Prayer and Fellowship
Therefore, confess your sins to one another, and pray for one another so that you may be healed. (5:16a)
Therefore marks a transition in the flow of thought. Turning his attention from the sins of those believers who have been defeated in the spiritual battle, James addressed the congregation as a whole, exhorting believers to continually confess their sins to one another and not wait until those sins dragged them into the depths of utter spiritual defeat. The inspired writer was well aware that sin is most dangerous to an isolated believer. Sin seeks to remain private and secret, but God wants it exposed and dealt with in the loving fellowship of other believers. Therefore James called for mutual honesty and mutual confession as believers pray for one another.
Maintaining open, sharing, and praying relationships with other Christians will help keep believers from bottoming out in their spiritual lives. Such relationships help give the spiritual strength that provides victory over sin. And they also provide godly pressure to confess and forsake sins before they become overwhelming to the point of total spiritual defeat.
The purpose for the mutual prayer that James called for is that believers may be healed. Iaomai (healed) does not necessarily refer to physical healing. In Matthew 13:15 it symbolized God’s withheld forgiveness of Israel’s sins (cf. John 12:40; Acts 28:27). The writer of Hebrews also used it metaphorically to speak of spiritual restoration (Heb. 12:12–13), while Peter used it to describe the healing from sin Christ purchased for believers on the cross (1 Pet. 2:24). James uses it to refer to God’s forgiveness, making the repentant believer spiritually whole again.
Confession of Sin (5:16)
It is easy to misunderstand the command to confess sins to one another. James cannot intend meetings where people confess any and every sin to each other. This is the only Bible verse that says, “Confess your sins to each other,” so the rest of Scripture must guide our thinking. Here are some salient biblical principles:
- The offender confesses to the one offended, whether to a human or to God.
- We confess secret sins to God, since sins such as anger, envy, or lust offend him, even if they never lead to action. It is highly unlikely that we will accomplish anything constructive by telling someone, “I envied you,” or “I lusted after you.”
- We confess private sins privately to the one or the few we offended. We confess public sins (which offend many) publicly. For example, if a leader propounds heresy, deceives his people, or misuses public funds, public confession is apt.
The confession James recommends must fit category three. Once a sick and sinning believer repents, fellowship is restored (James assumes that the offended party will be ready to forgive). Then the whole body of Christ can pray effectively for healing.
James expects those prayers to be effective, for “the prayer of a righteous man is powerful and effective” (5:16). Elders are responsible to set an example of personal righteousness, yet James 5:16 expects the whole church to pray. Every saint—everyone who is righteous by faith—prays.
Still, the efficacy of a prayer lies in the grace and power of God, not the goodness and merit of the petitioner. (The request “Pastor, please pray for me” may reveal a defective concept of prayer.) The prayers of the righteous have power, yet God gives us that righteousness by faith and by the Holy Spirit.
16 Clearly building on the thought of the previous verse, with its mention of sins, prayer, and healing, the author transitions to exhort those in the Christian communities to mutual confession of sins and prayer. The use of “Therefore” (oun) followed by two present imperative verbs facilitates the transition. The first exhortation is to “confess your sins to each other.” Ropes, 309, understands the confession to be by the sick persons, who then are prayed for by the well, resulting in physical healing, but James seems to move from the specific situation of a seriously sick person in v. 15 to the general principle concerning the need for mutual confession and prayer in v. 16. On this interpretation, it is difficult to see the confession as preventative (as with Davids, 195), since the healing follows sickness in the verse, but the connection between sin in a community and physical illness seems clear nonetheless. Confession, a public acknowledgment of one’s guilt, may be by an individual or as a community, and in many cases in biblical literature, confession is connected to physical healing or some general form of salvation (Davids, 195–96; Johnson, 334). Johnson especially has shown the connection between physical healing and social restoration. This dynamic is prominent in the ministry of Jesus (e.g., Lk 5:17; 6:18–19) and reiterated in Acts (4:22, 30; 28:27; see Johnson, 335). Thus James, dealing with communities in which there was a good bit of social strife, points to vital Christian remedies for fractured relationships—open confession of sin and mutual prayer, which are actions that promote transparency, support, and unity. Consequently, the exhortations to confession and prayer are followed by “so that” (hopōs), a marker showing the purpose for something, and that purpose in the present case is expressed as “you may be healed.” The healing in mind is physical but points to a deeper spiritual healing of sin and broken relationships.
