James: Pray Always

Sermon by J. Ligon Duncan on November 24, 2002

James 5:13-18

The Lord’s Day
November 24, 2002

Call to Worship
O give thanks unto the Lord for He is good. His steadfast love endures forever.
Let the redeemed of the Lord say so. Let us worship God.

Prayer of Adoration and Invocation
Our Lord and our God, when we contemplate the sin of this world, and we
contemplate Your mercy to us in Jesus Christ, our hearts cry out, may Jesus
Christ be praised. When we contemplate our own sin and what it deserves and how
we ought to have been cast out and judged and condemned, and then we contemplate
what Your have done for us in Jesus Christ our hearts cry out, may Jesus Christ
be praised. We come before Your, O Father, in the name of Jesus Christ. We
praise the heavenly Father in the name of Jesus Christ. We praise the Son
through His own work and we praise Your by the power of the Spirit who is given
by the Lord Jesus Christ from the right hand of the heavenly Father. O God
receive our worship, meet with us, teach us from Your word, strengthen our
hearts and make the words of our mouths and the meditations of our hearts to be
acceptable in Your sight through our rock and our redeemer, even Jesus Christ
our Lord. Amen.

The Morning Prayer
Our Lord and our God, we come to You this day and we acknowledge that You are
the only wise God. You are God almighty, You are the God of host, and You are
the God of Abraham, Isaac and Israel and all those who believe by that faith of
Abraham in the one true God through Your gracious covenant to us in Jesus
Christ. We acknowledge and here declare our desire and purpose to worship You
and worship You alone, and we ask for Your assistance and acceptance as we do.
We adore You, we give You honor, we give to You this day the glory due Your
name. And we adore You for Your nature, Your person, for what You are like.
Your are infinite and eternal and unchangeable in Your being, wisdom, power,
holiness, justice, goodness, and truth. You are a God of love and mercy and
righteousness and justice, and Your works are
displayed in Your creation and in Your providence, and in Your glorious
redemption. And above all O God, we adore and honor You, for though You
are our creator, You have chosen also to be our
Father, our redeemer, our king, our almighty friend, and our everlasting
inheritance. We confess our sins before You this day, for though You have
redeemed us by the blood of Christ, though You have forgiven us for His sake,
and declared us to be righteous in Your sight, justifying us freely by His
blood, yet we are still sinners and we confess before You this day both the
original sin or our first parents which is credited to our account, and all the
actual sins that flows from that sin. And so we praise O God Your forgiveness.
We acknowledge we deserve punishment, and we’re unworthy of Your mercy, but in
view of our needs and in view O God, of Your son, we ask that You would hear us
and deliver us and spare us and make us to hate our sin and to love
righteousness. Our Lord and our God, we pray that You would deliver us from
evil, temporal, spiritual, and eternal, and that You would confer upon us Your
spiritual blessings. We ask on behalf of Your church that You would build her
up, that You would protect her unity, that You would protect her witness, that
You would sanctify us by You word. And especially this day we pray for our
missionaries, Palmer and Joanna Robertson out of this very congregation serving
Your in Malawi and Uganda and at Knox Seminary, and we ask O Lord that You would
prosper the work of their hands and bring to fruition the dream of a new college
in Uganda. We pray O Lord for our nation, imbattled
within and without, a culture that is crumbling, a people who are becoming
estranged from the very first principles of our land. We ask O God that You
would protect our nation from its enemies, and that You would cause as a people
to return to the creator who is the God of the days of our youth. We ask O Lord
Your blessing and protection for our friends and those who are near to us. And
we plead these blessings not because we deserve them but because of the
perfection of Your person and because of the gracious relationship in which You
stand to us, and because of the promises of Your covenant of grace, and because
of Your name and honor of this world, and because of the name and mediation of
the Lord Jesus Christ. O Lord God, we profess that we are Your children, Your
disciples, and we recommit ourselves O Lord to be disciples to Thee. We ask O
Lord that our resolutions would be carried through by the grace of Your Holy
Spirit and that You would enable us to renounce everything which is inconsistent
with our dedication to You as Christians. We give You thanks for Your bounty,
for all the benefits that You have given to us without our even asking, and for
the many benefits that You have given to us in answer to prayer, private prayer,
family prayer, corporate prayer, pastoral prayer, the prayer of the elders. We
praise You for this O God, You are a prayer hearing and prayer answering God. We
bless Your O God, we delight in You above all things else, and ask that You
would delight in us even as You have said that You do in the word, and in that
realization we pray that by the grace of Your Spirit, we would delight in You
all the more and worship You all the days of our lives. All these things, we ask
in Jesus’ name. Amen.

