James proceeds to instruct his readers in how to pray. His purpose is still to motivate them to pray, but now he encourages prayer by his vision of how he expects prayer to operate in the church. The meaning of the verses can be seen by isolating four practices which are pictured here for an effective prayer life.
1. We should call upon the elders of the church for prayer. The fact that the sick person calls is an expression of faith, which is one condition for effective prayer (1:6-7). The fact that the elders are the ones called is an expression of submission and unity in the church, which are additional conditions for powerful praying. There is no indication of specialized spiritual gifts here (as in Paul's letters). James envisions a spiritual power available to the church and exercised through the elders. This is not at all to diminish the importance of personal prayer by each Christian. It is to affirm the value of agreement by the church, for Jesus promised that agreement among Christians would unleash power for answered prayer (Mt 18:19-20; Jn 15:7-17).
2. We are to pray in the name of the Lord. If the first practice expressed submission to each other in the church, this second practice expresses submission to the Lord himself. In this sense, it is not just a formula with which to pray but a state in which to be praying: pray in union with Christ. Similarly, when James instructs his readers to anoint . . . with oil, it is not the oil that heals. See Mark 6:13 for a use of anointing with oil within the time of Jesus' public ministry; yet most of the stories of healing by Jesus and his disciples have no mention of oil, and James's emphasis here is certainly on the power of the Lord rather than any power in the oil. The promises of Jesus (Jn 14:13-14; 15:16; 16:23-24) give basis for expecting great power as we practice the principle of praying in his name. These promises apparently led the early church from its very beginning to practice a deliberate calling upon the name of the Lord in the context of baptizing, healing and casting out demons. Examples may be found in Luke 10:17 and Acts 2:38, 3:6, 9:34 and 10:48. The phrase in the name of the Lord means that the power comes from God and that the one praying acts in union with Christ to call upon the power of God.
3. We are to offer prayer in faith. This phrase is James's explicit return to his underlying theme as he concludes his letter, and all he has said about faith is the background for his meaning here. In 1:6 he told the person needing wisdom to ask "in faith" (en pistei), not doubting. He has spent this letter exhorting his readers about the goodness and purity of God, showing their selfish fighting to be a lack of faith, both unnecessary and evil. Now he refers to the prayer "of faith" (tes pisteos) and would again expect his readers to repudiate unbelief as they pray. (See, in the section on 1:5-8, an earlier discussion concerning modern distortions of praying without doubting.)
4. The fourth principle for effective praying is to pray united as repentant sinners; we should confess . . . sins to each other and pray for each other. James introduces the mention of sin at the end of 5:15 in the context of praying for a sick person: If he has sinned, he will be forgiven. It is a conditional clause (kan, "and if"); the connection between sin and illness is a possibility, not a necessity in every case. The implication is that the physical illness and the guilt may be interwoven, and the cure promised in 5:16 seems to encompass both physical and spiritual healing. We are to pray as repentant sinners asking for a comprehensive healing of our lives.
We are reading James's concluding remarks here; he would expect us to recall what he has been saying in the course of the letter. He is writing to people struggling in hardship. Martin is right to comment that in urging them to pray, James is "allowing for a positive response to hardship" instead of "advocating a stoic or impassive response to adversity" (1988:205). But it is more than that. These verses, coming as the conclusion to all James has addressed in his readers' lives, describe a healing of their relationships with God and with each other.
Their relationships need healing. As a first result of their hardships, their relationship with God has been suffering. They are falling into temptation to doubt God (1:6), to blame God (1:13) and to bargain with God (5:12). James is directing them back to God in faith with a reliance on him in prayer.
A second result of their adversities is that their relationships with each other have been suffering. James has had to warn them against the evils of playing favorites with each other (2:1), verbally attacking each other (3:9), fighting with each other (4:1), slandering each other (4:11) and judging each other (4:12). Now this present passage helps us realize what a dramatic transformation of relationships James envisions. He points out the oneness we have with each other because of our common need for forgiveness. If we consciously stand together before God as sinners needing grace and wanting righteousness, that stance has compelling application to our relationships. Instead of judging each other, we will be driven to confess to each other. Instead of desiring to place guilt on each other, we will become eager to forgive each other. Instead of moving to criticize, we will move to intercede for each other. A spirit of reconciliation will pervade the church. This, too, James learned from Jesus (Mt 5:23-24; 6:12-15; 7:1-5).
To catch the importance of this for the church, we need to notice that James is writing about spiritual freedom given to the church, not spiritual gifts given to certain ones in the church. The freedom happens because "the Lord is full of compassion and mercy," and in that mercy James exults. Picture this exultation happening in modern churches, and you have something of James's vision: elders leading worship with a spiritual authority in the name of Jesus; Christians praising God joyfully, confessing their sins openly and praying for each other lovingly; the church together experiencing spiritual cleansing and physical healing. This is the exciting power of prayer.
IVP New Testament Commentaries are made available by the generosity of InterVarsity Press.