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.”
16 Some think vv. 16–18 are meant to be quite disjunct from 14 and 15, and are concerned not with illness but with miscellaneous neighbors’ quarrels and offenses. We cannot believe that after vv. 14 and 15 a stylist like James would here have invited misunderstanding by using “heal” in any but its medical sense. The well-documented association of sickness, sin, and confession in Jewish thought and ministrations seems to us to confirm (against, e.g., Dibelius; see Mitton, pp. 202ff.) the unity of the whole passage in question (vv. 13–18, esp. 14–18, including the connective oun, “therefore,” found at the beginning of v. 16 in all the great manuscripts, though missing in a few others). But our case does not stand or fall on that reading: we hold that exactly as 5:12 belongs to the whole passage 5:7–12, so there is no break between vv. 15 and 16. Confession and prayer were already implicit in Jewish thought of the sickbed; and the elaborate passage from “The prayer of a righteous man is very powerful in its operation” to the end of v. 18 is climactic not merely to the first ten or eleven words of v. 16 but to the whole passage, certainly from the beginning of v. 14.
In the ancient mind sin and sickness went together, and so confession of sin was necessary if prayer for the sick was to be effective. The confession is to be not only to the elders (or other ministers) but to one another, that is, probably to those they have wronged. But the OT speaks much of the necessity of confession for those who are well, as a private or as a public or national act of repentance, and the rabbis developed quite elaborate formulas for the purpose. The texts cited by the authorities show how the sick man’s visitors, the Jewish “guild for visiting the sick,”75 swept his room, reminded him to make a will, prayed for him, and habitually exhorted him to confess his sins in the belief that he would be cured: “Great is the power of repentance.… It brings healing.” The NT Church, as is shown by 1 John 1:9 and this passage in James, continued the practice: its subsequent history we need not here explore.
On the Greek words rendered “is very powerful in its operation,” Mayor thinks (p. 173) that the interpretation of De Wette and Alford, “the prayer of a righteous man avails much in its working,” is “irrefragably correct,” giving the sense that is apt, necessary, and lucid. Westcott saw that the word energoumenē is middle, not passive, and got it so translated in RV, “availeth much in its working”; but, with the notable exception of Ropes (pp. 309f.), critics have not generally accepted his view. The word does not here signify fervor (as in KJV, “the effectual fervent prayer”).79 Ps. 29:4 shows the Hebrew idiom: the voice of Yahweh “is with power” (where KJV, RV, and RSV quite correctly say, “is powerful”; cf. the Anglican Prayer Book Version, “is mighty in operation”). We join the participle and main verb in 5:16 in a way not unusual in Greek, as in, for example, “I have sinned in betraying” (Matt. 27:4).
This aphoristic form, without any connective, typical of James’s style, pithily expresses the effectiveness of prayer. “Prayer,” declared P. T. Forsyth, “is not mere wishing. It is asking—with a will.… It is energy. Orare est laborare. We turn to an active Giver; therefore we go into action.” Prayer is an act of faith (Jas. 1:6), and so energoumenē is apt enough for a “principle” or “power” from above at work. See further Excursus I, pp. 205ff.
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.
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.
5:16 confess your sins to each other and pray for each other so that you may be healed. The scope now broadens to a more general principle: communal confession and communal prayer bring healing. This broadening will continue in 5:17–18, so perhaps we are to see James indicating that elders praying for the sick, including confession, is a specialized and more powerful form of general prayer for one another, which is a specialized form of prayer in general. Higher-profile or more-difficult cases of sickness may require the higher level of authority invested in the elders, but communal prayer and confession can still be effective in other cases.
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.
16b. The prayer of a righteous man is powerful and effective.
Who is this righteous man? We are inclined to look to spiritual giants, to the heroes of the faith, and to men and women of God. In our opinion they are the people who through prayer are able to move mountains. But James mentions no names, except that of Elijah with the qualification that he is “just like us” (v. 17). He means to say that any believer whose sins have been forgiven and who prays in faith is righteous. When he prays, his prayers are “powerful and effective.”
Both prayer and the answer to prayer are powerful and effective. The one does not cancel the other. That is, prayer offered in faith by a forgiven believer is a powerful and effective means to approach the throne of God. And, God “rewards those who earnestly seek him” (Heb. 11:6), for his answers to prayer are indeed powerful and effective.
Practical Considerations in 5:16
Scripture provides numerous examples of the power of prayer. Here are a few chosen at random:
Joshua prayed and the sun stood still (Josh. 10:12–13)
Elijah prayed and the widow’s son came back to life (1 Kings 17:19–22)
Elisha prayed and the Shunammite’s son was restored to life (2 Kings 4:32–35)
Hezekiah prayed and 185,000 Assyrian soldiers were slain (Isa. 37:21, 36)
The Jerusalem church prayed and Peter was released from prison (Acts 12:5–10)
Scripture portrays these people as ordinary men and women who sinned, sought forgiveness, prayed in faith, and received divine answers to prayer. In short, they are our kind of people.
 Guthrie, G. H. (2006). James. In T. Longman III & D. E. Garland (Eds.), The Expositor’s Bible Commentary: Hebrews–Revelation (Revised Edition) (Vol. 13, pp. 271–272). Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.
 Adamson, J. B. (1976). The Epistle of James (pp. 198–200). Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.
 Doriani, D. M. (2007). James. (R. D. Phillips, P. G. Ryken, & D. M. Doriani, Eds.) (pp. 199–200). Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing.
 Davids, P. H. (2011). James (pp. 124–125). Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books.
 Samra, J. (2016). James, 1 & 2 Peter, and Jude. (M. L. Strauss & J. H. Walton, Eds.) (pp. 84–85). Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books: A Division of Baker Publishing Group.
 Kistemaker, S. J., & Hendriksen, W. (1953–2001). Exposition of James and the Epistles of John (Vol. 14, pp. 178–180). Grand Rapids: Baker Book House.