QUESTION: How do you reconcile James 5:13-20 with your explanation of 1 John 1:9? You have said that the latter does not mean that confession of a Christian’s specific sins is a condition for their being forgiven. But James 5:14-16 seems to say that confession of sins and prayer are necessary for forgiveness. How do you explain this?
ANSWER: In this passage James says (5:14) that a Christian who is sick should call for the elders, and that the elders should come and pray for the sick person’s healing, while applying oil to that person for medicinal purposes, as in Isa. 1:6; Mark 6:13; Luke 10:34. The reference to oil shows that bodily sickness is the issue.
Verse 15 says that when the elders pray in faith, their prayers will move God to heal, or raise up, the sick person. The word for “heal” is sōzein, which can mean “to save” (e.g., Matt. 1:21; Mark 16:16; Acts 4:12) or “to heal” (e.g., Matt. 9:22; Mark 10:52; Acts 14:9). Here it means the latter, or healing from bodily sickness. At this point James adds that IF the sick person has committed sins, he will be forgiven. Verse 16 then exhorts, “Therefore, confess your sins to one another, so that you may be healed.” Here the word “healed” is iaomai, which in the New Testament very often refers to the healing of sickness.
The question is whether James is saying that a Christian’s sins are not forgiven until he or she confesses them and prays for forgiveness (which 1 John 1:9 is often wrongly taken to mean). The answer is no, this is not what James is saying. The main subject here is the healing of physical sickness. Everything that is said in these three verses (14-16) relates to that.
I will suggest two possible approaches to the question raised above. The one that makes the most sense to me is as follows. There is no question that the issue is bodily sickness, and this suggests that the prayers, anointing, and confession are all directed toward the healing of such sickness. This means that the sins in view—the ones that are confessed and forgiven—have some connection with the sickness (see 1 Cor. 11:30), i.e., they are in some sense the source of the ailment. Thus the forgiveness to which James refers does not remit eternal punishment, but removes a temporal consequence of these sins (i.e., sickness).
This approach seems to be supported by the language of verse 15b, “if he has committed sins.” Regarding sins as such, there is no “if”; we have without doubt committed sins. Our sins in general—all of them—are under the blood of Christ and are thus forgiven as far as eternal punishment is concerned. The sins and the forgiveness in James 5:14-16 are more specific and more limited, however. Here you confess and you pray “so that you may be healed” (v. 16)—of a related physical illness.
The “if” also suggests that not all illnesses will have their origin is some kind of sinful activity. Most of them probably will not. In this case the elders will simply pray for the sick person and apply the soothing oil. However, for those sicknesses that are connected with sin, James indicates that the efficacy of the elders’ prayers for healing will be hindered by the sick person’s failure to confess that sin.
Alec Motyer refers to this possibility that, “on his sick bed,” a person “becomes aware that his sickness is a divine visitation resulting from some personal sin. The Bible does not teach that every sickness is the result of some foregoing sin, but it does teach that some sickness comes by way of punishment or warning” (The Message of James, Inter-Varsity Press, 1985, p. 194). This is what I am saying here.
I said above that there are two possible approaches to the question we are discussing. One is that the confession and forgiveness do not apply to all sins or to eternal punishment; thus the subject is very different from 1 John 1:9. The second approach is based on assuming that there is a direct relationship between James 5:14-16 and 5:19-20. In these latter verses the subject is apostasy. The text refers to someone who has strayed from the truth (v. 19), a sinner who is walking in “the error of his way” and is bound for death (v. 20). This seems clearly to be referring to a Christian who has fallen away and has lost his salvation. (Those who believe in “once saved, always saved” will reject this approach, of course.)
I am saying here that it is possible that the sin of the sick person in 5:14-16 is not some “ordinary” sin but is the sin of apostasy described in 5:19-20. In this case the person is indeed in a lost, unforgiven state, and the sin he is confessing is this sin of apostasy. In such a case his sickness and the healing thereof become the occasion for his being fully restored unto eternal salvation and into fellowship with the church. He is healed both physically and spiritually.
My personal preference for the meaning of James 5:14-16 is the former of the above options. According to this view, 5:19-20 is not directly connected with vv. 14-16 but is simply introducing a separate consideration that serves as the conclusion of James’ letter.
Either way, my earlier explanation of 1 John 1:9 is consistent with what James says here in 5:14-16. (For this explanation, see my entry for Jan. 16, 2010, “What Does 1 John 1:9 Mean?“)