A Confessing Church (James 5:13-20)

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The Confessing Church (or Confessional Church) was a Protestant breakaway church in Nazi Germany, which came about in opposition to government-sponsored efforts to Nazify the German Protestant church. The term “confessing” characterised it as a church which was willing to nail its colours to the mast. More appropriately, they were willing to confess the Lord Jesus Christ in the face of much opposition. They were willing to do the hard thing with the result that many lost their lives and yet it was through this that many were also reached with the life transforming gospel.

Martin Luther, whom most in the Confessing Church viewed as a role model, once said, “If I profess with the loudest voice and clearest expression every portion of the truth of God, except precisely that little point which the world and the devil are at that moment attacking, I am not confessing Christ, however boldly I might be professing Christ.” In other words, true loyalty to Christ will often put us in the position of being in the minority, of breaking loose from the status quo, of sometimes even opposing what has become acceptable tradition in the church and in one’s own local church as well.

No doubt it was such thinking that fuelled the commitment of these German believers during the years of Hitler. They were willing to publicly confess Jesus as Lord in spite of threatening consequences. And through such confession the church in Germany was blessed. We too need to be such confessing churches. And as I trust that we will see in this study, such confession is (along with other legitimate ways) manifested by the confession of our failures and of our need for help—God’s help as given through the church.

Early in our recent series from Matthew 18 I emphasised that there is more at stake in our relationships with each other than merely getting along. Rather, the Lord Jesus died to have disciples from all the nations, and the church is His chosen means to make those disciples. Hence it is of paramount importance that we be a biblically healthy church for the glory of God amongst the nations. We need a holy harmony rooted in humility displayed by a proper honouring of one another.

When this occurs then we are empowered to have an impact on the world with the gospel. D. L. Moody once quipped that there are two ways of being united: one is by being frozen together, and the other is by being melted together. What Christians need is to be united in brotherly love, and then we will experience the power of God for the glory of God.

On the other hand, being frozen together is also not a bad metaphor. After all, as Vesta Kelly observed, consider that snowflakes are one of nature’s most fragile things, but just look at what they can do when they stick together!

I want to drive home the point of a united confessing church in this study as we contemplate James 5:13-20. This study, of course, does not come in a vacuum for we have recently taken seven lessons to deal with four nonnegotiables of healthy church life from Matthew 18.

I believe that BBC is a very healthy church. And yet at the same time I am persuaded that we have just begun to scratch the surface of what it means to a community of faith. We are making progress no doubt, and yet there is a sense in which we are not engaged sufficiently in the lives of one another.

There is still too much of a commitment-to-privacy mentality, whereby some are communicating, “Stay out of these areas of my life!” They are content to attend church (and sometimes even faithfully) but are unwilling to be pressed about areas of temptation, about the legitimacy of their vocation, and how they choose to spend their recreational time. Again, there are some who even resent being held accountable for their refusal to gather with the saints.

But if there is resentment here, can there really be any hope of meaningful engagement in the corporate pursuit of Christ? I doubt it. In fact, according to Ephesians 4:11-16, the growth of the church will be stunted apart from each member working in unison with other church members.

It is for this reason that I believe we need to heed the biblical counsel of Martin Luther and to address that “precise . . . little point which the world and the devil are at that moment attacking.” And that attach, at the present time, seems to be in the firm of individualism. In other words, we must be willing to go against the status quo as we seek to continue to reform church life—our lives—according to the Word of God. We must be willing to move beyond our comfort zones of an individualistic Christianity. We must be willing to address strongly the curse of individualism, for it is this sin-laden philosophy of life which sucks the life out of a local church.

Over the years BBC has stressed the issue of the church gathering. Of course the reason for the emphasis upon the body gathering is the biblical emphasis upon community and thus of intimate communion within the Body of Christ. And you can’t be intimate if you are not together!

We do not believe that gathering with other believers is the root or the cause of the new birth; rather, it is the fruit or the consequence of the new birth. Those who have been connected to the vine are by definition also connected to everyone else who is also connected to the same vine. Those who have been born again have been gathered and thus they gather. They are gathered by God’s grace to grow in God’s grace—together.

