“The Prayer of a Righteous Man Availeth Much” (Jas 5:16: KJV)

“The Prayer of a Righteous Man Availeth Much” (Jas 5:16: KJV) June 8, 2005
What Does It Mean? Dialogue with a Lutheran

The Prophet Elijah Fed by a Raven (1619-1630), by Gaspar de Crayer (1584-1669) [public domain / Wikimedia Commons]




This post arose from a thread at the Lutheran blog, Here We Stand, entitled What The Church Does Not Teach. I made some posts in the comments section. The discussion was about the communion of saints and invocation of saints. Thus, during its course, several negative appraisals of the practice of invocation of saints were made. Lutheran Stuart Floyd’s comments throughout will be in green.


“Let us therefore come boldly to the throne of grace, that we may obtain mercy and find grace to help in time of need.” Hebrews 4:16

Why should we not come boldly to our Lord ourselves rather than through His mom?


Are you recognizing that the Church Triumphant is praying for the Church Militant, or are you seeking the intercessions of the saints on particular issues of interest to you? The two are quite different concepts and vary widely in their orthodoxy.


I entered the discussion at this point:

The prayer of a righteous man has great power in its effects.

(James 5:16 – RSV / KJV: . . . availeth much)

This isn’t the first time one of the several Protestant soteriologies clashed with the inspired words of James, and I’m sure it won’t be the last.

The Catholic and biblical teaching isn’t that Jesus won’t listen to rotten sinners; rather, it is that prayers of those who have attained a higher level of righteousness will have more power (per the above).

Of course, this biblical view isn’t possible when one takes the unbiblical position that there is no differential righteousness, and we’re all sinners to exactly the same degree; even good works are “filthy rags,” etc.

A straightforward reading of the Bible, including this passage, would suggest otherwise.


[I then provided an overview of Catholic biblical arguments for the communion of saints, in the next post and another following it]


Calling something Biblical and Catholic does not make it so.

“So likewise you, when you have done all those things which you are commanded, say, “We are unprofitable servants. We have done what was our duty to do.” Luke 17:10

I am intrigued though. How many levels of righteousness are there? Just out of curiosity, Biblical Catholic, who fulfilled all righteousness? When? What does that mean you are left with in your quest for a higher level of righteousness?

Christ is your righteousness. Faith is the apprehension of that infinitely deep pool of righteousness (Baptismal pun intended). Abraham believed God, and it was accounted to him as righteousness. That is the Catholic and Biblical stance.


Make an argument, Stuart. What does James 5:16 mean? You tell me. I think a straightforward reading suggests that there is such a thing as a righteous person, and that his or her prayers are more powerful.

As to levels of righteousness, that is clearly the implication of the very notion of sanctification. That we can attain to a higher level of less sin and more holiness is so self-evident from the Bible that it is not even necessary to give proof texts (but here’s one: 2 Tim 4:6-8).

Related to this are the differential rewards in heaven which are taught in the Bible (e.g., Matt 16:27, Mk 9:41, 1 Cor 3:10-15, 2 Cor 9:6, Heb 10:35).

Now, of course, most (but not all) Protestants will separate sanctification from justification, but that doesn’t overcome the difficulty here. It still is a biblical reality, however it is related to soteriology or salvation. We can become more sanctified. And the more sanctified we become, the more effective our prayers are, according to James.

David P. Scaer, in his article, Sanctification in Lutheran Theology, explains the Lutheran position:

In Lutheran theology justification describes the believer’s relationship with God. Sanctification describes the same reality as does justification but describes the justified Christian’s relationship to the world and society. Justification and sanctification are not two separate realities, but the same reality viewed from the different perspectives of God and man. From the perspective of God the reality of the Christian is totally passive and non-contributory as it receives Christ only. From the perspective of the world, the same reality never ceases in its activity and tirelessly performs all good works. In this scheme the justification of the sinner never becomes a past event.


G’Mornin’ Dave,

James 5:16

The word in question is dikaiou. You seem to imply that there is a comparative attached to this substantive use adjective, “righteous”, since it is masculine genitive singular “righteous man” or “justified man”. If you will note however, there is no comparative. It is not the sin of the “more righteous”, the supplication of the “better” man, but simply the prayer of the “righteous or justified man”.

