Question: "What does it mean that the "prayer of a righteous man availeth much" (James 5:16)?"
Answer: James places heavy emphasis on prayer. As he closes his letter, James returns to the topic, urging believers to “confess your faults one to another, and pray one for another, that ye may be healed. The effectual fervent prayer of a righteous man availeth much” (James 5:16, KJV).
The book of James overflows with practical guidance for dealing with every situation in the Christian life. Suffering and sickness present unique challenges, and for these James gives this advice: “Are any of you suffering hardships? You should pray. . . . Are any of you sick? You should call for the elders of the church to come and pray over you, anointing you with oil in the name of the Lord. Such a prayer offered in faith will heal the sick, and the Lord will make you well. And if you have committed any sins, you will be forgiven” (James 5:13–15, NLT).
The original Greek word translated as “sick” in the passage refers to a grave illness. When a believer becomes critically ill, he or she ought to contact the church elders, who are responsible for overseeing spiritual needs within the church. The elders are to pray. James stresses the importance of prayer in healing. God is the healer, the source of all healing (Exodus 15:26), so we must seek Him when we have a need.
The context of James’ statement the prayers of the righteous availeth much is related specifically to his teaching about healing and prayer. It directly follows his instruction to confess to one another and pray for one another for healing.
James suggests that sometimes sickness is the result of unconfessed sin. He is not saying that every illness we experience is the consequence of sin, only that some ailments are rooted in sin. When this is the case, we are to confess our sins so that God will forgive us. The New Living Translation makes James’ meaning clearer to modern Bible readers: “Confess your sins to each other and pray for each other so that you may be healed. The earnest prayer of a righteous person has great power and produces wonderful results” (James 5:16, NLT).
James is not giving a blanket promise of healing. Instead, he is presenting practical advice. When it is God’s will to grant healing, the “prayer offered in faith will heal the sick” (James 5:15, NLT). In the event unconfessed sin is the reason for an illness, James wants believers to begin their prayer for healing with confession and repentance. He knows that turning away from evil “will bring health to your body and nourishment to your bones” (Proverbs 3:8). Like David, whose hidden sins sapped him of strength and caused his bones to waste away (see Psalm 38:3, 7–10), our sins, left unconfessed, can make us physically sick (Psalm 32:3–5). Only after receiving the Lord’s forgiveness will our prayers for healing be heard and answered (2 Chronicles 7:14).
The word availeth in the KJV means “produces an advantage” or “serves in a useful way.” The original Greek word translated as “availeth” means “is able,” “is capable,” or “has the power.” The righteous person is the one who has been made right with God—the one whose sins are forgiven. So, the one who is forgiven and in right standing with God can pray in a “useful, advantageous, powerful” way and thus receive excellent results.
Prayers that are powerful and effective come from righteous people: “For the eyes of the Lord are on the righteous and his ears are attentive to their prayer, but the face of the Lord is against those who do evil” (1 Peter 3:12; see also Psalm 34:15). The Lord won’t listen to those who cherish sin in their hearts (Psalm 66:18). A righteous person has a living faith that seeks to obey the Lord and His Word. Proverbs 28:9 warns, “If anyone turns a deaf ear to my instruction, even their prayers are detestable.” Confession of and repentance from sin are preconditions for having the Lord’s ear. Only when we experience God’s forgiveness will our prayers have the power to avail much. Successful prayer comes from believers who passionately desire to see God’s will worked out in their lives.
James spotlights Elijah the prophet as a righteous man who prayed fervently and with power. His prayers “availed much”: “Elijah was a human being, even as we are. He prayed earnestly that it would not rain, and it did not rain on the land for three and a half years. Again he prayed, and the heavens gave rain, and the earth produced its crops” (James 5:17–18). Just like us, Elijah had human weaknesses and shortcomings. But he was so in tune with the will of God that he recognized when God wanted to begin the drought and when He wanted to end it.
Elijah’s example challenges us today to seek a closer relationship with God so that we, too, can know, follow, and pray according to His will. When we are right with God, and our prayers agree with the will of God, we can trust they will be answered (1 John 5:14–15) because the prayer of the righteous availeth much!