James 5:16 In Modern Times

By Richard Boone

I was shocked; more than that, I was dumbfounded. A dear friend and brother in Christ wrote me a letter, but it wasn’t the kind of letter you enjoy receiving. He had a serious struggle  pornography. Daily fixes were so easy  a few strokes on the keyboard, a few clicks of a mouse, and the Internet brought it right to him.

He knew that he was willfully sinning against God. He repented daily, begging God’s forgiveness. He would be strong for a while, but with easy access he would yield to temptation again. He deleted his Internet connection from his hard drive, but that did not erase what he had done from his conscience or hide it from God.

There are several lessons here  the easy development of addictions, the power of pornography, the need for temperance, the dangers of various communications media, God’s forgiveness, self-forgiveness, etc. These aren’t my focus. Instead, ponder this statement from his letter: “I’m confessing fault, one to another, and asking you to pray for me fervently.” Enter James 5:16: “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.”

A Sad Reality

If any phrase accurately describes the American mind set, I’m convinced it is “self-sufficient.” We are bombarded with this message, from our country’s proud history down to the present day; especially in the present day. “I don’t need anybody’s help; I can do this on my own!” Ever thought or heard that? Me, too.

This mind set has affected us spiritually. When we are struggling with a problem (and who doesn’t from time to time?), the usual reaction is to keep it to ourselves. This reluctance may stem from an over-estimation of self-sufficiency or from a desire not to burden others with our problems since they have their own to handle. The sad reality is that this self-sufficient mind set is so contrary to biblical teaching, specifically James 5:16.

James 5:16 Abused

Just like any other passage or topic, James 5:16 is abused. The principle of confessing faults one to another is taken to extremes by Catholicism through auricular confession to a priest. James 5:16 is part of their sup-port (?) for this practice. The Boston/ Crossroads movement among churches of Christ in the last 30 years uses James 5:16 as part of their justification (?) for Senior-Junior prayer partners. Young Christians are each assigned a partner; one with more Bible knowledge and life experience, to which he goes for instruction, counsel, and confession. Confession of sins is made to and through this partner. (The ultimate end of this is Catholicism’s auricular confession.) I do not agree with or advocate these abuses which destroy the purpose and practice of James 5:16.

James 5:16 In Context James 5:16 teaches the power of, thus encourages, prayer (see vv. 13-20). Neither in this context nor any other are the aforementioned concepts of auricular confession or prayer partners found. One underlying fact, however, promotes the proper under-standing and use of this passage. Without question, first-century Christians were much closer in spirit and action than we are generally now. That doesn’t mean there weren’t problems (i.e., Corinth), but overall this was not so, especially early on (Acts 2:41-47; 4:32-37; 6:1-7; etc.). A spirit pervaded them which often escapes us to our detriment. This closeness and openness is foundational to James 5:16. Without it we will not, in fact cannot, depend on one another as Christians ought to do.

James 5:16 Applied

The text says that we are to “confess” (freely, openly acknowledge; W.E. Vine, Expository Dictionary of New Testament Words, I:225) our faults to one another and pray for one another, yet this will not automatically happen. There must be mutual confidence and a sense of security between two or more people before faults, struggles, sins, etc., are confessed to each other. The following suggestions (not an exhaustive list) are offered as a good starting place to that end.

Genuine love  with all its attendant attitudes and actions  must mutually exist (1 Cor. 13:4-8). This love seeks to help another, not destroy them. This is the source from which all subsequent actions come.

Being a close friend is vital to having close friends (Phil. 2:3-4). We are most comfortable and confident with friends. In order to have a friend, make sure you are being a friend to others.

The ability to listen  not just hear  is a must (Jas. 1:19). There is a difference in hearing and listening. A good listener strives to properly understand the information he receives and view it from the other person’s perspective. Without this ability (it is a learned ability), no relationship can be strong.

One must be willing to help with a problem via feedback, encouragement, admonition, etc. (Rom. 12:18; 14:19). If you are unapproachable or unwilling to help others, then do not be surprised if no one ever approaches you for help.

Do not gossip about another person’s problems (Jas. 3:1-12). The quickest way to destroy a relationship and person is to spread by gossip what is learned about them. Trust is violated and destroyed. Others may need to know about a problem (i.e., elders, involved third parties, etc.), but to go beyond these is to sin, jeopardize others’ souls, and your own soul!

If it is a third-party problem, then encourage and assist those parties to meet personally and privately to settle the matter (Matt. 5:23-24).

Never receive or give negative feed-back about a third party when he or she is not present. Gossip is hereby squelched.

If sin is involved, encourage immediate repentance, confession, and correction as publicly as necessary (Acts 8:18-24; 1 John 1:9).


As Americans, we are not the close people we once were; as Christians we should always be. James 5:16, though abused, is a passage which so teaches. It was written for a good purpose. May God help us to better understand, appreciate, and practice it in these modem times.

Guardian of Truth XLI: 16 p. 10-11
August 21, 1997