Whereas the first part of v. 16 consists of exhortations, the second makes a theological assertion concerning the effectiveness of prayer. In this case, the NASB reflects more accurately than the NIV the structure of the Greek text: “The effective prayer of a righteous man can accomplish much.” First, the prayer under discussion is that of a righteous person. In 1:5–8 and 4:3–4, James has already noted that a sinful lifestyle hinders prayer, and he now expresses the flip side of that fact. In 5:17–18, he follows by offering Elijah as a prime example of such a person. Second, the prayer is “effective” (energeō, GK 1919), expressed with an adjectival participle meaning “to work,” “to be active,” or “to be operative.” Thus the prayer in mind is prayer put into action, or made operative. Finally, this prayer is able to “accomplish much.” James uses a verb (ischyō, GK 2710) that connotes having the resources or power to bring something about, and what prayer is able to accomplish is “much.”
5:16 / James summarizes his teaching on healing in two sentences. First, confess your sins to each other and pray for each other so that you may be healed. Confession of sin is important for healing. Pastors experienced in the Christian healing ministry repeatedly witness to times when the confession of a resentment, a grudge, or an unforgiven injury has lead to physical healing with or without further prayer. But James is generalizing beyond the individual healing situation, for now it is not “to the elders” but to each other that confession is made. The picture is that of a church gathering and the confession of sin to the assembled group. The mutual public confession (supplemented by private confession where public confession would not be appropriate) lays the basis for public prayer, in which people freed from all grudges and resentments, and reconciled through confession and forgiveness, pray for healing for each other. In this kind of atmosphere, the services of the elders at the bedside will rarely be needed.
Second, the prayer of a righteous [person] is powerful and effective. The righteous person is not sinlessly perfect, but is the person who has confessed any known sin and who adheres to the moral standards of the Christian community. With a clear conscience and in unity with God, this person prays a prayer that is powerful and effective. The Greek adds a difficult expression that probably means “when it reaches God and he answers it” (lit. “when it works”). Prayer is not itself powerful; it is not magic. But its power is unlimited in that the child of God calls on a Father of unlimited goodness and ability.
The friends at prayer: a spirit of reconciliation (5:16a)
We come away from verses 14–15 with at least this clear in our minds, that prayer is a very powerful thing. It would seem that James intended that we should, for this is the thought which he carries over into the section now before us for study. If we isolate some keywords we shall see the line he is taking: … the prayer of faith will save the sick … (15). Therefore … pray for one another, that you may be healed (16). Prayer is not the prerogative of elders, nor is it confined to the sick-room. Rather it is the privilege of all believers, and something in which they should rejoice to share fellowship in order that one or the other, or both, may recover from the weaknesses and diseases of the past, and enter into a new spiritual health. If the sick can call the elders to pray, and God has pledged himself to respond so generously to their prayer, then surely we should be enthusiastic to lay hold of prayer in all situations in life. There (14–15) the matter was sickness; here (16a) it is sin which, in line with Scripture, James views as a sickness of the soul which needs to be healed. In this too we can involve ourselves in a fellowship of prayer and, as a result, look for the healing touch of God.
Has James some specific situation in mind? It would seem so. He says Confess your sins to one another, and pray for one another. It is surely often the case that a Christian who is burdened by some sin will seek out a close friend and confide the problem, so that in prayer together they may bear one another’s burdens, and pray through to the place of deliverance, cleansing and healing. But this is not what James is speaking of here, and the wording he uses will not allow this interpretation. When the verb translated ‘confess’ is used other than of the confession of sin, it never means ‘admit sorrowfully’, as it would have to do in order to justify the thought of confiding sin to a friend. It can mean ‘to affirm’, but only in the sense of ‘acclaim’—as of affirming loyalty to God or acclaiming him16—but the sense ‘affirm to each other that you are sinners’ is impossible in the light of the way the word is used in the New Testament. The passage therefore is not speaking of the gathering of groups, or the holding of a meeting in which believers tell one another about their sins, nor can such practices be justified on the ground of James 5:16. For it does not say (even) ‘Confess your sins to God in each other’s presence’, but Confess your sins to one another.
