As preached by Timothy O'Day. The eleventh sermon in a series through the book of James.
It’s a fairly common trope for spy movies to quickly review the threat and the mission of the hero spy and then, after reviewing the particulars of his given mission, to lay out what kind of team or what kind of gadgets he will have at his disposal to complete it.
As we come to the end of the book fo James, we can look at what has come before, from James 1:1 to James 5:12, as an introduction to the challenges that believers will face as we patiently await the return of Christ. James has laid out the immaturity and incompleteness that we face in ourselves and in our fellow church members throughout the entire book: we struggle to endure trials because we forget that God is good and has a purpose for us in them; we are tempted to give a show of false religion by hearing the word but not doing it; we are tempted to show partiality toward those who can reward us in this life; we can be tempted to treat faith as something we say but not something that actually manifests itself in our life; we are tempted to think ourselves wise and thus spread destruction through our speech; we have inordinate passions, selfish ambition, and bitter jealousy that threatens to cause division and fights within the church; we are proud and often are consumed with an overly high view of ourselves; yet we envy the rich and want to imitate their ways while also struggling to remember that Christ will return to make all things new.
In light of all of this, this mission to walk through life trusting in Christ, what kind of tools do we need and what has God provided? James 5:13-20 closes by telling us that God has given the tools of prayer and confession to the church so that we may persevere in the faith until Christ returns.
Prayer and confession. In hearing that, does it make you less than thrilled? That’s because you do not understand the power of these tools.
Why do we need prayer and confession and how do they help us? I want to make four observations about our passage to help us see.
1. Prayer keeps our hearts oriented to God no matter our circumstances (13)
While God is unchanging, our circumstances certainly are not. And, as our circumstances change, it is easy to let our eyes drift away from God and to settle squarely on our present situation. When this happens, we start to interpret who God is based on our situation instead of understanding our situation based on what we know to be true of God.
Two circumstances that run the gamut of human experiences are that of suffering and cheerfulness, both mentioned in verse 13. While very different, suffering and cheer hold this in common: they have the power to draw our eyes away from God and the truth of his gospel.
Suffering refers to any kind of pain or hardship that you might experiences. It should make you think of James 1:2, where we are told to count it all joy when we meet trials of various kinds. Suffering is just another way of speaking of various trials that are hard. Suffering, as you well know, is disorienting. Abuse, bullying, threat of losing something you want or depend on, emotional turmoil, relational conflict, stress at work, or whatever kind of suffering comes to your mind, all of these can rock our world and consume our thinking. Suffering can make us doubt God or even forget about him.
What’s the cure? Verse 13 tells us: prayer. The act of prayer, which refers to talking with God about your needs and petitioning him for your needs, is a declaration of trust in God’s power, goodness, and wisdom. Prayer happens because you believe that he hears you, that he is good, that he is wise, and that he is powerful to help. The absence of prayer is a declaration that you view someone else or something else as more powerful, more good, and more wise. When you suffer, you talk to the one and seek help from the one that you trust as most good, powerful, and wise.
Who is that for you? To whom do you talk when you suffer? Many times, it is yourself. What is anxiety but lying awake at night, drifting off in thought while you are driving, in conversation with yourself about how you can fix the situation that is hard? Anxiety is constantly consulting, talking, with yourself. It is viewing yourself as the wisest, most good, and most powerful person in the situation. Or you are worried about another person who seemingly has power over you because he is not good or wise. Either way, you aren’t talking to God.
Similarly, if you are cheerful then you have a disposition of satisfaction. You are happy with the way things are. Sadly, when times are pleasant and we are cheerful, we are also tempted to forget God. We don’t talk to God because we do not think that we need him. But we still talk. We talk about what we’ve done to end up in such a good situation—which is praising and crediting ourselves for our pleasant situation. Or maybe we even talk about how others have helped us, which is to praise man and give thanks to him. But, as verse 13 tells us, the proper response is to sing praise to God, from whom comes every good and every perfect gift.
Whether it is petitions or thanks, we should always make prayer a priority in order to orient our hearts toward God and the reality of what he is doing in us and in this world. No matter your circumstance, prayer is a tool you need in order to keep yourself fastened to reality. Prayer is an act that declares, reminds, and reinforces the fact that God is good, powerful, and wise. And if you lose sight of that, all forms of trouble follow.
