1 Corinthians 11 and James 5

In light of 1 Cor. 11:29-30, which I understand to be a reference to God’s judgment in the form of weakness, sickness, and/or physical death as a result of participating in the Lord’s Supper “in an unworthy manner,” how should we understand James, for example, who commands that those who are sick should seek prayer and anointing from the elders of the church (James 5:14)? Also, from James 5:15-16, how does this all relate to confessing our sins?

Upon reflection, I think James 5:13-20 is an excellent passage to bring into the discussion of 1 Cor. 11:29-30. In fact, I wonder if Paul might have some practical guidance in mind that very much resembles James 5:13-20 by saying, “About the other things I will give directions when I come” (1 Cor. 11:34). In other words, I wonder if the “other things” he intends to explain to them is how they need to deal with this situation in their church, besides merely stopping the selfish behavior they are currently practicing. We’ll never know.

But, let’s see if we can’t flesh out what this all might look like together. The situation Paul describes in Corinth shows that 1) believers have sinned; 2) many of these believers (though apparently not all) have received judgment from God in the form of weakness and/or sickness, and some have physically died (as a result of an illness?); and 3) God’s judgment/discipline occurs so that these believers would not be finally condemned (which is not holding out the possibility that a person may lose his or her salvation; rather I think he is acknowledging that there are unbelievers in the midst of the Corinthian congregation, as in all churches, and if a person were not judged/disciplined by the Lord in this way, it might be a sign that the person is not a true believer, so that he or she will be condemned with the world; see Heb. 12:5-6). Now, it does NOT say that everyone who has participated in the Lord’s Supper has been judged in this way. When he says, “Anyone who eats and drinks without discerning the body eats and drinks judgment on himself,” I don’t think he means that everyone who does this actually receives God’s judgment; I think it means that the person deserves judgment, or invites judgment. It is a punishable offense, we might say. Who, when, and how God judges/disciplines believers is his sovereign right, and he does so only with good purposes.

So, what of James? Let me translate this passage to highlight the real force of what he is saying, which is somewhat softened in the English versions. This will be James 5:13-16a, 19-20 (skipping vv. 16b-18 for the sake of space, and because, while clearly important to James in this context, they do not help us directly with our question).

13 Is anyone among you suffering? He must pray. Is anyone cheerful? He must sing. 14 Is anyone among you sick? He must call the elders of the church, and they must pray for him, anointing him with oil in the name of the Lord. 15 And faithful prayer will save (or heal) the sick one, and the Lord will raise him up; and if he has committed sins, they will be forgiven. 16 Therefore, confess your sins to one another and pray for one another in order that you may be healed….19 My brothers, if anyone among you wanders away from the truth and someone turns him back, 20 he must know that the one who turns back a sinner from wandering off his way will save (or heal) his soul (or life) from death and he covers a multitude of sins.

So, let me make a few observations, and then we’ll try to tie all this together. First, it’s interesting that he doesn’t tell the one who is suffering what to pray for. Particularly, I notice that he does NOT tell him to pray that the suffering would be removed, which makes sense because James wrote in chapter 1, “Count it all joy, my brothers, when you meet trials of various kinds, for you know that the testing of your faith produces steadfastness.” Nonetheless, the appropriate response to suffering for the believer is to pray. Also, the appropriate response for a believer who is sick is to ask the elders of the church to pray (which may or may not necessarily include anointing with oil; if you’d like to ask more about that, I’d be happy to talk about the reasons I don’t think anointing is being prescribed here, but for now I’m going to keep moving forward). Then, v. 15 promises or assures that “faithful prayer” (as I have translated the phrase, which is usually translated more literally as “the prayer of faith”) will save the sick one. The word translated “save” here and in the Gospels can also be translated “heal,” and this is probably the sense that James intends here. So, there is a promise of healing for the sick one in response to the elders’ faithful praying. Now, I don’t think this is a guarantee that a person who is sick and comes to the elders for prayer will have their illness taken away immediately. The text, first of all, never says when healing will take place; it just says that the person will be healed. And, it says that the Lord will raise the sick person up, which is probably a metaphor that refers to recovery. (With the metaphor of “raising up,” I suspect we are to envision a person who is sick and incapacitated, lying on their back, unable to “raise themselves”; but, I don’t think that the metaphor limits the types of illnesses in view. However, as I reflect on this passage now, I wonder if James does have incapacitating illness specifically in view because it is interesting that the one who is sick summons the elders, rather than going to him. Perhaps he is unable to go to the elders.) This teaching also does not imply that if the elders do not pray for a sick person that God will not heal that sick person. Again, God is free and sovereign to heal whomever, whenever, and however he decides to heal (which is probably reflected in the various methods Jesus used to heal sick people), but as I have argued in a recent blog post, God delights to work through the prayers of his people.

Now, it’s interesting that, at this very point, having just mentioned healing the sick in response to the prayers of the elders, James mentions forgiveness of sins. This may imply that James understands a potential connection between illness and sin (please notice my emphasis on “may”; I am tentative in how I want to talk about the connection between illness and sin; is sickness always a result of sin? I suspect not, at least not necessarily the direct result of an individual’s sins. But, 1 Cor. 11 certainly indicates that it can be sometimes. Are we able to determine when a sickness in our own lives might be due to the judgment/discipline of God because of sin in our own lives? I’m not sure. Ah, I’m getting ahead of myself!) So, in the context of coming to the elders for prayer about his or her sickness, James says, “If he has committed sins, they (his sins) will be forgiven.” Immediately following this promise of forgiveness, he draws a conclusion: “since the person’s sins will be forgiven, therefore, confess your sins to one another.” So, James links forgiveness and confession of sins tightly here (perhaps as in 1 John 1:9). I think he means that the availability of forgiveness is held out to the one who is sick when he or she comes to the elders for prayer, and the person may take hold of that forgiveness by confessing his or her sins. Then, he commands, “Pray for one another so that you may be healed.” So, again he brings healing into the picture (and this word in Greek is specific for healing; i.e., it’s NOT the same word used above that could mean “to save”).  Thus, it seems that he wants to link confession and prayer, forgiveness and healing in some way. So, perhaps we are justified to think of the sin being connected to the illness. I think this connection is somewhat reinforced in v. 20. “The one who turns back a sinner from wandering off his way will save his soul (or life) from death and he will cover a multitude of sins.” Here, the connection is made between saving from death and covering sins. The word translated “soul” can also be translated “life,” and I think that is better here. I think he is still talking about believers in community, confessing their sins to one another, praying for another, anticipating healing from God in response to these prayers, and receiving forgiveness for sins. Any illness can lead to death; perhaps this is one way that they saw God answering their prayers. These believers who were sick came for prayer to the elders (or to one another; notice how he has shifted from a focus on the elders’ prayer to a focus on prayer “for one another”), the remained sick for a time, but then they eventually recovered, and did not die from their illness.

So, how shall we tie this into what is envisioned in 1 Cor. 11? Paul indicates that some in the church are sick as a result of judgment/discipline meted out by God because of their participating in the Lord’s Supper flippantly and/or selfishly. Some have even died. Paul commands them to stop behaving this way, to repent of their sinful attitudes and behaviors. James would not only have the Corinthians who were sinning this way repent, but he would also have those who have received the judgment of God in the form of sickness to go to the elders and confess their sins (which assumes their repentance). Then, the elders should pray for them. The sick person may then walk away with confidence that 1) his sins have been forgiven and 2) that he will be healed, whenever and in whatever way the Lord chooses to do so.

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God is just to justify the ungodly as they trust Jesus.

One of the purposes of Paul’s letter to the Romans seems to be to “justify God.” One of the interesting difficulties of the English language when trying to translate from Greek (and other languages as well) is that we have two completely different sounding/looking words for what is one word in Greek. Specifically, I am referring to “righteousness and justice,” or “righteous and just,” or “justify and…” Well, here lies the biggest problem: we don’t have a corresponding English verb for the noun “righteousness.” So, when you read “justify” and “righteous/righteousness” in the New Testament, you have to try very hard to remember that, in Greek, the verb and the adjective/noun are very closely related, more closely than they appear in English.

So, one of the purposes of Paul’s letter to the Romans, as I understand it, is to “justify God” or to show that God is righteous. I see this specifically from a couple of texts. In Romans 3:4, Paul quotes Psalm 51:4, saying, “That you (God) may be justified in your words, and prevail when you are judged.” He quotes this verse in order to support or fill out his understanding that the faithlessness of some of the Jews does not nullify the faithfulness of God (3:3). I also see this theme in 3:26 when Paul says, “It was to show his (God’s) righteousness at the present time, so that he might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus.” Now, the “it” at the front of this verse is a big “it.” I think “it” refers back to the fact that God “put forward” Jesus “as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith” (3:24-25). Now, the reason Paul thinks it is necessary for God (and Paul) to “show” God’s righteousness is “because in his (God’s) divine forbearance he had passed over former sins” (3:25). I think that this is referring to the fact that God has not poured out the fullness of his wrath against the sins of all time (at least) prior to Jesus’ coming. The fact that he allows anyone to live another moment in rebellion against him is “divine forbearance” or his great mercy or patience toward people. This is a big problem for God’s justice or righteousness. How can God be truly righteous and not blast sinners into oblivion as soon as a sin is committed? (It’s interesting that the Bible rarely, if ever, addresses the question that we tend to ask: namely, how can a loving God destroy/punish eternally a person made in his image?) So, Paul wants to address this question by explaining what God has done to show that he is, in fact, righteous in passing over all those sins. Indeed, this issue appears in the “programmatic statement” or the “theme verse,” as many readers of the letter have identified it, in 1:16-17: Paul indicates that the gospel “is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes….For in it the righteousness of God is revealed….”

At this juncture, I need to address just what I think “the righteousness of God” means. Some scholars have wanted to define this phrase as, specifically, God’s faithfulness to his covenant and/or his “saving righteousness”/”power to save.” Certainly, I wouldn’t want to deny that God remains faithful to his covenant or that he is mighty to save. However, I question whether we can legitimately equate God’s righteousness with either of these concepts. Whereas these scholars want to say that God’s righteousness is his power for salvation, I think the text clearly says that the gospel is his power for salvation. Perhaps it is better, then, to understand the righteousness of God in broader times, simply as the fact that God does what is right/just with regard to the events of the gospel. Let’s see if I can unpack this by means of Romans 1:16-17.

