March 30, 2008
The church is called to pray earnestly for those who are ill. A sincere prayer of faith includes confidence in God’s ability to heal while at the same time trusting God’s sovereignty, no matter what the outcome. Alistair Begg reminds us that God finds great pleasure when His children pray to Him boldly.
Sermon Transcript: Print
Now we’re going to read from James chapter 5, and I invite you to turn there. There are Bibles around you if you would like to make use of one.
“Is any one of you in trouble? He should pray. Is anyone happy? Let him sing songs of praise. Is any one of you sick? He should call the elders of the church to pray over him and anoint him with oil in the name of the Lord. And the prayer offered in faith will make the sick person well; the Lord will raise him up. If he has sinned, he will be forgiven. Therefore confess your sins to each other and pray for each other so that you may be healed. The prayer of a righteous man is powerful and effective.
“Elijah was a man just like us. 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. My brothers, if [any] one of you should wander from the truth and someone should bring him back, remember this: Whoever turns a sinner from the error of his way will save him from death and cover over a multitude of sins.”
Father, we pray that as we turn to the Bible now, that you will come and help us in speaking and in listening. At the very threshold of this new week, with many things already pressing in upon us for attention and consideration, we humbly ask for a sense of attention and diligence and that beyond the voice of a man we might hear your voice, the voice of God. For we humbly pray in Jesus’ name. Amen.
If you’re visiting us this evening, we’re trying to get to the end of a series of studies in the letter of James. And as you can tell from our reading, we are approaching the finishing tape, but we’re not quite there. We’ve actually come to what might arguably be regarded as the most difficult and taxing section of this particularly challenging little letter. We’ve already discovered in looking into it that it is a passage of Scripture that raises many different questions and also challenges many presuppositions. It is of great difficulty to come to this passage and try and set aside what we think we know in order that we might discover what we clearly don’t know.
Can I remind you of what we said in coming to the end of our last study? Because it is a couple of weeks since we were there.
We noted, first of all, that this particular passage is a passage about prayer, prayer being mentioned in every verse from 13 all the way through.
We secondly observed that this passage actually fits what Peter has to say concerning some of Paul’s writings, where he makes mention of the fact in his second letter that some of the things that Paul wrote were difficult to understand. And we said in passing that he might equally well have included this section at the end of James. But, of course, he didn’t do so.
Thirdly, we noted that since there are no parallel passages that we can turn to in the Letters or, indeed, in the New Testament, it demands that we proceed with caution. Any time that you’re turning to an area of Scripture where it is not mentioned and reinforced or interpreted in some way, then one must go with particular care.
And fourthly, we made note of the fact that the plain and obvious sense of the passage is that which should govern our exposition and our application. We ought to anticipate that that which is plain and clear to us should be the guiding principle of interpretation.
We also said that we would state with certainty the things that we could be certain of, and that at the same time, we would need to beware of dogmatism about that which is not just so straightforward.
And a number of principles, we said, emerged from the text.
One: that the initiative in this process—“Is any one of you sick? [Let him] call the elders of the church to pray over him and anoint him with oil in the name of the Lord”—the initiative in this process lies or rests with the person who is sick.
Secondly, that the elders of the local congregation have a special responsibility to respond to this request—that it is addressed first and foremost not to the church at large—although you will see in verse 16, we are to pray for one another—but in this instance, the individual is not calling just for the church but is calling for these men, spiritual men who are present, who are prayerful, and whose prominence is such that people would understand why it is they were being sent for.
And then thirdly and finally, by way of introduction, we said that we should not imagine that there is anything magical in this process, and certainly nothing about the whole idea of anointing with oil; rather, that we should see it probably as being a symbol of both the healing presence and the healing power of God.
Now, all of that took us, then, to the fifteenth verse, and we read it again: “And the prayer offered in faith will make the sick person well; the Lord will raise him up. If he has sinned, he will be forgiven.”