Since you are quoting Dr. Scaer, I assume you are somewhat familiar with Biblical, that is to say, Lutheran theology. We are all justified by faith because of the atoning sacrifice of the Fulfiller of all righteousness Himself on the tree of life.

The prayer of a righteous man, you, me, all dead and raised with Christ in Baptism “works (much)”. It might also be noted, while we are on the topic of James 5:16 to intercessory prayers that it is beyond a stretch to apply James 5 to the prayers of the Church Triumphant. The context implies an earthly application. When someone is sick, proseuksasthosan tous presbyterous tas ekklasias “call together the elders of the church” and have them pray over the sick person.

Surely you are not implying that James is making some sort of plea to call the heavenly host together so that they might pray for them. That reaks of the dark arts and seances.


Hi Stuart,

My point was not directly about prayers from those who have died and attained salvation. But it was indirectly connected to that, since the context in which I brought this up was a few people
wondering aloud (the garden variety Protestant objection, which I would have expressed myself, 20 years ago): “why ask Mary to pray for you when you can go right to God?”

And the Catholic answer is, of course: “because she is more righteous — we believe, without any sin –, so that her prayers are therefore more effective (based on James 5:16).”

But she is dead, you say, so this amounts to “the dark arts and seances”. The Bible does not take this view, as I believe I have amply shown by my proof texts for a “Catholic” conception of the communion of saints. The Bible teaches us that the dead in Christ are quite aware of earthly goings-on, so that it is not at all implausible to ask for their prayers (by deduction: if they are praying for us — as we know from Revelation — and are aware of earthly events, then it stands to reason that we can ask them to pray).

And since this was the widespread practice of the early Christians, then Catholics and Orthodox (and traditional Anglicans and Lutherans, etc.) merely continue what was passed down to us, whereas most Protestants have rejected it, because it is supposedly “unbiblical”.

I’m familiar with Lutheran and general Protestant doctrines of justification, having debated and written about the issue, and having once believed the same myself.

Your exegetical argument for James 5:16 is one legitimate opinion for dikaiou, so Kittel and other linguistic NT scholars tell us. But my conception is also permissible (i.e., still generally-speaking). The trick here is to determine the particular application in James 5:16.

Gerhard Kittel himself (Theological Dictionary of the New Testament; one-volume edition, pp. 170-171) seems to lean more towards my view:

Yet those who belong to this righteous one must themselves do right (I Jn. 2:29) . . . Fidelity to the law is often at issue, but with a stress on the relationship with God in the parents of the Baptist (Lk. 1:16), Simeon (Lk. 2:25), and Cornelius (Acts 10:22). Joseph deals righteously with Mary in Mt. 1:19 . . .

d. dikaios sometimes denotes the disciple as a person who truly keeps the law or does God’s will . . . The dikaioi at the last judgment are those who have practiced love (Mt. 25:37). James has disciples in mind when he says that the righteous are oppressed by the rich (5:6) and that their prayers have great power (5:16) . . .

e. Paul can accept the distinction between the righteous and the wicked. The dikaios is one who as a doer of the law will be vindicated by God’s sentence (Rom. 2:13) . . .
[discusses salvation by faith and grace] . . . In 1 Th. 2:10, however, present conduct is the theme; we are righteous as we act according to divine law.

Clearly, according to Kittel and a plain reading of Scripture, NT usage of this word (Strong’s word #1342)incorporates far more than simply imputed or extrinsic justification. It’s also used in the sense of present behavior (i.e., sanctification).

That said, let’s look again at James 5:16. What is the context? In the very next verse, James cites “Elijah . . . a man of like nature to ourselves,” who “prayed fervently that it might not rain, and for three years and six months it did not rain on earth. 18 Then he prayed again and the heaven gave rain, and the earth brought forth its fruit.”

Now, is this a routine situation of “one of the elect, or righteous, or followers of God” prayed and received a positive answer? No, again, clearly, it is an extraordinary scenario with a particularly holy and righteous prophet asking for a miracle and being granted his request.

You think this is a routine prayer that any elect, justified Christian could do? Okay, show me where this sort of thing can easily be prayed for and granted. It’s not talking about being regenerate or justified, but of a holy, sanctified, exceptionally righteous person praying, and having more effect. The remarkable example given proves it. Or so it seems to me, anyway.

That’s the context. We can also briefly examine Elijah, for it is not without reason that James cited this amazing prophet as his example to illustrate his teaching.

