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The Prayer of Faith

Sep 30, 2018

Passage: James 5:13-18

Preacher: Rev. Dr. Alfonso Espinosa

Category: Sunday, Pentecost


James 5:15-16a:  ESV: “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. Therefore, confess your sins to one another and pray for one another, that you may be healed.”

In the Name of Jesus. Amen.

“The Mayo Clinic Proceedings once published a report on prayer. The report was based on a study of patients with heart disease. Five people prayed for half of the study’s 799 participants at least once a day. After six months, researchers found no significant differences between those who were prayed for and those who were not. According to the leaders of the study, prayer is not effective at all.

However, more factors are involved in prayer than the study considered. The study provided no information about the spiritual disposition of the patients or about those who prayed for them. The study also assumed that the only way to measure the effectiveness of prayer is if you obtain exactly what you are asking for within the material world.” (Engelbrecht, Edward A., ed., The Lutheran Study Bible, Saint Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 2009. 2144)

Prayer is one of those things that is incredibly taken for granted by most Christians, and it is at the same time, fantastically misunderstood and misapplied. James – the bishop of the first-century Jerusalem Church is also the teacher of faith that works – and faith that works is always faith that prays. Where there is saving faith, there is true prayer, and where there is true prayer, there is saving faith. The two go together like hand-in-glove; indeed, true prayer is the heartbeat of true faith.

Prayer is what the Christian is always doing. In special devotional times, while driving, while in public worship, in small group Bible Studies, while in conversation, while bathing, while eating, going to bed, and getting up in the morning. The Christian takes seriously the LORD’s words in Matthew 7:7: “Ask, and it will be given to you; seek, and you will find; knock, and it will opened to you.” The Christian does not treat 1st Thessalonians 5:17 as an exaggeration, but the longer the Christian lives, they experience that prayer is constant. Thus, this Scripture from Thessalonians teaches, “pray without ceasing.”

We are constantly in true faith in God, conversing with God; we adore and praise Him; we confess our faith and we confess our sin to Him trusting that He forgives our sins in Christ; we thank Him for all His boundless gifts, and we intercede for others, while also making supplication for ourselves. This is prayer and it is always happening in the one in whom God the Holy Spirit has created saving faith through the Word of Christ and the Holy Sacraments.

But the context here in James is unique. We have been considering the letter for some weeks now and we know that these Christians were experiencing a unique set of circumstances (including persecution most likely because they were side-by-side fellow Jews who challenged their new association with Jesus Christ) that led to a level of and tendency towards isolationism. This was why James admonished them and especially the leaders to be active in their faith, to live out their faith in love and in good works; being considerate of even what they say to build up instead of tearing down. Isolationism also leads to factions and the desire to pursue selfish ambition for the sake of a “better” (and often compromised) standing in the world. That is, sometimes we brave coming out of our isolation because we are more willing to compromise our faith to get along with the world. In the meantime, people in the community of faith can find themselves in trouble: in our isolation we tend to stare ourselves down. What do we see? It is easy to see our sin. It is easy to be heavy-laden. It is easy to grow weary and tired of life. It is easy to get discouraged. But add to this physical illness, then what? You’ve heard the saying, “when it rains, it pours.” This easily happens in life. We can feel isolated, all alone, and be sick…what do we do? The devil wants us to perpetuate the isolation so that we feel desperate and all alone…when it gets bad even a Christian can be tempted to harm themselves; even a Christian can be tempted to take their own life.

So again, James addresses these unique circumstances, verse 13: “Is anyone among you suffering? Let him pray. Is anyone cheerful? Let him sing praise.” Verse 14: “Is anyone among you sick? Let him call for the elders of the church, and let them pray over him…”.

This is extraordinary counsel because it reinforces a fundamental teaching that is throughout Holy Scripture: we are members of a larger Body, the Church; we belong to the LORD and we are here to serve each other. We are not islands unto ourselves, a problem that ever since the Enlightenment has been grossly perpetuated. The worldly culture has pounded into us: that life is all about your rights, what you want, and that you are to live for yourself. And to be self-made is the goal of the world’s version of happiness…when this happens, we succumb to the unholy trinity, “me, myself, and I.” We live for self and we drown in self. It is the middle letter of “sin,” “I” …it is the way of Satan: “you can be like God” …it is the way of death that seems right but leads to darkness. Self can’t save. We turn to dust, so right about the time we start to believe that our lives are for our dust ways, then we are deceived and we – eventually -- enter despair…in this condition, we can commit self-destructive sins and when we do – sometimes – we can cause ourselves to get sick.

We have-to be clear about what God’s Word teaches. Certainly, in John 9, Jesus taught that in the case of the blind man, that his blindness was NOT on-account of anyone’s sins. That is of course true and the LORD in that John 9 context taught that in that particular-instance, His blindness was “but that the works of God might be displayed in him.” (vs 3) Still, this does not mean that sin cannot cause sickness. It can, and it does. 1st Corinthians 11:30 teaches that if we receive the Holy Sacrament/Holy Communion wrongly, we can get sick or even die. If we choose to abuse our bodies in sinful ways, we can get sick; if we choose to abuse substances in sinful ways, we can get sick; if we choose to break the law while driving in sinful rebellion against the civil authority, we can get injured, etc. etc. Yes, it is possible to make ourselves sick. People do it all the time.  

And this can be an extension of weariness in heart and soul and then we commit sin and make the weariness even worse. We can – again – make ourselves get sick. Guilt and shame in the heart and soul of a Christian, can cause so much inner turmoil that one can experience anything from physical maladies (like an ulcer) to psychological ones, etc.