James 5:13-18
Pray Always

If Your have your Bibles, I’d invite Your to
turn with me to James chapter 5. We are coming to the end of this book and our
study of it, and next week Lord willing we will finish looking at the final two

Now as we’ve looked at James 4 verse 11 to
James 5 verse 6, which is in the previous section of this book, we have said
that that portion of James deals with worldliness, and James is concerned to
show how worldliness shows itself in our speech and in our attitude toward and
use of wealth or money. And he has used those as diagnosis. A friend of mine
was saying to me not long ago, “Your know, you sure do find out a lot about a
man when you go to a football game with him.” Ouch! That hurt. Your get an
unedited version in certain circumstances of a person’s heart reflected in
speech, and that is exactly what James is saying. He is saying that our speech
in various ways is indicative of what’s going on in our hearts. And in the same
way, when you in the shopping mall, or when you are making judgments about the
use of money you are getting a little bit of an unedited version of what’s going
on in the heart. That’s exactly what James is after in what he says in James
4:11 through 5:6. That’s the second to last section of the book and we’ve spent
several weeks looking that passage.

Now when we moved to James 5:7 last week, we actually
moved into the final portion of the book because beginning in James 5:7, James
is giving, as it were, parting words. These are the words that speakers call ‘my
concluding remarks.’ For James, they are short, punchy, practical, powerful,
exhortations which he wants to leave ringing in the ears and in the hearts of
the Christians to whom he has been speaking and, not surprisingly, as we’ve seen
James do before in this book, he actually goes back in these final words to
things which he spoke about at the very beginning of the book.

For instance, if you look back at the passage we
studied last week James 5:7-12, you will note that the theme is patience.
Well, how did James open the book? By talking about patience. And so James is
going to take us back to some themes he opened with in this book and that’s the
method of a good teacher. He repeats important things that are to be known.

So that brings us today’s passage beginning in James
5:13 and going down through verse 18. It is a passage which is fundamentally
about prayer. Let’s hear God’s holy and inspired word then, from James 5.

“Is anyone among you suffering? Let
him pray. Is anyone cheerful? Let him sing praises. 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, and the prayer offered in faith will
restore the one who is sick and the Lord will raise him up. And if he has
committed sins, they will be forgiven him. Therefore confess your sins to one
another and pray for one another so that you may be healed. The effective prayer
of a righteous man can accomplish much. Elijah was a man with a nature like
ours, and he prayed earnestly that it might not rain and it did not rain on the
earth for three years and six months. And he prayed again and the sky poured
rain and the earth produced fruits. “

Amen. Thus ends this reading of God’s holy,
inspired, and inerrant word. May He write its eternal
truth upon our hearts. Let’s pray.

O Lord we ask now in prayer that You would help us not
only to understand but to believe and embrace about prayer what You teach us
yourself here in this word. This we ask in Jesus’ name. Amen.

This passage has main message
which is crystal clear. But it is in fact one of the most difficult passages in
the little book of James. It’s also one of the most controversial passages in
the book of James. This passage has often been used to justify what some
churches call auricular confession. That is confession of our sins
through a priest. It’s been used to justify the practice of what is called
extreme unction or last rites where a priest anoints and prayers with a specific
form of words over someone who is dying. It’s also been appealed to by faith
healers. But a closer look will reveal that James is teaching us instead here,
that prayer is a means of grace, it’s a divinely appointed instrument whereby we
receive the benefits of God’s fatherly mercy.