The biblical position regarding confessing sin can be summed up in this way. ‘Confession must be made to the person against whom we have sinned, and from whom we need and desire to receive forgiveness.… There is “secret confession” to God because there are “secret sins” (Ps. 90:8) committed against God alone. Next, there is “private confession”, because some of our sins are committed against man as well as God, a private individual, or two or three such, and must be confessed to the offended party. Thirdly, there is “public confession”, because some sins are committed against a group … a community or the whole local congregation, and must therefore be confessed publicly.’ It is in this area of confession that James is moving. We have offended against a brother or sister and we must go to such a one privately and confess in what way we have done wrong, ask to be forgiven, and join in prayer for healing, ‘because the biblical principle is consistently that “confession” is due to the party who has been offended’.18 The believers whom James brings before us have not met to engage in mutual confession of secret sins—for the ‘confession’ of such is owed to God alone. Rather it is because the one has sinned against the other and is seeking opportunity, in private fellowship, to put things right, or because each has offended the other and they are ready to confess and be reconciled.
As we have seen throughout his letter, James is deeply concerned about fellowship. It is the soil in which a harvest of righteousness comes to full fruition (3:18). Breaches in fellowship are as grievous as war and murder (4:1ff.). It is more than suitable that he who has warned us so plainly about the dangers and causes of broken fellowship should come, before the end of his letter, to teach us the way of healing what has been broken. He looks for three things. First, he looks for a spirit of penitence. However hard and costly it may be, we simply must be prepared to go to the one we have wronged and confess our fault and put things right. Indeed, if we take the teaching of our Lord Jesus seriously (Mt. 5:23), we must be moved not only by our sense that we have wronged a brother or sister, but by our awareness that he or she thinks we have committed a hurtful sin. Some find it harder than others, and none find it easy to say ‘I am sorry’. But it is a biblical command that we should do so, and the cause of fellowship must be dearer to us than the humbling of our pride. Secondly, James looks for a spirit of reconciliation. If we should be, perchance, on the receiving end of someone else’s confession of sin, then we must be prompt and unhesitating in our welcome to the brother or sister who comes seeking to put things right. For if, on the one side, pride battles hard against confessing sin, pride battles equally hard against the simple reaching out of a forgiving hand. Sometimes too it is not just pride which holds back from forgiveness, but also fear: fear of trusting oneself to someone who has, possibly, been grievously treacherous or cruelly hurtful. Yet James covers all situations with his assumption that the overtures of the one who would confess are met by the welcome of the one who has been wronged. Rarely, of course, are things nicely clear-cut, and the platitude is true that there are usually faults on both sides. We should then covet nothing more than to get in first with our confession, and to outdo our brother or sister only in this, that we are warmer and more overflowing in reconciliation. Thirdly, James looks for a spirit of prayer, leading to healing. The two who were but recently far apart come into the close unity and harmony of the place of prayer. Mutual concern is expressed and hallowed in the presence of God; the breach is healed. Where spirits have been bruised, or where either has inflicted on the other a blow which has resulted in spiritual decline, then in answer to prayer God will grant restoration to spiritual health. Corporate prayer expresses this determination not only to come together after separation, but to undo the damage to the individual and the fellowship.
Prayer in Confession of Sin (v. 16a)
5:16a. Because God hears the prayers of penitent people and forgives sin, Christians should confess their sins to one another and pray for one another. The mention of “healing” at the conclusion of this verse makes it likely that the sins to be confessed are those which have caused illness. The healing shows the purpose of the mutual confession and prayer.
Since the intent of the confession of sins is to experience physical healing, it seems best to refer the command to the confession of sins which may hinder healing. The confessor of sins is seeking healing by the act of admitting sins.
Two interesting observations come from this verse. First, the entire church is to be involved in this praying. It is not confined to the elders. Second, the power to heal appears in the act of praying, not in the elder or other one praying.
Confess means “to say the same thing.” It suggests that in confessing, we must identify the sin by its true name and call it what it is. We must acknowledge and repent of specific sins, not merely offer a general confession of guilt.
Placed so close to the discussion of prayer for the sick, this verse likely has its primary application in confession of sin by people who are sick. However, the application is easily extended to confession of sin in any of life’s situations.
This confession of sin seeks to secure faithful prayer support for stumbling Christians from trusted spiritual friends. It is not urging a careless confession to just anybody. Such a type of confession might cause more harm than good. It is confession to dedicated, trusted prayer warriors who will intercede for you with God.
Roman Catholics have used this verse to justify confession of sins to a priest. It is important to note that this verse discusses confession and intercession among Christians and not between a believer and a priest.