Paul tells the reason why the gospel is the power of God for salvation: because the gospel reveals God’s righteousness. So, isn’t he saying that the gospel, which is the news/message/announcement of Jesus’ death for sins and victorious resurrection from the dead, shows God to be righteous/just in his dealing with sin and with Jesus? So, is he also saying then that the fact that God is indeed righteous/just in his actions with regard to the events of the gospel is that which undergirds or reinforces the gospel with the power for salvation? Thus, if God were to be shown unrighteous/unjust in the events of the gospel, would that have nullified the power of the gospel?

Perhaps I can say this more simply, with Paul’s help in Romans 3:21-26 and 4:24-25. All have sinned. God has not punished with appropriate punishment those who have sinned (which, due to the nature of the sin, amounts to no less than eternal punishment for everybody). God presented Jesus the Messiah as the ultimate Day of Atonement sacrifice, whose own blood was shed to pay for sins. God then raised him from the dead. The previous two sentences essentially summarize the gospel, the good news. It is good news for sinners that God has done this. This good news has genuine power to save/rescue anyone who has sinned (which is everybody) from God’s wrath, God’s appropriate punishment which he has held back up to this point (cf. 5:9). Those who have sinned may take advantage of what God has done by trusting Jesus, receiving the sacrifice God has provided. By their faith in what God has done in Jesus, those who have sinned are counted righteous/justified by God. Those who have been justified by God do not need to expect that God will ever punish them for their sins (cf. 8:1). Is God righteous/just in doing this? Yes. God has provided an acceptable sacrifice that any sinner may receive. Anyone who does not take advantage of this sacrifice that God has provided by trusting Jesus will receive the fullness of the appropriate punishment for all of his or her sins. Therefore, God is just/righteous in doing what he has done to provide an acceptable sacrifice that sinners may take hold of by faith and thus experience peace with God (cf. 5:1). If God were not just/righteous in presenting his own Son as the acceptable sacrifice, shedding his blood on the cross, and then raising him from the dead, then this gospel would have no real power to bring salvation. BUT, since God is, in fact, shown to be just/righteous by providing this sacrifice, condemning sin in the flesh of Jesus on the cross (cf. 8:3), the gospel DOES have genuine power to bring salvation to all believers.

I’m thankful for the gospel and its genuine power! I’m exceedingly grateful that “God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (5:8).

Published in: on September 14, 2009 at 11:49 pm  Leave a Comment  
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another year

Birthdays are always contemplative days for me. I enjoy reviewing what God has done for me over the past year and begin to think through hopes and dreams for the coming year.

This 24th full year of life has been filled with all kinds of change, growth, and suffering. I left Texas for the first time as a permanent move to begin graduate school. In the midst of preparing to move, our house in Texas was flooded, and my wife and celebrated our 2nd wedding anniversary. Change, growth, and suffering all wrapped up into these events.

Now, I sit excited about a snowy men’s retreat with a group of men whom I’ve only known for a few weeks. These men have given me the community I have desired. God uses these men to help me grow, and, hopefully, God will use me in their lives as well.

Next year, I begin graduate school full time. This excites me and makes me nervous. I won’t be working at the same time. This presents a multiplicity of new opportunities for temptation, being home alone more often. Mostly, I find myself tempted to remain lethargic, sleeping or watching movies when I ought to be reading, writing, and researching. I pray the Lord will fortify the weapons of my warfare and solidify the armor of God in my life.

I have already begun a massive research project, completely independent of school or any other responsibilities. I have begun to attempt to develop a biblical theology of sin. The question, “How does sin affect my relationship with God as a believer?” still weighs heavily on my heart and mind. I am in the beginning stages of collating the data from the Scriptures, reading all the passages that use the Greek terms for sin in the LXX and the NT. I have already traced the usages in the ancient world up to the time of the LXX, and I have had difficutly ascertaining when or how ἁμαρτία, for example, began to be used for offenses in a moral sense. In many Greek historical sources from the 3rd through 5th centuries B.C., it is used in military contexts in which some general or army made a strategical mistake on the battlefield. In English translations of these works, the most common translation of the term is “blunder.” At any rate, I am eager to pursue this further. So far, all that I have concluded is that preachers need to cease speaking of ἁμαρτία as “missing the mark.” Granted, this word did have that meaning, in contexts of archery and other similar contexts, in Homer, for example. But after the 8th century B.C., with Homer, I have not found a single attestation of that meaning again. It is deceptive and unhelpful to state in sermons that, “To miss the mark is the fundamental meaning of ‘sin.'”

Mostly I have great hopes for next year because I see my friends pursuing abundant life in Christ. Also, I enjoy watching romance bloom in the midst of pursuing obedience to the Lord. What great joy the Lord has granted to me!

Published in: on December 5, 2008 at 8:35 am  Comments (2)  
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