Some Problem Passages in James (Part 2)
© 2020 C. O. Bishop
James 5:12-20 Healing, Confession, Prayer, Conversion, and “Saved from Death”
We are finishing up our study in the Book of James, and last week we discussed some passages with some small problems for us in terms of how to apply them. But the following verses give me serious trouble:
I am not at all sure that I understand the last seven verses, here. I’ve heard them preached, and seen them put into practice, but unless my memory fails me (and my wife remembers the same few times I recall), every single time I have seen this done, the patient has not been healed, but rather has died. So, perhaps we need to give serious thought as to what is being taught here.
14 Is any sick among you? 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: 15 And the prayer of faith shall save the sick, and the Lord shall raise him up; and if he have committed sins, they shall be forgiven him.
So, what should we get from this? To begin with, I can definitely say that the sick person is the one to call for the elders. It is not for the elders to volunteer. They are told to pray over the sick individual, and anoint that person with oil in the name of the Lord. (OK, so far…) But then, verse 15 makes a clear statement that “the prayer of faith shall save the sick, and the Lord shall raise him up, AND if he has committed sins they shall be forgiven him.
In legal terminology, the word “shall” is a very strong word: it is the word that makes an issue mandatory, without exception, unless otherwise stated. It would seem, then,that the passage has to be a “blanket promise for healing” so long as some certain conditions are met. So…in the cases where the sick was not healed…what should I assume? What were the “conditions?”
- Was their prayer not “the prayer of faith?” In other words, “Was it the fault of the elders?” I can’t blame the patient for a lack of faith: all they were told to do is call the elders; and they did so! So, let’s say the elders have “doubts about” this passage: if they lack faith, then, should they disobey and not follow through and pray? Jonah wasn’t “full of faith,” but God used him! Namaan the Syrian wasn’t “full of faith” when he took “seven dips” in the Jordan. He had just enough faith to go and do it! Seems to me they need to go and do it when called. But then…what is the “prayer of faith?” (I guess I don’t know!)
- Is there some sort of “formula” not being correctly followed? (If so, it is not stated.) A special kind of oil, for instance? Special liturgy to follow?
- Dr. McGee points out that the Greek word for “anoint,” here, is not the word “chrio” which is used in the sense of a spiritual “anointing” and from which we get the word “Christos” or “Christ…the anointed one…the Messiah.” Instead, it is the Greek word “aleipho” which just means “put oil on something,” often for a practical reason. His commentary says that since it was sometimes used in a medicinal sense, he has concluded that this must mean to “go get medical attention in addition to the prayers.” Sorry…it simply doesn’t say that: Grammatically, it says that the elders are to pray over the sick person, anointing that person with oil, in the name of the Lord! (The doctor would not do that!) There is no teaching here of getting separate medical attention, though I agree that the oil may not be a “ritual anointing.” I just don’t know how to understand this. I certainly believe in going to doctors for help. (Jesus said “he that is sick needeth a physician.”) That is not what this passage is about.
- I do think it is worth noting that it says “…the prayer of faith shall save the sick…” It does not say the oil will do it. (Regardless of what the oil may mean.)
- So, then, is this only for sicknesses caused by sin? Verse 15 does bring up the possibility that sin was involved. And if it is for “sicknesses caused by sin”, then why would it not heal some of the modern, fatal diseases that definitely are caused by sin?
- Is the Lord no longer offering this promise? (It does say the Lord shall raise him up…) Has that offer been revoked? There are people who truly believe this to be the case; that this promise is no longer in force. How would we know, for sure?
- Was the promise only for a select group of believers? Well, the book was originally written to Jewish believers. But, I don’t believe that healing is only promised to Jewish Christians. There were lots of Gentiles healed in the New Testament.
- Does the fact that the word translated “sick” in verse 15 is not the same as the one in verse 14 make any difference? (In verse 15, the Greek word is “kamnonta” and it means “exhausted one”, or “faint one,” and it’s only used four times in scripture, and only translated “sick” in this verse. The Greek word in verse 14 is “asthenei”, which is frequently translated “sick”, or “infirm,” but also could be translated “faint” or “weak.” The word “asthenei” is the one used in regard to Lazarus, who was so sick that he died… and Jesus raised him from the dead. John 11:1-44)
The fact is, I have no solid answers to any of the above questions, and I am not willing to jump to anecdotal “proofs” of any sort. Either God gives light in His Word, or He does not. The claims made by so-called “healers” usually end up proving false: some very shamefully, publicly false, which leads unbelievers to blaspheme the Lord, and claim that the scriptures are false, and that all who believe the Bible are fools. And I can’t blame them, when that’s what they see!
For the moment, I have to confess, I simply do not know what to make of this passage. I don’t like to “skip a verse”, and I am not inclined to pretend to have knowledge, when I can’t back it up with God’s Word. So…that’s where it stands for right now. I’m sorry!
