James 5:16-20: Effective Prayer



“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. Elijah was a man with a nature like ours, and he prayed earnestly that it would not rain; and it did not rain on the land for three years and six months. And he prayed again, and the heaven gave rain, and the earth produced its fruit. Brethren, if anyone among you wanders from the truth, and someone turns him back, let him know that he who turns a sinner from the error of his way will save a soul from death and cover a multitude of sins” (James 5:16-20 New King James Version).


As we come to the last message in James, the subject of prayer is still before us. Prayer is one of the most important and most powerful spiritual tools in the Christian life. Yet if you ask most Christians about their prayer lives, you will find that most do not regularly pray and most can’t give a clear definition of how to pray effectively. What does it take to develop an active prayer life? I want to share some of the principles that have helped my prayer life that may be helpful to you.


We have all heard people say things like, “I have tried everything else, now all I can do is pray.” I recently heard someone explain a similar situation and they had not prayed because they felt they could handle the situation, but now it had grown beyond their control. It reminded me of the story of a lady who was listening to Dwight L. Moody and told him, “I only pray to God about big problems and don’t bother God with the little things.” To which Moody replied, “To God, every problem is little.” How true! We struggle needlessly simply because we don’t ask.


How should we approach prayer. Don’t role play with God. God is not impressed with religious terms and jargon. Be yourself and be natural. God already knows your emotions and He knows who you are. Putting up a front only hinders you and limits your benefit to your prayer time. Your goal is to get with God and to listen to God, not to complete a redundant routine.

“While it is not always possible to trace an act of God to its prayer-cause, it is yet safe to say that prayer is back of everything that God does for the sons of men here upon earth. One would gather as much from a simple reading of the Scriptures. What profit is there in prayer? Much every way. Whatever God can do faith can do, and whatever faith can do prayer can do when it is offered in faith. An invitation to prayer is, therefore, an invitation to omnipotence, for prayer engages the Omnipotent God and brings Him into our human affairs. Nothing is impossible to the man who prays in faith, just as nothing is impossible with God. This generation has yet to prove all that prayer can do for believing men and women.” –A.W. Tozer


•Matthew 21:22, “…whatever you ask in prayer, believing, you will receive.”

•John 15:7, If you abide in Me, and My words abide in you, you will ask what you desire and it shall be done for you.

•James 4:2b-3, Yet you do not have because you do not ask. You ask and do not receive, because you ask amiss, that you may spend it upon your pleasures.


Verse 16a: “Confess your trespasses to one another, and pray for one another, that you may be healed…”

“In the ancient mind sin and sickness went together, and so confession of sin was necessary if prayer for the sick was to be effective. The confession is to be not only to the elders (or other ministers) but to one another…probably to those they have wronged.”–Thomas Constable


“There is no death without guilt," said the Rabbis, "and no suffering without sin." The Rabbis, therefore, believed that before a man could be healed of his sickness his sins must be forgiven by God. Rabbi Alexandrai said, ‘No man gets up from his sickness until God has forgiven him all his sins.’ That is why Jesus began his healing of the man with the palsy by saying, ‘My son, your sins are forgiven’ (Mark 2:5). The Jew always identified suffering and sin. Nowadays we cannot make this mechanical identification; but this remains true--that no man can know any health of soul or mind or body until he is right with God.”–Barclay


It might surprise us to find that the Catholic practice of confession to a priest comes from this passage. However, there is no Scriptural authority for this practice! This verse seems primarily to refer to those who were sick, since it is added, “that you may be healed.” It might be presumed that such confession would contribute to a restoration to health. This relates to James 5:15, that the sickness referred to had been brought by the patient’s sins, apparently as a punishment for some particular transgressions. The sins that caused the sickness may be those which are committed against others which should be acknowledged, and repented of, in order for mutual forgiveness and reconciliation to take place.


"Confess your trespasses, (faults, sins) to one another ..." Confession must be not only to God, nor only to the elders, but to one another, especially to those against whom we have sinned. Sin has an effect on the honor of the Lord, the church, and on the individual members. There might be some sins that are against the Lord alone, and so should be confessed only to Him, but many sins are against individuals and the family of God, the church.


Verse 16b: “The effective, fervent prayer of a righteous man avails much.”


Other translations:


“The earnest prayer of a righteous person has great power and produces wonderful results” (New Living Translation).


“The prayer of a person living right with God is something powerful to be reckoned with”(The Message).


“The prayer of a righteous person has great power as it is working” (English Standard Version)


“The heartfelt and persistent prayer of a righteous man (believer) can accomplish much [when put into action and made effective by God—it is dynamic and can have tremendous power]” (The Amplified Bible).


“Tremendous power is made available through a good man’s earnest prayer” (J.B. Phillips).


This tells us that just saying of prayers is of not enough; we must really pray. Not even saying prayers in a fervent way will do. Some pray in a strong voice with an emphatic tone, but the strength or tone of our voice matters not with God. Some say prayers, but never really pray. Some are convinced that if they use enough words, the Lord is bound to hear and answer. I heard a story about a preacher who called on one of his deacons to open a Sunday service in prayer, he prayed on and on, then the preacher stood and said, “Let’s turn to number 23 in our hymnals and sing, while our brother if finishing his prayer.” “And when you pray, do not use vain repetitions as the heathen do. For they think that they will be heard for their many words” (Matthew 6:7).]