All of this leads to the observation that our gathering is to be Christ-centred. In his classic book, Life Together Dietrich Bonhoeffer (who was, incidentally, a member of Germany’s Confessing Church) speaks of the various motives that some have for being a part of the church. He writes of the biblical purpose,

The goal of all Christian community [is that] they meet one another as bringers of the message of salvation . . . the Christian needs another Christian who speaks God’s Word to him. . . . Our community with one another consists solely in what Christ has done for both of us.

In other words, the community of faith is rooted in the gospel, the good news of what God has done for us in Christ Jesus. Thus when we gather we do so in the realisation that we are sinners who need the Saviour and our gathering is intended to point us to this Saviour. Our gathering is therefore hopeful.

But note that, by definition, this means that we must gather as those confessing our need for the Saviour; we must come with the meaningful confession that we are sinners. If we fail to do so then self-righteousness will rule and we will not experience the spiritual healing and health that we so desperately need.

I share all of this to emphasise that we must not lose sight of the fact that God has gathered us together in Christ—in our particular local church—for the purpose of our growing up into Christ. We are to gather to point one another to Christ and we do so by speaking His Word to one another (see Colossians 3:16-17). This requires transparency, vulnerability and accountability. But when we are committed to such a biblical expression of community then we will see the body healed and thus growing in spiritual health towards Christlikeness. The mess (for that is precisely how the church sometimes appears!) will increasingly become a marvel. This is precisely what James tells us in 5:13-20.

As we turn our attention to this passage we do so for the furtherance of our appreciation of what it means to be a part of the community of faith; the local church in relationship with the Lord Jesus Christ. What we will learn may be rather controversial and radical to some, but I trust it will prove helpful for us all. May we have the Spirit’s enablement to speak to “that precise little point that is under attack by the world and the devil.” In other words, by God’s grace, may we truly be a confessing church.

The Recognition that All is Not Well

I was recently counselling a couple and said to them, “We are all a mess and the sooner we realise this the sooner we will start cleaning up the mess.” In vv. 13-16, the apostle James essentially recognises the mess in which we find ourselves.

Is anyone among you suffering? Let him pray. Is anyone cheerful? Let him sing psalms. Is anyone among you sick? Let him call for the elders of the church, and let them pray over him, anointing him with oil in the name of the Lord. And the prayer of faith will save the sick, and the Lord will raise him up. And if he has committed sins, he will be forgiven. 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.

(James 5:13-16)

Think about it: The church is made up of those who are a sinful mess who, by God’s grace, are being shaped into a people who will one day be an amazing display of the monumental grace and mercy of God! But until such time, we are a mess. And the sooner that we realize this then the better for all of us.

I am not suggesting that we are a mess in the sense of hopeless resignation but rather in the light of the powerful transforming work of the gospel. The mess is being recreated. But it is essential that we realise that the mess is being fixed in community. The mess is being transformed into a masterpiece—en masse.

In order for there to be a return to health it is important to first of all recognise that all is not well.

Various Sorrows

This is the reality of church life. There is “suffering” (v. 13a) of various kinds: physical, emotional, mental and spiritual. The causes of suffering are many: persecution, relational issues, financial difficulties, etc., but the reality is ever present. As members of Christ’s church, we can expect problems—“suffering”—to assault us from outside.

But there is also sickness (vv. 14-15). Clearly, from the context, James has in mind here physical sicknesses, though he also clearly has in mind that these sicknesses have a spiritual cause; i.e. they have been brought on by sin. This is not to suggest that sickness is always the direct result of specific sin, but it certainly is sometimes.

In light of these realities we can see that things are not always well in the community of faith. In fact, it is perhaps no overstatement to suggest that things are rarely well in the church. We face sorrows and thus we need to know what to do in response to them. But before looking at the solution, let us note another reality of church life.

Victorious Singing

James recognises quite plainly the existence of “suffering” in the church, but at the same time he speaks of church members being “cheerful,” so much so that they are led to “sing psalms.” Many experience relief from these various sufferings mentioned above, and thus sorrow is replaced with song.

It appears that not everyone is at the same time experiencing sorrow—at least not at the same level of intensity—and thus the sadness is pierced with a note of praise. The question that arises at this point is, how is our sorrow transformed into singing? According to James the answer is, by prayer.