When I think about how prayer is a tool to keep ur properly oriented, I am reminded of instructions on how to survive and avalanche. I was reading about this once and read that if you are caught in an avalanche, you should close your mouth and cover your mouth with one of your hands. As you are caught in the snow, you should take that hand and make as much space as possible so that you have more air to breathe. This space also frees you up to spit. Now, I know that part sounds strange, but you do this so that you can feel which direction you spit moves. As you are covered in snow you are so disoriented that you do not know which way is up. Spitting, though, allows you to sense which way is up as gravity still works under the snow. Then you are to start digging up in order to get your hand and arm visible for rescue.
The goal is to become property oriented in a disorienting situation. Prayer does this for us; it gets us digging toward truth instead of error and is an act of throwing up our hands in order to be rescued by God.
2. Prayer and confession are God’s means of making us whole (14-16a)
Verses 14-16a lay out for us the relationship between prayer and confession in two ways. First, it lays out a specific situation in which prayer and confession are used in the church in order to meet our needs. Second, in verse 16, we see a general command for the whole church. But the specific situation of prayer and confession informs the more general command of it for the church as well, so to understand what is commanded in verse 16, the general command, we need to understand what is happening in verses 14-15, the specific situation.
The Specific Situation of Prayer for a Serious Illness
Verses 14-15 show us a specific example of suffering that calls for prayer. Instead of the Christian praying for himself, however, he is to call the elders of the church to come and pray for him. The fact that he must call the elders to come to him and that the elders must “pray over him” in verse 14 shows us that this is a severe illness that confines the suffered to his home, and most likely his bed. And when the elders come, they come to do three things—two which are stated explicitly and one that is implied. So in order to understand what they are doing—both what is explicit and what is implied, let’s ask two questions: Why do they anoint with oil? Why does it have to be the elders and not simply a fellow church member?
First, they anoint with oil. Olive oil was used medicinally in the ancient world, but not for all illnesses. The fact that elders are to use oil, then, could have a medicinal purpose, but it would not be merely medicinal. After all, it is safe to assume that they would pray for people for whom the illness did not call for oil and that they would pray for people who had already received medical treatment.
In the Bible, oil was often used to set someone apart for a special purpose. Aaron, for example, was anointed with oil as he was set apart as high priest. Likewise, we see in Mark 6, when Jesus sent out his disciples with authority to preach and heal, that his disciples anointed with oil those whom they healed. The oil, then, serves a purpose of symbolically setting someone apart for healing. It is the church’s way of saying, through the elders who are invested with authority, we are setting this person aside in order to ask God to heal him or her.
Second, why call for the elders of the church? As verse 16 shows us, as well with other passages in the Bible, all believers can pray for healing. The elders, or pastors, are called in though because of the severity of the illness. Elders have a responsibility to care for the souls entrusted to them as they will have to give an account for those under their charge. Thus there is a responsibility and authority, along with an ability to care for people spiritually. In coming to anoint, pastors, as those wielding authority in the church, are symbolically setting the person aside the person for healing as an act of the whole church.
The Implied Reason for the Elders: Unconfessed Sin
And this leads to the implied activity of the elders as they come to the sick believer. They do not only anoint and pray for the sick person, but also help the person discern if the illness is caused by unconfessed sin. Sometimes illness is caused by unconfessed sin. The elders, as men of understanding, are able to anoint, pray, and question the sick believer. They come to help the sick Christian discern and probe his heart. This is why we read at the end of verse 15, “And if he has committed sins, he will be forgiven.” Not only will he be physically healed, but the cause of his illness, unconfessed sin, will be forgiven.
To be clear, sin is not the cause of all illness. It most likely is not even the cause of most illnesses. That’s why it is important to note the “if” in verse 15. “If he has committed sins,” not “And the sins he has committed.” But Scripture elsewhere testifies to the fact that sin is sometimes the cause of illness and death. In 1 Corinthians 11:27, for example, Paul tells the Corinthians that some are sick and others have even died as an act of the Lord’s discipline on them because they were taking the Lord’s Supper in an improper manner.
Prayer, partnered with confession, can lead to healing of the person who is sick because of the Lord’s discipline. Prayer and confession, then, as it says in 16a, are tools that God gives us for healing and wholeness.
“Can” Or “Will” Be Healed?
