Sermon preached on James 5:13-20 by Rev. W. Reid Hankins during the Morning Worship Service at Trinity Presbyterian Church (OPC) on 05/30/2021 in Novato, CA
Today we conclude our series through James by considering how our faith is put into practice through prayer. This is a fitting conclusion to this letter which has called us to consider how to put our faith into practice amidst different trials and temptations we endure. Prayer is certainly a chief way we put our faith into practice in such circumstances. James briefly pointed us to that back at the start of the letter when he urged us to pray for wisdom when our faith is being so tested. He has briefly touched on prayer in other places in this letter too. But now, in a fitting conclusion, he ends his letter with an extended exhortation and teaching on prayer in various circumstances. There are many wonderful things to learn about prayer as a means of grace in today’s passage.
In our first point then, let us observe a couple reasons James gives us here for personal prayer. What I mean is that this passage also includes teaching on prayer that involves praying with and for others. But it begins with two specific reasons for why we should each be praying personally. The first one is at the start of verse 13. James says, “Is anyone among you suffering? Let him pray.” There are several hypothetical anyone’s or someone’s in this passage. This is the first one. If someone is suffering, they should pray. If you today are a Christian who is suffering, you should pray. Again, we see how this fits into James’ theme in this letter that has spoken a lot about Christians who suffer for their faith. Just last week’s passage said we needed patience amidst that suffering until the Lord returns. But here he tells us something in addition to having patience that we can do until then. We can pray. We should pray.
When praying because of suffering, what are some things that we should include in our prayers? This letter has already told us several things. One, we should pray for wisdom in the midst of our suffering. How would the wisdom from above have us to think about our suffering and act in light of our suffering? Let us pray for wisdom amidst suffering. Two, we should pray for endurance and steadfastness amidst our suffering. James told us that we want steadfastness amidst trial in chapter 1. In this chapter, he has given us the example of Job as someone who was steadfast under suffering. We want to see our faith endure and remain steadfast when we go through hard times. Three, we should pray that God would grow our faith in the midst of our suffering. Remember, James said in chapter 1 that we could count suffering as all joy because it had the effect of maturing our faith and growing us in our sanctification. So, in the midst of suffering we should pray that God would grow us and mature us. Fourth, we should pray that we wouldn’t sin when we are suffering. James’ whole letter is full of one example after another on this. Like how he addressed our tongues. Yes, others might try to pick fights with us. Others might treat us harshly or say harsh things to us. That is real suffering. Or when one of those wicked rich persons tries to afflict us, James taught us not to become sinful vigilantes in such circumstances. So, let us pray that we won’t sin in our sufferings, even if others are sinning against us.
So prayer in the midst of our suffering is one thing we should be personally praying for. James then gives a second thing we should be personally praying for in verse 2. He says, “Is anyone cheerful? Let him sing praise.” Now, yes, here he doesn’t say “let him pray”, but as we see taught in the Psalter, songs of praise and prayers are closely related, such that that psalms are often described as prayers. I love how he seems to almost just throw this in here, but what a wonderful contrast. You know, when things are going bad, and we are suffering, we are probably tempted to do things like grumble and complain against God, instead of going quickly to him in prayer like he just advised. But when things are going great in our live, we likewise can be far too slow to praise and thank God. We might even be tempted to praise ourselves when things are going well, even though we can be quick to sadly blame God or others when things are going badly. But let us see that the good times are reason to praise and thank God. Let us be quick to do this. Let us be faithful to do this. And let us be so joyful to do this that our prayer life really does express itself even in song unto the Lord. If you haven’t incorporated personal singing unto God in your time of devotions, here is an encouragement to do so!
So then, in our first point today, we saw two reasons why James calls us to be in personal prayer. Now in our second point, I’d like to turn to see two areas of prayer, really two ministries of prayer, that James says the church is to be about. The first deals with the matter of someone who is sick and it involves the elders in a prayer ministry for that sick person. This begins in verse 14. James writes, “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.” Notice this ministry of prayer involves two parties. On the one hand you have the sick person. This is probably no small sickness or just some inconvenient sickness. This is probably not envisioning a small thing like a sprained ankle or a common cold, though they are surely worthy of prayer as well. But surely this especially envisions someone who is very ill and their prognosis uncertain. What does James encourage someone to do in such sickness? Call for the elders. Let me pause and say that this is an under-utilized resource. Notice James puts this on the sick person to request for the elders to come and request this prayer ministry for them. Yes, us elders try to regularly pray for people. We will often invite ourselves over to pay a visit when we know someone is sick. But there is also a call for the sick Christian to request his elders to come over and do what James chapter 5 commends, namely, request them to anoint them with oil and pray for them.
