A Church Filled with Righteous Words: Praise, Prayer, Confession
Passage: James 5:13–18
Thank you, Ben, for leading us in the word the last four weeks, and setting before us God’s story for the nations. That story did not end with last Sunday’s message. The passage before us has everything to do with God’s story for the nations. In particular, it shows us what happens when a people among the nations embraces the gospel of Jesus.
As the gospel spreads among all people groups—as we make disciples of all nations—God saves people. He makes them new creations by grace. And when his gospel makes people new, they start acting new. Their new love for God inside produces good deeds toward their neighbors outside. And when God adds to the number, you get this little community of people—we call it the local church—and these churches are living testimonies that the gospel really does break the power of sin.
A New People with a New Speech
One fruit of this gospel-transformation is a people with a new speech. The nations are full of sinful speech: rash responses, favoritism, slander, condescending remarks, cursing of others, grumbling and complaining, cynicism. All of us were once part of this world full of sinful speech. But once the gospel takes root in a people, “behold, the old has passed away and the new has come.” And part of that newness is a new heart that produces new speech that glorifies God and serves our neighbor.
The sad part of this letter is that the church isn’t reflecting that newness of speech very well. They’ve given in to the old, sinful flesh and need correction. Most of the correction has already been stated. James now moves to a few constructive examples of what righteous speech looks like in the church. We might summarize it like this: the gospel creates a people whose words express adoration to God (i.e., praise), dependence on God (i.e., prayer), and humility toward each other (i.e., confession). Let’s read verses 13-18, looking at these three kinds of righteous words.
13Is anyone among you suffering? Let him pray. Is anyone cheerful? Let him sing praise. 14Is 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. 15And the prayer of faith will save the one who is sick, and the Lord will raise him up. And if he has committed sins, he will be forgiven. 16Therefore, confess your sins to one another and pray for one another, that you may be healed. The prayer of a righteous person has great power as it is working. 17Elijah was a man with a nature like ours, and he prayed fervently that it might not rain, and for three years and six months it did not rain on the earth. 18Then he prayed again, and heaven gave rain, and the earth bore its fruit.
The letter of James is now drawing to a close with some final exhortations. He is ending on a note that’s similar to the way he began his letter. The letter opened with suffering and a call to faith-filled prayer (Jas 1:2, 5). Now it closes with suffering and a call to faith-filled prayer (Jas 5:13, 14). But we also find a call to praise and a call to confession, both of which complement the praying life of the community. Praise is the proper response to answered prayer; confession of sin turns into the prayers of the community. But let’s get more specific.
Praise: Adoration to God
Let’s first look at praise, expressing adoration to God. The second half of verse 13 says, “Is anyone cheerful? Let him sing praise.” It may seem out of place that James would place the “cheerful” one alongside the “suffering” one. But James 1:2 helps us make sense of what he’s saying. He said there, “Count it all joy, my brothers, when you meet trials of various kinds…” Why? Because steadfastness through trial ends up making us more and more like Jesus, complete, perfect.
That kind of perspective only comes through prayer, which is what James goes on to talk about in 1:5-8—crying out to God for wisdom in this suffering. “I need wisdom in this suffering, I need the Spirit’s eyes to see how this suffering, this illness, this car accident, this financial loss, this headache, counts for Jesus—if I’m to count it all joy.”
With that in mind, go back to chapter 5. By pointing to the cheerful one in chapter 5, we shouldn’t think that the cheerfulness is because everything is just ‘hunky-dory’ and life for this person is just always smooth sailing. The point is that James expects God to answer their prayers for that joy-producing wisdom. He expects God to cheer their soul with the hope of his word even in the face of trial.
The same idea appears in Acts 27, when Paul is on a ship with a bunch of prisoners, a great storm tosses them around, they have to jettison their cargo to keep from sinking, and they all lose hope—not a good situation. But based on God’s word to Paul, Paul tells the crew, “Take heart [or be cheerful]!” Why? Because God will fulfill his word to Paul. Joy is possible amidst suffering, because God is faithful to his word. He will use our sufferings to make us more like Jesus. And when he does and your heart is cheerful in Jesus through trial, give him the praise. It’s all grace!
This word for praise, it’s used all over the Psalms. It sometimes occurs after rehearsing aspects of the Lord’s character—his goodness, his steadfast love, his righteousness (Pss 33:2; 68:4; 101:1; 108:3). But most often it occurs after recounting the Lord’s deeds of deliverance in the midst of suffering (Pss 9:2, 12; 13:5; 18:49; 27:6; 47:6; 71:23; 98:4; 144:9). The psalmist remembers the saving acts of the Lord till his heart is glad in the Lord and expresses itself in praise to the Lord. And he’s so glad that he invites others in the assembly and others from the nations too to join him in praise to God.
Incredibly, the gospel spreads among the nations for this very purpose, according to Romans 15:9—which Ben preached on last week. “For I tell you that Christ became a servant to the circumcised to show God’s truthfulness, in order to confirm the promises given to the patriarchs, and in order that the Gentiles might glorify God for his mercy. As it is written, “Therefore I will praise you [same word] among the Gentiles, and sing to your name.” Jesus died not just to make praise possible for the nations, but to secure praise from the nations. Ephesians 5:19 then says that praise is the rhythm of the church’s life: “addressing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody [same word] to the Lord with your heart.”
James joins the rest of Scripture’s choir: “Is anyone cheerful? Let him sing praise.” This is how Paul and Silas sing in prison—God has cheered their heart with his word. A problem that some of us may have is that we pray like crazy when we’re suffering but forget God once we’re cheerful. We cry and cry to him for help, he gives it, and then we’re done with God. But our cheerfulness is just as much an occasion for drawing near to God in praise. “Every good and perfect gift is from above” (Jas 1:17). That leads to both asking and adoring. Our cheerfulness remains incomplete if it doesn’t adore the one who gives it. Whatever comes to us by the grace of God is for the purpose of expressing praise to the glory of God.
Prayer: Dependence on God
James also speaks to prayer, expressing dependence on God. There’s a bit of progression to the layout here. James starts with the individual praying through suffering (Jas 5:13), then he includes the elders praying for the sick (Jas 5:14-15), then he broadens it even further to the whole church praying for one another (Jas 5:16).
The individual suffering must pray
For starters, the individual who is suffering must pray. Verse 13, “Is anyone among you suffering? Let him pray.” Your suffering may be due to persecution for the gospel (2 Tim 2:9; 4:5; Jas 5:11). It may be related to the devil tempting you (Jas 1:13; 4:7). Maybe it’s the result of other people mistreating you (Jas 2:2; 5:4). Maybe your suffering is like Job’s and includes great loss and illness (Jas 5:11). James mentions all these types of suffering. “Various trials,” he calls them (Jas 1:2).
Whatever suffering we may be facing, we need God’s grace if we’re going to glorify him through our suffering. Just getting through suffering isn’t the point; we want our lives to bear witness to the world that Jesus is worthy of our obedience and praise even in our suffering. But even more, our God is a God who walks with us through suffering. He’s a God who’s not only available in suffering; he also sympathizes with our weakness in suffering, because God the Son entered suffering (Heb 4:15; 12:4). He is also generous to help those he purchased with his Son’s blood…
And that’s good because we need a whole lot of help in suffering. We need godly wisdom in suffering (Jas 1:5-8). We need mercy in our suffering to keep from biting other people’s heads off in anger (Jas 1:20; 2:13). We need words that will make for peace with our enemies (Jas 3:17-18). We need patient resolve to remain obedient to Jesus under the pressure (Jas 5:7-11). And on we could go…
But none of these things will come to us in our suffering unless we’re praying. Prayer is the means by which we tap into God’s wisdom and strength and power and joy to endure suffering rightly. Of course, God is able to do for us far beyond anything we can ask or think (Eph 3:20). But he still chooses to work through prayer, through our asking—because the Giver gets the glory and we get the satisfaction of walking with him.
One of God’s purposes in our suffering is that we draw nearer to him in prayer. He will often strip from us our earthly comforts and health and wealth, that we might find our all in him, that we might say with Psalm 73, “Whom have I in heaven but you, O Lord, and on earth there is nothing I desire besides you.” The point is that we might have more of him and know more of him in suffering. But that must come through prayer. He saved us to relate to him. He gives more and more grace. Ask for it. God causes our endurance in suffering not apart from our praying, but through our praying.
