Justice and charity will never atone for atheism and carnality. Empty prayers and worship will never atone for fraud and oppression. Righteousness toward men is as much a branch of the Christian life as the Christian life towards God is a branch of universal righteousness.
God calls here for repentance, a washing of ones self, and more specifically a washing of ones soul. This is not a water bath or even a shower. Water has nothing to do with this concept except in the teaching of it.
We have an obligation to be active in our spiritual life. Not to just cease doing things and then become idle. God in no place commands us to stop sinning and sit on our porch as He waves His hand before our lives and by that we merely observe life passing by.
No. We are warned that we will be held accountable not only for our bad actions and thoughts, but our failure to take proper actions and or failure to think proper thoughts as well.
The whole book of James looks to our active spiritual life, or the application of what we have learned spiritually, to our daily lives. We are commanded to cease doing wickedness, to cease pursuing phony philosophies and beliefs, and to begin doing good.
But here good is in the context of divine good, not human good. There is a difference. Human good is one of the strengths of the sin nature and is not from God. It may be the right thing to do, but it is classified as evil all the same, because it comes from the energy of the flesh. Arrogance in other words.
We are commanded to wash ourselves, wash our souls.
This is the concept of confession of sin.
First there needs to be a repentance (a changing of ones mind). Repentance is not feeling sorry (that is a sin), but a change of attitude, a change of ones pattern of life. A change from being negative toward God to an attitude of being positive and desiring spiritual information.
This washing, or confession, places God the Holy Spirit in control of your soul. It also places you in fellowship with God and therefore allows the flow of spiritual information throughout your human spirit and soul. While in fellowship you are not influenced by your sin nature, therefore you have removed the functions of the sin nature from your life, from your thought process, from your actions and decisions.
Confession applies only to believers. Unbelievers cannot confess. It does them no good, until they are saved through faith in Christ.
Christ paid the price for sin, on the Cross. Christ defeated death by His resurrection. However, forgiveness was not cured on the Cross, nor in the grave, nor in the resurrection. Forgiveness follows ones responsible act of accepting responsibility for ones own thoughts and actions.
Forgiveness is the balancing position between ones spiritual status, and ones carnal status.
When you sin, you are living in a carnal life, out of fellowship with God, and therefore have no functioning spiritual life.
When you confess your sins to God, ‘Father I did this and that and this and that,’ then He is faithful and restores you into fellowship with Him. Once in fellowship, your spiritual life functions as it should. All that you do within fellowship, is classified as divine good.
Out of fellowship all that you do is classified as evil, sin, human good, and none of those count for anything.
When in fellowship, your motives are now based on doctrine which you have learned and continue to learn, whereas before, your motives were based on your lusts and selfish arrogant desires.
Remember that arrogance is the granddaddy of all sin, of all rejection of God. It is the source of the attitude that you do not need God in your life, whether you think it actively or passively makes no difference. Rejection is rejection.
In order to function in society, you have to take a bath or a shower in order to not stink. In the spiritual life, you have to confess, which is the washing of ones soul, so that you will not stink spiritually.
Confession is spiritual washing or the cleansing of ones self of sin, human good and evil.