pray - James 5:16

How to Pray Effectively and Powerfully – A Study of James 5:16

9 May 2022

5.6 MINS

Diligent prayer is an essential component of the effective Christian life. It is also a familiar theme throughout Scripture, receiving many hundreds of mentions. I want to look at one in particular. In James 5:16b, we learn that the ‘effective, fervent prayer of a righteous man avails much.’ (NKJV)

This passage sounds lovely and is often quickly taken out of context to support the importance and power of prayer, in and of itself. Certainly, this is part of what the passage is about, but let’s not miss the full picture — James 5:16 has one glaring qualification. Is just any old prayer effective? The passage doesn’t seem to say that. In fact, the context seems to support the opposite. Let’s take a deep dive into the passage, examining the immediate context alongside three keywords to find out what it is getting at.

Word 1 (Dikaios):

The effective, fervent prayer of a “righteous” man avails much.

The Greek word dikaios describes the kind of person whose prayers are effective. This is the qualification I referred to. It is the prayer of a righteous person that avails much, not just any old prayer. The word “righteous” refers to a state of being or acting in the right way, so a righteous person is simply a person who is acting rightly or existing rightly. If this is referring to Christians, the immediate implication is that the prayers of an unrighteous believer are not effective.

It’s at this point that us “grace only” people will start to squirm. Doesn’t this sound a bit legalistic? After all, who are we to distinguish between “righteous” and “unrighteous” Christians? We like to refer to two neat categories of people — the righteous (saved) and the unrighteous (unsaved) — with no room for “unrighteous” Christians in the mix. As a result, we would like to argue that this verse refers to all believers (all those who are “righteous” in Christ). In this view, the passage would just be stating that all believers’ prayers are effective.

But the context suggests that this is not the case. Firstly, James is clearly writing to Jewish believers — James uses the term “brethren” and refers to his audience’s “faith” in the first three verses (1:1-3) and the contents of the epistle are clearly targeted at the Church, not at unbelievers (traditionally, James’s epistle is considered one of the “pastoral epistles”).

But the immediate Scriptural context also reveals whom James is talking about. Let’s read it:

“Is anyone 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, and the Lord will raise him up. And if he has committed sins, he will be forgiven. 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.” (5:14-16, emphasis mine)

The “righteous” person refers to a particular kind of believer — one who is walking rightly before God — in contrast to one who is living in sin and disobedience to God (v. 15). According to James, certain people in the Church had been living in sin and had been stricken with illness as a result of their backsliding (vv. 14-16, 19-20).

Importantly, this disobedience and immaturity did not affect their salvation, only their health (v. 16) and potentially their life (vv. 19-20). Nonetheless, it was a serious state to be in. It demanded confession of sins (v. 16), spiritual direction (vv. 19-20) and prayer by others (v. 16).

In this situation, only the prayers of a righteous person – one not backsliding or living in disobedience to God — can be effective. If someone is not walking in fellowship with God, then their prayers will be ineffective.

Word 2 (Energeo):

The righteous man’s prayer is “effective and fervent” (using the New Revised Standard Version’s word order, as it better represents the Greek meaning) and prevails much.

The word energeo describes the kind of prayer offered by the believer who is walking with God. It is not saying that a believer must try to offer up this kind of prayer to God for it to be ultimately effective (as the NKJV word ordering could misleadingly suggest).

It is not a second qualification: one must not both be “righteous” and offer up “effective and fervent” prayers. Rather, it is stating that the righteous person’s prayers are characterised by energeo – one cannot be in fellowship with God and offer up prayers that are not effective and fervent. It is impossible. The verse could not possibly read “the ineffective and unfervent prayers of a righteous person do little”.

Consequently, the New Revised Standard Version’s word ordering gets more effectively at the meaning of the sentence:

“The prayer of the righteous is powerful and effective.” (The word translated “effective” is energeo).

Energeo literally means ‘active’ and ‘operative’. If we are walking in obedience to God, we can expect our prayers to go out from us and actively work in the world through the power of God. Although it’s not entirely warranted by the text, we can perhaps imagine our prayers acting like military “operatives”; we are sending them out to bring about the results that God intends for them.

Word 3 (Ischuō):

The righteous person’s prayer is actively working and “avails much”.

The word ischuō provides the clincher. Energeo tells us that our prayers can be effective; ischuō tells us to what degree they will be effective. We are to expect our prayers to achieve great things.

In the New King James Version, the word is translated “avails much” — meaning, perhaps somewhat obscurely, to “prevail greatly”. In Greek, the word ischuō literally means to exercise or exert combative or confrontational force – to get “into the fray”. It has even stronger connotations than the word dunamai, which speaks of ability or power (cf. Matthew 8:2; 20:22; 2 Tim. 3:5).

The righteous person’s prayers are not only effective, they are forcefully powerful.

James 5:13 tells us a lot about what to expect from prayer, and what is required from us. From what we have studied, we could restate the verse like this:

“When a Christian who is in obedient fellowship with God prays, his or her prayers will actively work in the world and will prevail with forceful power.” (my paraphrase)

Alternatively, someone once paraphrased the passage like this, “The prayer of a man whose heart is right with God works wonders.” These are the wonders of God. When we pray from a place of fellowship with, submission to and obedience to God, we can have confidence that our prayers will achieve great things according to his will. They are forcefully effective as they go out into the world.

Let me finish with two quotes by the great writer A.W. Tozer:

“It seems so incongruent that everybody believes in prayer and yet few people actually know how to pray, and fewer still practice it with any sort of regularity. Prayer is both the easiest thing to do and the hardest thing we will ever do.”

“It is prayer that gives power to all these other things. Singing, giving, entertaining, teaching, sewing, working, serving: those are all good things if we set them aflame with prayer.”

Hopefully, a greater appreciation of what is expected from us in prayer and what we should expect from prayer will spur you to pray more diligently and faithfully.


  • Adam Clarke, Clarke’s Commentary, vol. 6.
  • A.W Tozer, The Quotable Tozer: A Topical Compilation of the Wisdom and Insight of A.W. Tozer. Compiled and edited by James L. Snyder.
  • HELPS Word-studies. Online at BibleHub.
  • James Strong, LL.D, S.T.D., The New Strong’s Expanded Exhaustive Concordance of the Bible: Expanded with the Best of Vine’s Dictionary of Old & New Testament Words.
  • The Holy Bible: Containing the Old and New Testaments, New King James Version, Thomas Nelson.
  • The New Greek / English Interlinear New Testament: A New Interlinear Translation of the Greek New Testament United Bible Societies’ Fifth Revised Edition with the New Revised Standard Version, New Testament. Edited by J.D. Douglas, Jonathan W. Bryant. Translated by Robert K. Brown, Philip W. Comfort.
  • William MacDonald, Believer’s Bible Commentary, 2nd Edition. Edited by Art Farstad.


Photo by cottonbro.

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