What loss burdens you right now? What relationship is broken and causing you grief? Is there a darkness that just won’t seem to lift? Are you or a friend experiencing persecution? It’s God who says to you, “Let him/her pray.” God is near. God has not abandoned you. God wants you to cry out to him. Sometimes we get so focused on the suffering itself, we get so focused on ourselves in the suffering, that we lose sight of God who offers himself to us. In Christ, you have access to a generous Father who listens to your cries. He has opened the way. He will give us all we need.
The elders pray for the sick & care for his/her soul
James moves next to including others in the prayers. He mentions a sick individual calling for the elders. Verse 14, “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.” People have taken this anointing different ways.
One view says the oil must have served a medicinal purpose. But the particular word behind “anoint” never occurs within a context that suggests a medicinal purpose. It’s also very telling that other ways to express the use of oil for medicinal purposes was available to James (e.g., Luke 10:34), but he chooses a different expression. And if oil was such a common medical remedy, why not just apply it yourself. It’s not as if the elders’ application has any special power.
Another view is that of the Roman Catholic Church. They use this passage to support what they call “holy unction,” an actual sacrament for the person dying. The priest applying the oil somehow imparts grace and remits sins to prepare the person for death. That view not only seriously misunderstands how sins are forgiven, but it’s totally out of step with the purpose of the prayers. The purpose is for healing the sick for further life on earth not to prepare them for death.
What then shall we say it is? I’ll give you our take, the elders here. The most common reference to “anointing with oil” throughout Scripture, whether in the Old Testament or in the New Testament, is to a symbolic consecration.[i] That is to say, applying the oil is a visible act of the elders to symbolize that an individual is being set apart (or “consecrated”) to God for the special prayer of healing.
So don’t freak out if you’re bed-ridden and you call us to pray for you and we show up with some oil and anoint your head. We’re not going to follow that up with snakes and incense. We’re simply setting you apart for a time of special prayer in hopes that God will heal. That’s what he says next in verse 15: “And the prayer of faith will save the one who is sick, and the Lord will raise him up. And if he has committed sins, he will be forgiven.” What should we make of this prayer of faith?
We have to be careful, don’t we? Because some people have used passages like this one to say that if a person isn’t healed, it’s because of their lack of faith. They burden the sick with guilt that ought not to be. The overwhelming testimony of Scripture is that God responds to our prayers based, not on the amount of faith we have but on whether true faith exists at all. Power isn’t in the amount of faith when we pray; it’s in the object of faith when we pray, Jesus Christ. It’s not a matter of big faith, but a matter of true faith that expects God to work and patiently accepts his will above all.
Having said that, there are occasions when God grants a measure of faith, or confidence, that it is his will to heal a person. And that’s what I take it to mean here. A parallel to this would be the gift of faith in 1 Corinthians 12:9.[ii] In one sense, this “prayer of faith” is like all other prayer in that faith always, patiently submits to the will of God above all—we saw that with prayer in James 1:5-8.
It just so happens in this case that God’s will is to heal the person; and God makes one or more of the elders confident that he’ll do so. In that sense, it differs from other prayer in that there’s a greater level of God-given assurance that God will perform the healing (cf. Mark 11:23-24). The “prayer of faith,” it says, “will [not “may”] save the one who is sick and the Lord will raise him up”—because it’s in line with what God wants to do in that particular instance.
That doesn’t mean the elders won’t come pray for you without this extra measure of faith. For one, God may not grant it until we’re praying for you. But also, the point is that we come and pray for the Lord to heal, patiently waiting for him to work as he pleases. We don’t come in demanding how he must act. Faith patiently accepts the will of God. He may choose to heal. He may not. Sometimes Paul healed people. Other times Paul left his friends sick. At one point God wouldn’t even remove Paul’s ailment. If God chooses not to heal, we must trust his word that “My grace is sufficient for you.” Hope is never in the healing, but in the God who may choose to heal or not to heal, but who always chooses what is for our good and his glory.
