James 5:13-20 - The Prayer of Faith
In this difficult and oftentimes misunderstood passage, we're told to put our hope in the gospel, not the fervor of our prayers.
This is the last an 18-part devotional series. Click here to read the rest of the series.
Is anyone among you in trouble? Let them pray. Is anyone happy? Let them sing songs of praise. Is anyone among you sick? Let them call the elders of the church to pray over them and anoint them with oil in the name of the Lord. And the prayer offered in faith will make the sick person well; the Lord will raise them up. If they have sinned, they will be forgiven. Therefore confess your sins to each other and pray for each other so that you may be healed.The prayer of a righteous person is powerful and effective.
Elijah was a human being, even as we are. He prayed earnestly that it would not rain, and it did not rain on the land for three and a half years. Again he prayed, and the heavens gave rain, and the earth produced its crops.
My brothers and sisters, if one of you should wander from the truth and someone should bring that person back, remember this: Whoever turns a sinner from the error of their way will save them from death and cover over a multitude of sins.
James is one of the most frequently applied books of the New Testament. But this final passage is perhaps one of the most misunderstood in all of the Bible.
We’ve all heard the stories of individuals who were told, “Just pray, and if you have enough faith, you will be healed.” Of course, that’s not what this passage is saying. Let’s slow down, dig in, and feast on the beautiful, gospel-centered message of James.
First, James wants the reader to assess their situation. Are you suffering? Are you cheerful? Are you sick? Are you wandering from the truth? We cannot respond appropriately if we do not have an accurate understanding of our present situation. James realizes that people experience a wide variety of circumstances, each calling for an appropriate response.
Second, James wants the reader to make an appropriate response. I enjoy James’s words here because he places the responsibility for a response almost exclusively on the individual experiencing suffering, cheer, sickness. James asks the sick person to pray, the cheerful person to sing praise, and the sick to ask the elders for prayer and anointing with oil.
Most importantly, James wants the reader to focus on the gospel. When James says, “The prayer of faith will save the one who is sick, and the Lord will raise Him up,” he has in mind the same idea as Paul, Peter, and John when speaking of saving faith.
He goes on to say, “And if he has committed sins, he will be forgiven.” James’ point is that placing your faith in the gospel is the most critical response in any situation. This is the key to properly understanding the passage.
Notice that three times, James uses a Greek construction conveying that something will definitely happen. He wants to make it clear that placing your faith in the gospel will have a definite outcome: your sins will be forgiven, you will be saved, and you will be raised up on the last day.
Without a proper understanding of this third point, we will come to the wrong understanding of the second.
In the Greek, when James says, “Therefore, confess your sins to one another and pray for one another, that you may be healed,” he is using what is called an indefinite construction. It is similar to saying, “Study political science at Georgetown that you may get a job on the Hill.”
The confession of our sins to one another is no guarantee of physical healing, but it is an important blessing of the Christian life to ask for prayer and to be asked for prayer. In and through confession of our sins to one another and praying for healing, we are knit together in love to each other and also to Christ.
The proper understanding of this passage means we are unburdened from the crushing weight of concluding sustained illness or injury is somehow due to our lack of faith or failure to acknowledge some sin.
In over a dozen years of ordained ministry, I have prayed with and anointed a couple who were having trouble conceiving. They now have three beautiful children. I have also prayed with and anointed a woman with peritoneal cancer. She died a month later. This passage is about placing our hope in the gospel, not the fervency of our prayers.
Finally, another word related to the second point. Earlier, I said that James places the responsibility for making an appropriate response almost entirely upon the person experiencing the particular situation. But when it comes to wandering from the faith, James expects the community to step up.
He says in verses 19-20 that we have a responsibility to our brothers and sisters in Christ to beckon them back to the faith when they stray. The effort we expend is worth it because James believes in the power of the gospel to save sinners.
And, it is the gospel which James has focused on for the entire letter.
Rev. Michael Langer is the Associate Director for the D.C. ministry.