It should be noted that there are seven references to prayer from vv. 13-20. As James brings to a close his practical epistle he exhorts the believers to pray. There is nothing perhaps more practical than prayer. And yet there is probably nothing that is more neglected in practice than prayer. And yet it if we want to move from sorrow to singing then we need to pray. “The fact simply remains that where Christians want to live together under the Word of God they may and they should pray together to God” (Bonhoeffer).

A. C. Dixon said, “When we depend upon organizations, we get what organizations can do; when we depend upon education, we get what education can do; when we depend upon man, we get what man can do; but when we depend upon prayer, we get what God can do.” And God will do a lot to transform our sorrows when we pray.

Speaking of this type of prayer, Bonhoeffer said, “We may be certain that our prayer will be heard, because it is a response to God’s Word and promise.” Indeed, when we pray according to God’s explicit revelation, we can be quite certain that He will hear and answer.

A Serious Command

In response to this serious condition, God (through James) issues a serious command. Let’s examine this exhortation to prayer.

First, let us notice that the problem is one of perilous paralysis. There are things that the Lord puts into our lives which require extraordinary means for a cure. This is clear from the verses before us. “Is any among you sick? Let him call for the elders of the church” (v. 14).

James speaks of someone who is “sick,” but not simply with the common cold. The picture here is of someone who is so ill that that he cannot get out of bed to go to the assembly for prayer. He must instead call upon the elders to come to him. This person is bedridden, extremely weak in body, and yet note that the verse teaches us that prayer is to be offered. This wonderful means of grace can become the source of much good: the sick can be healed. And the church is blessed by it.

Second, let’s observe the prayerful participation called for here. “Let them pray over him, anointing him with oil in the name of the Lord. And the prayer of faith will save the sick, and the Lord will raise him up” (vv. 14-15). There is a very real sense in which prayer changes things. According to James, “the effective, fervent prayer of a righteous man avails much” (v. 16).

Yes, there are some things that you will not receive if you don’t ask for them. James has already told us, “You do not have because you do not ask” (4:2). The question of whether or not prayer changes things is much debated, but we cannot ignore the clear testimony of Scripture. God is sovereign and is therefore in control of everything. He does not learning anything new. He is the Lord God who does not change, and therefore He never changes His mind. Yes, His decreed will is certain to be accomplished; the end of His decreed design will come to pass. The gloriously amazing truth is that He has also designed the means towards His predetermined ends. And prayer is one such powerfully effective means. Are you utilising it? Are we as churches utilising it?

A Sovereign Cure

Without entering too far into the debate concerning whether the anointing with oil is medicinal or not, let me simply say that even if this is speaking of the use of oil for medicinal purposes, it is clear that James’ emphasis is upon prayer and thus we are pointed to the power of God to heal. Whatever this verse is or is not saying about medicine, it clearly is teaching us that it is God who heals and that one way by which we receive this gift is the means of prayer. As Alec Motyer comments, “Even when we go to the doctor, then, our eyes are to the Lord. He alone can heal. There is no such thing as (so-to-speak) ‘non-spiritual’ healing. . . . On no occasion should a Christian approach the doctor without also approaching God.” Therefore, let us pray!

Vexing Sins

James has indicated that the sickness which he has in mind is one that is the result of sin, for once the sick person calls upon the elders, “the prayer of faith will save the sick, and the Lord will raise him up. And if he has committed sins, he will be forgiven” (v. 15). But James will not leave the matter of sin in the church as a private affair. Instead, he writes, “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” (v. 16).

This too is a reality of church life. And this is my main point of emphasis in this message. Like the above, this is a serious condition which is to be addressed by serious prayer trusting in a sovereign God.

There are such things as besetting sins in the life of the believer. It does seem from the admonitions and examples of Scripture that a believer will not be characterised by sin, and yet he may struggle with a particular habitual sin. The proof that he is indeed a believer is that he is vexed with such sin (cf. 2 Peter 2:7-8).

Like some physical illnesses, spiritual illness can be paralysing in its effects. I recently came across this quote from John Wesley: “I want the whole Christ for my Saviour, the whole Bible for my book, the whole Church for my fellowship and the whole world for my mission field.” These words struck me on several levels. But fundamentally it was the logic—whether intentional or not—which struck me. If the whole world was Wesley’s mission field; if his desire was to reach all and sundry, then this would require the previous desires that he expressed. In other words, if the world would be reached for Christ then there must be unity; biblical unity, of course.

