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True Confession

An interview with Russell Huizing

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“There is no difficulty with the Greek; the manuscript variants are insignificant. Yet James 5:16—‘confess your sins to each other’—likely remains the most widely and commonly disobeyed command in Protestantism,” says Russell Huizing, associate professor of Pastoral Ministries at Toccoa Falls (Ga.) College.

In The Alliance, we believe that holistic healing is available through the atonement of Jesus to all believers. One of the primary cornerstones of that “Christ our Healer” belief, Russell says, is James 5:16. “The obedience or disobedience of this command cuts to the very heart of our gospel proclamation.”

In the following interview, Russell explains how confessing sins to each other makes for a healthier, more humble church.

Alliance Life: Why do you think Protestants tend to be squeamish about confession?

Russell: Part of it is historical. Some of the historical abuses of confession have led to some thinking a priest wields the power of God’s forgiveness or that one cannot experience God’s forgiveness without confession to a priest or that in some way a priest has become a secondary mediator between us and Jesus.

Of course, we denounce all those types of abuse of confession, but for Protestants, it’s left some historical scars on us, and sometimes when we touch those scars, they hurt. So that’s part of the squeamishness, but I think more of it is really spiritual.

Who wants to admit they’re sinners to other people? In some ways, it’s easy to confess our sins to God. We don’t hear any inflection in His voice; we don’t see a flinch on His face.

To confess to other people is to put our reputation on the line. There’s this spiritual tension of wanting a good reputation, yet the very act of confession pulls that impression management ability away from us.

What is the purpose of confession?

All our relationships are intertwined with God and with others. We see this expressed with Jesus and the Great Commandment, so we’d expect that confession has a purpose within our relationship with God and with others.

When we look at the garden, Adam and Eve ate the fruit. They immediately realized they had done something wrong, and the first thing they tried to do was cover up their sin. They ridiculously hid behind leaves. But when God came to walk in the garden, He asked—what I find to be one of the most peculiar questions—“Where are you?”

We know God is omniscient, so He wasn’t doing it for His own good. He asked where they were for their own good. He called them out not for the sake of judgment but for the sake of confession and forgiveness. Part of the purpose of confession is to change our trajectory so it isn’t the same as Adam and Eve’s. In confession, we “come out of the bushes” as it were.

Then in our relationship with others, we admit that we’re a part of the Body of believers. In Christ we’re spiritually interconnected with each other. If one part of the Body has cancer, the whole Body has cancer. More biblically, we might say a little yeast works through the whole batch. What that means is my most private, my most embarrassing sins impact other believers, whether they realize it or not. Because it’s impacting who I am as a person, my relationship with them is necessarily impacted.

The purpose of confession to another person is to admit to them that I have sinned against the Body of believers when I sin against God. We need forgiveness from God, eternally so. We also need forgiveness from other believers because we’re united to them, and our sin impacts them.

How does confession play into how we see Christ as our Healer?

When we think of Christ as Healer, we turn to Christ’s ministry during His earthly life. During that time, He made broken people whole. So Christ is our Healer, but our wholeness can’t be fulfilled if we continue to hold onto the very thing that makes us broken. To know Christ as our Healer, we must know His far deeper healing of sin in our lives. That occurs through confession.

It’s kind of like how Jesus sometimes required people to do something to be healed. The blind man in John 9 went to the pool to wash himself. He didn’t earn his healing, nor was the healing given simply by asking. There seems to be a parallel here with what James is talking about. We don’t earn our forgiveness by confessing to others, but in our obedience to what God has commanded, we’re expressing our faith through which that healing power of Jesus then flows.

What should we look for in finding a safe person to whom we can confess?

Obviously, confidentiality. You want someone who is trustworthy. You want somebody who is going to speak both truth and grace and balance those.

If we go back to that image of Adam and Eve hiding in the bushes, you want somebody who isn’t going to continue to allow you to hide in the bushes. But you also want somebody who, when you expose yourself, is quick and ready to offer forgiveness and wrap you with the cloak of Christ’s righteousness.

What is the process of confession?

The steps are:

  • Prayer reminding both of God’s presence
  • Scripture focused on repentance or confession
  • Confession of sins
  • Prayer by the one confessing, asking forgiveness from God
  • Declaration of forgiveness from God and from brothers and sisters in Christ
  • Consideration on how to make amends
  • Scripture focused on God’s mercy

How much should we share when confessing?

When I confess, if the sin I have committed includes another, I don’t believe that person’s sin is appropriate to confess. So the person hearing my confession ought to guide the conversation away from that direction. The one giving the confession and the one listening to it—they’re working together. The person to whom you’re confessing needs to help steer the conversation and say, “Let’s leave that person out of it; let’s just focus on your sin.”

I do believe, though, that detailed sharing is necessary so that the person confessing feels the weight of his or her sin. Partially, it’s because a glossing over is simply us trying to cover up our sin again. But even more than that, it’s too easy for the person to leave the time of confession having been nonspecific and thinking, Boy, if he really knew what I had done, he wouldn’t offer forgiveness.

Being detailed to the extent that it causes the person to feel the weight of his or her sin is really appropriate. That’s again where the person listening has to draw out the other person by saying, “You need to be more specific about this.” And then perhaps when they get to the point that they’re dwelling on the sin too much to say, “OK, let’s move on from that.”

When do we go to someone to hear our confession, and when do we go to the person we’ve sinned against to ask for forgiveness?

I don’t know that there are any hard-and-fast rules on this. It takes a lot of prayer and following the Holy Spirit. But I think your confession ought to be as public as the sin itself. The more public the sin, the more publicly it should be confessed.

So if I have evil thoughts about someone, we’re probably looking at a personal confession with another person. But to the degree those thoughts have turned into actions, now I’m actually seeking forgiveness from the individual I sinned against. To the extent those evil thoughts and actions impacted the larger Body of Christ, my confession then becomes that much more public.

When is it necessary to bring a pastor, elder, or church leader into the process of confession?

Certainly James 5 speaks of church leadership involvement, but I don’t think it does so for the sake of hierarchy. So we can confess to any believer. At the same time, God has placed those spiritual leaders there for our blessing. I think at the point where someone confessing says, “I still don’t feel free from this,” then it might be appropriate to hand it off to a spiritual leader of the church.

Any last words?

We need to obey what God has commanded us in James 5:16. We need to allow ourselves to be humbled by our sin that someone else now learns about, and we need to let go of our impression management. Allow some of that façade to fall.

I suspect if that were to occur, not only would there be freedom from a lot of sin in our churches, but it would  also create a unity within the church that perhaps the Western church doesn’t always experience well because we’re so individualized. We’ll also realize not only do I have my own sins to confess, but I’m also hearing the sins of other people, and I’m realizing we’re in this together.

And maybe those outside the church looking in will see a church that’s more inviting.

Sure, absolutely. One of the parishioners who left a church I was in essentially said, “I just can’t live up to the spiritual maturity of people in the church.” And I thought to myself, Oh, no! That’s not it at all!

When confession is a part of our churches, you realize, OK, the people aren’t perfect here. And that’s OK not in the sense that we’re OK with the brokenness, but it’s OK because of Christ our Healer in our midst. Really, truly everybody is invited.

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