Sermon: “Pray” (James 5:12-20)

We come to the final portion of our series in James. And what we’ve observed all along throughout the book of James is his overarching burden that these Jewish Christians to whom he’s writing would possess real, saving faith. He’s not interested in a “mere Christianity” that says, “I believe in God,” and then lives a life that is indistinguishable from those who don’t believe in God. A person who calls themselves a “Christian” and yet they never go to church, they never confess their sins, they’re constantly proud, impatient, and never careful with their words is no Christian at all, according to James.

But he’s not interested in any kind of mere moralism, either. That is, he’s doesn’t want churches filled with little Pharisees, whose lives seem to be so put together and completely free from sin. I like to quote what Tim Keller says, “Legalism is ‘I obey, therefore, I’m accepted.’ Lawlessness says, ‘I’m accepted, therefore, I don’t have to obey.’ The Gospel says, ‘I’m accepted on the basis of Christ’s righteousness; therefore, I gladly obey.’” That’s exactly what James is saying in this book. He’s after faith that works, as we’ve seen.

Well, that’s especially true of these last three sections that we see in chapter five. As we think about faith that works, we see in these last three sections Faith that Tells the Truth, Faith that Prays, and Faith that Brings the Wanderer Back.

I. Faith that Tells the Truth

James brings his readers’ attention back to where he began this discussion in 3:1 on the use of the tongue. Back in chapter 3, he instructs us on how we ought to tame our tongues as Christians, and part of taming of the tongue is speaking the truth and meaning what we say when we speak. Well, James says in 5:12, “But above all, my brothers, do not swear…” Now, swearing doesn’t mean profanity here, though you should never use profane language. No, swearing in this context means religious speech meant to undergird the truth of what you’re saying. When swearing someone into an important public office, we invoke the name of God by saying “so help me God,” and James isn’t against that, or oaths in general. There are examples of both God and God’s people making oaths in both the Old and New Testaments. The reason why James says do not swear, either by heaven or by earth or by any other oath, is because he was evidently aware of people in this context making oaths haphazardly or when they didn’t intend to keep that oath. For example, we know from Jewish rabbinical history that if you swore by Jerusalem, you weren’t bound by your oath. But if you swear toward Jerusalem, that oath was binding. And if you’re confused right now, and you’re thinking to yourself, “Well, why can’t your “yes” be yes or your “no” be no?” then you probably have a good grasp of what James is saying in this verse.

Jesus points out this same thing in Matt. 23 when he points out to the Pharisees that they “swear by the temple” and they “swear by the gold of the temple”; or “by the altar” or “the gift on the altar.”  And depending on which they swear by, they didn’t have to keep their oath. Well, James cuts through all of that and tells these Jewish Christians, “No, just be people of integrity, be people of the truth. Don’t get mixed up in a culture that uses heaven, earth, or other oaths to try to establish validity to what you’re saying.” Again, he’s not against important ceremonial observances like swearing people into office, or taking a solemn oath in court to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, so help you God. No, what he’s saying here fits into the overarching message he’s trying to get across in this letter: People who have real, saving faith tell the truth, and they don’t need this religious speech to undergird the truth of what we’re saying, because we are already known as people who speak truth.

Friends, the biblical way to view all our words, whether it’s marriage vows, the membership covenant in our church, or just the mundane speech of our day to day like talking on the phone, interacting with people on Facebook, or what we think in our minds – the biblical way to view all our words is that they are spoken in the presence of God. That is fundamentally why our words ought to always be truthful and never devious. There’s no such thing as a “little white lie.” That’s why when we agree to something or make a commitment whether at home, in our church, or in society, as Christians we ought to take it with the utmost seriousness. Why? Because all our commitments, all our agreements, all the oaths and covenants we take are fundamentally done before God.

I remember years ago when the late RC Sproul introduced to me the Latin phrase Coram Deo, which means before the face of God. He says, “This phrase literally refers to something that takes place in the presence of, or before the face of, God. To live coram Deo is to live one’s entire life in the presence of God, under the authority of God, to the glory of God. To live all of life coram Deo is to live a life of integrity. It is a life of wholeness that finds its unity and coherency in the majesty of God. A fragmented life is a life of disintegration. It is marked by inconsistency, disharmony, confusion, conflict, contradiction, and chaos.”

Christian, are you known as someone whose word is trustworthy? Are you known as someone who tells the truth always, someone who doesn’t have to rely religious speech to communicate truth? Are you careful with your words? When you make a commitment, do you honor it? When you agree to meet someone at a certain time, or when your employer has stated that as an employee you’re to arrive at a certain time, do you habitually arrive 5, 10, 15 minutes late? Do you not see that how you honor your commitments is connected to your testimony as a Christian? How you treat your commitments and obligations indicates how serious you are in living your life in the presence of God, under the authority of God, to the glory of God. Christians honor commitments, they keep their word. They live their lives and they utter their words Coram Deo, before the face of God.

Well, not only does Faith Tell the Truth, but Faith also Prays.

