It’s not uncommon for Catholics and Protestants to debate certain passages from James’s epistle. James 2:24 is the verse that many are familiar with: “You see that a man is justified by works and not by faith alone.”
A passage that’s not as well known is James 5:14-16:
Is any among you sick? Let him call for the elders [Greek, presbuteroi—presbyters] 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. Therefore confess your sins to one another, and pray for one another, that you may be healed.
The implications of this passage for Catholics are twofold. First, when he gives the instruction for the presbyters to anoint with oil, James is promulgating the sacrament of the anointing of the sick. According to the Catechism, “Tradition has recognized in this rite one of the seven sacraments” (1510).
A second possible implication is the sacrament of penance. Some see in this passage the essential elements of the sacrament: confession of sins, a ministry unique to a Christian minister, a prayer of faith, and the forgiveness of sins.
But Protestants aren’t quick to concede these Catholic interpretations. Concerning the anointing of the sick, some Protestants object that James is merely describing a ministry by which early Christians exercised the charismatic gift of healing. They claim that these events are nothing more than the signs that Jesus said will accompany those who believe (see Mark 16:17). This was a line of argument that Martin Luther was fond of (e.g., in On the Babylonian Captivity of the Church 8).
Concerning the sacrament of confession, Protestants may counter with verse 16: “Therefore, confess your sins to one another, and pray for one another.” It could be argued that James here is simply giving instruction for a public disclosure of faults among Christians for the sake of making others aware of what they need prayer for.
Do these Protestant rejoinders succeed? Must Catholics stop looking to James 5:14-16 for a biblical witness to their beliefs? Let’s take a look.
Scrutinizing the miraculous
The idea that this is merely an instruction for a ministry by which early Christians performed miracles doesn’t stand up to scrutiny for a couple of reasons.
First, the grace of miracles deals only with bodily effects. But James says that the anointing and the prayer of faith bring about spiritual effects: the sick person is saved, and his sins are forgiven.
Second, the gift of healing was not restricted to the presbyters of the Church. According to St. Paul, the gift of healing was among those gifts that the Holy Spirit “apportions to each one individually as he wills” (1 Cor. 12:11). If James were merely referring to miraculous healings, why would James say to call in the presbyters for the anointing? Shouldn’t he rather have said to call in someone who had the gift of healing?
James makes it clear that the anointing is unique to the presbyters. For example, when James asks in verse 13, “Is any among you suffering?”, he doesn’t restrict the invitation “let him pray” to the presbyters. He extends it to the one suffering. When he asks in that same verse, “Is any cheerful?”, he implies that the cheerful person can “sing praise.” But when it comes to those who are sick, James gives the instruction to call in the presbyters of the Church, who are singled out to anoint with oil and pray the prayer of faith to save the sick persons and forgive their sins.
Since James indicates that this ministry of the anointing belongs to the presbyters and that the general gift of miraculous healing was not a distinct gift for presbyters, it follows that in this text James was not referring to the general gift of miraculous healing.
Therefore, the attempt to undermine this passage as a reference to the anointing of the sick fails. But what about the claim that this text alludes to the sacrament of penance?
Seeing what it’s therefore
The instruction to “confess your sins to one another” doesn’t prove the Catholic interpretation wrong—for two reasons.
First, James’s use of the word therefore indicates that he is connecting his instruction in verse 16 with what he said in verses 14 and 15. The word is a signal to look at the verses before and see what it’s there for.
When we look at the previous verses, we see that the presbyters preside over the anointing and the prayer of faith. Since James asks us to understand his instruction to confess our sins in light of this, it’s reasonable to conclude that he intends the presbyters to preside over such activity as well. To have presbyters presiding over an activity where sins are confessed and forgiven sounds a lot like confession!
Going public with it
But what about the public aspect of this confession of sins? Doesn’t that militate against seeing sacramental confession in this passage?
This question leads to our second reason why James’s instruction to publicly confess our sins doesn’t undermine a Catholic interpretation.
His instruction seems problematic for a Catholic only if one assumes that private confession of sins is essential to the sacrament. But this is not the case. In the early years of Christianity, confession was ordinarily administered in public form. As the Catechism explains, private confessions didn’t become common until around the seventh century (CCC 1447). Since James’s instruction for public confession of sins coheres with a Catholic understanding of the sacrament of penance, it follows that such instruction doesn’t rob Catholics of the right to appeal to this passage as biblical support for their belief.
A Protestant may still not be willing to accept the Catholic understanding of this passage. But one thing’s for sure: he can’t do so on the grounds that it’s merely the first-century practice of miracle-healings and that it involves only the public confession of sins.