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James 5:16 Confess your faults one to another, and pray one for another, that ye may be healed. The effectual fervent prayer of a righteous man availeth much.

Let's put this passage into context:

James 5:13-15

  • Is any among you afflicted:  afflicted is the same word as in verse 10 and means suffering affliction for Christ.  It describes one who is in an unhappy situation.  It is the opposite of “merry.”  “Depressed” would be a good synonym for this word.
  • let him pray:  pray earnestly; pray for your tormentors (Matthew 5:44); pray always and everywhere (Ephesians 6:18)
  • Is any merry:   the opposite of afflicted: happy, cheerful.  Express your joy in holy poetry and song.  What are the songs on our lips?  Are they the songs of Zion or of Babylon?  (Psalm 137:3).
  • Is any sick among you: The context clearly shows that the verses which follow do not teach anything about the healing of physical illness.  Providentially, the very choice of words to describe the “sick” one removes any shadow of doubt about James’ intended meaning. The word “sick” in this verse is “Astheneo.” Sometimes this word denotes a physical illness and sometimes a spiritual one.  See, for example, other places where this same word is used and how it is translated:
    1. Acts 20:35 – weak  (widows, orphans, infirm)
    2. Romans 4:19 – weak in faith
    3. Romans 8:3 – weak (through the flesh)
    4. Romans 14:1,2 – weak in the faith; weak (immature)
    5. Romans 14:21 – made weak (offended)
    6. 1 Corinthians 8:9-12 – weak (in faith); weak (conscience); weak brother; weak conscience

There is a clear case for taking this word, on its own merits, to read, “weak in the faith” and not “sick” as it has been translated here.  However, we are left in no uncertainty by the word which is translated “sick” in verse 15.  It is the Greek word “Kamno” and it occurs only here and in two other places:

    1. Hebrews 12:3 – wearied (and faint in your minds); to be worn out by the “contradiction of sinners.”
    2. Revelation 2:3 – fainted (hast laboured and hast not fainted)

The two words for sick refer to one another.  The first word can be taken either of two ways – physical or spiritual weakness.  However, the second word for sick never refers to a physical weakness.  Therefore, the weight of evidence falls in favour of the meaning of “spiritual weakness” for the first word, “Astheneo.”  When viewed in this light, these verses make perfect sense and fit precisely into the context of the epistle.  

  • let him call for the elders of the Ecclesia:  The elders must concern themselves with the spiritual welfare of those in their care.  However, James articulates a first-principle which applies to every “helping” profession.  No one can be helped out of a spiritual problem unless they first want to help themselves.  When the spiritually weak person takes the first step back to his or her spiritual family, then it is possible to restore such a person but not before.
  • let them pray over him:  this phrase along with the anointing with oil, seems to indicate a formal readmission to fellowship.  The importance of prayer cannot be overemphasized in the affairs of our faith community.  We need to constantly remind ourselves that we do all of our work before the eyes of the Lord.  (Acts 20:36; Acts 12:12; Acts 2:42 indicate that regular meetings for prayer were an integral part of the practice of the early church).
  • anointing him with oil:  This custom was appropriate given the Jewish nature of the brotherhood in James’ day.  To anoint with olive oil meant:
    1. welcome: Luke 7:46
    2. joy:  Psalm 23:5; 141:6
    3. dedication: Psalm 133:2

All of these implications are perfectly suitable to the restoration to fellowship of one who was falling away.  The association in scripture of oil with the word of God is also very appropriate to this context: (See Matthew 25:1-8).

  • the prayer of faith:  if  we take this to be in the context of physical illness, a very real danger exists of expecting a cure – there is no hedging here: the prayer of faith will save the sick – and of adding a burden of guilt upon those whose prayer for healing is not answered positively. 
  • Since it is a prayer of faith, then if healing does not take place, it must be due to lack of faith!  Personal experience alone teaches us that this is not true.  Often the greatest examples of faith and courage are given by brethren and sisters who live with a chronic illness.  If this were a true principle why were Paul’s prayers not answered (2 Corinthians 12:8)?  Did Paul lack sufficient faith?  What about Timothy and his digestive problems?  Why did Paul prescribe a little wine rather than the “prayer of faith” (1 Timothy 5:23)?

The Father will heal if it is His will.  But he does not heal on demand.  This passage does not support this kind of “faith healing.”  Thankfully, we are not left in any doubt about the real meaning or context of this passage. 

The word prayer here is different from the word for prayer used in verses 15, 17, and 18.  It is “Euche” and it means a vow (Acts 18:18; 21:23 – only other occurrences).  It is the vow of renewed faith that will “save the one who is falling away.”  That is one form of healing that is absolutely certain.  The Father rejoices over one sinner who repents.  He is eager to forgive when forgiveness is sought.  His sins shall be forgiven

  • raise him up:  the same word for raise is used of the risen Christ in Romans 6:4, 9 in the context of baptism.  (See John 5:25! The hour is coming and now is…). 
  • if he have committed sins:  “if he is the power of unforgiven sin.”  This phrase fits perfectly the context of someone who has been weak in the faith and who has fallen prey to temptation as in chapter 1:12-16.  The brother or sister who returns will find a ready welcome from the Father and from his brothers and sisters.   Note the context again:
    1. the “vow” of faith shall save:  restore to salvation (Psalm 51:10-12) 
    2. the Lord shall raise him up (as at baptism see Romans 6)
    3. his sins shall be forgiven

The context of the rest of the chapter supports this view entirely: 

    1. v.16 confess faults and pray for one another to be “healed”
    2. vv. 17, 18 the example of Elijah, one subject to spiritual depression
    3. v. 19 if any “among” (RV) you (same phrase as v. 14) err from the truth and one convert him
    4. v. 20 convert a sinner from the error of his way; save a soul from death (i.e. raise him up!); cover a multitude of sins

James 5:15-18

  • Confess your faults one to another:  This is a difficult piece of advice to follow.  James is telling us to trust one another and to rely on one another.  This is true fellowship.  In revealing our inmost faults and in learning to love one another at that level, we truly enter into the love of the Father for His children.  But God commendeth his love toward us, in that, while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us. (Romans 5:8)
  • pray for one another:  true love and fellowship leads naturally to prayer Ephesians 6:18 Praying always with all prayer and supplication in the Spirit, and watching thereunto with all perseverance and supplication for all saints;
  • that ye may be healed:  this healing is in the context of revealing faults.  The intent is to be healed from some besetting weakness which is interfering with one’s walk to the Kingdom.  (See 1 Peter 2:24 Who his own self bare our sins in his own body on the tree, that we, being dead to sins, should live unto righteousness: by whose stripes ye were healed.) “Healed" same word as in James 5:16.
  • the effectual fervent prayer of a righteus man availeth much:  the RSV renders this phrase: “The prayer of a righteous man has great power in its effects.”  James always returns to the word for a powerful example of what he means.  Elijah was a man like us, serving God as best he could but subject to extremes of depression due to the persistence of outside pressures on his faith.  But look at the outcome of his prayer!  Even in his darkest moments, Elijah never stopped praying.  He prayed earnestly, with passion and honesty.  Even when he felt most alone, he was heard by the Father and his needs were met.  Never give up on prayer and never give up praying for each other!

I hope you have found this helpful.

God bless,