July 21, 2019
The Power of “One Another” (James 5:16-20)
Before we dive into our very last passage in the epistle of James, I want to ask you a question based on 1 Corinthians 12:18–21. God arranged the members in the body, each one of them, as he chose. If all were a single member, where would the body be? As it is, there are many parts, yet one body. The eye cannot say to the hand, “I have no need of you,” nor again the head to the feet, “I have no need of you.”
I believe that many of us agree with Paul’s admonition here. But the question that I want to ask before we do anything else this morning is this: What does your life declare? In other words, it is entirely possible that your theology is in complete agreement with Paul’s statements here, but does your life, in practice, declare to others, “I have no need of you?”
That is the central question that James is going to present to us at the end of this letter. So with that in mind, let’s read together James 5:16-20:
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. 17 Elijah 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. 18 Then he prayed again, and heaven gave rain, and the earth bore its fruit. 19 My brothers, if anyone among you wanders from the truth and someone brings him back, 20 let him know that whoever brings back a sinner from his wandering will save his soul from death and will cover a multitude of sins.
We saw, last week, that one of the central themes that frames this entire letter is the call to count it all JOY when we meet trials of various kinds. And one of the main things we saw last week is that James wants us to see that this joy is primarily found when we turn Godward!
If suffering, we pray to God. If happy, we praise God. If sick, we call for the elders to lead us in prayer to God. Because the fact is that our mouths and tongues will overflow out of the abundance of our hearts - either hearts full of self-sufficiency, or hearts full of the knowledge of the sufficiency of God to meet all of our needs. How we respond in our suffering will reveal what is the hope in our hearts.
And this brings us to verse 16. But before we continue, I want to make one observation about something I skipped last week in verse 15. James said something that could be confusing at the end of 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.”
The question that arises is: Is sickness always a result of sin!? The short and simple answer is, NO. We cannot overlook the importance of the word “if”. IF he has committed sins. James is not saying that all sickness is related to or connected to sin. In fact, you might recall the time when Jesus was questioned about the man who was born blind. John 9:1-3:
As he passed by, he saw a man blind from birth. 2 And his disciples asked him, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” 3 Jesus answered, “It was not that this man sinned, or his parents, but that the works of God might be displayed in him.
Neither the man nor his parents were at fault for his blindness. He was born that way because God is sovereign and “in order that the works of God might be displayed in him.” I love that. God does nothing haphazardly or without purpose. So, James is not contradicting his older brother, Jesus.
But he is definitely stating that there is the possibility that there might be a connection between sin and sickness. IF he has committed sins, he will be forgiven. This, too, is consistent with the rest of Scripture. There are several passages that testify that some sickness, even death, comes upon believers as a result of God’s fatherly discipline on sin. In 1 Cor. 11:27-30, for example, Paul says:
Whoever, therefore, eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty concerning the body and blood of the Lord. 28 Let a person examine himself, then, and so eat of the bread and drink of the cup. 29 For anyone who eats and drinks without discerning the body eats and drinks judgment on himself. 30 That is why many of you are weak and ill, and some have died.
So, there are clear times in the Bible that illness is directly connected to sin. In fact, I have seen many cases of this over the years, especially in people who are filled with envy, resentment or unforgiveness. Sin in our hearts can literally have physical consequences. And this is not just in the Bible, you can just talk to a psychologist!
Anxiety, for example, which is not necessarily sin (but can be a result of sin and unbelief), has a long list of physical symptoms from headaches to insomnia to hair loss to gastritis. I know some of these symptoms firsthand! That’s because we are complex creatures; there are times when there is a direct link between sin and physical illness.
And James’s point is that it is always worth exploring if there is sin in our hearts, and exposing it when there is. And this is actually the connection between verse 15 from last week and verse 16, which begins with that all-important word, “therefore”!
Therefore, confess your sins to one another and pray for one another, that you may be healed.
The first thing I want you to notice is that James has shifted from elders to believers in general. This reminds us again that the power to heal is invested in prayer, not in the elder. While it is appropriate that those charged with the spiritual oversight of the church should be called to intercede for those that are seriously ill, James makes clear that all believers have the privilege and responsibility to pray for healing.
But secondly, notice the connection between verses 15 and 16. In other words, it goes something like this: Since the “prayer of faith” accomplishes so much (v. 15a), and since unconfessed sin could result in physical sickness and God is anxious to forgive the sins of his people (v. 15b), James draws the conclusion: THEREFORE, confess your sins to one another and pray for one another, that you may be healed.
And this is really practical, as is usually the case with James. It means that it might be wise to ask the person we are praying for if there is any unconfessed sin in their lives. Or it means that we are walking in close enough community with other people in the church that they might be able to observe such things in your life, or vice versa.