The next verse seems to tie in with the previous two, with the exception that it does not mention oil or prayers of the elders, at all: it does mention confessing our faults to one another, and praying for one another. It again mentions healing, but seems to be a general principle, not necessarily a specific incident of sickness.
16 Confess your faults one to another, and pray one for another, that ye may be healed. The effectual fervent prayer of a righteous man availeth much.
The word translated “faults” here, is not the usual Greek work “hamartias” which is translated “Sins,” (as in 1st John 1:9.) It is the Greek “paraptomata”, and it means “offenses, trespasses, faults, etc.” This is not grounds for the practice of the “confessional”, as in some religions. It means that if I have offended, I should confess it to the offended party, and if it is a public matter, I should confess it publicly; not necessarily in a formal setting, as though it were a courtroom, but simply addressing the fact that (for example) “I wronged this brother when I was angry. I said harsh words about him. It was unfair of me to speak that way, as he was not at fault. I have already spoken to him, and asked his forgiveness, but many of you heard me, and I want your forgiveness too.” That sort of honest transparency “keeps the decks clear,” so to speak, and perhaps keeps our communication with God more open as well, because Psalm 66:18 says, “If I regard iniquity in my heart, the LORD will not hear me.”
It also says, “The effectual fervent prayer of a righteous man availeth much.” This passage is constantly quoted as proof that “prayer changes things,” and I agree that it does. I believe that we are commanded to “pray without ceasing,” (1st Thessalonians 5:17) and “in everything.” (Philippians 4:6, 7) We have examples in the lives of the apostles, as well as Old Testament saints, and the life of Jesus Himself. They all seemed to have pretty intense prayer-lives.
17 Elias was a man subject to like passions as we are, and he prayed earnestly that it might not rain: and it rained not on the earth by the space of three years and six months. 18 And he prayed again, and the heaven gave rain, and the earth brought forth her fruit.
This is a good reminder that prayer can make a difference: It is important to read what the rest of the scriptures say about prayer, too, though: 1st John 3:22; and 5:14, 15 give some admonitions regarding God’s reply to prayers. There are some keys given, in regard to answered prayer. We do not always “get what we want.” The passage in 1st John 3:22 suggests that we have to be living in God’s will in order to have confidence in prayer. If we aren’t even walking with Him, why should we hope for Him to do what we want? And the one in 1st John 5:14, 15 lets us know, that God still reserves the right to veto our idea. Remember that He is God!
He does answer prayers, but He reserves the right to answer “No”, or “Wait” as well as “Yes.” We say, “God didn’t answer my prayer,” unless He immediately answers “Yes!” That is a bad response on our part, and certainly not one that expresses faith. “No” is a legitimate answer, too, and sometimes it is the best answer God can give. “Wait” is also a good answer, in many cases.
Consider how many times a young child asks his parents about something he or she wants to happen. Little children are asking from a child’s perspective, and cannot understand all the ramifications of their requests. Like those little children, we have very limited understanding of the things of God, and the eternal issues He considers in responding to our desires. We need to trust that He will make the best choices for us, but also remember that He does want us to ask. And, finally,
What does “Convert” mean? What does Death mean?
19 Brethren, if any of you do err from the truth, and one convert him; 20 Let him know, that he which converteth the sinner from the error of his way shall save a soul from death, and shall hide a multitude of sins.
Is this about evangelism? Or is it in regard to restoring a sinning brother?
There are three keys to understanding this passage:
- The first is the phrase “if any of you do err from the truth”
- The second is to find the meaning of the verb, “to convert.”
- The third is to determine which of the three possible meanings of the word “death” is intended in this passage.
In the context (“Brethren, if any of you…”) I would have to say that it is regarding a sinning brother (or sister) who is erring from the truth, not an unbeliever who has never been connected to the truth. Remember that Jesus said “I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life…” when we sin, we are “erring from the truth”…wandering from the way, and temporarily separated from the life of Christ. Not lost, but acting as though we were lost…and, for all practical purposes, living as if we never knew Him.
But, in that case, I also have to ask, what does it mean to “convert” someone else? I certainly cannot “save” someone else, nor can I even force them, through strength of argument, to voluntarily receive the Lord. They have to make that decision themselves. Remember that the door to the truth is the will, not the intellect. (“Whosoever will may come!”) So, in what way are we “saving a soul from death?” What does “conversion” even refer to?
In our culture, we have long referred to salvation as “conversion:” possibly even because of this passage. But Jesus addressed Peter (already a believer) and said “ … Simon, Simon, behold, Satan hath desired to have you, that he may sift you as wheat: But I have prayed for thee, that thy faith fail not: and when thou art converted, strengthen thy brethren.” (Luke 22:31, 32)
How could Peter, who was already a believer, expect to be “converted?” Perhaps some people would use this verse to support the idea of a believer “losing their salvation and being saved over again:” But it says, “I have prayed for thee that thy faith fail not.” So, if Peter’s faith did not fail even though he denied the Lord, and he felt that his faith had failed, and he acted as though his faith had failed, what would his subsequent “conversion” entail?