Indeed, as we have already seen in this passage James
is returning to a pattern which he revealed to us in James chapter 1. Let me ask
you to turn to James chapter 1 and look at verses 3-5. In that passage and it’s
larger context, you will see James speak about patience and prayer. He calls on
us as Christians to endure our trials. He’s calling us to be patient and he
calls on us to do so with prayer and even with rejoicing.

Notice in this passage if you look at James 5 verses
7-12, patience is mentioned seven times and in verses 13-18 prayer is mentioned
seven times. So James is going back to a pattern which he introduced us to at
the very beginning of the book: how do we as Christians hang on in the midst of
trial. He doesn’t only say, be patient. He also says pray. As someone said to
me at the door of the church after the early service, so what you’re saying is,
James’ message is “hang on and call for air support.” Well, yes, something like
that. It’s not only to presevere with a patient endurance that looks for the
coming of Christ, to weather every storm with that forward looking gaze set on
the coming of Jesus Christ, but it is also to do so expressing your faith
manifestly in God’s sovereign and good providence for you by praying to Him,
showing your trust in Him by prayer. And so we see patience and prayer combined

And I want you to see four things in this passage. In
verse 13 I want you to see the praying Christian. In verses 14 and 15, I want
you to see the praying elders. In the first phrase or sentence in verse 16, I
want you to see praying friends. And then in the second half of verse 16 down to
verse 18, I want you to see the praying prophet. Let’s look at these things

I. The whole of the Christian
life is to be lived in communion with God, the good and the bad, manifested by
In verse 13 we see the praying Christian. James’ message is
very clear here. It gets harder later on but this message is very clear: in
every circumstance of life, pray. The whole of the Christian life is to be lived
in the communion with God. The good and the bad in the Christian life is to be
lived in communion with God. The joyful and the heartbreaking in the Christian
life is to be lived in communion with God. And that communion with God in good
times and in bad times is to be manifested by prayer. Listen to what James says,
“Is anyone among you suffering?” What’s the response? Then let him pray. “Is
anyone cheerful, are things going well, has God blessed you beyond you
imagination?” What’s the proper response? “Let him sing praises.” James’
response to suffering to the Christian is not simply to say, “Be patient or hang
on,” but rather to practically entrust yourself to the care of the almighty God,
and there’s only one way to do that: prayer. His point is, then, that prayer is
always appropriate. It’s always appropriate to pray. Remember what Dr.
Lloyd-Jones used to say, “The one urge which should never be resisted is the
urge to pray.” There are lots of urges in life that need to be resisted, but the
urge to pray should never be resisted, but rather cultivated ,and that’s what
James is saying, prayer is always appropriate. Pray when you’re suffering,
praise when you rejoice and sing when you are
cheerful, he says. In periods of trouble, in times of rejoicing, prayer and
praise acknowledge that God is sufficient to help us. Trusting Him and
acknowledging Him as the giver as every good gift.

Your remember the hymn called “Through All The
Changing Scenes of Life,” that we sing from time to time. It’s actually based
on a psalm but the first line goes like this, “Through all the changing scenes
of life, in trouble and in joy, the praises of my God shall still my heart and
tongue employ.” That’s what the psalmist is singing about. No matter what is
happening in life, we should pray and praise God. James is calling on us in
suffering to pray, and in plenty and cheerful rejoicing to praise.

Why? Because the Christian life is to be consecrated
by prayer to God so that every pleasure is hallowed and every pain is
sanctified. We are to so live the Christian life that every pleasure is made
holy by our acknowledging that it comes from the hand of our loving heavenly
Father. “Lord I don’t deserve these children that You’ve given me, I praise
You. Lord, I don’t deserve this wife, this husband that You’ve given me, and so
I praise You. Lord, I don’t deserve this job that You’ve given me, I love it,
and so I praise You. Lord, I didn’t deserve the financial windfall that I’ve
received this year even when other people are going through really tough
economic times and so I praise You. Lord, I don’t deserve the kinds of friends
You’ve given me and so I praise You.” And the examples go on and on. In every
season of rejoicing it is to be hallowed with praise.

