“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)
Years ago, I restored a British sportscar, an MGB. However, after driving it for a while, I decided to replace the slipping clutch and rebuild the motor. I thought while I had the motor out, I may as well work on getting it a bit more power. So, I installed a performance carburetor, intake manifold, cam shaft, and the exhaust header. These improved the performance of the engine and the car. This added power made it more responsive and fun to drive.
Power is important. Without power, nothing happens. One area in which we need more power is in the area of prayer. I do not know of any believer who has ever stated that he or she wanted less power in prayer. Everyone wants their prayer to be powerfully effective. Here, James tells us to do something that is vital to the spiritual health of a congregation. However, in practice it happens very rarely. That is to confess our sins to one another. In fact, the verb, “confess” being in the present tense imperative, means that this is a command that we are to continuously obey. Since it is a command, to disobey it is to sin, which compounds the problem. It is like adding dirt to an already dirty shirt.
So, what is the problem with sin and powerfully effective prayer? First, we must understand the context of this verse. James previously intimated that there are often people in a congregation that are suffering due to a variety of ailments. Some of these are spiritual, some emotional, and some physical. Every congregation has people with serious and weakening problems. These people are in desperate need of powerful and effective intercession. The problem is that sin has the ability to weaken us in our ability to pray with urgency and effective power. The psalmist wrote, “If I regard iniquity in my heart, the Lord will not hear me” (Psalm 66:18, AV). Sin is a spiritually debilitating influence in a person’s prayer life.
James goes on to clarify, “prayer of a righteous person has great power as it is working.” It is the righteous person who will be able to offer powerfully effective prayer. Now, we need to understand that there are two aspects of righteousness. First, there is the imputed righteousness. This is the righteousness of God that is counted to us by faith (Rom 4:3). This happens when we trust in Jesus Christ alone for our salvation. This work of salvation opens the lines of communication to God for prayer.
However, there is a second aspect of righteousness. It is the imparted righteousness. This refers to the work of the Holy Spirit in manifesting the righteousness of God in the life of the believer. It is in one sense a progressive work as we grow in Christ likeness. In another, it is the practical daily work of the Spirit in the life of a believer who is constantly seeking to live by the Spirit (Gal 5:16). A believer who seeks to live by the Spirit cannot live in sin at the same time. It is for this reason that James commands believers to confess their sins to one another. One cannot harbor unrepentant sin and manifest the fruit of the Spirit, the righteousness of Christ, at the same time.
Thus, confession is vital to powerful and effective prayer. The problem is that in large congregations, the ability to confess sins one to another on Sunday morning is greatly diminished. For this reason, every believer should join both a church and a small group within the church. It is in the context of the small group that one can fulfill the command James gives us to “confess your sins to one another and pray for one another, that you may be healed.”