When we ask about the effectiveness of people’s prayers, we are asking whether God is more inclined to answer them, in the sense of responding positively. That is, we want to know if God is more likely to give certain people, such as our pastors or elders, what they ask for in prayer.
In one sense, the answer to this question is obvious. Yes, God is more likely to give certain people what they ask for in prayer. James tells us as much: “The prayer of a righteous person has great power as it is working” (James 5:16).
The question then becomes, Who is the righteous person? This is where it gets a little more complicated, though in one sense again the answer is obvious: those who are united to Christ by faith are counted righteous (2 Cor. 5:21). Those who are righteous in Christ can be confident that God will be more inclined to grant their requests. The whole of James 5:16 seems to bear this out: “Confess your sins to one another and pray for one another, that you may be healed. The prayer of a righteous person has great power as it is working.” The implication is that those who are praying for one another in the first half of the verse—that is, James’ Christian readers—are synonymous with the “righteous person” of the second half of the verse.
Believers’ righteousness in Christ is a positional righteousness. It grants us standing before God and access to Him. But the subsequent reference to Elijah suggests that more is in view. Elijah was a prophet sent by God, but James does not stress his office, calling him “a man with a nature like ours” (v. 17). Instead, James emphasizes Elijah’s obedience in “fervently” praying for the things that God called him to pray for, that is, judgment on Israel (vv. 17–18; see 1 Kings 17:1–4).
This suggests that personal righteousness, the fruit of a life of increasing obedience to God by the sanctifying power of the Holy Spirit, is also involved in effective prayer. As we progress in sanctification, our prayers become more and more aligned with the will and the heart of God. God is then more and more inclined to grant what we desire, because what we desire will be what He desires.
So yes, we ought to ask our pastors and our elders to pray for us. But we must know that we don’t have to have them pray for us in order for our requests to be heard. We can pray for one another, and we are encouraged to do so. And we can approach God’s throne ourselves, confident that God is pleased to grant access to those who are clothed in His Son’s righteousness and who are being sanctified by His Holy Spirit. For the Lord delights to answer His children’s prayers of faith (James 5:15).
Rev. Kevin D. Gardner is associate editor of Tabletalk magazine and a teaching elder in the Presbyterian Church in America.