To keep the answer in context, here is a discussion of James 5:13-20
James 5:13 "Is any among you afflicted? let him pray. Is any merry? let him sing psalms. Is any sick among you?"
• Is any among you afflicted: afflicted is the same word as in verse 10. It 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).
James 5:14 Is any sick among you? 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:"
• 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. E.g.:
• Acts 20:35 – weak (widows, orphans, infirm)
• Romans 4:19 – weak in faith
• 8:3 – weak (through the flesh)
• 14:1,2 – weak in the faith; weak (immature)
• 14:21 – made weak (offended)
• 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:
• Hebrews 12:3 – wearied (and faint in your minds); to be worn out by the “contradiction of sinners.”
• 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 church: 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 Ecclesial family, then it is possible to restore such a person but not before. The father was able to help the Prodigal Son only after his wayward boy had decided on his own to come home. Then the father ran to meet him!
• 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 church affairs. We need to constantly remind ourselves that we do all of our work before the eyes of the Lord. (See Acts 20:36; Acts 12:12; Acts 2:42 indicate that regular meeting for prayer was 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:
• welcome: Luke 7:46
• joy: Psalm 23:5; 141:6
• 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).
James 5:15 "And the prayer of faith shall save the sick, and the Lord shall raise him up; and if he have committed sins, they shall be forgiven him."
• 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. 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 or terminal 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 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!).
• 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. He or she should find no less a welcome from us. Note the context again:
• the “vow” of faith shall save: restore to salvation (Psalm 51:10-12)
• the Lord shall raise him up (as at baptism)
• his sins shall be forgiven
The context of the rest of the chapter supports this view entirely:
• v.16 confess faults and pray for one another to be “healed”
• vv. 17, 18 the example of Elijah, one subject to spiritual depression not physical illness
• v. 19 if any “among” (RV) you (same phrase as v. 14) err from the truth and one convert him
• 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 5:16-18 "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. Elias was a man subject to like passions as we are, and he prayed earnestly that it might not rain: and it rained not on the earth by the space of three years and six months. And he prayed again, and the heaven gave rain, and the earth brought forth her fruit."
• Confess your faults one to another: This is a difficult piece of advice to follow. We have all (at least in my antiquated generation!) heard the now out of date joke: “telegraph, telephone, tell-a-Christian!” Alas, the joke is out of date due to technological advances and not to an improvement in our handling of sensitive information. Lack of confidentiality is a huge issue in congregations. We need to develop the trait of being able to maintain a confidence. Only then will we be in a position to help one another because the basis of confidence is trust. Whom do you trust? Is there anyone in whom you can confide and trust that the subject under discussion will remain a matter between you and your confidant? 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 enter into the Agape love of the Father for us - He knows us and our deepest darkest secrets and He loves us still.
• pray for one another: true agape love and fellowship leads naturally to prayer (Ephesians 6:18; Colossians 1:3; 4:3). Alfred Lord Tennyson wrote:
“More things are wrought by prayer
Than this world dreams of; Wherefore let thy voice
Rise like a fountain for me night and day.
For what are men better than sheep and goats
That nourish a blind life within the brain,
If, knowing God, they lift not hands of prayer
Both for themselves and those who call them friend?
For so the whole round earth is every way
Bound by gold chains about the feet of God.”
• 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! Isaiah 53:5).
• 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!
James 5:19-20 "Brethren, if any of you do err from the truth, and one convert him; Let him know, that he which converteth the sinner from the error of his way shall save a soul from death, and shall hide a multitude of sins."
• Brethren, if any of you do err from the truth: James concludes his epistle with an appeal to his brethren and sisters to stand by one another in this time of trial and persecution. If one lacks the wisdom to “count it all joy” when the time of testing strikes, he or she is in danger of falling prey to despondency and sin. To “err” is to be turned away or seduced from the truth.
• one convert him: cause him to turn back to the truth. Notice that the concern is not about contamination by maintaining contact with the one who has erred; rather it is about saving one’s brother or sister. Love is at work here not self-righteousness. 1 Peter 2:25 “For ye were as sheep going astray; but are now returned unto the Shepherd and Bishop of your souls.” Our work in caring for our brethren and sisters is an extension of the work of the Lord. Woe unto us if we act in an uncaring manner towards the brother or sister “for whom Christ died!” Rather let us be like those spoken of by Daniel:
Daniel 12:3 “And they that be wise shall shine as the brightness of the firmament; and they that turn many to righteousness as the stars for ever and ever.”
Malachi 2:6 “The law of truth was in his mouth, and iniquity was not found in his lips: he walked with me in peace and equity, and did turn many away from iniquity."
• from the error of his way: his way… not the Father’s way. Any way that we choose for ourselves apart from the Father’s loving guidance, will be the way of error and failure. (See Proverbs 3:5, 6; 16:25)
• save a soul from death: the only way to reach someone is if they really want to be reached and if they are convinced of the genuineness of our love and concern. (Matthew 10:28; 2 Corinthians 5:13-17; Philippians 3:13,14)
• hide a multitude of sins: “hide” means to “cover” or “cause to be forgotten.” Psalm 103:12 “As far as the east is from the west, so far hath he removed our transgressions from us.” Peter says that love between brethren “covers a multitude of sins” (1 Peter 4:8). Love does not easily take offence because it is not self-centred.
Proverbs 10:12 "Hatred stirreth up strifes: but love covereth all sins."
I hope you have found this helpful.