Question: What does James 5:14-16 mean?
“Is anyone among you suffering? Let him pray. Is anyone cheerful? Let him sing praise. 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 one who is sick, 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 prayer of a righteous person has great power as it is working.”
(James 5:13–16, ESV)
Answer: Greetings friend. The problem with this passage in James is that, by and large, it means just what it says. I know, that doesn’t sound like a problem—and it is not in itself…but people get ideas out of this passage that are not inside of it, thus the problems. I wish that we were sitting in dialogue so I could narrow down the query, but since we are not, you will be better served if I answer your query in a negative way. We’ll discuss some of the interpretations that have no warrant within the text, and I’ll keep it down to four.
The first thing that this passage is not is a call for a gift-of-the-Spirit type of healing (1 Corinthians 12:9) as was performed in Acts 3:6; 4:10. I believe the reference to oil in the passage bends some people toward that interpretation, because in Scripture, oil is a symbol of the Holy Spirit, and he is the one who drives the spiritual gifts. Additionally, we use oil to anoint people for God’s service (Lev. 8:10; cf. Acts 10:38), and it fuels the lamps that cause the light—which is a stunning analogy for his work within the believer! When you combine those images with Mark 6:13 which shows oil being used as a channel of blessing to heal “in the name of the Lord,” it would be tempting to connect this James passage with this type of healing. However, please note James’s wording. He does not say, “Call someone with the gift of healing” which would be entirely in his purview, but “call the elders of the church.” For this reason, I believe that something other than using the gift of healing is in view here.
We must remember, too, that beyond its symbolism, oil is also considered medicine in the Scriptures (Isaiah 1:6; Luke 10:34), but I’ll stop short of insisting that that is its only use here. If it were, then why call for the elders to apply it? And why take medicine “in the name of the Lord?” Oil was a recognized symbol of the Holy Spirit’s presence. In the Old Testament, it was used to signify that the person or object upon which it was placed was consecrated (set apart) for God’s use. Anointing the sick with oil could symbolize that he belonged to God and was allowing himself to be committed to God’s care. Therefore, a plausible (although very loose) interpretation concerning the oil is, “Apply Christian-comfort, prayer and medicine—all in the power of the Holy Spirit—and all in God’s name.” That merely says what the verse says, and there is nothing hyper-Charismatic about that.
The second thing that this passage is not is a reference to the Roman Catholic sacrament called Anointing of the Sick (formerly known as Extreme Unction and Last Rites). Firstly, the Bible has but two sacraments (or ordinances), Baptism and the Lord’s Supper—and that is neither. Secondly, Anointing of the Sick is closely associated with (although it is not exclusively for) preparing a person for death, when used with a final Confession and Holy Communion. Our passage from James has healing and recovery in view, not imminent death.
The third thing that this passage is not is a reference to the Roman Catholic Sacrament of Penance (more commonly called Confession), which is an aural confession to a Catholic priest. The phrase, “confess your sins to one another” shows parity between the confessing and the confidant, and it does not support the Roman Catholic practice which is hierarchical—layman to priest. Firstly, the New Testament does not anywhere model that type of priesthood, because such priesthoods ended at the cross when the temple veil was ripped in two (Mat. 27:51). Secondly, the New Testament teaches that every believer is now a priest (1 Pet. 2:5). We pray directly to (and only to) God himself. We confess our sins to him and to one another. The Bible neither teaches nor models a hierarchy of intercessors, because only Jesus has that job (1 Tim. 2:5). In like manner, we have no special class of people to make or take confession, only our fellow believers and God.
At this point let me affirm that any church organization has the right to perform its sacerdotal duties as it sees fit, and I support that right wholeheartedly. I also understand that these systems will vary. Indeed, the Bible allows for that. The fact that people vary in personality and in culture virtually guarantees that these differences will be reflected by their methodologies, which is not a problem in itself. But not every common practice will have scriptural warrant, and that’s what we’re talking about today.
The fourth thing that this passage is not is a support for faith-healing. Faith-healers teach that any person who has enough faith can be healed, and that if that person is not healed, it because his faith was weak. Not only is this anti-biblical…it is horrid! The last thing a sick person needs is a lie that is also an insult! But where might such ideas come from? From a misunderstanding about unconditional language. Unconditional language does not bind God unconditionally.
This phrase taken from our passage in James uses unconditional language, “…the prayer of faith will save the one who is sick…” and this language is similar to those promises made by Jesus himself in Mark 11:24 and John 14:14.
“Therefore I tell you, whatever you ask in prayer, believe that you have received it, and it will be yours.”