Power of Prayer
Confession of sin and praying for one another are vital ingredients of the healing ministry in the Christian community. When sin is removed, the power of prayer becomes evident in its amazing effectiveness.
16a. Therefore confess your sins to each other and pray for each other so that you may be healed.
In this text we note three essential verbs: confess, pray, and heal.
- “Confess.” James says, “Therefore confess your sins to each other.” With the adverb therefore, he links this sentence to the preceding verse where he writes of sickness, sin, and forgiveness. James uses the adverb to refer to the previous verse, to provide a basis for the succeeding sentence, and to stress the necessity of confessing sin.
Unconfessed sin blocks the pathway of prayer to God and at the same time is a formidable obstacle in interpersonal relations. That means, confess your sins not only to God but also to the persons who have been injured by your sins. Ask them for forgiveness!
“Confession cleanses the soul.” That is a time-worn saying which does not lose its validity. Confession is a mark of repentance and a plea for forgiveness on the part of the sinner. When the sinner confesses his sin and asks for and receives remission, he experiences freedom from the burden of guilt.
To whom do we confess our sins? The text says “to each other.” James does not specify the church or the elders; rather, he speaks of mutual confession on a one-to-one basis within a circle of believers. He does not rule out that members of the church ought to confide in the pastor and elders (v. 14). Some sins concern all believers in the church and thus these sins ought to be confessed publicly. Other sins are private and need not be made known except to persons who are directly involved. Discretion and limitation, therefore, must guide the sinner who wishes to confess his personal sins. Curtis Vaughan makes this telling observation:
But whereas the Roman Catholics have interpreted confession too narrowly, many of us may be tempted to interpret it too broadly. Confession of all our sins to all the brethren is not necessarily enjoined by James’ statement. Confession is “the vomit of the soul” and can, if too generally and too indiscriminately made, do more harm than good.
- “Pray.” The beauty of Christian fellowship comes to expression in the practice of mutual prayer after sins have been confessed and forgiven. The offender and the offended pray on behalf of each other; together they find spiritual strength and comfort in the Lord. In their prayers they visibly and audibly demonstrate reciprocity. The forgiven sinner prays for the spiritual welfare of his fellow believer, who in turn commends him to the mercies of God.
- “Be healed.” James states the purpose for confessing sin and praying for each other by saying, “so that you may be healed.” He is purposely vague in this statement; that is, he fails to mention whether he means physical or spiritual healing, actual or possible healing, individual or corporate healing. What is certain, however, is that when believers confess their sins to each other and pray for one another, a healing process takes place. And that can be applied to any situation.
16a ἐξομολογεῖσθε οὖν ἀλλήλοις τὰς ἁμαρτίας καὶ εὔχεσθε ὑπὲρ ἀλλήλων ὅπως ἰαθῆτε, “Confess your sins to one another then, and pray for one another so that you may be healed.” James implies that sometimes sin is a cause of illness, as well as a hindrance to healing, which is the thrust of v 16a. The conjunction οὖν (“therefore”) connects the thought of v 16a with that of v 15 (see Bonhoeffer, Life Together, 86–89). It suggests that the discussion of physical healing and the forgiveness of sin started in v 15 is continued in our present verse (so Dibelius, 255, against Cantinat, 254, and Mussner, 227). Vouga, 143, maintains that there is a remarkable “flow of ideas” in the entire section, and accounts for the presence of ἰᾶσθαι, “to heal physically,” in v 16 as the chief conclusion to which James’ thought is moving, namely, the restoration of sound pastoral relations within the body of the community more than the cure of illnesses.
Sin and sickness went hand in hand in the ancient mind (cf. the case of Job. This OT figure has been in view in 5:11, where Job was an example of one who remained faithful to God in the midst of suffering. Job’s “friends” understood his suffering to be the result of sin, a charge that Job vigorously rejected). The confession of sin was then evidentially necessary if healing was to occur. The present imperative form, ἐξομολογεῖσθε, suggests that James is requiring that confession become a repeated action. The practice of public confession was important to Judaism and the early church (see Davids, 195; cf. Michel, TDNT 5:202–20). (The main sources are Pss 37:5–7, 19 [= 38:4–6, 18; 39:13[40:12]; 40:5[41:4]; 50:5–10[51:3–8]; Prov 20:9; 28:13; Pss. Sol. 9.6; 1QS 1.23–2.1; CD 20.28 ff.; Bar 1:15–2:10; Tob 3:1–6, 11–15; 3 Macc 2:2–20; 6:2–15. For rabbinic data see Str-B, 1:113. For the early church cf. Did. 4.4; 14.1.)
