Authentic New Testament Solutions

A Protestant View of the Confessional

One of my favorite verses in the Bible is James 5:16:

Confess your sins to each other and pray for each other so that you may be healed. The earnest prayer of a righteous person has great power and produces wonderful results. 

I like it for several reasons.

  1. It promotes trust among fellow believers. It assumes that all of us have others in our lives with whom we can be vulnerable—genuine friends who understand the Gospel, who want the best for us, and who will stand with us against the schemes of darkness.
  2. It establishes prayer as key. Prayer stimulates the ministry of the Holy Spirit in those doing the praying and those receiving the prayer. This is important because the Holy Spirit delivers into our lives everything Jesus appropriated for us on the cross. And this vital ministry is fundamental to our Christian growth, our Christian wisdom and revelation, and our Christian depth of insight. The righteousness and holiness we receive by God’s grace is infused into our lives by the Holy Spirit.
  3. It reveals that God wants us well. Every Spirit-filled Christian I know wants to be a better person than they are. However, perfection won’t be completed in our lives until we see Christ face to face. In the meantime, we are somewhere between our sinful state and total perfection, which is the process of progressive sanctification, our lives developing from glory to glory. It is a process of being set free from the tentacles of the world, the flesh, and the devil as we grow in Him.

For hundreds of years, the church has acknowledged both the risk and the necessity of confession. Roman Catholics have formalized protecting this process. We’ve all heard stories of Catholic priests who have given their lives to guard the information they learned in the confessional because they believe and hold sacred that every believer needs the freedom to confess their sins without fear of their confession being used against them. They know that the blood of Christ becomes effective in the life of the repentant once they have confessed, which empowers them to do what they ought. As a result, very often after spiritual confession, those who have violated others soon either turn themselves into the authorities and/or go to those they have violated to make things right with them. I have watched this happen many times and it is a beautiful portrayal of Christ’s work in the forgiven heart of a believer.

A Catholic friend of mine wrote to me regarding this issue.

The Seal of Confession is absolute. Most of the rules for excommunication apply to priests more than lay people, and breaking the integrity of the confessional gets a priest tossed. . . If a priest hears a man confess that he embezzles money, and afterward the man applies to be parish accountant, the priest can’t say anything!

He also directed me to Canon 21 of the Fourth Council of the Lateran (1215), which is binding on the Roman Catholic Church, and lays down the obligation of secrecy in the following words:

Let the priest absolutely beware that he does not by word or sign or by any manner whatever in any way betray the sinner. But if he should happen to need wiser counsel let him cautiously seek the same without any mention of person. For whoever shall dare to reveal a sin disclosed to him in the tribunal of penance we decree that he shall be not only deposed from the priestly office but that he shall also be sent into the confinement of a monastery to do perpetual penance.

I am a Protestant, not a Roman Catholic. We Protestants emphasize that we can go directly to God in order to repent and receive forgiveness. Even so, we don’t discount the importance of James 5:16 and the confession to fellow believers followed by prayer, and the healing that can powerfully occur.  However, because of our emphasis on going directly to God with our sins, many of us miss out on the confession, prayer, and healing process.

One well respected Protestant commentator wrote this about James 5:16:

It seems likely, in the modern world, that very few [Protestant] Christians are practicing this in any specific way. We’re just too afraid to be that vulnerable. James’ command is for us, as much as it is for the original readers. The church would be far healthier if more of us prayed for each other, in family love, to overcome our specific sins. After all, James writes, prayer works. God listens and responds. The prayer of a righteous person is powerful and effective because God hears and takes actions.

As a Protestant, I have confessed my sins, received prayer, and am being and have been healed. I’ve confessed privately to the Lord, to friends that I trusted in my time of need, and to the public at large. Actually, it feels like I’ve confessed my sins more openly than anyone else in my generation. Why? Because I believe confession and repentance are fundamental to my biblical faith, and that my relationship with God is more important to me than the opinions of those who enjoy using the content of my confession against me.

It’s true, we all need to be very, very wise when we choose to discuss our personal battles with another, other than God. Our goal is freedom from sin and growth in our relationship with God. And on the other side of the coin, if someone chooses to repent to and confide in us, it is an honor that they would trust us to keep their confidence and respect their process. We become responsible to pray for them to be healed, and to use the Lord’s authority imparted to us by our position in Christ to pronounce that their sins are remitted.  When someone confesses to us, they see us as Christ’s ambassadors, which means they believe we have the authority Jesus spoke of in John 20:23 when he said, If you forgive anyone’s sins, they are forgiven. If you do not forgive them, they are not forgiven. 

I know it’s foreign to our Protestant ears, but Jesus gave us the power, by faith, to hear their confession and let their sins be washed away . . . or not. So, let’s be like Christ and acknowledge, in a tangible way, that the cross works for them too and that their sins are washed away. If we violate that confidence, we are ensuring that their sins are not washed away — at least in the minds and hearts of those we talk to, and, this demonstrates that we are in sin ourselves. Because we Protestants have not protected the sanctify of the confessional, we have, in effect, been rewarding hypocrisy and punishing repentance. We Protestants need to grasp that being a safe place for others to share their repentance and confession might be the most sacred thing we ever do. It makes tangible the purpose of the Cross.   

The point of this blog is for us to improve our ministry to others, not to evaluate everyone else who doesn’t understand. As I write this blog, it is an exhortation to me. I don’t write this from a lofty position of judgment on anyone else. This blog is for us to build character in ourselves, to become those who are trustworthy, who understand the Gospel, and respect the sanctity of the confessional. 

But, if we violate the sanctity of the confessional, we might be denying the very faith that we trust will save us on that day. 


Pastor Ted Haggard, DD, CHBC, is a Bible teacher with an emphasis on New Testament solutions to the human condition. His Bible teaching is informed by biblical scholarship, Choice Theory (Glasser), Attachment Theory (Johnson), and Behavioral Studies using DISC (Rohm).

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