Again, if the whole world will be reconciled to God (cf. 2 Corinthians 5:19) then the church must practically live out this reconciliation (cf. 2 Corinthians 5:21). For the church to be powerful in her witness, she must be united in her worship. Our relationships with each other must be healthy if we will be effective in our Christ-given mandate to disciple the nations. But how can our relationships be truly healthy if there is a dark side of our lives behind a facade? We must each deal seriously with our sin if we will grow up into Christ. This is why Matthew 18 is so important in the life of the local church.

So what shall we do? How can we be “healed” of our malady, freed of our besetting sins? How can we overcome anger, theft, deception, pornography, gossip, marital disharmony, failed parenting, greed, etc.? Quite clearly the answer is that we must confess to one another and we must pray for and with one another.

The word “confess” is a translation of the Greek word exomologeo, and it means to express something from the heart—freely, publicly and openly. It is used in Matthew 3:6 of repentant sinners being baptised publicly in the Jordan River, “confessing their sins.”

The word “trespasses” means “to fall beside,” “to lapse,” or “to deviate” (from truth and uprightness). It is translated as “fault” in Galatians 6:1, and is used in Romans 11:11-12 to speak of the fall of Israel.

The word “healed” means “to make whole,” and implies freedom from error and sins, the bringing about of one’s salvation. Of the 28 times it is used in the New Testament, it clearly refers to physical healing at least 19 times (cf. Matthew 8:8, 13; 15:28). But it is also used of spiritual healing. For example:

  • Luke 4:18—“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because He has anointed me to preach the gospel to the poor; He has sent me to heal the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed.”
  • Acts 10:38—“God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Spirit and with power, who went about doing good and healing all who were oppressed by the devil, for God was with Him.”
  • Hebrews 12:13—“And make straight paths for your feet, so that what is lame may not be dislocated, but rather be healed.”
  • 1 Peter 2:24—“Who Himself bore our sins in His own body on the tree, that we, having died to sins, might live for righteousness—by whose stripes you were healed.”
  • Acts 10:38 is particularly interesting for “oppressed” means “to dominate.” The root word carries the idea of “ruler” and is translated elsewhere by “mighty” or “potentate” (Luke 1:52; Acts 8:27; 1 Timothy 6:15). Hence, the idea is that of control. And it was from such satanic control that Jesus “healed” people.

Believers sometimes feel “oppressed” by sin, which seeks to dominate them. Sometimes we just can’t seem to break loose. This is where James 5:16 comes in.

Daniel Doriani notes, “If the family prays together when physical illness wounds a member, they should certainly work together if spiritual troubles threaten.” The references to physical healing point us to the hope of the more important, though related, issue of spiritual healing. Believer, have hope and therefore confess and seek prayers.

Of course, this highlights the need for commitment to honesty, transparency, and vulnerability. The facade must fall away! Bonhoeffer powerfully asserts, “A Christian fellowship lives and exists by the intercession of its members for one another, or it collapses.”

In our church, we have for a long time held a prayer meeting before each service. Until recently, it has been held in a room away from the main auditorium, but motivated by the biblical statement of God’s house being “a house of prayer” (Isaiah 56:7; Mark 11:17), we recently decided to move the evening prayer meeting to the main auditorium.

In His attempts to restore the integrity of the temple, the meeting place for God and His covenanted people, Jesus was driven by His desire for God’s people to take prayer seriously; for to take prayer seriously means that we are taking God seriously. This is precisely our motivation in moving our evening prayer meeting. We need to take God seriously. We need to realise our utter dependence upon Him. And prayer is such an admission.

But just what should we be praying for? Certainly we should be praying for the needs of those who are physically afflicted but also we must be praying for those (all of us!) who are spiritually, morally afflicted with sin. This is why James says that we are to confess our trespasses (sins) to one another and to pray for one another. James clearly connects confession of our sins with prayer. We need both sides of this spiritual coin if we will make progress in spiritual health as a body.

Let me try and put this in the terms with which we have become familiar in our study of Matthew 18.

We must humble ourselves: we are not “the greatest.” In fact, we are a mess and, in spite of the saving grace of God, we continue to sin. If we truly are humble then we will admit our sins and will ask for help.

We must further honour one another, which means that we will not be judgmental towards our fellow church member who is also a mess. We will rather lovingly receive such, because God doesn’t view them primarily as a mess but rather as His masterpiece in progress! Consider these very insightful words of Bonhoeffer:

He who is alone with his sin is utterly alone. It may be that Christians, notwithstanding corporate worship, common prayer, and all their fellowship in service, may still be left to their loneliness. The final break-through to fellowship does not occur, because, though they have fellowship with one another as believers and as devout people, they do not have fellowship as the undevout, as sinners. The pious fellowship permits no one to be a sinner. So everybody must conceal his sin from himself and from the fellowship. We dare not be sinners. Many Christians are unthinkably horrified when a real sinner is suddenly discovered among the righteous. So we remain alone with our sin, living in lies and hypocrisy. The fact is that we are sinners!

Again, “In confession the break-through to community takes place. Sin demands to have a man by himself. It withdraws him from the community. . . . In confession the light of the Gospel breaks into the darkness and seclusion of the heart.”

We must then help one another in our corporate pursuit of holiness. Therefore we must listen to our brothers and sisters as they confess their sin and then come alongside them in a number of ways, but especially in praying for them—in interceding for them.

If we do the above, we will have a growing experience of holy harmony to the health of the church and to the glory of God.

Just as the prayer of faith will save (heal) the physically sick, so will the prayer of faith be a vital means in the saving, healing of the spiritually sick. Alec Motyer is helpful when he writes, “If the sick can call the elders to pray, then surely we should be enthusiastic to lay hold of prayer in all situations in life. There (14-15) the matter was sickness; here (16a) it is sin which, in line with Scripture, James views as a sickness of the soul which needs to ‘be healed.’ In this too we can involve ourselves in a fellowship of prayer and, as a result, look for the healing touch of God.”

Some church members are so spiritually sick that they are bedridden. That is, they are not able to function. And the church is to negatively affected as a result. Some marriages are so conflicted that the individuals are not able to minister effectively in the Body or for the Great Commission. Some church members are so “addicted” to various sins of the flesh that they have no joy or true spiritual effectiveness. Some church members are so tempted to persistent bouts of bitterness and unforgiveness that they are not able to function relationally. Some church members are so beaten down with the sin of anger that they feel absolutely defeated and the devil loves it! Some believers are so consumed with pride that they are not able to be effective as servants. Some believers are so prone to laziness and lack of self-discipline that they are irresponsible financially or morally, and they do not fulfil their God-given roles and responsibilities. Some church members are not believers (vv. 19-20)!

These are just a few examples of sins in the church that debilitate us from going forward for the glory of Christ and for the true gladness of the nations. What we need is the Lord to bless us, to shine His face upon us in granting repentance and then reformation of life and a further reach for God’s glory.

Dearly beloved, this matter of confession and prayer must be a two-sided coin that is seen as currency by which the Lord will reward with blessing. I don’t want to sound mercenary but neither do I want to undermine the great spiritual wealth that is promised to us as a church. We need to increasingly see the local church as a “house of prayer.”

Paul and Peter both referred to the church as the “temple” of God (Ephesians 2:19-22; 1 Peter 2:5). Under the old covenant, God’s people would go to the temple and would confess their sins and bring the appropriate sacrifice. Under the new covenant we too gather with other believers, confessing our sin while laying hold of the Sacrifice. William Farley has said it so well: “The gospel frees us to fail and continually reapply ourselves to an impossible standard.” The local church should be the kind of place where sinners know there is hope. And the coupling of confession and prayer—grounded in gospel hope—will provide the loving atmosphere for a mess to be become a masterpiece.

In fact, I would go so far as to argue that confession of sin to one another is part and parcel of being a follower of Jesus Christ. Bonhoeffer notes, “In confession the Christian gives up all and follows. Confession is discipleship. Life with Jesus Christ and his community has begun. . . . In confession the Christian begins to forsake his sins. Their dominion is broken.” Or, in the words of another German theologian, “Therefore when I admonish you to confession I am admonishing you to be a Christian” (Martin Luther).