In this context the elders of v 14 are not mentioned, an omission that leads Mussner (225–26) to argue that v 16 begins a new section in spite of the connective οὖν. The word ἰᾶσθαι (“to heal”)—except when it is part of OT quotations (e.g., Isa 53:6; 1 Pet 2:24)—is always used in the NT to refer to the healing of physical illness. This comports with the interpretation of the setting of vv 14–16 above (see also Mitton, 202–6). The present verse suggests a corporate setting for the prayer of healing, which is different from the admonition to enlist only the prayers of the elders in v 14. Davids (195, supported by Moo, 183; and similarly Vouga, 143) believes that “James … consciously generalizes, making the specific case of 5:14–15 into a general principle of preventive medicine.” By saying that church members other than elders can take part in a ministry of intercessory prayer (which is effective; see 5:16b), the author is showing that the prayer, not the person (i.e., not the elders), is the channel through which God’s power to heal is conveyed. This speaks against the view that 5:14 is referring to “healing” as a spiritual χάρισμα. Moreover, though the elders are still responsible for the prayer of intercession on behalf of the ill (5:14), the text here widens to make prayer and confession and so pastoral responsibility the “privilege and responsibility” of all in the congregation. The precise setting of this pastoral reminder will be evident from 5:19–20.
16. Confess your faults one to another. In some copies the illative particle is given, nor is it unsuitable; for though when not expressed, it must be understood. He had said, that sins were remitted to the sick over whom the elders prayed: he now reminds them how useful it is to discover our sins to our brethren, even that we may obtain the pardon of them by their intercession.
This passage, I know, is explained by many as referring to the reconciling of offences; for they who wish to return to favour must necessarily know first their own faults and confess them. For hence it comes, that hatreds take root, yea, and increase and become irreconcilable, because every one pertinaciously defends his own cause. Many therefore think that James points out here the way of brotherly reconciliation, that is, by mutual acknowledgment of sins. But as it has been said, his object was different; for he connects mutual prayer with mutual confession; by which he intimates that confession avails for this end, that we may be helped as to God by the prayers of our brethren; for they who know our necessities, are stimulated to pray that they may assist us; but they to whom our diseases are unknown are more tardy to bring us help.
Wonderful, indeed, is the folly or the insincerity of the Papists, who strive to build their whispering confession on this passage. For it would be easy to infer from the words of James, that the priests alone ought to confess. For since a mutual, or to speak more plainly, a reciprocal confession is demanded here, no others are bidden to confess their own sins, but those who in their turn are fit to hear the confession of others; but this the priests claim for themselves alone. Then confession is required of them alone. But since their puerilities do not deserve a refutation, let the true and genuine explanation already given be deemed sufficient by us.
For the words clearly mean, that confession is required for no other end, but that those who know our evils may be more solicitous to bring us help.
Availeth much. That no one may think that this is done without fruit, that is, when others pray for us, he expressly mentions the benefit and the effect of prayer. But he names expressly the prayer of a righteous or just man; because God does not hear the ungodly; nor is access to God open, except through a good conscience: not that our prayers are founded on our own worthiness, but because the heart must be cleansed by faith before we can present ourselves before God. Then James testifies that the righteous or the faithful pray for us beneficially and not without fruit.
But what does he mean by adding effectual or efficacious? for this seems superfluous; for if the prayer avails much, it is doubtless effectual. The ancient interpreter has rendered it “assiduous;” but this is too forced. For James uses the Greek participle, ἐνεργουμένη, which means “working.” And the sentence may be thus explained, “It avails much, because it is effectual.” As it is an argument drawn from this principle, that God will not allow the prayers of the faithful to be void or useless, he does not therefore unjustly conclude that it avails much. But I would rather confine it to the present case: for our prayers may properly be said to be ἐνεργούμεναι, working, when some necessity meets us which excites in us earnest prayer. We pray daily for the whole Church, that God may pardon its sins; but then only is our prayer really in earnest, when we go forth to succour those who are in trouble. But such efficacy cannot be in the prayers of our brethren, except they know that we are in difficulties. Hence the reason given is not general, but must be specially referred to the former sentence.
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