II. Faith Prays

Well, we would expect James to lead us to think about prayer after everything he’s told us about what true religion looks like, what real faith looks like, and what navigating difficulties and trials looks like. But we may not have expected him to treat prayer in this particular way. Look at v. 13: “Is anyone among you suffering? Let him pray. Is anyone cheerful? Let him praise.” Really, James is calling for prayer in whatever happens in our lives. If there’s cause for joy, we ought to pray by praising God. If there’s suffering in our life, we ought to pray for God’s grace to endure it.

Look at what he says next in vv. 14-15: “Is anyone 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 will save the one who is sick, and the Lord will raise him up.” Now, how are we to understand these verses? Well, let’s first notice where the power isn’t and where the power is. The power isn’t in the elders. They’re to go to the sick person and pray, but v. 16 says that “the prayer of a righteous person has great power,” but it doesn’t follow that only elders are righteous persons. The power isn’t in the oil. There are lots of ways this passage has been interpreted, some of them very wrong. I take this as a physical action with symbolic significance.[1] By anointing the person with oil in the first century, these Jewish elders were showing through symbol that this person was being set apart for God’s special attention and care.[2] Notice lastly that the power isn’t in the prayer itself. It’s not as though if you pray hard enough, if you just have enough faith, your prayer can somehow bind God to do this or that. No, the power isn’t in the elders, the oil, or the prayer; the power to raise a person belongs to the Lord. The power to forgive sins, as we see in v. 15, belongs to the Lord. It is the Lord who does all this by means of the elders and prayer.

So when James says in v. 16 “confess your sins to one another and pray for one another, that you may be healed,” he’s once again proving that it’s not just the elders who pray prayers of faith. It’s the church as well.

Now, I don’t think the end of v. 16 contradicts what I just said, namely, that the power belongs to God. Look at the end of v. 16: “The prayer of a righteous person has great power as it is working.” Again, the power isn’t in the prayer, but in the One to whom we’re praying. In other words, prayer isn’t a superpower in the hands of Super-Saints. It’s a powerful weapon even in the hands of the meekest and mildest Christian whose weak faith is in a strong Savior.

“But what about Elijah,” someone may say. “He was a great man of God, and when he prayed ‘fervently that it might not rain, and for three years and six months it didn’t rain on the earth.’” V. 18: “Then he prayed again, and heaven gave rain, and the earth bore its fruit.” “He was a great man of faith, right? So, his prayers must’ve been heard because… look at how great a man he was!” Friends, that may be the impression we get from I Kings 18 when he called down fire from heaven that consumed the prophets of Baal. But what about I Kings 19? When he’s broken, lost his courage, his hope, and doubted God’s willingness to see revival break out in Israel? When he hid in a cave and refused to come out because he was contending with the Almighty? That’s why James says, “Elijah was a man with a nature like ours.” The prayer of a righteous person, though their faith be weak, has great power because of the omnipotence of the One to whom that prayer is directed.

Friends, let’s think about prayer in practical terms. Isn’t it interesting that these two commands in v. 13 complement each other so well? They set one another up to happen. Praising God for who he is and what he’s done puts you in the right frame of mind to lay your requests before him properly. And laying all your requests before an almighty, sufficient, and merciful God leads you to praise him for whatever he will do with your requests.

Do you spend more time asking God for things than you do praising him for the things he’s already done? Do we spend enough time in prayer? I find that one of the things I find myself regularly confessing in my prayer life is the sorry state of my prayer life. Even as a pastor getting ready to preach this sermon, I had to confess to the Lord how rarely I prayed for his grace to understand this passage, to communicate it well, and to preach with the power of the Holy Spirit. Why don’t we pray more? Why don’t we come to him with our requests and thanksgivings more? One of the most convicting lines in hymnody: “Oh what peace we often forfeit, Oh what needless pain we bear, all because we do not carry everything to God in prayer.”

If there’s peace we often forfeit by not going to God in prayer, then there’s also great blessing we forfeit by not confessing our sins to one another. What’s nice about a passage like this is that it reminds us that we have a lot of humanity in common with the original audience. They idolized their self-image, too. But if you think Christianity is simply all about living in such a way that everybody thinks you’ve got it all together, you don’t have any problems, and you’re a perfect Christian who doesn’t struggle in the least, you may not only misunderstand Christianity, but you’re definitely missing out on the blessing of honesty and a clear conscience. I wonder if you have this in your life, Christian. And I wonder if it’s in the context of what James is talking about here, namely, the local church? I want to discourage the kind of heart-felt honesty that primarily occurs outside the context of the local church. I’m glad you have close friends outside of the church, but they haven’t taken a covenant to watch over your soul, Christian. Your local church, on the other hand, has. So, with whom are you confessing your sins? With whom do you meet regularly to talk with brutal honesty about your sins, and then bask in the forgiveness of Christ? And if the answer to that is no one, then perhaps you’re missing out on one of the key ways God has provided for you to become more like Jesus. Perhaps you need what James is talking about here.