But notice I only say, “can lead to healing” when verse 15 makes it sound like an absolute promise. “And the prayer of faith will save,” that is, heal, “the one who is sick, and the Lord will raise him up.” Some read this and say that if the one for whom you prayed is not healed, then it is because you lacked faith. While if you read this verse all by itself, you can see why some people think that. But if you read this statement in light of the rest of Scripture it is difficult to walk away with that meaning. We need to read this promise with the same nuance that we use in reading other promises in the Bible about prayer. Here are to examples:
First, consider John 14:14 where Jesus says, “If you ask me anything in my name, I will do it.” If you read that promise with an emphasis on the word “anything” and then treat the expression “In my name” as a magical incantation, then you will say that this is a lie. People ask for many things “in Jesus’ name” and do not get them. But to read the passage as an unqualified promise is to misunderstand what Jesus is saying. The word “anything” is governed by the expression “in my name,” which is no mere incantation. It is an expression that means, “in accord with my plans, character, and glory.” Jesus is saying that if you pray in accord with his aims, then you will have the joy of fellowship with him in his mission and see great things accomplished through prayer.
Second, consider Matthew 7:7-11 “Ask, and it will be given to you; seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives, and the one who seeks finds, and to the one who knocks it will be opened. Or which one of you, if his son asks him for bread, will give him a stone? Or if he asks for a fish, will give him a serpent? If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father who is in heaven give good things to those who ask him!” If you read this and think, “If I keep asking God, then he will have to give it to me,” then you have misunderstood the promise. What we ask for is qualified by what is good for us. As one pastor has said, God is too good a father to give his child a snake or a rock to eat if his child were to ask him for a snake or a rock. He will give good gifts to you even if you only ask for things that will do you harm.
Where does this lead us as we consider James 5:15 and this promise for healing? Look back for how the elders pray at the end of verse 14, “in the name of the Lord.” That is to say, the payer of faith is made with the knowledge that God is good and he will do what is best for us.
Christian, if the Lord does not return in the next 100 years, it is certain that most of us, if not all of us, will have died because of some sickness. This is not because you will lack faith but because God has something better for you. He will close out your earthly mission and bring you enter his rest. Don’t be confused: there is a fate worse than death and a glory greater than physical health. Cancer is not the worst diagnosis you could receive; an impenitent heart is.
And, if your faith is in Christ, then one day you will be saved from death and the Lord will raise you up. That is sure because Jesus has promised and earned it on the cross for you. In that sense, verse 15 is an unqualified promise for the Christian.
The General Command to Confess and Pray for Each Other
As we reach verse 16, we move from the specific situation to the general command based on the specific situation. What verses 13-15 show us is that sin is dangerous and prayer and confession are powerful. That verse 16 is looking back on these verses as the ground of this command is clear from the word “therefore.” Since sin is so dangerous, we should not wait for serious illness. Instead, we should practice confession and prayer with one another in the church “that you may be healed.”
Sin does not just cause serious illness. It can also cause other physical affects. Take Psalm 32 as an example:
Blessed is the one whose transgression is forgiven, whose sin is covered. 2 Blessed is the man against whom the Lord counts no iniquity, and in whose spirit there is no deceit. 3 For when I kept silent, my bones wasted away through my groaning all day long. 4 For day and night your hand was heavy upon me; my strength was dried up as by the heat of summer. 5 I acknowledged my sin to you, and I did not cover my iniquity; I said, “I will confess my transgressions to the Lord,” and you forgave the iniquity of my sin
Do you see the effects of sin mentioned? He is groaning, feels as if his bones are wasting away, feels weak and cannot rest, and feels as if God’s hand is resting on him. These are things that many people describe when they experience what we call anxiety and depression. Again, we should not draw the line that says these things are always caused by unconfessed sin, but Scripture does show us that unconfessed sin can cause such physical responses as a form of God’s discipline.
What is the cure in Psalm 32? Confession, “I acknowledged my sin to you, and I did not cover my iniquity; I said, ‘I will confess my transgressions to the Lord,’ and you forgave the iniquity of my sin.”
I hope that you recognize the fact that you must confess your sin to the Lord, as all sin is ultimately against him (cf. Ps 51:6). And I hope that you know you should confess to others when you sin against them (cf. Matt 5:23-24). But many miss the command that we are actually supposed to confess our sins to others in the church, as we are commanded to do in verse 16. Sins like envy, lust, pride, jealousy, and covetousness—sins that no other human will know about unless you tell them—should be confessed.