But James doesn’t just say that that’s the case in
seasons of rejoicing. He says that’s to be the case in times of suffering. That
we are to pray to the Lord in those seasons of suffering, Lord, I never thought
I’d burry my own child and so I’m turning to Your for strength. Lord I never
thought I’d hold the lifeless body of my own child in my arms and so I’m turning
to Your in prayer for grace and strength. Lord, I never thought that I’d be
among the jobless, but here I am having been laid off or fired. Lord I never
knew that I would be in a miserable marriage, but here I am and I’m turning to
Your for strength. Lord, I had no idea that I’d be coming to Your praying with a
broken heart over children who have gone away from the Lord and are living apart
from His rule, but here I am before Your. Lord I never knew that I’d be in a
broken home, but I’m turning to Your. James is saying that in every circumstance
of life, we must go to the Lord in prayer.

Calvin says it beautifully, “There is no time in
which God does not invite us to Himself.” And that’s what James is making a
point of saying. Even in the extremes of life, in cheerfulness and in
unbearable sorrow, we are to go to the Lord in prayer. God wants us to talk to
Him at all times. In trouble He is our comforter; in joy He is the giver of all
joy, and in going to Him in prayer we hallow every pleasure and we sanctify
every pain.

Alec Motyer has this beautiful sentence where He
says, “Our whole life should be so angled towards God that whatever strikes upon
us, whether sorrow or joy, should be deflected upwards at once into His
presence.” That’s exactly what James is saying in this passage, the whole of the
Christian life is to be lived in communion with God, the good and the bad, and
that communion is to be manifested in prayer. In every circumstance, brothers,
pray. He’s saying I’m not only calling on Your to endure to whether the storms
of life by looking ahead to the coming of Christ. I am calling on Your to call
on the heavenly Father, to help Your in both the blessings of life, not to
forget him, and in the storms of life, not to mistrust His goodness. That’s the
first thing that James is saying as He addresses the praying Christian. What
should the praying Christian do in every circumstance? Praise and pray.

II. The Christian life is one
of community and is dependent on the Spirit.
Now I’d like you to look at verses 14
and 15 and see the praying elders. Now this is where the passage really gets
hard. In this passage we see, however, something very clear, James’ instruction
to us that in times of dire need, we need to show our dependence first on the
communion of the saints and second upon God. And what better way to do that then
to call upon the elders as the leaders, the shepherds, the pastors of the
communion of the saints as representative of that totality of the communion of
the saints to come and call down God’s help in time of need.

James is reminding us in verses 14 and 15 that the
Christian life is a life of community. It’s not just about an individual Jesus
and His Bible. It’s about life in a community of believers all of whom are
helping on another, who are assisting one another, who are encouraging one
another to love and good deeds, who are praying with and for one another and who
are seeking to live together as heirs of the grace of life. So the Christian
life is one of community. And so it makes sense that there are certain times
when you don’t simply need another Christian to pray with you, but you need the
communion of saints to be represented, to be praying with and for you.

And furthermore the Christian life is one which is
dependent upon the Lord, it’s dependent upon the work of the Spirit, and what
better way to manifest that reliance, on the one hand in the communion of the
saints, and that reliance on the other hand on the Lord, than to call the elders
together to pray for you in a very serious circumstance.