The English verb “convert” (from the Greek, “epistrepho”) means to “turn back”, or “return.” It is the same word used when the shepherds “returned” after seeing Jesus in the Manger, and they “went back” to their flocks, glorifying God. (Luke 2:20) It was also the word used when the demon in Jesus’s parable decided to “return to his house,” meaning to “go back and repossess the man who had been freed from demonic possession.” (Luke 11:24) So Peter was expected to return to his strong faith. Could the word be used to denote salvation? Possibly…but the primary use simply means to return…go back! An unbeliever has never been a child of God: he cannot “return” to being one. Only a sinning brother or sister can “return” to the Lord. So, that leaves the last question, “What kind of death?”
Is this simply the “separation from fellowship” …a spiritual deadness which occurs every time we are out of fellowship? Or are we talking about the eternal “second death,” warned against in the Revelation? (In which case this would definitely be about evangelism, not restoration.) Or, is it actually about physical death? (Which indeed can result from a continuing pattern of rebellion in a believer’s life.)
To begin with, I am sure that this is a believer in question: it says, “Brethren (that means believers), if any of you do err from the truth…” So, let us assume there is no further question that the individual is already saved. That settles the issue with death, as well, then, because it is impossible for a believer to die, spiritually, although they can live as if they were spiritually dead, if they are out of fellowship. So, the only possible choices are either the “spiritual deadness” that results from unbelief and disobedience, or, more likely, physical death.
There are several examples in scripture of believers whose lives were taken by God, because of rebellion, or some flagrant sin. Perhaps that is the warning, here. John says that “there is a sin unto death.” (1st John 5:16) And John was talking about believers. In 1st Corinthians 11:17-34, Paul stated that some in the church at Corinth—believers— had physically died because of their sins regarding the Lord’s Table. They had dishonored the Lord by their actions and attitudes, in what is intended to be a solemn, holy memorial and celebration.
Ananias and Sapphira, in Acts 5:1-11, were believers too, but their sin of publicly lying to God, about something so mundane and trivial as money, cost them their lives. Peter demonstrated how pointless the whole thing had been; saying that the money was theirs, the land was theirs: they had been free to keep it, give it, or do whatever they wanted with it. But they lied to God about it, and judgment fell. They did not lose their salvation: they lost their lives.
King Josiah, one of the best kings Judah ever had, lost his life in an unnecessary battle with an Egyptian king who had no quarrel with Judah. (2nd Kings 23) We can lose our lives because of sin, too. Anger or lust or envy can drive us into situations that become deadly: in traffic, water-sports, or other life-situations. As we try to out-do a rival, or pass another driver, or show off for someone we want to impress, we take unnecessary risks. Many young men lose their lives through foolish behavior, but it is not limited to the young, nor only to men.
Left to ourselves, we can allow sin to fester until it erupts into a catastrophe. Murders have often occurred because of hurt feelings, anger, jealousy, etc. That possibility is not just for unbelievers. Christians are capable of every sin, the same as unbelievers. Suicides frequently occur because the individual turns in upon himself in a tighter and tighter “vortex” of frustration, guilt, fear, despair or anger, until there seems to be no escape. Sometimes (but not always) someone else can draw alongside the suicidal person and turn them away from the trap into which they are falling. That is what we are called upon to do, here.
We are told to care for one another, and to help turn one another away from such snares. I have personally known believers who allowed themselves to be drawn into sin that eventually cost them their lives. I don’t know what could have been done to turn them back from that sin, before it was too late. I do know that their family (also believers) desperately tried, but finally gave up trying. I heard about the results long after the fact. But we are told, here, that if we can “turn them back,” it will save their life, ultimately.
Believers are not immune to the attacks of the Evil one. In fact, we are his primary target. He really doesn’t need to do anything to unbelievers: he already has them. We are members of the Body of Christ, and Satan attacks us, in order to fight against Jesus, the King.
This closing admonition from James is to remind us of the battle we are in, and to urge us to take it seriously. I pray that we will do so. We are to function together as a team, as a body, and work to strengthen and bless one another. If we fail in that regard, the enemy is always looking for an opportunity to attack. We are told to “be sober, be vigilant, for your enemy the devil walketh about as a roaring Lion, seeking whom he may devour.” (1st Peter 5:8)
Lord Jesus, we ask that you will feed us on Your Word, and give us the Wisdom to apply it to our lives, even when we feel that we don’t fully understand. Shape us into your likeness and help us in our weakness and our ignorance.