The prayer of faith shall save the one who is sick

Jun 3, 2015 by

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James 5:14-15 has always been a difficult text for me:

James 5:14-15a NIV

Is anyone among you sick? Let them call the elders of the church to pray over them and anoint them with oil in the name of the Lord. And the prayer offered in faith will make the sick person well; the Lord will raise them up.

prayerhealing-400x267The promise of healing described here — “the prayer offered in faith will make the sick person well” — collides with the reality we face in praying for sick people who regularly aren’t healed. Adding to the problem, in the face of those unanswered prayers, we wonder if the prayer wasn’t offered “in faith.” Maybe, then, it was our fault. The prayer wasn’t answered because we didn’t have enough faith.

In light of those issues, what recently struck me about this text is the moral and confessional context of the entire passage. That confessional context pushes back on how the NIV translates the word “well” in 5:15. The literal word is “save,” the word that is typically used to describe God saving us from sin.

So here is a more literal reading of the same passage from the ASV including the entirety of 5:15:

James 5:14-15

Is any 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: and the prayer of faith shall save him that is sick, and the Lord shall raise him up; and if he have committed sins, it shall be forgiven him.

Looking at the whole context you could plausibly make the case that the prayers of the elders described here are focused upon spiritual healing. The prayer of faith with “save” the sick. Because if the sick person has committed sins these will be forgiven.

Even the phrase “the Lord shall rise him up” can be taken in a spiritual light as this is the same term used to describe resurrection.

And the spiritual focus on confession and the restoration of sinners continues in the very next verse:

James 5:16

Therefore confess your sins to each other and pray for each other so that you may be healed. The prayer of a righteous person is powerful and effective.

Confess your sins to each other and pray for each other so that you may be healed. To be sure, the healing here may be physical, but the ailment is connected to a moral infirmity: the remedy is clearly the confession of sins.

The “powerful and effective prayer” of the righteous is, thus, connected to the “confession of sins.”

Powerful and effective in what way? Well, the text goes on to talk about Elijah:

James 5:17-18

Elijah was a human being, even as we are. He prayed earnestly that it would not rain, and it did not rain on the land for three and a half years. Again he prayed, and the heavens gave rain, and the earth produced its crops.

Like with the prayer for the sick, taken out of context this text is often cited as an example of the powerful and miraculous effects of prayer. Prayer for the rain to stop or start. But once again the text shifts away from the “miraculous” and back toward the moral and confessional:

James 5:19-20

My brothers and sisters, if one of you should wander from the truth and someone should bring that person back, remember this: Whoever turns a sinner from the error of their way will save them from death and cover over a multitude of sins.

In short, it seems that “powerful and effective” prayer has less to do with stopping rain than with the restoration of sinners, saving them from death and covering over a multitude of sins.

Overall, then, the focus on healing from 5:14 to 5:20 seems to be more spiritual than physical, more focused on the restoration that comes from confession. Let me edit the passage to make it more compact:

The prayer of faith shall save him that is sick, and the Lord shall raise him up . . . and if he have committed sins, it shall be forgiven him. . . . Therefore confess your sins to each other and pray for each other so that you may be healed . . . if one of you should wander from the truth and someone should bring that person back, remember this: Whoever turns a sinner from the error of their way will save them from death and cover over a multitude of sins.

None of this is to deny that there is a medical or physical aspect to the text. But it seems clear to me that the focus of the text is less about praying for miraculous healing than upon confession and the healing/resurrecting of sinners.

Richard Beck is professor and department chair of psychology at Abilene Christian University. He is the author of Unclean: Meditations on Purity, Hospitality and MortalityRichard’s area of interest — be it research, writing or blogging — is on the interface of Christian theology and psychology, with a particular focus on how existential issues affect Christian belief and practice. He blogs at Experimental Theology, where this post originally appeared. 


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