“Effective” (Effectual KJV) in Greek is energes, meaning, energetic, active, powerful in action, energes is a work wrought by the energy of the Spirit of God. “Not by might nor by power, but by My Spirit,’ says the Lord of hosts” (Zechariah 4:6).


God’s word says that in the last days God will “pour out a spirit of grace and prayer on the family of David and on the people of Jerusalem” (Zechariah 12:10 NLT).


“Fervent” in Greek is, ektenes, meaning, to boil, to burn (in spirit), intently, strenuous. “Fervently” is the translation of agonizomai, "to strive or struggle" (agonize), “Epaphras, a member of your own fellowship and a servant of Christ Jesus, sends you his greetings. He always prays earnestly for you…” (Colossians 4:12 NLT).


“Much of our prayer is not effective simply because it is not fervent. It is offered with a lukewarm attitude that virtually asks God to care about something that we care little about. Effective prayer must be fervent, not because we must emotionally persuade a reluctant God, but because we must gain God’s heart by being fervent for the things He is fervent for. David Guzik


The prayer of the righteous is as powerful as the God to whom we pray. There is no inherent power in prayer itself, but rather that prayer links us to God who is all-powerful. Prayer is powerful for only one reason, it connects us to the power of God. E. M. Bounds, the Prophet of Prayer wrote, “Prayer can do anything that God can do”


Verse 17,18: “Elijah was a man with a nature like ours, and he prayed earnestly that it would not rain; and it did not rain on the land for three years and six months. And he prayed again, and the heaven gave rain, and the earth produced its fruit.”


God always has a man to match the hour. Elijah was God’s man to face an hour of crisis. He was a man with a mission, a man of courage, a man of daring, a man of zeal, but more importantly, he was a man of prayer. He was a man who simply believed God!


1 Kings 17:1, “And Elijah the Tishbite, of the inhabitants of Gilead, said to Ahab, “As the Lord God of Israel lives, before whom I stand, there shall not be dew nor rain these years, except at my word.”


1 Kings 18:1, “And it came to pass after many days that the word of the Lord came to Elijah, in the third year, saying, “Go, present yourself to Ahab, and I will send rain on the earth.”


God desires that His children be people of prayer, we are to be “devoted to prayer” (Romans 12:12 NASB). And to, “pray without ceasing” (1 Thessalonians 5:17).


Matthew 7:7, “Ask, and it shall be given you; seek, and ye shall find; knock, and it shall be opened unto you.”


God is saying, “If you had just asked, I would have acted to meet your need.” God always responds to our prayers, the answer may be “yes,” or “no,” or wait, but He will answer!


So let’s learn how to pray:


Pray in the Holy Spirit. Without His power and prompting our prayers have no chance of reaching the throne of God. “Likewise the Spirit also helps in our weaknesses. For we do not know what we should pray for as we ought, but the Spirit Himself makes intercession for us with groanings which cannot be uttered” (Romans 8:26).


Ask God to light a holy fire in your soul by the power of the Holy Spirit to transform your praying from weakness to prevailing power. “When the enemy shall come in like a flood, the Spirit of the Lord shall lift up a standard against him” (Isaiah 59:19).


Take the offensive in prayer. The weapons of our spiritual warfare are not defensive weapons , but weapons of attack. “We use God’s mighty weapons, not worldly weapons, to knock down the strongholds of human reasoning and to destroy false arguments” (2 Corinthians 10:4,5 NLT). We are not to, as the old hymn says, “Hold the fort” till Jesus comes to rescue us; we are to storm the “Gates of hell,” and God has promised, they, “shall not prevail against” us. (Matthew 16:18).


Pray in Jesus name. To pray in Jesus' name means to offer prayer to God the Father through the ministry and work of Jesus. “It implies that the person who is praying in Jesus' name has received Christ as Savior (John 1:12) and has been justified by faith (Romans 3:28; 5:1). This means he is a new creature (2 Corinthians 5:17), indwelt by God (John 14:23), who is born again. Therefore, he has the right to pray to God. So, it should be obvious that "in Jesus' name" is a phrase that designates authority, and when we pray in his name we are praying in his authority because we have trusted completely what Christ has done on the cross to forgive us of our sins.” –Christian Apologetics & Research Ministry


“And whatever you ask in My name, that I will do, that the Father may be glorified in the Son. 14 If you ask[a] anything in My name, I will do it” (John 14:13,14).


“Most assuredly, I say to you, whatever you ask the Father in My name He will give you. Until now you have asked nothing in My name. Ask, and you will receive, that your joy may be full… In that day you will ask in My name, and I do not say to you that I shall pray the Father for you…” (16:23,24;26).