What else did he pray for? Well, his prayer raised a boy from the dead (1 Kings 17:17-24). How often does that happen when you and I pray? But when Jesus and folks like Peter and Elijah do it, it works.

Elijah also was answered by God with fire. One time, fire came down from heaven and killed two sets of fifty men (2 Kings 1:10-12). The other time was in the famous contest with the false prophets on Mt. Carmel (1 Kings 18:36-39).

This is what (apparently) was the kind of thing that was in James’ mind when he cited Elijah as an example of a righteous man who prayed to great effect: three-year droughts, fire coming down from heaven, and raisings from the dead. Therefore, to believe that all that is being discussed here is prayer by any Christian who is justified, is highly implausible, and must be discarded.

(6-8-05 + part two)

Hi Dave,

You wrote a great deal. Thanks for taking the time to do so.

I still have to respectfully say that your view is just plain wrong. There is the righteousness of Christ which we possess through Christ and there is not righteousness. There is no gray.

On Elijah being superior, look at the new Elijah, the Baptist. And yet, “I say to you, among those born of women there is not a greater prophet than John the Baptist; but he who is least in the kingdom of God is greater than he.” Luke 7:28 He who is least is greater, Dave. And, for St. Luke that kingdom of God is preached. It is Gospel proclamation (4:43, 8:1, 9:2, 9:60). I hear this Kingdom of God preached in the pulpit every Sunday. I presume that you do too. We are, through Christ, equal with even this great saint, Elijah.

As to invocation of the saints, I refer you to our Confessions [link]. As to the righteousness that is ours only through Christ, I refer you to Confessions II [link].


Hi Stuart,

Again, the subject of the passage in James is prayer, not justification; specifically, a more effective or powerful or efficacious prayer. Elijah’s prayers raised the dead, caused a three-year drought, and fire to come down from heaven (twice). That’s awful powerful praying! And why is that? Not because Elijah and we Christians are all equal in Christ and saved and the elect and filled with the Holy Spirit, etc., but because he was a very righteous, holy man.

Why would James use the extraordinary example of Elijah if his point were merely, “all Christians’ prayers are very powerful, because they are in Christ?” That makes no sense; the point was clearly that extraordinarily righteous peoples’ prayers are very powerful.

Nothing you believe about justification overcomes these factors, in my opinion, because the passage isn’t about justification in the first place; it is about sanctification and its relationship to efficacious prayer.

Nor does the specifically Lutheran belief on sanctification and justification affect this. If “righteousness” is indeed being used by James in the sense that I have advocated, then all you would have to do is place this passage under the “category” of sanctification. You don’t have to give up anything you believe to interpret it the way I do.

Moreover (as my good Baptist friend who is visiting, suggested, in agreement with me — which proves that this isn’t strictly a Catholic-Protestant dispute), the context of James 5:16 gives another strong clue as to the meaning here. In the two preceding verses, James writes:

Is any among you sick? Let him call for the elders of the church, and let them pray over him, anointing him with oil in the name of the Lord; and the prayer of faith will save the sick man, and the Lord will raise him up; and if he has committed sins, he will be forgiven.

Now why does he say to go to the elders to pray, when (as you contend) all our prayers are equally efficacious? Obviously, James thinks that the elders have more power in their prayers, so he recommends going to them. He specifically attributes the “prayer of faith” to this kind of prayer of elders.

This backs up my contentions and contradicts yours. And it is all in context: it immediately precedes our passage, and the Elijah passage follows it. What more is required? To me it is very clear-cut and compelling, and it is not dependent on a specifically Catholic theological / exegetical predisposition (since my Baptist friend believes in the same thing, and he doesn’t deny imputed justification).

(6-8-05; Part two)

"Regarding Catholic doctrine about eschatology and the end times - can Catholics hold some of ..."

Pastor Aeternus (1870): Can a Pope ..."
"Trouble is, Pope Francis signed that document along with members of other religions. Did they ..."

Pope Francis & the Diversity of ..."
"WherePeteris.com is with you too. They often feel alone. You guys should all do podcasts ..."

Pope Francis & the Diversity of ..."
"St. Augustine’s famous saying, “Our hearts are restless until they find their rest in you, ..."

Pope Francis & the Diversity of ..."

Browse Our Archives