Confess your trespasses to one another, and pray for one another, that you may be healed. The effective, fervent prayer of a righteous man avails much.
This week’s verse contains two phrases that are often yanked out of their context and used as blanket mantras. Those phrases are “confess your trespasses to one another” and “the effective, fervent prayer of a righteous man avails much.” To be sure, both work as stand-alones. Transparency is important. Prayer is effective. Yet returning them to their rightful context helps us mine the gold of the meaning of this text. So that’s what we’ll try to do here, and to do so we’re going to have to look at some Greek. Three specific Greek words, to be exact.
This is relatively small, very common word in the Greek New Testament. It is roughly pronounces “oon”, and means “therefore”. It’s vitally important here because it clearly connects this verse with the previous verses. This is easy to miss when reading some versions, like the NKJV (quoted above). The NIV includes it: “Therefore confess your sins to each other…”
So what was there in the previous verses that was so important? This:
And the prayer of faith will save the sick, and the Lord will raise him up. And if he has committed sins, he will be forgiven.
Remember this from our last devotional? James tells us here that it is within the realm of the possible that a physical sickness may have a spiritual cause. So now, because of this, (οὖν), here’s what should be done.
Just like you don’t hide your symptoms from the doctor who is trying to heal you, don’t hide your sins from the people who can help you the most.
Which brings us to our second Greek word…
This word is longer, and it appears twice in this verse. It is pronounced “al-AY-lois” and is translated “one another”.
Why is this important? Because it puts the confessor and the confessee on equal footing. When we are being transparent about our sins, we are being transparent with other sinners. Now, someone may ask, “but in the context of the previous verses the sick man has called for the elders of the church. Doesn’t that apply a clergy-layman dynamic?” To which the answer is, of course, “yes…and so what?”
Over five-hundred years after the Reformation and we still haven’t gotten over the idea of a super-spiritual clergy class whose prayers are more effective than those of the lowly lay-person. James is not telling us here to step into that small confessional so someone who is more spiritual than we are can intercede for us. Rather, his use of ἀλλήλοις here speaks of forgiven sinners holding up other forgiven sinners in prayer.
And THAT brings us to our third word…
This is a word we MUST get right if we are to understand what James is getting at. It is pronounces di-KAI-oo, and means “righteous”. Pretty straight-forward. The problem comes with what we read into it. Our mind is picturing a man on his sickbed, who has sinned, surrounded by believers who are holier than he is. And that is NOT what the text is saying.
We need to ask ourselves “who is a righteous man”. If our answer is “the pastor”, to the exclusion of the other believers, we have misunderstood the word “righteous”. Every one of the hypothetical men standing around the hypothetical bed in this passages is a sinner. Romans 3:10 tells us that “there is none righteous, no, not one…” (and the word is δίκαιος…same word, different part of speech). This includes everybody in our hypothetical sick room.
So then who are these righteous people who are praying? Romans 5:1 gives us the answer: “Therefore, having been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ…” Now, you might not see it right away, but once again it is Greek to the rescue. The word for “justified” is δικαιωθέντες, and I highlighted the first letters so you could see the relation. Literally it means “having been made righteous”.
So, back to our hypothetical sick-room: the people who’s prayers are effective are the pastors around the bed, and the repentant sick sinner on the bed, because all of them have have been justified (made righteous) by Christ.
The ground is indeed level at the foot of the cross.
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