Verses 19a: “Brethren, if anyone among you wanders from the truth…”


Paul warns his son in the faith, Timothy about wandering, departing, straying, resisting, and refusing to listen to truth:


“Now the Spirit expressly says that in latter times some will depart from the faith…” (1 Timothy 4:1). (Some) “Strayed from the faith…” (I Timothy 6:10,21); (some will) “Resist the Truth…” (2 Timothy 3:8); “(some will) Turn their ears away from the Truth…” (2 Timothy 4:4


Is James speaking of a Christian who has strayed from God’s truth? Spurgeon wrote, “Read the verse and you will see that it was that of a backslider from the visible church of God. The words, ‘If any of you,’ must refer to a professed Christian.” (C.H. Spurgeon)


Or is it a person who is unsaved, turning away from the gospel? “A sinner…is someone who is without God and Christ, and so in need of salvation; it is a word of characterization…A sinner… is one who continually, habitually practices sin. Such people John declared to be children of the devil, not of God. The threat facing the soul is death—eternal hell, the second death, the final state of the unrepentant sinner…” –John MacArthur


The word in the Greek is planos, meaning, to go astray, to wander about, and to deviate from the right path. It suggests that they were, first, on the path; but then strayed or wandered off of the path. And if this is referring to “apostates,” this wandering may be a deliberate stand against the truth. “Apostasy” in Greek is aphístēmi, which is derived from apó, “away from” and histémi, “stand, departure, implying desertion;” literally, “a leaving, from a previous standing.”


2 Thessalonians 2:2-4, “Now, brethren, concerning the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ and our gathering together to Him, we ask you, not to be soon shaken in mind or troubled, either by spirit or by word or by letter, as if from us, as though the day of Christ had come. Let no one deceive you by any means; for that Day will not come unless the falling away comes first…”


Can a true believer “wander” and ultimately lose his salvation? Not if he is truly saved! So many have gone through the motions of salvation, but never really connected with Christ. True believers come into a saving relationship with Christ.


Jude 1:24, “To Him who is able to keep you from falling and to present you before His glorious presence without fault and with great joy.”


Our eternal security is a result of God keeping us, not us maintaining our own salvation.


Philippians 1:6, “ Being confident of this very thing, that He who has begun a good work in you will complete it until the day of Jesus Christ.”


Jesus said, “I give them eternal life, and they shall never perish; no one can snatch them out of my hand. My Father, who has given them to me, is greater than all, no one can snatch them out of my Father's hand” (John 10:28-29b).


Our Lord Jesus Christ, and God the Father have a firm hold on us and will never let go! Who could possibly separate us from the grip of both the Father and the Son?


“Yet in all these things we are more than conquerors through Him who loved us. For I am persuaded that neither death nor life, nor angels nor principalities nor powers, nor things present nor things to come, nor height nor depth, nor any other created thing, shall be able to separate us from the love of God which is in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Romans 8:38,39).


True believers are sealed:


Ephesians 4:30, “And do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God by whom you were sealed for the day of redemption.” If believers did not have eternal security, this sealing could not truly be “for the day of redemption,” but only until the day of sinning, apostasy, or unbelief.


John 3:15,16, “Whoever believes in Him should not perish but have eternal life. For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life” (John 3:15-16). If a person were to be promised eternal life, but then have it taken away, it was never eternal to begin with. If eternal security is not true, the promises of eternal life in the Bible would be in error.


Verses 19b,20: “…and someone turns him back, let him know that he who turns a sinner from the error of his way will save a soul from death and cover a multitude of sins.”


“Scripture often exhorts the church to expose false teaching. That kind of confrontation is not popular today. Many churches, in the name of love, want to forget disagreements and avoid being critical at all costs. Nonetheless, there is a biblical mandate to deal with false teaching. The battle lines were drawn in Israel and in the early church, and they must be drawn today too. Like Timothy we must be warned and instructed to understand what is behind false teaching.” – John MacArthur


To cover sins is an Old Testament way of speaking of atonement and cleansing, “Blessed is he whose transgression is forgiven, whose sin is covered” (Psalms 32:1); “You have forgiven the iniquity of Your people; You have covered all their sin” (Psalms 85:2). And job 1 for God’s people is to be to bring about the covering of as many sins as possible, “a multitude.” “Where sin abounds, grace does much more abound” (Romans 5:20).


God has granted to all believers the ministry of reconciling wandering souls to Himself. “Now all things are of God, who has reconciled us to Himself through Jesus Christ, and has given us the ministry of reconciliation” (2 Corinthians 5:18). When the evidence indicates a professed believer’s faith is not real, true Christians, knowing the terrible threat of eternal death that person faces, must make it their goal to turn him back from his sin to genuine saving faith in God.



Unless otherwise noted, the New King James Version of the Bible was used. Also The New Living Translation (NLT); The New American Standard Bible (NASB); The Message (MSG); The New Century Version (NCV); The Amplified Bible (AMP); The King James Version (KJV), The New Life Version (NLV); English Standard Version (ESV); J.B. Phillips New Testament; Easy to Read Version (ERV); Common English bible (CEB); NET Bible (NET) and The Living Bible (TLB). Contemporary English Version (CEV).


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