So then, it’s the elders who are the other party in this prayer ministry. Elders have a ministry of prayer for the people in the church, especially the sick. It is often asked here what the purpose of the oil was. While one possible interpretation is that this was medicinal, since many ancient remedies involved the application of oil, yet there were many illnesses where oil wasn’t used as a treatment. Rather, what seems more likely is to see that oil is often employed in Scripture as a symbol of consecration. It is the elders setting apart the sick person in prayer for God’s merciful care.
It is also often asked what is the remedy being sought here in prayer. Are the elders praying here for physical healing or spiritual healing or both? Well, it seems hard to rule out at least a significant concern here in this prayer is for the person’s physical healing. Though, I think we have good reason to see that this prayer by the elders is not simply for their physical healing, or even primarily for their physical healing. Yes, the word in verse 16 speaks of someone being healed, but notice it is in the immediate context of the confession of sin and not of the physical sickness. And then look at the details of verse 15. There it says that the elders’ prayer looks to “save” the one who is sick and to “raise them up”. Yes, those are words that could refer to physical healing, and some translations even translate them that way. But the Greek words are literally the words to “save” and to “raise up”. These are words that are so central to Christians as we speak of our salvation from our sins and how God will raise us up from the dead. Our Christian hope has an ultimate concern to be saved and raised up on the last day and these are the words that are mentioned here in verse 15 as describing the outcome for the elders’ prayer for the sick. Then add to this that verse 15 goes on to say how if the sick person has committed sins, they will be forgiven. My point is this. When the elders come and anoint a sick person like this and pray for them, yes, we pray for their healing and wellbeing. But that prayer is not simply for their physical health and wellbeing. Our prayers include that, but we especially lay before the Lord their spiritual health and wellbeing unto the salvation of their souls. This is why if you call us elders to come and perform James 5 for you, it will always include us giving you an opportunity to confess your sins. Finding forgiveness of sins is an important part of one being healed – healing for your soul. Remember how Peter quotes Isaiah 66 in applying the cross of Christ to us, saying, “By his wounds you have been healed,” 1 Peter 2:24. Forgiveness of sins is healing for our sick souls. So then, the elders prayer for the sick is all-encompassing. It prays for their physical and especially spiritual healing. And however God should see fit to answer that prayer in his good providence and perfect will for our lives, we believe that he does hear it and answer it.
So then, I mentioned in this second point that James references two prayer ministries for the church in this passage. The first one was the elders praying for the sick. But the second one is for Christians in general to be praying for other Christians in their struggles with sin. We see this described in verse 16. James writes, “Therefore, confess your sins to one another and pray for one another.” The “one another” language shows that James suddenly broadens the scope from talking about a prayer ministry of the elders to a prayer ministry for all Christians. Notice the two parties there. One side, the Christian struggling with sin, should confess it to others for prayer. The other side is the Christian who should pray for the person who confessed the sin to them. This is further brought out in verse 19 in a related statement when it speaks generically of someone in his sinning wandering from the truth and then someone else helping that wandering person back to the truth. In that verse, we realize that some wandering Christians need to be lovingly and gently confronted and called to repentance. Then, hopefully they confess their sins and can be prayed for and they can find grace and forgiveness and growth.
While I’m describing these as two separate prayer ministries, that of the elders and that of Christians in general, realize that James describes the outcome of these prayers in rather similar ways. We can see this, for example, in verse 20. There it says that as Christians help a sinning wandering Christian back to the truth, James says they “will save his soul from death and will cover a multitude of sins.” This is the same sort of language James used when describing the outcome of the elders’ prayer for the sick in verse 15, that they will save the one who is sick and help them to find forgiveness of sins. My point is that while we should certainly see a distinction between what the elders do here and Christians in general, don’t miss the similarity either. Elders especially have a shepherding role in an official capacity to pray for the members in the church in their needs. But every Christian should be involved in a vibrant ministry of prayer for one another that looks to build up others in living out their faith in godliness. And both these ministries of prayer especially are concerned with the spiritual wellbeing of the people receiving the prayer.
So then, we’ve seen James call us today to personal prayer and also to be involved in a ministry of prayer for others. Let us now turn in our third point to observe some components of effective prayer. James speaks of three things regarding effective prayers. He speaks of the effective prayer of a righteous person, the effective prayer of faith, and the effectiveness of praying fervently. Let us examine these three elements of prayer in our final point for today.