Why? Simply put, you are commanded to do so. But let’s explore why a bit more because I know that this is hard. Proverbs 28:13 says, “Whoever conceals his transgressions will not prosper, but he who confesses and forsakes them will obtain mercy.” You will not prosper before God if you conceal sin. But if you confess and forsake it (and these things go together), then you will obtain mercy.
Here’s what you need to check yourself for: Confession to others shows if your confession is really a confession or if it is concealment deceptively posing as confession. Here is an example of what I mean: You view pornography on the internet. Afterward, you feel terrible. You confess to God that you are sorry and ask him to forgive you. Then you clear your search history, wash your face, and then go meet with another believer. But in meeting with him or her, you act like nothing happened even if they ask you how you are doing. That isn’t confession. That is concealment masquerading as confession. Why not confess to this trusted believer?
First, you don’t confess because of shame. You don’t want to be known as a person who sins in specific ways but as someone who is just a general sinner. But that is to choose to live a fake life. I believe it was Ray Ortlund who said, “You can be impressive or you can be known, but you cannot be both.” Brothers and sisters, everything you hide Jesus already knows. And he forgives you when you come to him. You are safe with him because he forgives you and as he forgives you he calls you to trust in his forgiveness by confessing your sins to each other; by making your true sinful self known. And this isn’t just to shame. Look back and verse 16: we confess so that we may be healed.
Second, you don’t confess because you still want to keep the sin. You don’t want it to go away. You tell God you don’t wan it, but you also know that if you tell someone trustworthy and someone who loves you—he or she will not let you keep it. Brothers and sisters, you will not prosper as long as you conceal sin. Experience the joy of letting it go by confessing to a brother or a sister.
When you confess, you are forsaking sin. You are crying out, “I don’t want this anymore. Please help me!” And you will then have the opportunity to hear from someone else the truth of the gospel; he or she will be able to share with you the fact that you, while you are not impressive, have a savior who is. He lived a perfect sinless life, you didn’t. He died the death that you deserved to die so that you will not experience it. He rose from the grave to give you what you do not deserve: eternal life. And this does not require of you to clean yourself up before he will forgive you and give you the joy of his fellowship. He offers it to you know as you come and to confess and not conceal.
He stands ready to save real, specific sinners with real specific sins.
And, brothers and sisters, when someone confesses real and messy sin to you, what a privilege that you have to declare the truth of the gospel and to lock arms with his person as you trust in Christ. You get to preach to him and to her the beautiful gospel by which you yourself have life. You have the joy of being the voice of Jesus Christ saying, “You are forgiven.”
The lie you are tempted to believe is that you gain by not confessing to others. But you actually gain. Conceal does not lead to prosperity, confession does. When you confess, you are opening yourself up to the specific and powerful prayers of your church family. When you confess, you are enlisting others to pray for you and struggle on your behalf. You are getting others to stand with you in battle against the deceitful power of sin. This is gain, gain, gain!
3. Prayer and confession are vitally connected (16b-18)
In verses 16b-18, we are given an encouragement to devout ourselves to prayer for one another as well as some instruction about prayer.
At the end of verse 16, we see that the prayer of a righteous person has great power as it is working. Let’s focus in on that word “righteous.” Every Christian is counted as righteous in Christ. When you place your trust in Jesus, your sins are counted as his and his righteousness is counted as yours by faith. This comes by God’s grace. It is his free gift.
But I do not think that is what is meant by righteous in this verse. In verse 17, James uses Elijah as his example of a righteous man of prayer. Elijah was not righteous in the sense of absolute righteousness. He was righteous in that he loved God and did not approve of the iniquity around him. It is in this sense that Lot is called righteous, that Noah is called righteous among his generation, and that Zechariah—the father of John the Baptist—was called righteous.
Now look back at verse 16. Prayer is said to have “great power as it is working.” Prayer does not, though, have great power when it does not work. How can prayer not work.
First, it may not work if it is not used. Like a truck sitting in a driveway, the engine may be powerful, but if you do not use it you will not experience its great power. James has referred to this already in 4:3, saying to his readers, “You do not have because you do not ask.” Prayer, left unused, doesn’t work.
Second, it may not work if it is abused. A truck that has a gas tank full of sugar instead of gas will not run. James also referred to this in James 4:3 and he said, “You ask and do not receive because you ask wrongly, to spend it on your passions.”
