from God to list or count up each and every sin, mortal or otherwise, to a priest. Matthew 3:6 and other passages about John the Baptist simply says that people confessed their sins, not which sins or how many, nor were they bound to do this by any law or command. Also, they confessed their sins publicly, not privately, in the presence of many, many other people, “from Jerusalem and all Judea and the whole region of the Jordan” (Matthew 3:5). The same thing happened in Ephesus, where people who believed “came and openly confessed their evil deeds” (Acts 19:18). There is nothing in these or any other passage that even suggests that without such confession they might have lost their salvation, which is the claim of churches that require confession today.

Confessing all sins is impossible. “Who can discern his errors? Forgive my hidden faults,” David prays (Psalm 19:12). What David does not say is what sort of faults and errors he cannot account for, whether they are, as some say, venial or mortal. According to Scripture, all sins truly are mortal sins. That is to say, every sin is a damning sin, even original sin inherited from our parents. This is why a baby, just moments after its conception, is as much in need of a Savior as anyone else.

As for our sins against one another, God certainly wants us to be reconciled. “Go and be reconciled to your brother, then come and offer your gift” (Matthew 5:24). But this is to be an act of brotherly love, not a command to be obeyed in order to obtain salvation. In this verse, confession is made in connection with a serious illness (verse 15). A burdened conscience is no aid to recovery from an illness.

The prayer of a righteous person has powerful effects.

Simple, direct prayer is what God wants from us. But in what way are we “righteous”? Only through faith in Christ, and only by the merits of Christ. Every sinner who looks to Jesus for forgiveness is righteous in God’s sight, for this is the one sinner who repents and causes “much rejoicing in heaven” (Luke 15:7). So the one who repents and trusts in God to forgive also trusts God to give other gifts, and this trust is itself the righteousness that James means. When we pray to God and trust that he will hear and grant our requests, we show our complete faith in him. And he is gentle with us, “like a mother caring for her little children” (1 Thessalonians 2:7). When we demonstrate this trust in our prayers, the people around us see it, and they will grow in their faith and trust as well. What is better for a child’s faith than to see his parents praying, and seeing those prayers answered? This is what motivates honoring our father and mother (Exodus 20:12), and Solomon concludes: “The righteous man leads a blameless life; blessed are his children after him” (Proverbs 20:7). This righteousness is not caused by his actions but is a gift from God. We shouldn’t hesitate to pray with our loved ones. Call them together, especially in a time of need. “Call a sacred assembly,” Joel says, “and cry out to the Lord” (Joel 1:14). Yet there is also a place for private prayer, as Jesus often showed (Matthew 14:23) and as we see in the lives of the prophets (1 Kings 19:4; 2 Kings 4:33; Jeremiah 32:16; Daniel 6:10; Jonah 2:1).

Show your faith to God and to the people you love as you pray, and in the words you use in prayer. The blessings that will follow cannot be measured.

  Redeemer, come! I open wide
  My heart to you; here, Lord, abide!
  Oh, enter with your saving grace;
  Show me your kind and friendly face.
  Your Holy Spirit guide us on
  Until our glorious goal is won.
  Eternal praise and fame
  We offer to you name. (Christian Worship 3:5)

In Christ,
Pastor Timothy Smith

Pastor Tim Smith

About Pastor Timothy Smith
Pastor Smith serves St. Paul’s Lutheran Church in New Ulm, Minnesota. To receive God’s Word for You via e-mail, please contact Pastor Smith.


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