Let’s begin by considering how James speaks of the effective prayer of the righteous. That’s in verse 16. He says it’s the prayer of a righteous person that has great power as it is working. This is a truth we find taught in so many places in Scripture. It’s the idea that God assures the godly that he hears their prayers and doesn’t give that assurance to the wicked. John 9:31 says, “We know that God does not listen to sinners, but if anyone is a worshiper of God and does his will, God listens to him.” Or Psalm 34:15. “The eyes of the LORD are toward the righteous and his ears toward their cry.” Proverb 15:29, “The LORD is far from the wicked, but he hears the prayer of the righteous.” To clarify, this is not saying God’s hearing of our prayers is based on our works. He’s not saying that if you live a really godly life full of good works that you will get more prayers answered than the Christian who really struggles with godly living. This is not saying that we earn our answers to our prayers. Otherwise, prayer would not be able to be called a means of grace. Rather, when we hear him describe the prayer of the righteous, we need to remember how someone is to be deemed righteous in God’s sight. As Christians, God sees us as righteous in his sight because Christ’s righteousness has been imputed to us. It is Christians, and only Christians, who are the righteous of the Lord. And so, this is simply to recognize that it is God’s people – Christians – who can expect God to hear their prayers. So then, James is telling us this so that we are encouraged to prayer – that we can have expectation that our prayers have great power. Of course, there is the reminder here that the non-Christian is not given this assurance. But Christians are being encouraged here that God works powerfully through their prayers. This is meant to encourage our faith in prayer.
That brings us then to next consider the effectiveness of a prayer of faith. That’s James’ language in verse 15 when he describes the elders praying for the sick. According to James, it’s not just any prayer that will save the sick person, it is the prayer of faith that will save him. This is a wonderful thought, because while we acknowledge that the sick Christian will ultimately need to have faith himself to be saved, when it comes to the elders who are praying, they need to be exercising faith too in their prayers for their prayers to be effective. This is a repeated teaching of Scripture. When we pray, we must exercise faith. James already made that point in chapter 1, verse 6. That’s when James said we should pray for wisdom, but when we do so, we shouldn’t doubt, because if we doubt we shouldn’t expect to receive anything from the Lord. James said to doubt when we pray shows that we are double-minded and unstable. We are supposed to make our requests to God in faith. We are to believe that God is there, and that he hears our prayers. We are to believe that he loves us and wants us to bring our prayers to him. We are to believe that he is able and willing to answer our prayers according to his wise and good providence and plan for our lives. In faith we make those requests, and in faith we trust him for how he chooses to answer them.
Now let me add a pastoral note here. While we are commended to have faith when we pray, this doesn’t mean that we will never have any struggles with doubts and that if we do then we shouldn’t bother praying. The reality is that true Christians can have faith, yet still have struggles with doubts. Yet, remember that Jesus said on multiple occasions that even faith as small as a mustard seed can find us answer to our prayers. Likewise, we see Jesus’ disciples asking Jesus to “increase our faith”, Luke 17:5. Or I especially like what Jesus told the father who was asking him to heal his daughter, but was struggling with his faith. He said to Jesus, “I believe, help my unbelief.” So then, while James rightly commends that our prayers should be offered in faith, if you have doubts, don’t let that keep you from praying. Rather, bring even those doubts to the Lord and ask him to grow you in your faith. To be a Christian doesn’t mean you need to have a perfect faith. Put what little faith you have in the Lord and look to him to grow your faith.
Last, we see that James teaches that fervency in our prayers is also a factor in their effectiveness. And he gives us the example of Elijah on this point, verse 17. What is said rather briefly there, is seen more colorfully described in 1 Kings 18. That’s when we see Elijah praying that the drought would end. Well, Elijah actually prays 7 times for the drought to end before God actually answers the prayer. You know, we can often think of James comparing us with Elijah here as a man like ourselves and think, “Really? Am I really like Elijah – one of the greatest prophets of the Old Testament whom God did so many miracles through?” Yet, when we see this example of Elijah’s prayer, we can start to relate. Of all the examples of Elijah’s prayer, this is an interesting one to reference. James could have pointed to when Elijah asked God to send fire from heaven on Mt. Carmel to receive the sacrifice – a prayer where God answered Elijah immediately. But no, James points to this prayer where Elijah had to pray over and over for the same thing before God finally answered. That is a prayer we can relate to. We remember how Jesus taught the parable of the persistent widow in Luke 18 in order to make this same point: that we ought to always pray and not lose heart, even if at first we don’t see an answer to our prayer. Let us be fervent, persistent, and diligent in our prayer life and trust that God is even growing us in faith through such earnestness in our prayer life.
Brothers and sisters, today we have had opportunity to discuss faith as a means of grace. I hope that you have heard and will heed this reminder of the importance to live out faith in a vibrant prayer life. Amidst the many troubles that we go through right now in life, we will need to be praying. Amidst the many troubles your fellow Christians are going through, they will need you to be praying for them. As Christians we rejoice that we have this high privilege of prayer.
So then, we’ve talked so much today about this means of grace which is prayer. We’ve talked about how we are called to it, and a little bit about how to go about it, and what we can expect through it. But what then is the basis for this means of grace? The basis is Christ. Christ died on the cross so we who put our faith in him can be the righteous of the Lord and adopted into God’s family as his children. As those in Christ, we have this wonderful means of grace. That is something to be cheerful about, and as verse 13 says, let us praise God because of it! Amen.
Copyright © 2021 Rev. W. Reid Hankins, M.Div.
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