Now, obviously, the key phrase here is this “prayer offered in faith,” or in some translations simply “the prayer of faith.” And what makes this fifteenth verse so difficult is that James clearly does not anticipate failure. It is a categorical statement, and he makes no qualification to it whatsoever. And despite the fact that the time interval between the prayer and the results of the prayer is not mentioned, nevertheless, it still appears to be a categorical statement. It doesn’t say that it happens instantaneously. It doesn’t say that it happens after a week or two weeks or three months or five months. It simply states that it will happen: “And the prayer offered in faith will make the sick person well.”
Now, obviously, this demands immediate care and consideration. There’s no justification for believing that James assumed that the gift of healing was possessed by the elders in each local church. Furthermore, it’s not probable to assume that James envisages that everyone who is anointed and prayed for in this way will be automatically healed.
Now, the reason we say that is because when we read the rest of the Bible, when we read the rest of the New Testament, it is clear in the Scriptures that God doesn’t always will the healing of the believer. He doesn’t always will the healing of the believer. We can go to a variety of passages, but probably the locus classicus is surely Paul himself in 2 Corinthians 12, when he asked the Lord three times for this thorn in the flesh to be removed from him, and the answer of God is clearly “It is not in my will, Paul, to heal you of this condition.” In fact, he tells him quite straightforwardly that his strength will be made perfect in Paul’s weakness, because, says God to his servant, “my grace is sufficient for you.”
So, while clearly understanding that it is not always God’s intention to heal, we also have to say with affirmation that God can and God does heal, that he chooses to do so in answer to prayer, and we might say so in relationship to this procedure that he has laid down primarily. In other words, it is not in the New Testament as a fiction. It is not there to tease us or to trouble us. It is there in order that we might wrestle with it, that we might apply it, and that we might face the implications of it.
So, if we are then agreed—and I’m going to assume that you’re with me on this—that what we have here is not a blanket guarantee for healing in any and every instance, then what are we to understand of this statement? If it is not that in every instance that this is done, healing comes, how do we make sense of the verse? And there are a number of ways we can approach it.
Number one: that the reference to being sick here does not refer to physical illness but to the buffetings and trials with which James began his letter: “Count it all joy when you face trials of various kinds.” And some commentators say that is obviously what James is referring to. I think my answer to that would be very simple and straightforward: while the buffetings and trials of James chapter 1—the struggles of the battle, the mental anguish that is involved in it all—while that doubtless is contained in this, we cannot in all integrity, understanding the English language, say for a moment that this verse is limited to that. Sure, buffetings and trials may be addressed, but it is a real stretch to suggest that that is what James is mentioning here.
Secondly, some say that this phrase, which is found only here in the New Testament, is simply a technical term or, if you like, a kind of proverb—that it is a proverbial statement; that since James is very much along the lines of his brother Jesus, since the Sermon on the Mount had statements that are proverbial in their nature, then, say some commentators, that’s probably how we ought to tackle it; that it is just a sort of proverbial, generalized statement; that we ought to view it as, if you like, a general rule of thumb.
Well, I suppose there is something to commend that notion. We’re trying to understand what it means. It would seem that those who are trying to understand it in that way are not trying to wiggle their way out of what verse 15 conveys but are trying to make sense of the text. And after all, there are some clear similarities between the Proverbs—the book of Proverbs—and the statements made by James throughout this letter. But I wouldn’t go there.
Thirdly, the suggestion by some is that this refers to a dimension of healing that fits the framework of the apostolic era—that fits the framework primarily of Luke chapter 10. And, of course, if you remember our studies in Luke from a long time ago, you may remember that it is in Luke chapter 10 that Jesus says to his servants, “I have given you authority to trample on snakes and scorpions and to overcome all the power of the enemy; nothing will harm you.” And some of the commentators say that this is that era, and therefore, since we are not in that era, there is therefore now no continuing application for today, and all we need to understand is that verse 15 referred to another place and another time, and then we can move quickly to verse 16 and hasten to the end of our studies.
But in actual fact, the way in which James earths this statement, the way in which he associates this ministry of healing not with an apostolic era but with the continuing authority and place of the local church leadership—the fact that James does that I think diminishes significantly the strength of the view which, again, people, in trying to understand the Bible, are coming to and saying, “It has to mean something, and therefore, perhaps it means this.”
