A common misconception is that God wants us to be transparent before others, open about our sins and brokenness, perhaps confusing this with humility. The reality is that we should be wise, careful who we trust with our inner selves. (Mt7:6) Few are worthy of our trust (Jn 2:24), so we must guide our affairs with discretion. (Ps 112:5) Our motive in speaking truth should seldom be about ourselves; we should be moved in love to edify others. (Ep 4:29)
Even so, when we get ourselves in a spiritual rut, such that we’re consistently off path and unable to recover ourselves, God tells us to confess our faults to those in close spiritual community, praying for each other that we might be healed. (Ja 5:16) God has designed spiritual community around this purpose; God heals some sinful patterns only as dear brothers and sisters pray for us. This endears us to one another in love, and shows us we need Christ in each other to overcome, to live as we should for Him.
Yet, even in such close relationships, God doesn’t encourage us to confess all of our individual sins to each other: He says we’re to confess our faults, which are not entirely the same as sins. The Greek for sins is hamartias, the idea of missing the mark, relating to discrete acts of Torah violation. (1Jn 3:4) However, the word translated faults is paraptomata, to fall beside or near something, connoting a repeating, persistent pattern of iniquity rather than a single act.
Most all of our modern English translations have the Greek hamartias in this text, and thus translate it as sins, trespasses, offenses, etc. This is because three of the four oldest Greek New Testament (GNT) manuscripts (Sinaiticus, Vaticanus, and Alexandrinus, from the 4th and 5th centuries C.E., the Egyptian Text) contain this reading, compared to all other surviving (Majority Text) manuscript witnesses of James. Textual critics typically presume older manuscripts are more accurate, ignoring the fact that the greatest corruptions to the GNT were introduced well before the 4th century. Further, they ignore the fact that no plausible explanation for the existence of the Majority Text has yet been proposed, if it isn’t grounded in the autographs themselves.
The Egyptian hamartias, aside from having an inferior historical claim to legitimacy, is problematic from a practical perspective. The command to confess our sins, applies to every single instance of each and every kind of sin, obligating us all to confess all of our sins to each other, which is not possible: even if this is all we ever do, we’re continuing to commit individual sins faster than we can possibly confess them, so the more earnestly we attempt to obey such a command, the farther behind we will fall in our obedience to it.
A second problem relates to what it means to be healed of a sin which hasn’t been imputed to us. (Ro 4:8) What’s in view here cannot be forgiveness, for this has already been done in full, once for each believer, by Christ Himself. (Col 2:13) Rather, this is the healing of a spiritual wound or malady (Pr 18:14) in an ongoing sinful context. If we need others to pray for our healing from each specific historical act of Torah violation in order to be healed, then we shall never be healed of the vast majority of our sins, so we must remain forever crippled in them. This cannot be our Lord’s intent; it’s the kind of perversion we expect from those corrupting the word.
In comparison, confessing our faults — patterns of sin we observe in ourselves, which remain stubbornly persistent even though we’re struggling to obey – is perfectly reasonable. In resisting sin we become aware of such patterns of iniquity, rooted deeply within, where we’re unable to obey God even as we’re doing our best. It’s perfectly natural then to involve godly brothers and sisters, asking them to pray for us in specific ways so that we might overcome and walk in obedience. We’re healed as the lies at the root of our sinful patterns are exposed and replaced with truth. (2Ti 2:25-26)
Confession of specific sins should only be as public as the offence (Mt 18:15a), and pursued, not for personal healing, but as a means of promoting reconciliation and restoration of trust. (b) Confession of faults should only be with trusted allies in the faith for sanctification and growth in personal holiness.