James’ word is in verse 14. If you are seriously
ill, what should you do? Call for the elders to pray for you. And he links this
healing and prayer and the elders and God’s divine intervention. Now let me say
very quickly this passage has been used to justify the doctrine of last rites,
the sacrament of extreme unction, and I would just simply say in passing, that
this passage doesn’t speak to that at all. Last rites are said over somebody who
is dying. This passage looks to the hopeful prospect of this person restored to
health, praying so that you will get well. This isn’t about last rites at all.
Furthermore it doesn’t talk about priests or even the minister coming and
administering this prayer, it talks about the elders coming and giving this

Now there are several questions in this passage, one
is, “How sick do you have to be before you call the elders?” Another is, “What
is this stuff about ‘the prayer of faith will restore you’?”. Your mean when the
elders pray for you it always gets answered? And then, “What’s this business
about, ‘and you’ll have your sins forgiven’?” Does that mean that all health
problems are the result of your personal sin?

Let’s see if we can touch them very quickly. We’ll
start at the beginning. How sick do you have to be before you call for the
elders? Well, obviously, this passage makes it clear, this is a pretty serious
circumstance. If we had to have the elders pray for everything, then the elders
would be fairly busy doing that and nothing else. So, this is a fairly serious
circumstance. How do we know that? We’ll look at five things in this passage.
One, notice that the elders come to this person, apparently this person is sick
enough that he’s not able to come to the elders. The elders go visit this

Secondly notice that the elders do all the praying
here. There’s no indication that this person is joining in with the praying;
it’s the elders that are doing the praying.

Thirdly, the term that James uses for sick
indicates that it’s either a prolonged or a very grave illness.

Fourth, notice that in this passage, in contrast to
Jesus’ healing passages in the gospels, the sick person is not called upon to
exercise faith. Remember, so often when Jesus was about to heal a person, He
would call upon that person to believe. Well, there’s no mention of that in
this passage. Now that doesn’t mean that this person shouldn’t exercise faith,
but apparently the indication is that the person is at such a low point, that
nothing is being asked of this person other than they have called the elders to
come pray for them.

And then finally, notice that there’s this very
interesting phrase used for the elder’s prayer. They are not asked to pray with
the sick person, they are asked to pray over the sick person. So all of
that adds up to a very serious circumstance. In our congregation, though,
sometimes a person is physically capable to coming to pray with the elders, and
has occurred with advanced cancer and other similar circumstances. Clearly a
grave illness or condition is in view.

What about this issue of the prayer of faith will
restore him. Does that mean that every time the elders pray, that the prayer is
answered by the person’s healing. Now we really could use a couple of weeks to
elaborate this point, but let me just mention a few things. First of all, notice
that James has just said in the immediate context that it is presumptuous in our
speech to say that something is going to happen without saying “if the Lord

Secondly, let me remind you that when Jesus was
teaching you how to pray, one of the fundamental things that He said that you
needed to pray was, Thy will be done. We have had a minister of our
congregation rebuked by a person for saying, “If the Lord wills.” He was right,
and they were wrong. It’s never inappropriate to pray, Lord willing. It’s
never inappropriate to pray, If the Lord wills. It’s never inappropriate
to pray, Thy will be done. And so ‘the prayer of faith will restore’ does
not contradict or replace Jesus and James’ emphasis of praying Thy will be
and If the Lord wills. That’s the fundamental thing I want to
say about this. Whatever that passage means, it is not a contradiction of the
principle that we always pray in submission of the Lord. And one of the
beautiful truths about that, my friends, is that God does not answer our prayers
as we pray them, but as we would pray them if we were wiser. That is one of the
mercies of being a child of God. That He answers our prayers better than we pray
them. And if we only were able to call down the answer we wanted, it would not
mean that we would have more blessing from God, it would mean we would have less
blessing from God.

Now, what about this relationship between forgiveness
of sin and healing? Is all physical malady connected with personal sin? Well
again, James and Jesus clearly make it clear to us that this is not the case. In
the case of the man who Jesus was about to heal and the disciples say to Jesus,
“Is this man diseased because of something that he did or because of something
that his parents did?” And Jesus’ response is, “Neither.” Now, Jesus of course
doesn’t say that there is never ever a connection between physical malady and
spiritual sin and rebellion. But what He does say is that certainly in that case
it’s not the case, that the man’s personal sin did not bring malady upon him,
and therefore we cannot say universally that sin is the root cause of all
physical problems.