Fourth view—and there are many more than this, but I won’t weary you further—the fourth view is to say that what is referenced here is, if you like, a special enduement of faith. Verse 15: “And the prayer offered in faith,” or the prayer of faith. In other words, it’s not simply a reference to prayer per se, but it is a reference to a particular prayer that is offered up in faith in relationship to the presenting problem—namely, the sickness of the one who has called for the elders. In other words, it is a prayer that takes, if you like, those praying it beyond the realm of simple trust and into a realm whereby they are laying hold of something that they believe to have been revealed to them in a particular way. In other words, that we might think of it in terms of 1 Corinthians 12, where, in verse 7, Paul says, “Now to each one the manifestation of the Spirit is given for the common good. To one there is given through the Spirit the message of wisdom, to another the message of knowledge by means of the same Spirit, to another faith by the same Spirit, to another gifts of healing by that one Spirit,” and so on. And so the suggestion is that what James is referencing here is not the presence of a gift of healing that resides in the leadership of the church but the presence of a gift of faith granted to the leaders in the presenting issue of the individual who calls in their sickness.
Now, I think this has quite a lot to commend it, but it still doesn’t fully settle things in my own mind. It helps us to realize that James is not simply referring to a formula or, if you like, to ordinary prayer but to a prayer which results from a Spirit-wrought conviction that it is the Lord’s will to grant healing in this instance. Now, that in itself is very difficult. Because the subjective dimension that is involved in it is open to all kinds of potential pitfalls. So someone may say, “I have a very strong conviction that when we pray over this individual, they are going to be healed. I believe that God has given me the faith not simply to pray, ‘If you would like to heal this person, go ahead,’ but has given me the faith to pray, ‘O God, fulfill that which you have prompted within me as I cry out to you for the healing of this individual in this instant.’”
Now, when you take that—and, indeed, you take all of them and roll them all in together—you see why it is so important that we pay careful attention to the Bible, and why it is so important that the responsibility here in verse 15 is to be exercised by those who are men of prayer, who are men of wisdom, and who are men of discernment: that there is a legitimate right on the part of the congregation to believe that those who’ve been set apart to the task of eldership will be men of discernment and of spiritual wisdom and of insight and of prayer. That’s why novices should not be made elders of the church. But it still begs the question: What if physical healing does not prove to be God’s will? What if physical healing does not prove to be God’s will?
Can I read to you just one of the commentators that I found helpful when I read it? It’s always dangerous to go back to it, because sometimes when I read it, it doesn’t sound as helpful as it did when I was in my study. But I’m committed now, so we’ll have to take the risk. It’s not a long quote, but it is fairly intricate: “James introduces no qualification to the promise in this verse.” We’ve already said that.
The prayer of faith will save the sick person, his sins will be forgiven. Does this mean that a prayer for healing that is offered in faith will infallibly be effectual? As we have seen, some have suggested that this is the case, but have confined these miraculous cures to the apostolic age. But there is nothing in the text to suggest such a restriction. A more helpful observation is to note James’ specific reminder that the prayer must be a prayer of faith. This faith, while certainly including the notion of confidence in God’s ability to answer, also involves absolute confidence in the perfection of God’s will. A true prayer of faith, then, always includes within it a tacit acknowledgment of God’s sovereignty in all matters; that it is God’s will that must be done. And it is clear that it is by no means always God’s will to heal those who are ill …. Therefore, the “faith” that is the indispensable condition for our prayers for healing to be answered—this faith being the gift of God—can be truly present only when it is God’s will to heal.
In other words, that God does not prompt the spiritually mature and wise to lay hold upon his promise in this way unless he has already purposed to bring about healing according to his will. Now, if that seems like getting your cake and eating it too, I can identify with that immediate skepticism. But I really think it is quite helpful.
Well, we need to go on, because our time is hastening.