Speaking of our good and his glory, there are chances that such healing comes in connection with the confession of sin. One of James’ points for the elders coming is that God may be using the sickness to discipline one of his children for sin. That’s not to say that we should make a direct correlation, and say that all sickness must be discipline for some specific sin. The book of Job and the man born blind in John 9:1-4 are great examples of why we cannot go there. But it’s also true that sometimes the Lord will use sickness to discipline us for specific sins. That’s very clear from the Lord’s Supper situation in 1 Corinthians 11:27-30—some of them are getting sick, even dying for treating each other so poorly. We also see it in the warning that Jesus gives to the church in Revelation 2:22—that he would throw them onto a sickbed if they refused to repent.
Sickness will oftentimes humble us before the Lord in ways we haven’t been humble when we’re healthy. We’re lying in bed with such pain and discomfort that we cry to the Lord for help. We have time to reflect on our lives in more serious ways. And it may be that the Lord uses the occasion to expose that this sickness is a warning from the Lord, a discipline to turn you away from a particular sin. It may be that the sickness isn’t connected to any particular sin at all, it’s just afforded you the opportunity to evaluate your life more closely. You’ve discovered things that are displeasing to Christ and you wish weren’t there any longer. Maybe it’s just the simple reminder that your body is broken and the whole world is wrought with disease because of one sin. That reality sobers you as you consider the destructive nature of your own sins.
The point is that the elders’ ministry to the individual does not cease with the prayer for healing. They must also give due attention to the spiritual care of the saint. And the saint is also to remember that the elders have been given to them as a gift for both the prayer for healing and the confession of sin and reassurance of God’s mercies in such times. It may not be that the elders need to hear every specific sin that you want to confess. Only that they are present to reassure you of God’s gracious promises of forgiveness and restoration when you need them most.
You need to know this: we want to pray for you when you’re sick like this. Yes, go to the doctor as well and give thanks to God for modern medicine. This passage is not meant to minimize God’s other good gifts. But we enjoy coming alongside you in this way. We’ve prayed for people numerous times in this way. God has chosen to heal in only a couple of instances. Why some and not others? I don’t know. Perhaps to keep us from becoming puffed up. But always for reasons that are for our good and for his glory. Sometimes our prayers haven’t led to physical healing, but God has used something in the prayers to bring spiritual healing. We’re not worthy, but we’re glad to participate in times like this.
The whole church praying for one another
But also remember this: we’re not the only ones you can call on. Look around the room. You can call on any of these brothers and sisters as well. It’s the elders’ relationship to the sick individual that then leads James to a much broader application to the whole church. Verse 16, “Therefore, confess your sins to one another and pray for one another, that you may be healed. The prayer of a righteous person has great power as it is working.” So the whole church is praying for each other now. The mutual confession of sin leads to the mutual prayers of the people.
And the church walking this way should recognize the power of their prayers to change people and heal people. Look at the way he illustrates it with Elijah. The point isn’t that Elijah was some superstar prophet that had incredible power. Nope, he was a guy just like us. He could boldly call on God at Mount Carmel one day (1 Kgs 18:17-19), and run away scared of Jezebel the next (1 Kgs 19:3). “He was a man with a nature like ours”—he had his ups and downs, his strong and weak moments. He was a plain man.
But he served a great God. He couldn’t control the skies, but he knew his God could. And God had revealed to him that he would do these things (cf. 1 Kgs 18:1). He prayed according to God’s will; his faith accepted God’s will above all, and the Lord answered his prayers. God shut up the skies for three years and then unleashed the rains at Elijah’s request. The point is that God will work in amazing ways through your prayers too, when you pray, patiently wanting his will to prevail. What kinds of prayers do you pray for each other, for our church? Do you pray for each other’s healing, and that God would be glorified through the healing? Do you pray for each other’s strength and spiritual well-being if he chooses not to heal? Do you pray for each other to patiently accept the Lord’s will, and to overcome the temptation to sin?
Make praying for one another the rhythm of your life. Take some of the prayers from the Bible and pray them regularly for each other. Write down the names of our members. One thing you can do is print out the membership directory off the City—it’s under “Quick Links” in the Redeemer Church group—and pray through it on a regular basis. When someone confesses their sins, don’t prosecute them, pray for them. God covered their sins at the cross. Cry out to God on their behalf and assure each other of God’s forgiveness in Christ.
Confession: Humility toward One Another
So we’ve looked at praise, different kinds of prayer—both are the result of the gospel making people new. Now, finally, I want to point out confession, expressing humility toward one another. Look again at the beginning of verse 16: “Therefore, confess your sins to one another.” Set this passage within the context of the people James has been talking to. He has called them out for getting angry at one another (Jas 1:19-20). He has called out the rich for mistreating the poor (Jas 2:1-7). He has called them out for cursing each other (Jas 3:9), for quarreling and fighting and grumbling against one another (Jas 4:2; 5:9).
Now, at the end of the letter, he’s saying you—yeah the ones I’ve been talking to all along—you get up from your seat and you go and confess your sin to the one you’ve been sinning against. Perhaps they’ve sinned against the whole church with their actions, and in that case it would be appropriate to confess to the whole church (cf. Matt 18:15-20; 2 Cor 2:6-7). Whatever the case, he’s calling them to mutual confession, to humble themselves before each other and admit their wrongdoing.
I remember gathering with a handful of people in Turkey. It was in somebody’s home. We’re all sitting very closely together as the pastor was teaching on marriage from Colossians 3. And quite pointedly, he just looked at one couple and he told the husband that the way he spoke to his wife in the kitchen wasn’t obedient to Colossians 3:19—“Husbands, love your wives, and do not be harsh with them.” Everybody was sitting around listening to this. But without hesitation, the husband confessed his sin to his wife and they reconciled on the spot. It was beautiful, and so real.
I wonder if our times together wouldn’t benefit from some real heart to heart confession with one another. We’re not here just to bump along because this is what Christians do on Sunday, and just sing some songs and go home unaffected. When the word of God convicts us about the way we’ve been treating others, we must go to them and confess our sins. This gathering is a great opportunity. Maybe you do it today before the Lord’s Supper. Confession and reconciliation is not an interruption to this service; it ought to be one of its fruits.
I remember about seven years ago approaching a sister myself during one of the songs, whom I had lied to. And she sat down and listened to my confession and then forgave me. The Lord’s Supper never tasted sweeter. Listen, Christ is our righteousness. That’s what we celebrate in the Supper. All our sins went on him at the cross; and all his righteousness is ours by faith alone—that frees us to walk with integrity before each other. That frees us to confess. We don’t hide our sins. We don’t try to self-justify—“Well, he deserved it! Well, I wouldn’t have done this if he hadn’t done that! Well, nobody’s perfect! Ah, it wasn’t that bad!”—all these kinds of self-justification.
James 5:16 is a picture of a church walking in humility toward each other, admitting their wrongs and taking them before the Lord together. Our right standing in Christ liberates us to confess and be vulnerable. God has already made our sin a public spectacle by placing them on Christ. Confession is simply agreeing out loud with what God thinks of it. At the same time, the cross is where God declares us forgiven and accepted with him. If we’re accepted with God, who can bring a charge against us? Who cares what people think, if the God of the universe has said, “Forgiven!”?
That will open your mouth in praise. That has opened the way for us to pray. And that makes it possible to confess. The gospel creates a people whose words express adoration to God, dependence on God, and humility toward each other. Before we take the Supper, why don’t we use the next few moments as a time of confession. If you need to reconcile with others, do so, and pray for one another. If you need to confess to God, do so. He stands ready to forgive his children. If you don’t know the Lord but want to, believe on the Lord Jesus Christ and you will be saved.
[i]E.g., Exod 40:15; Num 3:3; Luke 4:18; Acts 4:27; 10:38; 2 Cor 1:21; Heb 1:9.
[ii]While all Christians possess faith in Christ—that is, the kind of faith that justifies, saves—Paul indicates in 1 Corinthians 12:9 a special blessing of faith not necessarily shared by every Christian. God gives a special measure of trust in God to work a particular miracle or accomplish a specific task (e.g., Matt 17:20-21; Acts 6:5, 8; 14:9).
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