Prayer, without the vital component of confession, malfunctions. It is powerless. This is testified everywhere in the Bible.
Psalm 66:18, “If I had cherished iniquity in my heart, the Lord would not have listened.”
1 Peter 3:7, Peter, addressing husbands, calls them to live with their wives in an understanding way, honoring them as co-heirs of the grace of life, “so that your prayers may not be hindered.”
Do you feel powerless in power? It may perhaps be because you are concealing—treasuring—sin. Confess today, make yourself known, and pray together that you may be healed.
Is there Hope?
And take hope by looking at Elijah. When considering Elijah and all he did, you may not think his example is an encouragement to you. After all, look at all of the incredible things Elijah did. Only one is mentioned here, but it is incredible. God told him to announce that drought was coming as an act of discipline on his people Israel. He prayed for this to happen in line with God’s will, and it happened. Then, he prayed again, and it rained.
And this is an encouragement to us because, as is noted in verse 17, “Elijah was a man with a nature like ours,” meaning that he is not materially different from you and me. You cannot say, “well, he was a prophet of God.” He was a man like us. He had struggles, passions at war within him, and disordered loves. Yet, as he turned to God for help, he was empowered by the Spirit to submit himself to God and was then used by God to accomplish incredible things.
As we come to Christ, turn from concealing to confessing, God will use us to do incredible things through prayer as well. Things more incredible then praying for rain to cease and start. What kind of things? Verses 19-20 tell us.
4. Prayer and confession are one of God’s means of preserving his people (19-20)
Verses 19-20 may look unconnected at first glance,, but the discussion of prayer and confession should not be divorced from these verses as it is part of the immediate context of these verses.
Verses 19-20 start with a similar assumption to what has come before it: sin is dangerous and should be taken seriously. Verse 19 shows us that it is speaking of those who are within the church as walking away from the truth of the gospel. While this is specifically speaking of believers, those “among” the brothers, it could also be applied to unbelievers who are wandering in error. James wants us to know, as it is specifically stated in verse 20, that if anyone brings back a sinner from wandering away from the truth that two things are happening. You have been used as a tool in God’s hand to…
First, save a soul from eternal death in hell.
Second, cover this wandering one’s sins—even if they be a multitude—with the blood of Christ.
Since this is such incredible work, we should use every means at our disposal to accomplish it. We should use our reason and take arguments captive; we should plead with those questioning the truth; and we should visit with and serve those who doubt.
What Can Prayer Do for the Wandering One?
But, whatever you do, do not neglect to pray, for the prayer of a righteous person has great power as it is working. And, for the sake of your prayers, confess your sins to one another. For what business do you have telling another to forsake his sins when you will not forsake your own?
What kind of awesome answers to pray might you see as you give yourself to it? Restoration of the wayward. One reason we should confess our sins and pray for one another is that this is the means that God uses to preserve his people. Powerful prayer is not merely seeing rain come and go, but seeing love for God awaken in a heart that was cold toward him. It is seeing love for sin fade and love for Christ grow.
What Can Confession Do for the Wandering One?
And do not overlook the power of your confession of sin to help the one who is wandering. Those who wander from the faith do not start out by announcing it. They start by thinking about it and then giving themselves over to sin. Have you ever been in a group setting where one person, in complete trust in the forgiveness of Jesus Christ, confesses his or her own sins? When you confess your sins and show your heart, do you know what you have done? You have made it 10,000 times easier for someone to go next. Have you ever witnessed this? You are in a group of people and one of them confesses sin. Instead of being met with condemnation, the person is exhorted, comforted, and held up by the strength of his family in Christ.
Then someone else steps up and says, “me too.” And a fountain of confession opens. The one who was wandering is brought back in.
As verse 20 says, you need to know this. You need to know the power of confession and prayer and how God uses it to preserve us. If you prayers and your confession opens up the door for someone else to turn from sin and his wandering ways, then you have the joy of knowing that you were used of God to draw in or to preserve one of his people.
As we turn to the Lord’s Supper now, we are preparing to make a corporate confession. This is a meal only fit for sinners who need God’s grace. We do not come as general sinners, but people who have specific sins to confess before God. But we do not come to this meal beating ourselves in order to be worthy to receive it. We come with empty hands, confessing sin, and saying that we only come because Jesus has invited us to come.