When you look at the balance of the verse, it doesn’t actually get any easier. It is encouraging to recognize that it is “the Lord who will raise him up.” It is the Lord who raises them up—not the process, not the oil, not the faith, not the elders, but the Lord himself. And indeed, the word that is used here for being raised up is a very straightforward word. It is the word that is used for what happened to the mother-in-law of Simon Peter, remember, where she was ill, they’d gone to the house, and Jesus raised her up. It is the word that is used in Acts chapter 3, where the man who has been invalided is raised up, and he went jumping up and walking and leaping and praising God. It is also the word that is used of the man who was paralyzed, whom Jesus said, “Take up your mat and go up the street.”
So in other words, the idea of being raised up is again a very categorical thing. This is not that we anticipate that the person who has some dreadful disease will manage to get up and sort of lumber and stumble around their bed. Some of us who have lived in these circles have been privy to that kind of nonsense, and it is quite tragic and disheartening: people wanting to somehow or another make much of their prayers or, giving them the benefit of the doubt, making much of God’s power have taken people who are so clearly in a condition of terminal illness and got them up and made them walk around the bed in order that they might go back to the congregation and tell them, “Yes, God has raised them up.” And then, within a matter of a few days, the person has passed on into eternity. There is nothing served by that kind of nonsense. And it cannot be that James has that in mind when he says that a prayer offered in the will of God in this way that brings about the transformation in the individual will raise them up; they will be absolutely, clearly, dramatically changed from where they were before God intervened in their lives.
“And,” he says, if the individual “has sinned, he will be forgiven.” “If he has sinned, he will be forgiven.” Now, let me just say a couple of things about this.
First of all, we need to set aside the notion that illness is always and immediately to be associated with sin—that there is, if you like, a one-for-one link with sickness and with sin. The idea of such a thing is, again, clearly rejected in the Bible. The whole book of Job makes that perfectly clear. It wasn’t because of Job’s sin, as his friends (so-called) tried to explain, but it was for other purposes altogether. And classically, you will remember in John chapter 9, when the fellow who was blind from birth was brought to Jesus, the question of the disciples was “Who sinned? Was it this man or was it his parents?” And Jesus says, “This isn’t about sin.” You go wrong if you make a one-to-one link between sickness and with sin. If that were the case, we would be spending all of our time recognizing that all of our ailments were directly related to these things. So, that is the first thing to say.
Secondly, we need to acknowledge, having said that, that sin involving the misuse of our bodies may bring illness and may bring disease. So, two things are important. “If he has sinned, he will be forgiven.” Well, does that mean then that if the person is sick, it is because he has sinned? No, not necessarily. But what James is covering is the eventuality that if there is sin involved, that forgiveness will be granted in that context. And perhaps the obvious cross-reference, when you think about this, is Paul’s statement to the Corinthians, when in 1 Corinthians 11, in relationship to the issues of the Lord’s Supper, he says to them, “You don’t want to be coming to this table without examining yourself, without paying attention, without confessing your sins,” and so on. First Corinthians 11:: because whoever “eats and drinks without recognizing the body of the Lord eats and drinks judgment on himself.” And then he says, “That is why many among you are weak and sick, and a number of you have fallen asleep.” So in other words, he says there is a direct link in certain instances between the sinfulness of the people’s heart and the sickness of their lives. So in other words, we need to be alert to both situations.
What then can we say as we draw it to a close for tonight? Well, we ought to recognize that sickness may actually be a means of grace to us. To be set aside, to be unwell, to be in a situation where we need to call for this kind of intervention will produce for most of us a period of reflection and, in that period of reflection, an opportunity for us to examine ourselves—especially if the sickness confronts us with our mortality; especially if we are made aware of our own finitude; especially if we recognize how close we are to eternity, how only a breath or the absence of a breath separates us from the very judgment throne of God. And in that experience of illness, God may use it as a means of grace, not simply to show us that our sickness is tied to our sin but to show us, in our sickness, sins that we have neglected or tolerated, or worse still, cultivated and played with. And the very experience of sickness becomes an opportunity for confession and for forgiveness. We lie in that situation, realizing that we will never be completely whole until we are reconciled to God.