(Mark 11:24, ESV)
“If you ask me anything in my name, I will do it.” (John 14:14, ESV)
Don’t these verses sound like a guarantee for success? They seem to say that if you pray rightly, you will receive your petition. But we are stuck with the phenomenon that, through the millennia, faithful people have prayed for themselves and for others—yet most remained ill and many have died. In fact, this is a much more common result than healings. So, does God lie? Because he tells us in James that that prayer of faith will save the one who is sick—and that language is unconditional. It even sounds emphatic! Well, we know that God doesn’t lie, so the alternative is that the person involved was not adequately faithful—even though he seemed faithful on the outside. Can you see where a faith-healer would be stuck with this logic? He needs to take one more step in understanding how language works. Yes, the language is unconditional…but unconditional language is merely a communications device. It is neither the equivalent of, the cause of, nor the promise of unconditional behaviors.
Such statements must be understood (as such promises are everywhere in the Bible) with this restriction: The person will be restored to health if it is the will of God—if he shall deem it for the best. Do you think that the apostle Paul was a failure in prayer or in communion with God? Yet, he left Trophimus sick in Miletus (2 Tim. 4:20). Think about it for a minute. If the sentences were like magic spells that just plain old worked when administered properly, then the sick person would always recover, no matter how often he might be sick. Therefore, such a person would never die! One thing is for sure, life does not work like that—and it is unreasonable to put that burden on mere sentences. They are designed to encourage people in the use of faithful prayer with a strong hope that a prayer of faith would be effectual. No guarantee of success as implied.
How does prayer work, anyway? The very essence of prayer is that we acquiesce to the will of God—not that he acquiesces to us. We should think of these types of statements more as algorithms than as formulas with guaranteed outcomes. They give us a sensible methodology, but God’s sovereign will always subordinates any action—or else he would be no God at all. But does this make him a promise breaker? No. He used direct language to tell us things for our comfort and for our instruction. This is not a legal document where every clause needs to be carefully couched in conditional language, naming every exception, etc. This language is indeed the language of promises, but God’s sovereignty demands that this cause-and-effect will not, of necessity, come to pass for every person or at every time.
That completes my “negative” answer, but I feel compelled to give you something positive, too. So I will paste in a commentary on this section of James from G. Holloway who has some good insights on both topics that I have already mentioned and some additional topics. (Holloway, G. (1996). James & Jude (Jas 5:15–16). Joplin, MO: College Press Pub.)
(15 And the prayer offered in faith will make the sick person well) The prayer of the elders for healing must be offered in faith, not like the doubting prayer of the double-minded person (James 1:6–8). Three promises are here made to faithful prayer. First, it will (literally in Greek) “save the sick.” “Save” is intentionally ambiguous here. It can mean that prayer “will make the sick person well” (NIV). It is also the word used for salvation from sin (see v. 15b). Faith without deeds is dead, but an active faith saves (James 2:14). In a particular situation, it may not be the will of God to cure the sick. But if he does not grant them physical health, he will give them spiritual salvation.
(the Lord will raise him up.) The second promise, “the Lord will raise him up,” is also capable of two meanings. The Lord might raise him from his sick bed. If that is not his will, he has promised to raise his children from the dead.
(If he has sinned, he will be forgiven.) Forgiveness of sins is the third promise. Sin is associated with sickness in the Bible (cf. Deuteronomy 28:58–62). If one sins, sickness may result. However, it is not a simple equation. Sickness is not always the result of sin. That was the mistake of Job’s friends. Since he was sick, they assumed he had sinned (Job 8 and 22). In reply, Job maintained his innocence (Job 9:13–21; 13:18–14:22; 21:4–26; 29:1–30:3). Jesus’ disciples also assumed that a man was blind from birth as a result of his or his parents’ sin. Jesus corrects their error: “Neither this man nor his parents sinned …” (John 9:3). So, James says, “If he has sinned, he will be forgiven.” Sickness and sin are not equated, but they are similar. The Bible is concerned with both physical health and spiritual health. Jesus sometimes forgave the sins of the sick before he healed their bodies (Luke 5:20–25). In verse 16, James even speaks of forgiveness as healing.
(5:16 Therefore confess your sins to each other and pray for each other so that you may be healed.) Forgiveness, however, depends on confession and intercession (1 John 1:9). James may still have the visit of the elders in mind. The sick should confess their sins to their spiritual leaders. However, it is more likely that mutual confession by all Christians is intended. This may be done in a public assembly but also with individual brothers and sisters in whom they have confidence.