Thursday, August 10, 2017

The prayer of faith will save the sick

6 But let him ask in faith, with no doubting, for the one who doubts is like a wave of the sea that is driven and tossed by the wind. 7 For that person must not suppose that he will receive anything from the Lord; 8 he is a double-minded man, unstable in all his ways (Jas 1:6-8).

13 Is anyone among you suffering? Let him pray. Is anyone cheerful? Let him sing praise. 14 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. 15 And the prayer of faith will save the one who is sick, and the Lord will raise him up. And if he has committed sins, he will be forgiven. 16 Therefore, confess your sins to one another and pray for one another, that you may be healed. The prayer of a righteous person has great power as it is working. 17 Elijah was a man with a nature like ours, and he prayed fervently that it might not rain, and for three years and six months it did not rain on the earth. 18 Then he prayed again, and heaven gave rain, and the earth bore its fruit (Jas 5:13-18).

1. These two passages are similar. The difference is that Jas 1:6-8 enunciates a general principle, whereas Jas 5:13-18 represents a special application of that principle. There is, though, a prima facie problem inasmuch as both passages seem to promise too much and deliver too little. 

2. One commentator offers this explanation:

This could be understood to mean that it is up to believers to convince themselves that God will give them what they ask for and somehow to expunge all traces of uncertainty from their minds. But this kind of self-hypnosis is not what James is getting at here. The "faith" required for asking is trust in the character and promises of God. D. McCartney, James (Baker 2009), 90.

Perhaps James has in mind something like the Exodus-generation, which witnessed many unmistakable signs, but was chronically skeptical about God's provision for the future despite overwhelming divine precedent. 

That, however, doesn't entirely relieve the tension, for 1:6-7 takes the form of a divine promise. That's what believers are supposed to put their faith in. Yet the language is unqualified. And 5:15 presents a more specific case of the same tension. 

3. James appears to be the kind of writer who doesn't say everything at once. (I say "appears" to be because we only have one writing by him, so it's hard to generalize.) Instead, his letter contains other statements, separated from these two promises, which contain provisos that implicitly moderate them. For instance: 

You do not have, because you do not ask. 3 You ask and do not receive, because you ask wrongly, to spend it on your passions (Jas 4:2-3).

Here he says one impediment to answered prayer is ill-motivated prayer. In that case, lack of faith is not the only reason for unanswered prayer. 

4. Here's another example:

13 Come now, you who say, “Today or tomorrow we will go into such and such a town and spend a year there and trade and make a profit”— 14 yet you do not know what tomorrow will bring. What is your life? For you are a mist that appears for a little time and then vanishes. 15 Instead you ought to say, “If the Lord wills, we will live and do this or that” (Jas 4:13-15).

i) "If the Lord wills" is called the Jacobean condition. The thrust of this passage is that it's impious to be presumptuous about the future, because we don't know or control the future. Our plans may conflict with God's plan, and when that happens, God's plan prevails. 

But that has implications for what James says about faith and prayer. Presumably, James doesn't think faith and prayer function like a blank check, since that's inconsistent with his admonition in 4:13-15. 

ii) Most commentators think the Jacobean condition denotes God's decretive or providential will. An exception is McCartney, who thinks it denotes God's preceptive will. He gives two or three reasons:

Rarely, however, does James show any interest in God's decretive will, his primary interest is on obedience to God's revealed ethical will (e.g. 1:25; 2:8). D. McCartney, ibid., 227. 

I think that's a very weak argument. We have a single, brief, occasional writing from James. That's a completely inadequate sample to generalize about the writer's theological interests.

And if James were advocating nothing more than a passive acceptance of whatever God sends, it would be out of character with the rest of the letter (227).

That's an odd objection coming from a commentator who's presumably a Calvinist. He makes it sound as if belief in predestination fosters fatalistic resignation. 

Belief in predestination is not a logical disincentive to plan ahead. For one thing, we don't know ahead of time what God has foreordained. That's something we discover through experience, as the future eventuates. In addition, our activities, including our plans, contribute to the future, as predestined causes. Even plans that fall through contribute to the future. It's a false dichotomy to oppose human agency to divine agency. Strictly speaking, God's plan doesn't override human plans. Rather, our plans, including our failed plans, are predestined means by which God providentially realizes his own plan. 

This reading fits much better with the summary apophthegm in 4:17 ("Therefore, if someone knows a good thing to do, and does not do it, to him it is sin"), to which otherwise it is hard to see the connection (228).

That's McCartney's strongest argument, based on what follows v15. However, we also need to consider what precedes v15. James derives that conclusion from vv13-14, where he's describing the contrast between false expectations and how things actually turn out. The context unavoidably implies a reference to God's decretive will. 