How do we apply this idea that healing from sickness comes by prayer? The practical outworking of these verses in James is not that if we pray really hard, and that if we have enough faith in our prayer, the person who is sick for whom we’re praying will suddenly get healed. Every, single prayer we pray needs to be uttered with faith and trust that God will accomplish everything that will bring him the most glory. That means when we prayed for Molly Barnes’ miraculous healing, we prayed with faith in God’s unmitigated power to heal her body. But we also prayed confident that God does all things well, including the taking of his saints to be home with him until he raises them up at the resurrection. The kind of prayer that James is after is the kind that trusts in the power of God to heal and to save, but at the same time, the kind of faith that is willing to say, “The Lord gives, the Lord takes away; [can you finish it?] blessed be the name of the Lord.”

III. Faith Brings the Wanderer Back

James ends with something so encouraging. In talking about a faith that works, he points out that faith has a deep and abiding concern for the faith of others. In other words, a faith that is indifferent to the eternal destiny of others is not a real faith. These two verses at the end are not about evangelism, but about discipling. Evangelism is all about helping people to begin following Jesus. Discipling is about helping people to keep following Jesus. And if someone wanders from the truth, and they wander off from Christ, and they wander off from the safety of the fold, and they buy into the lie, at least for a while, that the pleasures of this world outweigh the pleasures of being devoted to God, James says that God primarily uses Christians to restore Christians to the faith.

It’s as though James knows that after encouraging these Jewish Christians to be discerning about the kind of faith that produces works, as opposed to kind of false faith that produces no works, he knows that there might very well be cases of church discipline. He knows that some have already wandered from the truth, but the call he gives to these Christians is not to give up on those who have wandered away. God uses the persistence of believers to bring wanderers back into the fold. But we also have to understand that not everyone who wanders from the truth comes back. We pray for that not to happen, and we trust that by God’s grace they will be brought back. But we can’t be so naïve as a church to think that every person who claims to be a Christian will not cave beneath the pressures of a world they might very well be in love with. Paul said of Demas, his close friend and ministry partner, “Demas, in love with this present world, has deserted me” (II Tim. 4:9). But those who truly belong to Christ, though they may wander for a time, will never wander outside of God’s reach.

Friends, God saves souls from death and he covers a multitude of sins. Isn’t it just like God to have one of his apostles write a book that has so much law in it and then end with the gospel? And isn’t it so comforting to the soul that the gospel is true? God loves sinners, he saves sinners, and he keeps sinners. I praise God for the doctrine of the perseverance of the Saints. I wouldn’t be a Christian without it, literally. I wouldn’t want to continue in the faith if I knew that I had to keep myself in the faith.

I love how the Baptist Confession talks about the Perseverance of the Saints.

“Those God has accepted in the Beloved, effectually called and sanctified by his Spirit, and given the precious faith of his elect can neither totally nor finally fall from a state of grace. They will certainly persevere in grace to the end and be eternally saved, because the gifts and callings of God are [permanent]. Therefore, he still brings about and nourishes in them faith, repentance, love, joy, hope, and all the graces of the Spirit that lead to immortality. Even though many storms and floods arise and beat against them, yet these things will never be able to move the elect from the foundation and rock to which they are anchored by faith. The felt sight of the light and love of God may be clouded and obscured from them for a time through their unbelief and the temptations of Satan. Yet God is still the same; they will certainly be kept by the power of God for salvation, where they will enjoy their purchased possession. For they are engraved on the palms of his hands, and their names have been written in the book of life from all eternity.”

And remarkably, one of the ways in which James identifies God’s perseverance of the saints is through the ministry of the saints themselves. In this way, Christian, you are taking on the likeness of your Redeemer. Who went out and sought sinners who didn’t just wander from the truth, but suppressed it in unrighteousness? It was Christ. Who saved souls from eternal death by dying himself? It was Christ. And who covered a multitude of sins, and became sin who knew no sin so that we might become the righteousness of God in him? It was Christ. Christian, your calling to bring the wanderer back is grounded in what Christ has done for you. He’s done exactly that for you. And now your calling is to do that to others.

My non-Christian friend, the good news for you is that though you are a sinner and justly deserve eternal punishment for your sins, God is a God of mercy and grace. And he is in the business of saving sinners, as you’ve just heard. You too can be saved from death, and the mercy of Christ can cover the multitude of your sins. Christ died on the cross, he suffered under God’s wrath and satisfied it, was buried, and rose again so that anyone who repents of their sin, trusting in him alone, will be saved from eternal death. Isaiah 59:1 says, “Indeed, the LORD’s arm is not too weak to save, and his ear is not too deaf to hear.” I don’t care how far you’ve wandered, I don’t care how lost you are. You are not beyond the reach of the saving arm of the Lord. So, repent and believe, non-Christian, and the blood of Christ will cleanse you from all your sins.

[1] So Douglas Moo, Calvin, Luther, and Warfield. Therefore, I’m tempted to rest my case.

[2] Moo, James, 242.

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