But there is a link here between forgiveness and
healing. And that link between forgiveness and healing, perhaps, is in the fact
that so often it is on the sick bed that we engage in self examination and take
account, and we realize our sin and perhaps even in that context we desire to
get right with others. The very fact that in the next verse James is going to
talk about the restoration of relationship between friends in Christ who have
been estranged suggests that that is a proper connection between forgiveness and
healing. It’s not that the person is always sick because they’ve sinned, it’s
that physical sickness often reminds us of our spiritual sicknesses and our need
to be healed spiritually, to get forgiveness or to extend forgiveness, or have
reconciliation occur with a brethren, or to get right with God. And so, this may
indeed explain some of these linkages in James 5:14 and 15. But the big point
of James is clear. When you are facing this grave illness, call on the elders of
the church. It’s a way of expressing your confidence that God blesses through
His people, hears the prayers of His people, and is the one you need in your
hour of need.

III. There is no reality more
contradictory of what God is doing in the Church than division between brothers
and sisters in Christ, so pray that it may be remedied.
Thirdly, if Your look at verse 16, we’ll see praying friends.
Not only the praying Christian in verse 13, not only the praying elders in
verses 14 and 15, but praying friends. And these are praying friends who have
run into a bit of relational problem, they are estranged. Maybe one has said
something about the other that has brought a riff. Maybe there has been a
disagreement over a business transaction or some other relational problem, but
these friends are estranged and so James says “Confess your sins to one another
and pray for one another so that you may be healed.”

Now, I want you to notice here that James does not
say “Go confess your sins to somebody else.” He doesn’t say go confess your sins
to a priest, for instance, nor does he say get together in your small group and
talk about the problem that your and your friend have had. He says, “Go to your
friend.” This is you going to the person from whom you are estranged and seeking
to bring about reconciliation. You are looking to extend forgiveness and to be
forgiven and to bring about a restoration of relationship and so you are
confessing here to the one who you’ve offended. And you are praying for one
another that you may be healed.

Your know, there is no reality more contradictory to
what God is doing in the Church than division between brothers and sisters in
Christ. And James is saying, if that’s the case in your instance, pray that that
would be remedied. My pastor as a boy had a standing practice that if there were
people in the congregation who were estranged from one another and he came to
know about it, he would ask them both to come and to kneel with him on the floor
in his office and pray together. And many many times I saw that become the root
of not only a restored relationship, but a strengthened relationship, where
those to people loved on another, more than they had ever loved one another
because they had confessed to one another and they had prayed for one another
and they had been restored.

IV. The Christian must believe
that God is able and that prayer is his instrument.
Finally, James knows that praying in times of suffering and
remembering to praise God in good times, and praying when we are gravely ill,
and praying in the case of a broken personal relationship, can tax our faith in
God, and so in verses 16 through 18 he gives a picture, a picture of the praying
prophet Elijah. And in the picture he is showing you the power of prayer because
he knows that you will be tempted to say, “This relationship is too far gone.
There’s no way, there’s no way that it’s going to be restored.” And what do you
do,? You discount the power of prayer. “My illness is just to far advanced.
There’s just nothing that can happen here in response to the elders’ praying.”
And so He gives this picture of Elijah, who was a fallible person like we are,
and that fallibility is very apparent on the pages of Scripture and yet, when
Elijah prayed, it didn’t rain in the country where he was for three and a half
years. And then he prayed again and it poured. And James’ point is this, “Don’t
ever discount prayer, don’t ever underestimate the power of prayer.” Do you
really believe in prayer? Does your daily prayer life reflect that you really
believe in prayer? James is saying that in every circumstance in life, our
response is to pray. Never discount the power of prayer as a means of grace. Let
us pray.

O Lord we believe. Help our unbelief and then let us
pray, in Jesus’ name. Amen.

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