Moreover, ethical deliberations are still a necessary part of responsible decision-making and planning for the future. So, pace McCartney, I agree with most commentators (e.g. Allison, Blomberg, Davids, Johnson, Moo) that James is referring to God's decretive or providential will. And that, in turn, qualifies the force of 1:6 and 5:15. 

5. One possible interpretation of 1:6 and 5:15 is that James is using hyperbolic language. Scripture often speaks in generalities. But that's understood to allow for exceptions. The bold invitation is an encouragement to take advantage of the opportunity. You have nothing to lose and something to gain.

6. But another possibility is that James isn't referring to garden-variety faith. Rather, there may be occasions when God gives a Christian a sense of certitude regarding his will in that particular situation. I think of that when I read this account:

7. Another interpretation is that James includes spiritual healing, so even if the rite has no curative effect, it is still efficacious. However, that's a face-saving interpretation. The text is about physical illness. And even though the text refers to confession, forgiveness is categorically distinct from physical healing. One is not a substitute for the other. 

7. In 5:14, what does James mean by "elders of the church"? Does "elder" denote church office, or an honorific title for seasoned, saintly believers? Hard to say. Certainly the letter doesn't furnish enough information to tell us anything about his ecclesiology. If, however, the author was the leader of the church in Jerusalem, then Acts gives us some general background. Even so, we don't know if the 1C church of Jerusalem had a developed polity, or whether James even cared about those distinctions. 

Moreover, this may be irrelevant inasmuch as vv14-15 transition to corporate intercessory prayer in v16. At that level, the entire congregation is involved. Can't say for sure how James envisions the interrelationship, but perhaps while only elders performed the rite, the congregation was aware of ailing members, and prayer requests were general.

8. He cites the example of Elijah to illustrate the principle. According to James, what made the prayer of Elijah efficacious wasn't his official capacity, but his "righteous" character. The implication is that God is more likely to heed the prayers of a devout supplicant. 

9. In terms of historical theology, Jas 5:14-16 was a flashpoint of controversy. Trent made this a prooftext for extreme unction. But there are many problems with that interpretation:

i) The rationale for extreme unction is the need for Christians to die in a state of grace. If they die in mortal sin, they are doomed. On their deathbed they need to receive absolution. 

Of course, the timing is tricky. If you wait too long, you may die before receiving last rites, in which case it's too late for you to benefit from that sacrament.

In any event, that interpretation involves many theological assumptions that can't be derived from the text. An extraneous theological framework which imposes that meaning on the text. 

ii) Another problem is how the Catholic interpretation makes absolution primary, and healing secondary–but subordinating the healing dimension runs counter to the text. 

iii) Furthermore, there's nothing about "holy oil". No indication that the oil is consecrated. 

The Protestant Reformers were right to reject the Catholic interpretation and application of that text.

10. Due, however, to their cessationist outlook, Jas 5:14-16 fell into disuse. If God no longer performs healing miracles through human instrumentality, then this text is defunct. And this was exacerbated by the fact that Catholic misuse made the text radioactive. Cf. D. Allision, James (Bloomsbury 2013), 741-45.

It's interesting that James doesn't discuss the evidential value of miraculous healing. He doesn't make that the reason for the rite. 


  1. I think I catch your meaning, but:

    "Our plans may conflict with God's plan, and when that happens, God's plan prevails."

    seems to butt heads with:

    "Strictly speaking, God's plan doesn't override human plans. Rather, our plans, including our failed plans, are predestined means by which God providentially realizes his own plan."

    I suppose the first statement might be saying that our plans may conflict with God's from an earthly point of view. Or am I missing something?

    1. What we intend our plans to accomplish may conflict with God's intentions for what our plans actually accomplish, whether they succeed for fail.

    2. I was considering the prayer of faith recently, not at all because I'll be teaching through James beginning in the fall though I will be. I was considering the passage prior to deciding upon James. My wife was listening to a Sinclair Ferguson message on the passage and his interpretation caught my attention as I psssed through the kitchen. :)

      Close to your #6, I lean toward it being a gift God may be pleased to grant at a particular time for a particulate purpose. An efficacious prayer of sorts. Whether one receives an externalist affirmation is maybe another question. Maybe one does because I would think other prayers can be efficacious but something would appear more extraordinary in what James is describing. Maybe this pertains strictly to something quite unusual, e.g. miraculous healing, or else an affirmation that God will surely act. Maybe both of these go together. I'd think maybe so from the passage.

      The first passage I would take as somewhat unrelated, an exhortation unto faith that God is able.