Because it may just be that God is using the circumstances and the sickness to expose something deeper in our hearts; and he might want to use a brother or sister as a means of grace to do just that.
So we confess sin to one another, and we pray for one another. Again, in our suffering, we use our tongues not to complain, grumble, accuse, or speak evil against one another, but to go to God, especially in prayer! To pray for ourselves in our suffering (verse 13), to call the elders to pray for us (verses 14-15), and now, to confess our sins and pray for one another.
But why? Why such a big emphasis on prayer? We saw one reason last week. Because of the nature of God - he is a good God, the Father of lights, the source of every good and every perfect gift. But the second reason is found here at the end of verse 16.
The prayer of a righteous person has great power as it is working.
We pray because the prayer of a righteous person has great power as it is working. You might wonder who the “righteous person” is in this text. Like, do you qualify? If not, who does? But we know from the rest of the New Testament that the righteous person is simply the believer, the person who is “righteous” by virtue of being in Christ.
The righteous person is not the person who has obtained his own righteousness by his own merit, but the person who has received forgiveness through Christ and been imputed the righteousness of Christ based entirely on the merits of Christ.
So prayer, James makes clear, is a powerful weapon in the hands even of the humblest believer; it does not require a “super saint” (or an elder for that matter!) to wield it effectively. In fact, James tells us that all we need to do is look to Elijah for an example of this. Here was a “righteous man” whose prayer was “powerful and effective”. Verses 17-18:
Elijah 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. 18 Then he prayed again, and heaven gave rain, and the earth bore its fruit.
Now, the situation James describes is recorded in 1 Kings 17–18. God had proclaimed through Elijah that a drought would afflict the land as a means of punishing Ahab and Israel for their idolatry. And in 1 Kings 18:42, we find Elijah now praying for the drought to end. And God answers.
But some of you might be a bit skeptical of Elijah as an example. I mean, this is the same guy who called down fire from heaven to consume the sacrifice on Mount Carmel, the guy who raise to life the son of the widow, and the guy who, according to 2 Kings 2, didn’t actually die, but was taken up directly do God! Listen to this:
As they [Elisha and Elijah] were walking along and talking together, suddenly a chariot of fire and horses of fire appeared and separated the two of them, and Elijah went up to heaven in a whirlwind. 12 Elisha saw this and cried out, “My father! My father! The chariots and horsemen of Israel!” And Elisha saw him no more. Then he took hold of his garment and tore it in two.
So, is James really trying to encourage us to pray by comparing us to the guy in the Old Testament that was taken up to heaven in a chariot of fire!? It’s almost like trying to encourage my son in soccer by saying: “Listen, son. I know you have not scored a single goal this season, but look at Pelé, he scored 1,281 goals in his career.” Oh, ok. Thanks, dad.
So again, is James really trying to encourage us to pray by comparing us to the Superman of the Old Testament? Yes! Because that’s just the point. He wasn’t a Superman. Elijah did not accomplish any of these things because he was a specially gifted, but precisely because he was “a man with a nature like ours”. He was a sinner like us, with his own failings and weaknesses. There was nothing extraordinary about Elijah.
What makes Elijah stand out is not his inherent goodness or greatness or power, but one thing: he prayed. And through his prayers the Lord did mighty things. Verse 17, “Elijah 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”. Then, verse 18, “Then he prayed again, and heaven gave rain”.
So again, we pray because the prayer of a righteous person, of one who has received the righteousness of Christ by faith, has great power as it is working. And if the prayers of a man with a nature just like ours can alter the weather patterns, then surely our prayers can be heard for our unbelieving spouses, for our joblessness, for our marriages, for our financial condition, or, in the context of James, to heal the sick and lead people into confession of sin.
And that’s exactly how James closes the letter in the last two verses: My brothers, if anyone among you wanders from the truth and someone brings him back, 20 let him know that whoever brings back a sinner from his wandering will save his soul from death and will cover a multitude of sins.
James does not conclude his letter with greetings and benedictions typical of epistolary endings, but with a call to action. He has covered a lot of ground in this letter. He has shown that he is deeply concerned that our Christian lives exhibit the fruit of faith, the fruit of the Spirit, in the way we respond to the circumstances of life, especially suffering.
And in calling us to confess our sins to one another and pray for one another like Elijah, he now calls us to pursue those who might have wandered from the truth. There were apparently some in the church who could not handle the persecution, who could not handle the suffering, who could not look at their trials with joy through the eyes of faith. And so they wandered from the truth. And James says, “Go after them. Bring them back.”
Now, I want to note two things here. First, we are all mutually responsible for stepping in and seeking out those among us who have wandered from the truth. You might think, “That’s none of my business. Their relationship with God is their problem, not mine.” Well, while it is true that we are all ultimately individually responsible before God for our own lives, the body of Christ is also mutually responsible for one another.
And this shouldn’t be surprising, because we already saw this when we studied Galatians. Brothers, if anyone is caught in any transgression, you who are spiritual should restore him in a spirit of gentleness. Keep watch on yourself, lest you too be tempted. Bear one another’s burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ” (Gal. 6:1-2).
There is no concept in the Bible of solitary Christians fending for themselves. My old pastor used to say, “Salvation is a community project”. I love that image, and I believe he’s exactly right. We saw this in Galatians, we are seeing it now in James, but we also saw it four years ago when we worked through Hebrews.
Hebrews 10:24–25, for example, says: And let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near.
Or, earlier in Hebrews the author said:
Take care, brothers, lest there be in any of you an evil, unbelieving heart, leading you to fall away from the living God. 13 But exhort one another every day, as long as it is called “today,” that none of you may be hardened by the deceitfulness of sin. 14 For we have come to share in Christ, if indeed we hold our original confidence firm to the end.
Can you even imagine walking this closely with one another? We are called to exhort one another daily so that none of us might fall away from the living God, or wander from the truth (to use James’ language). Those are just three examples, and only from some of the books we have studied together. There are dozens of others!
But the type of lives that James is presenting to us are lives the require “another”, lives that require that we be walking together with others. So, maybe for some of you that means committing to a regional community, or a discipleship group, or anything that will allow you to be with others in the church. Not out of duty, but out of the recognition that we need each other.
This is why we have a church covenant for new members. In fact, the fourth section of our membership covenant says:
We engage to watch over one another in brotherly love; to remember one another in prayer; to aid one another in sickness and distress; to cultivate Christian sympathy in feeling and courtesy in speech; to be slow to take offense, but always ready for reconciliation, and mindful of the rules of our Savior to secure it without delay.
Does that not sound exactly like what we’ve been studying in James? That’s because it is! Remember one another in prayer; aid one another in sickness; cultivate Christian sympathy, both in feeling and in speech! In other words, use your tongue and your actions to care for one another and to carry one another’s burdens.
The second observation I want to make with you is related to the question, “Why?”. Why should we go after our wandering brothers and sisters in Christ? The answer is: Because as a result of your pursuit of them in love, you might just “save his soul from death and cover a multitude of sins”. This is a weighty, but amazing sentence.
Of course none of us is able to actually save someone’s soul. Our security does not rest in other people but in God's power to keep us. I want to make that very clear.
“He who began a good work in you will complete it until the day of Christ” (Philippians 1:6).
“[God] will sustain you to the end, guiltless in the day of our Lord Jesus Christ” (1 Corinthians 1:8).
“[God] is able to keep you from falling and to present you without blemish before the presence of his glory” (Jude 24).
Our security is in God. But here is the truth found in this verse in James, and in many others. While God is always the one who saves, he uses means to do so. He uses means like the preaching and proclamation of the gospel. And he uses means like members of the church who go after a wandering soul to point them back to the truth; brothers and sisters who will lead them Godward!
Paul showed the combination of God's sovereign saving power and his use of human means in his second letter to Timothy. Look at 2 Timothy 2:24–26:
And the Lord's servant must not be quarrelsome but kindly to every one, an apt teacher, forbearing, correcting his opponents with gentleness. [That's God's means. But here is God's sovereign prerogative:] God may perhaps grant that they will repent and come to know the truth, and they may escape from the snare of the devil, after being captured by him to do his will.
The Lord’s servant is kind, faithful, teaching, forbearing, and correcting with gentleness. That’s the servant’s job. God’s job? To grant repentance and save. So go after your wandering brother or sister because God might use you to save his soul from death and to cover a multitude of sins.
So, I said earlier that how we respond in our suffering will reveal what is the hope in our hearts. And it so happens that one of the greatest displays of our confidence in God in our suffering is actually to turn to one another in our time of need, to turn to one of the God-ordained means that he has given to help us to persevere in our faith - one another.
So what does your life declare? Is it possible that our lives declare to one another, “I have no need of you?”
I don’t know how this epistle of James has landed on your hearts. There have been a lot of difficult things, both difficult to understand and difficult to hear! But as we close this letter, my prayer is that you would hear that none of these admonitions were meant to be carried alone. We come to the end of this epistle of James having been called to a “living faith”.
But James has not called us to do this alone. He has called us to do this together, confessing our sins and failures to one another, praying for one another, and if we wander, seeking out one another in love. Let’s pray.