Questions and Answers

Written by Drew on August 25th, 2005

“Does Acts 12:16 contradict James 1:5-8?”

Recently I received a question regarding the difficulty in harmonizing Acts 12:16 with James 1:5-8. The inquirer wrote,

James said, “If any of you lacks wisdom, let him ask God, who gives generously to all without reproach, and it will be given him. But let him ask in faith, with no doubting, for the one who doubts is like a wave of the sea that is driven and tossed by the wind. For that person must not suppose that he will receive anything from the Lord; he is a double-minded man, unstable in all his ways” (James 1:5-8). Would his words not apply to prayers to God for all things? Now let’s go to Acts 12. When Peter was in prison, for what were the saints in Mary’s house praying (v. 5)? Were they praying for his release? If they were praying for his release, and God answered their prayer in releasing Peter, then why were they amazed (cf. v. 16)? If they were not anticipating his release though praying for it, then why did God answer their prayer? Would that not have been the prayer of a doubtful and double-minded man?

First, it should be said that the Bible, like any document or book, deserves the consideration of “innocent until proven guilty.” In other words, we ought to give the Bible the benefit of the doubt, unless there is evidence to the contrary.

Operating under this principle, a difficult passage needs only one plausible explanation in order for it to be removed from the category of “contradiction.” In his book The Anvil Rings, Volume 1, Eric Lyons explains,

If we believe the Bible is innocent until proven guilty, then any possible answer should be good enough to nullify the charge of error. This principle does not allow for just any answer, but any possible answer. When one studies the Bible and comes across passages that may seem contradictory, one does not necessarily have to pin down the exact solution in order to show their truthfulness. The Bible student need only show the possibility of a harmonization between passages that appear to conflict in order to negate the force of the charge that a Bible contradiction really exists (p. 9).

In my mind, there are at least four plausible explanations that help to harmonize the texts in James and Acts. We may not know which of these, if any, is the right explanation; it does not matter. As long the passages can feasibly rest side by side, the Bible’s claim of inspiration is not nullified.

1. It could have been that God’s will and the will of the church inadvertently coincided. Maybe Peter was released, not because the church prayed, but because God wanted him out of prison. This would relieve pressure from the principle in James. After all, is God bound by faithless petitioners? If they pray for something, but doubt that it will come to fruition, does God have to work against their requests, regardless of His own wishes? Think of the consequences. God would never be able to do anything. Doubtful Christians are everywhere, making requests that just happen to coincide with His will.

2. Another possibility is that the church in Jerusalem was praying for something other than Peter’s release. Luke only says the church was praying “for him” (Acts 12:5). Maybe they were praying for the apostle’s comfort, for better conditions, or simply that Herod Agrippa would not execute him as he had James (cf. Acts 12:1-3).

3. Yet another consideration is the question, “Were all of the petitioners doubtful?” Luke says “many” of the Christians in Jerusalem were at Mary’s house, not all (Acts 12:12). Certainly Mary’s house was too small to accommodate every member of the church in Jerusalem. In fact, McGarvey says, “This was probably one of the many houses in which brethren were gathered together praying on what all supposed to be the last night of Peter’s life” (New Commentary on Acts of the Apostles, vol. 1, p. 237). These were the only Christians we know of who supposed Rhoda was “out of her mind” (Acts 12:15). These were the only ones who theorized that they had been visited by Peter’s “angel” (Acts 12:15).

We cannot assume that every Christian in Jerusalem struggled with the same doubts. If only one trusting Christian was praying in Jerusalem on Peter’s behalf—or any place in the world for that matter—that would be enough. James, who gave us the principle on praying with faith, also wrote, “The effectual fervent prayer of a righteous man availeth much” (Jas. 5:16, KJV).

It could very well have been that Peter’s prayer was the one that was answered. Certainly he was not struggling with doubt. The night before his sentencing we find him “sleeping between two soldiers, bound with two chains, and sentries before the door were guarding the prison” (Acts 12:6). This kind of sleep is only enjoyed by one who has a quiet confidence in the Lord.

4. Finally, it is possible that we have misinterpreted the reason for the shock of Peter’s friends. Maybe they were amazed, not because their prayers had been answered, but at how they had been answered. No one would have prayed for Peter’s released expecting things to unfold as they had. At Mary’s house, the believers were praying all night for an acquittal the next day, when Peter would come before the court after the Passover (cf. Acts 12:4). But Peter was mysteriously released in the middle of the night, without attracting the attention of four squads of professional soldiers! Perhaps they believed their prayers would be answered, but they had no idea that God would answer them in such a dramatic way.

Any of the above explanations will suffice to explain the problem presented by the principle in James 1:5-8, as it relates to the incident recorded in Acts 12. For those who believe the Bible is God’s inspired Word (2 Tim. 3:16-17), these put to rest any concerns over the validity of the biblical text. However, the skeptics will never be satisfied, for they suffer from dishonest scholarship. Let the Christian trust God’s Word, and may God help him ignore the spurious charges hurled at God’s Word by ungodly men.


1 Comments so far ↓

  1. andy says:

    This answer given to an apparent dilemma was very well done. You are exactly right. Thank you.

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