Well, here we are. I think that’s enough. If you feel that you can’t see the wood from the trees, I apologize. “The prayer offered in faith,” whatever that means, “will make the sick person well,” whoever they are. “The Lord will raise him up.” Absolutely, straightforwardly clear, there’s a main thing and a plain thing: If anybody is raised up, it will be the Lord that raises them up. And if they have sinned, they will be forgiven.
Well, next time we’ll come to verse 16. But in conclusion, let us just notice: God does heal according to his sovereign will, and prayer makes a difference, and prayer is involved. God, in healing, ordains the means as well as the ends. And God loves for his children to come to him in humble boldness.
Anytime that you find—when you go to your Bible, when you read the works of the church fathers—when you find that your heroes are set in opposition to one another in exegeting the text, so that I want desperately, perhaps, to believe what Calvin believes, but I can’t, because I can’t come to the conclusion that he came to: that somehow or another this was all about the apostolic era, and it is irrelevant for twenty-first century Cleveland. He may be right. I may be wrong. We’re not both right. And as we work our way down the line, I’m teaching you a principle, and it’s this: the main things are the plain things, and the plain things are the main things. And when things are mentioned only once, when things are cloudy and not crystal clear, then beware of a genius telling you he knows exactly what it means and trying to convince you of his or her view, and rest content that all that we need for life and for godliness, for pursuing God, for engaging in our encouragement of one another is made perfectly plain to us in the Bible.
And finally, when we’ve stopped seeing through a glass darkly and we see face-to-face, when we know even as we are known, then presumably, somewhere in this new heaven and new earth, in a way that is really hard to imagine, we’re going to get the chance to sit down with these people and say, “Calvin, what in the world were you thinking?”
And he’ll say, “You always were an intellectual pygmy, Begg, and you should have paid attention to my commentary.”
And I’ll say, “Well, that is definitely true. That is definitely true.”
Well, next week we’ll try verse 16. It’s… Yeah.
Let’s just pray:
God our Father, we want to be men and women of faith. We want to be the kind of people who lay hold upon your promises. We don’t want to come to the Bible and try to find ways to explain it away because it’s hard for us or because it’s areas of spiritual geography that we’ve never really entered into. We want to grow deeper in our love for you. We want to grow in grace and in a knowledge of the Lord Jesus Christ. We want to make sure that when we anoint people with oil and pray over them, that we’re not holding out false dreams and hopes, nor that we’re going through a mechanical exercise that we feel has little impact or import at all. But at the same time, we don’t want to get tied up in subjective notions that have no confirming validation in the Bible. And yet we want to be sensitive. We want to be prompted by your Spirit. We want to believe that in accordance with your will to heal, you would give convictions to those who are seeking your mind and knowing you, so as not to hold out false hopes for people but at the same time to hold onto you as a God who does all things well.
So help us, Lord, we pray, to this end. For the glory of your name we ask it. Amen.
 See 2 Peter 3:16.
 See 2 Corinthians 12:7–9.
 2 Corinthians 12:9 (NIV 1984).
 James 1:2 (paraphrased).
 Luke 10:19 (NIV 1984).
 Douglas Moo, The Epistle of James: An Introduction and Commentary, Tyndale New Testament Commentaries (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1985), 182.
 See Matthew 8:14–15; Mark 1:29–31; Luke 4:38–39.
 See Acts 3:7–8.
 Mark 2:11 (paraphrased). See also John 5:8.
 John 9:2–3 (paraphrased).
 1 Corinthians 11:28 (paraphrased).
 See 1 Corinthians 13:12.
 See 2 Peter 3:18.
Copyright © 2023, Alistair Begg. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations for sermons preached on or after November 6, 2011 are taken from The ESV® Bible (The Holy Bible, English Standard Version®), copyright © 2001 by Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
For sermons preached before November 6, 2011, unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are taken from The Holy Bible, New International Version® (NIV®), copyright © 1973 1978 1984 by Biblica, Inc.TM Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide.