Summary of the Text

What is the role of prayer on life’s journey? For James, its role is central. A letter that has been historically bashed for an emphasis on “works” over “faith” is immensely practical on both. A workless faith is suspect for James while faith-inspired work reveals a heart of faith. The faith in action that James prescribes is not a means to one’s salvation, but rather an evidence of one’s standing before God. If it were not the case, then prayer would be simply a duty to be fulfilled. In contrast, in this pericope, prayer is no mere duty, but a way of the life of faith that hopes, trusts, rejoices, requests, and expects God to work on behalf of the one who prays in all circumstances. While the prayer of the righteous may sound like another work to do, it rather indicates a lasting trust in a relationship with the God who saves and sustains and an acknowledgment of our dependence upon him throughout life’s valleys and peaks, twists and turns. 

James echoes Paul’s charge in 1 Thessalonians 5:16-18, “Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.” Seven times prayer is mentioned in six of eight verses (vv.13-20). The first six verses each have a reference to prayer within them with v. 16 doubling its reference to prayer. Why is that significant? Because the clear theme of James 5:13-20 is prayer. When should one pray? 1. When one is in trouble (v. 13), 2. When one is sick (v. 14) and in that circumstance, the prayers of the people, specifically the elders of the church, are called upon, 3. When there is sin in one’s life (v. 15), 4. When one has confessed their sin and seeks restoration (v. 16), 5. Like Elijah’s prayer, when the community surrounding one is estranged from God’s will (v. 17), and again, like Elijah’s prayer, when one desires the mercy of the Lord to be poured out upon the weary and forlorn (v. 18). When should one pray according to James? In all circumstances. 

Again, before it might be argued that the one who prays initiates some kind of magic or even worse wins favor with a distant and transcendent God, James indicates in verse 15 that though the “pray of the faithful” will make the sick person well, it is the Lord alone who can raise them up. God himself is the power before, behind, and beyond the one who prays. While James says that there is much strength in the entreaty of the righteous in v. 16 it is born out of the wisdom that comes not from the horizontal but from the vertical. James 3:17-18 speaks to this source of wisdom and the righteousness that follows, “But the wisdom from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, open to reason, full of mercy and good fruits, impartial and sincere. And a harvest of righteousness is sown in peace by those who make peace.” The source of wisdom is God and the harvest of righteousness, by extension the prayer of the righteous, is only made possible by that wisdom. It is not constructed, conjured, created, or charismatically crafted by our own design. It comes from God himself and so therefore does our life of prayer. 

Verses 19 & 20 summarize the purpose of the entire letter. It is intended to lead its hearers from wandering away from the truth, to turn those who have gone off course towards the path of life. It declares that turning someone away from error brings life and forgiveness. 

Angles for Preaching

Prayer’s Call & Mystery 

The preacher may wish to delve into both the call to pray and the mystery of its power before God. From a pastoral standpoint, there are times when prayer for the sick may not lead to healing. Does this indicate that the prayer was not done in faith or that the person in question remains ill because of unrepentant sin? Clearly these are questions with which to wrestle. We know that although the ancient world often equated sickness with sin that Jesus himself in John 9 defies this assumption when answering his disciples’ question as to whether the blind man or the blind man’s parents’ sin caused his blindness. Neither, it was for God to be glorified in the healing of the blind man. What role does prayer have in the lives of the community in which the preacher serves and leads? 

Confronting Sin As an Act of Mercy

Many of our communities, and that includes many of us, are quite bashful when it comes to confronting sin. We are rightly humble enough to know that the person without sin ought to cast the first stone and therefore, we should get to the back of the line. We are also aware that there are planks in our eyes that blind us to a clear and righteous judgement. With that said, what does confronting sin look like? What does leading people onto a path of life, redemption, and restoration look like, one that is not condemnatory, but which is grace-filled, merciful, healthy, and whole? Perhaps the preacher may want to tease out the implications of verses 19 & 20 for his or her community.

Stu Headshot

Scott Bullock is a Board Member and Contributor with The Pastors Workshop. He is an ordained Presbyterian minister who has served churches in Illinois, New Jersey, and California. He holds an MA in New Testament Studies from Wheaton College, an MDiv from Fuller Theological Seminary, and a ThM in New Testament from Princeton Theological Seminary. Scott is married with three teen-aged children.

Sermon Resources

Key Quote

“For there are two things inside me competing with the human self which I must try to become.  They are the Animal self, and the Diabolical self.  The Diabolical self is the worse of the two.  That is why a cold self-righteous prig who goes regularly to church may be far neared to hell than a prostitute.  But, of course, it is better to be neither.”

C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity;

“The real test of being in the presence of God is, that you either forget about yourself altogether or see yourself as a small, dirty object.  It is better to forget about yourself altogether.”

C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity

         “He wants a child’s heart, but a grown-up’s head.  He wants us to be simple, single-minded, affectionate, and teachable, as good children are; but He also wants every bit of intelligence we have to be alert at its job, and in first-class fighting trim.”

C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity

Key Illustration

“When I was growing up my dad was a farmer and not Christian.  He had little interest in faith because his dad had taught him the Bible was a fairy tale.  However, a local pastor took interest in him and asked if he could help till the fields on Saturdays.

         That one act of service spoke louder than any sermon.  The pastor’s actions made my dad feel loved.  Dad didn’t need convincing about theological correctness, he needed to sense God’s love and care for him.  The pastor met the need in a practical way, and that is evangelism.”

Dawn Pick Benson


The wisdom that comes from heaven has eight traits which all require interaction with other people.  Faith must be expressed through action.  Billy Graham described this need for an outlet to the Dead Sea.  It has several streams that feed it but it doesn’t flow anywhere.  It has no outlet.  It has become stagnant and “dead”.  The same is t rue with us,  If we keep our faith to ourselves, if we never allow it to flow through us to enrich others then we will bind ourselves lifeless and spiritually dead.

Peace For Each Day,  Thomas Nelson 2020

Additional Sermon Resources