This will require proclamation of God’s Word—both from the pulpit and pew. It will require transparency and vulnerability. “The more definite my intercession becomes, the more promising it is,” writes Bonhoeffer. It will require a commitment to something bigger than you: the health of the church, the hope of the nations, the holiness of God and the honour of God.

The Realisation that All Can Be Well

But having realised that all is not well in the local church, we must at the same time realise that there is hope, that things can be well. James uses the example of Elijah to highlight this truth: “Elijah was a man with a nature like ours, and he prayed earnestly that it would not rain; and it did not rain on the land for three years and six months. And he prayed again, and the heaven gave rain, and the earth produced its fruit” (vv. 17-18).

We need to take these verses to heart. The Lord gives us this example of Elijah to help us to see that sorrows can be transformed into victories, even the sorrows that accompany those “vexing sins.” Donald Burdick comments on these verses, “So James assures his readers that such answers to prayer are within the reach of any believer.” Let us believe this and then prove it by praying for and with one another—and, if need be, by confessing to one another.

One commentator has observed, “It means much to James that we should really believe all this: that prayer is the truest response to problems (13), even to the problem of serious illness (14-15), and that it has power to heal the sin-sick soul and the sin-torn fellowship” (Motyer). And Doriani observes with reference to this verse, “[Prayer] has ‘great power.’ The word (ischys) points to inherent strength, the strength which makes a person or thing sufficient for the task. It means potency, power waiting to be released. We might speak of untapped resources.”

We can always do more than pray but we must never do more until we pray. We must run to the gospel for the righteousness which enables us to pray. It is the prayer of a “righteous” man that avails much, and of course righteousness is found in Christ alone. We need both the positional righteousness of Christ (which comes at justification) and the practical righteousness of Christ (which comes through sanctification). And prayer is essential to this end.

The Realisation that Some Need to Be Saved from Hell

It is true that sometimes individuals are gathered together who actually don’t want to be. Motyer writes with pastoral concern, “Within every fellowship there are those whose profession is not real and whose attachment to Christ is not yet a saving faith. Their true condition, as still held by sin and death, becomes evident to the caring eyes of those who watch within the fellowship. Departure from the truth, and from the life that accords with the truth, gives a revealing testimony to how things rally are and calls forth a spirit of concern in every truly Christian heart.”

We can learn from this that sometimes people become church members who really do not belong and the proof is that they have no real inclination to belong. And this shows up in their rejection of the gathering. James seems to have such in mind in 5:19-20.

Brethren, if anyone among you wanders from the truth, and someone turns him back, let him know that he who turns a sinner from the error of his way will save a soul from death and cover a multitude of sins.

(James 5:19-20)

For such, gathering with believers will be seen as an obligation rather than as an opportunity. It is viewed as a pain rather than as a privilege, as a grudging duty rather than as a delight. How then do we respond to them? By pursuing them and by praying for them. And the latter will often be accomplished by the means of the former.

BBC needs to care for the flock, for all who have professed to be a member of her. Is it therefore not legitimate that we will be prayerfully concerned for such who show no appetite? We would be wise to pursue them and if there is no response then for the church family to pray for such.

Alec Motyer captures this spirit when he writes, “We have a care for each other not only when someone in physical (14-15) or spiritual (16a) need makes an approach for help, but also when there is no such call. This is when the evidence of our own eyes tells us that someone within the circle of the fellowship is slipping away into the path of sin and death. Within the local fellowship we dare not treat truth and life as negotiable. It is our task to care and to rescue.”

And John Blanchard hits the nail on the head when he comments, “What a difference there would be in our churches if instead of a barren, negative criticism we had a loving, pastoral concern for those we saw straying from the truth!”

In light of all that we have learned in recent studies I trust that we have come to understand our privilege and responsibility. Now, let us take up our cross and do the hard and yet right thing. As someone has noted, “Wherever you find spiritual life, someone usually has died” (William Farley)

Of course, the ultimate proof of this is the Lord Jesus Christ who died in order that those enslaved to sin might be freed; that those who were spiritually blind might see; that dead sinners might have life. Therefore, empowered by a heartfelt persuasion of the gospel, let us gather with one another, confessing to one another and praying for and with one another.

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