Final exhortation. 5:13-20
James concludes his letter with a word on forgiveness. He has spoken in detail on Christian ethics and he now speaks about the restoration of a brother entwined in the evils detailed in his letter. Although, on the surface, it seems as if James is addressing the issue of faith healing, he is actually concerned with those who are overwhelmed by sin and need the ministers of the church to lead them back to the Lord, to pray for their forgiveness and to anoint them with oil as a sign of God's grace. So, we are reminded that the prayer for forgiveness is powerful and effective. Like Elijah's prayer, a prayer for forgiveness is based on God's will, and therefore achieves its promised end. The sinner who turns back to the Lord can be sure of their salvation.
v13. The concluding words of this letter begin with a simple observation: the person who is suffering distress needs to commit their troubles to the Lord, while the person who is in good spirits needs to rejoice in the Lord. The troubles may range from inner distress to a misfortune like persecution. In the face of trouble it is easy to turn to either stoicism or righteous indignation, but James calls for prayer.
v14. James now identifies one particular trouble, namely, sickness. Actually, the Greek word for "sick" means "weakness" or "incapacity" and so is a word that can be used of a physical weakness, or an inner spiritual weakness, or mental weakness. Most commentators think James is addressing the issue of physical weakness and its cure through the prayer of faith, but in the wider context of his concluding words, it is clear that he is concerned with a sickness of the soul, a soul entrapped by unconfessed sin. James' readers, having read his letter (or better, his sermon on Christian ethics), can now see their state of loss; they have been "dragged away and enticed" "to sin (and sin, when it is full-grown, gives birth to death)". The solution to this condition of loss is provided by the ministers of the church ("elders") who through the grace of prayer can administer forgiveness. They can also anoint the brother with the oil of gladness as a sign of restitution and forgiveness.
v15. The prayer of faith, that is, a prayer based on the promises of God, is an effective prayer. Forgiveness is promised to those who repent, and so the spiritually sick brother will be saved (made "well" through forgiveness) and raised up from the oppression of past sins.
v16. Therefore, those convicted of sin by this letter need to confess their sins, hand the matter over to the Lord in prayer, supported by the ministers of the church, and they will be renewed ("healed"). The person who trusts the Lord (the "righteous man"), will find that their prayers are effective.
v17-18. Elijah was just such a man; a flesh and blood person who trusted the Lord. God revealed that there would be a drought and revealed when it would end, 1Ki.18:1. So, Elijah, resting on the revealed will of God, prayed, believing, and saw his prayer answered.
v19-20. James rounds off his letter by restating the truth of v13-18. James' letter has covered the details of the Christian way, and in these final verses he makes the point that a brother who has turned from the way, wandered "from the truth", a brother who is soul-sick, needs to turn from their error. The ministers of the church are well positioned to lead the brother through their repentance and by the prayer of faith, declare forgiveness for "a multitude of sins." A brother who has turned is saved from death.
Saved from death
It's a funny thing about sin. In itself, sin cannot separate us from God while our eyes are set on Jesus for our eternal salvation. To some degree, all believers are murders and adulterers; we all sin; our righteousness is but filthy rags. Any believer who is not convinced that they have "fallen short of the glory of God" should read James again. Yet, no matter how far we have "fallen short", if we are holding onto Jesus our salvation is secure.
The trouble is that habitual sin (sometimes called recurrent sin), or even worse, denied sin, can indeed undermine our salvation by turning our eyes from Christ; it can easily undermine our reliance upon Christ for salvation. A life of selfishness turns us from the Lord, and once our eyes are no longer on Jesus, our eternal salvation is compromised. The other danger, namely, denial of sin, is far more subtle, but just as dangerous. A person who believes that their standing in the sight of God is maintained by their personal righteousness ends up having to deny the compromised state of their Christian walk. This thinking inevitably moves a person away from the foot of the cross, from the truth that salvation is by grace through faith and not works of the law.
James' letter has the potential of confronting a believer with their faults, and particularly the state of their eternal standing. For a brother, sensing they have turned from the Lord, James' advice is simple:
i] Seek out those with a pastoral ministry in the congregation;
ii] Confess the sin that has prompted the separation from the Lord;
iii] Participate in the prayer for forgiveness;
iv] Accept God's offer of forgiveness.
Remember, the Lord willingly raises up those who have fallen.
1. Support the above four points from the passage.
2. Anointing a person with oil as a sign of God's grace is somewhat cultural. What would you do with a repentant sinner to reinforce their forgiveness?
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