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. – James 5:16 ESV
This verse can be extremely encouraging and frustratingly confusing at the same time. Too often, it is lifted out of context and this tends to dramatically alter its meaning. Beginning in verse 13, James brings up the matter of prayer a number of times. First he says, “Is anyone among you suffering? Let him pray….” Then he adds, “Is anyone among you sick? Let him call for the elders of the church, and let them pray over him…” (James 5:14 ESV). But he makes sure to mention “the prayer of faith will save the one who is sick, and the Lord will raise him up” (James 5:15 ESV). Finally, James provides on last condition: “Therefore, confess your sins to one another and pray for one another, that you may be healed” (James 5:16 ESV). It is obvious that James is focused on prayer. Prayer for the suffering, the sick, and the sinful. But he adds an important condition concerning prayer for these people. The prayers are to be prayed by the righteous. But what does that mean? Is he saying that only those without sin can pray? That would be impossible. All of us sin at one time or another. So how could he speaking of a state of sinlessness?
James tells us, “The prayer of a righteous person has great power as it is working” (James 5:16 ESV). So who is this righteous person? Is he some kind of super-spiritual saint who has a special hotline to God due to his righteous nature? Is it an individual who has somehow kept themselves free from sin and therefore right in God's eyes? I don't think that gels with what the Scriptures tell us about man's condition. Over in Romans 1:17, Paul writes, “This Good News tells us how God makes us right in his sight. This is accomplished from start to finish by faith. As the Scriptures say, ‘It is through faith that a righteous person has life.’” In his letter to the Philippians, Paul wrote, “I no longer count on my own righteousness through obeying the law; rather, I become righteous through faith in Christ. For God’s way of making us right with himself depends on faith. For God’s way of making us right with himself depends on faith” (Philippians 3:9 NLT).
The issue here is faith. Our righteousness before God is based solely on faith in Jesus Christ. It is our belief in His redemptive work on the cross that brings about our transformation. It was His death that made possible our right relationship, our right standing, before God. What makes us righteous is our faith in Christ. It is what allows us to come into the very presence of God and make petitions on behalf of those who are suffering, sick or struggling with sin. And it is our faith in the power of God to hear our prayers and do something about them that results in remarkable answers to those prayers. God doesn't answer our prayers because of any righteousness of our own. We don't earn His answers based on some good deeds we have done. It is always based on faith and that faith is placed in Christ alone.
Paul told the Philippians, “For God made Christ, who never sinned, to be the offering for our sin, so that we could be made right with God through Christ” (Philippians 5:21 NLT). It is our right standing before God, our righteousness provided by His death, that allows us to offer up prayers on behalf of one another. We can pray, knowing that we have access to God's throne room and His full and undivided attention when we pray. God sees us as righteous because of the blood of Christ shed on our behalf that cleansed us from all unrighteousness once and for all. But we must come to Him in faith. Not based on our own merit, but on the finished work of Jesus Christ.
Our prayers are powerful, because our God is powerful. Our prayers are heard, because our Savior made us right with God. Our prayers can accomplish much, because nothing is impossible for our God. But we must pray. We must understand that we have a right standing before God. Our sins are forgiven. Our requests are heard. Our righteousness is acceptable to God. And He is ready to do far more than we could ever imagine – for the suffering, the sick and the sinful.