What do we do? Live our faith! Get back to the community of faith. Call your elders (in this case, call your pastors [elders in the NT are pastors] even while the deacons might be there to help in the intercessory prayers). And this leads us to a tremendous practical insight about the life of the Church. When you are sick, when you are down, when you are weary, God is saying right here in James, call the elders! Reach out! Ask for help! And this opens-up fantastic ramifications for the life of the Church.

You know how it is when you plan a party or host a get together at your house. What do you do? Well, often you start to feel the stress: you need to clean the house, you might feel the need to decorate some…what will you make for dinner? What about desert? But most importantly: what about you? Will you have time to put on your face? Will you have time to clean up and look presentable. We do it to ourselves. In so many instances, we can’t imagine having someone come over to our house, unless everything is tidy and in order.

And here we have opportunity to say this: if you are sick, if you weary, if you are hurting…God says call your pastors. And understand that true pastors have no expectation or frankly interest in how clean your house is; he does not come to see you all made up and in presentable style; he does not come to be impressed by you; he does not come to have dinner [though if you choose to throw that in, usually he won’t complain, esp. if its Mexican Food], but the point is that he comes for you. And I play around with the whole food thing, but in all honestly, I don’t require you to prepare a meal! I don’t require you to prepare anything, but a needy spirit who desires the things of Christ! The pastor comes to pray for you, and He comes to give you the Word and the Sacrament.

The cultural notion is you have people over when you’re feeling good. The Church notion is you have your pastor over when you’re feeling lousy. The cultural notion is that you have people over when you’re up. The Church notion is you have your pastor over when you’re feeling down. There is a big difference and God wants us to get past the cultural silliness.

So, when the pastors come, then what? James describes “the prayer of faith”. This is challenging, and I’ll tell you right now that in Christendom verse 15 is treated in three ways:

  • It is spiritualized, so that the healing that comes is for the Last Day, the Day of the Resurrection. You are healed spiritually and kept in the faith and look forward to the ultimate healing of your body.
  • It is practical and immediate, so that the healing is in fact for your body here and now. The ministry is putting you in the position for physical healing.
  • It is both: it is both the spiritual and bodily.

It starts to feel like one gets a little too creative with this text if it is boiled down only to spiritual healing. But having said this, it is also important that we don’t forget that you can’t separate the two. You are as a child of God, one created be a person (male or female), one who is what you are precisely because you are both body and spirit. That is what you are.

God is not interested in only part of you. God is very much interested and cares about all of you. Your physical body as well as your living spirit. And this is true even to the extent that what we look forward to is not merely “to go to heaven,” but much more importantly for our bodies to be restored as they will be on the day of Christ, on the day of the great resurrection of the body. The LORD wants you, Christian, to look forward to that day for your body as well as your spirit! Imagine that: a body with no arthritis, a body with no hyper-tension, a body with no cancer, a body with no heart disease, a body with diabetes, a body with no colds or flu’s, a body with no injuries, and with no scars, a body that surges with health and strength; a body restored, a body resurrected.

Thus – and in this sense – when James writes, “And the prayer of faith will save the one [or heal the one] who is sick, and the Lord will raise him up.” That is for every Christian – point blank – an absolute promise. The prayer of faith by the elders who are called to serve you – as you receive that ministry wrapped in the Word and Sacrament; as you receive it in faith yourself – gives you added assurance that through faith in Christ alone {never treating the application of oil, or sincere enough prayers, or spiritual hocus pocus to achieving salvation}, but again this service leading you back to faith in Christ alone…this will in fact lead to your healing and you’re being raised up on the last day.

At the same time, it seems outside of the text of James to limit what he is saying only to spiritual healing leading to the resurrection on the last day. James also seems to be speaking of healing for here and now. We should not try to wiggle out of this. Let me, however, say clearly that James 5 should never be treated as saying that if you follow this procedure, then you should expect complete physical healing. No, no, no! Not in a million years. This is not what James is saying. Just think of St. Paul he pleaded that his thorn in the flesh would be removed, and God said, “No, my grace is sufficient.” That should be enough to guard us from any false expectations.

At the same time, remember what was said about how we are fully capable of making ourselves sick by what we do that is sinful and self-destructive. What this ministry of prayer by the pastors can do is relieve the conscience of that guilt and/or shame; this ministry through the office of the keys of Jesus Christ, can release a Christian from the bonds of the weariness of sin that we can so easily carry around with us. And in fact, through this ministry of prayer and the Word of Christ, the person who is sick will be helped. I have lost count over how many times the prayers of the Church have helped the sick. There are times when incredible healings have taken place; and there have been other times when God granted a life and a vitality while remaining sick that is inextricable, where and when the child of God was given strength from above to continue to live in the vibrancy and fervency of faith. Bottom line: God always helps us in these circumstances through the office of the ministry and the extended office of the priesthood of all believers which is described in James 5:16 through mutual confession and absolution.

When we are sick, call on the pastors, call on the Church…and their prayers are to look like this in accord with James’ theology of prayer:

  • Praying for wisdom while not doubting (James 1:5-6).
  • Praying with right motives (4:3).
  • Praying with true faith (5:15).
  • Praying in righteousness/Christ’s (5:16).

This prayer is – by-definition -- reliant upon the Word and Sacraments of Christ, because only through these does the Holy Spirit grant such faith that prays this way. And when these are had, and such prayer is received, God makes a promise here in James: you will receive the healing God desires for you and He will raise you up in body and spirit, according to His perfect will here and now; and most definitely on the Day of Glory. We praise Christ, and with His stripes, we are healed (Is 53:5).