On Praying for the Sick

How should we understand James’ instructions on anointing with oil? Should our elders be doing that every time someone is sick?

Chris Hutchison on January 11, 2022
The elders at Emmanuel recently adopted a position paper which explains our beliefs and expectations regarding prayer for the sick. In particular, we sought to clarify how we understand James’ instruction for a sick person to “call for the elders of the church” that they might “pray over him, anointing him with oil in the name of the Lord” (James 5:14).

We hope you find this helpful, and welcome any questions you might have in response.

The Elders’ Position on Praying for the Sick

We understand that, as men (1 Tim 2:8) and spiritual leaders (Acts 6:4), we have a unique responsibility to pray for our church. We desire to pray for all people in our church, in all of the kinds of situations they may be facing. Prayer should be a significant part of what we do as elders.

Following the example of Paul (Eph 1:15-21, Phil 1:3-11, Col 1:9-12, etc.), we understand that the primary focus of our praying should be for their spiritual well-being of our church. However, we also understand that physical well-being is important. In addition to the healing miracles of Jesus and the Apostles, we see that a concern for physical health is expressed throughout the New Testament (1 Tim 5:23, 3 John 2).

When we pray for the sick, we understand that it is not God’s will for all to be healed on this side of Heaven (Rom 8:17-25, 2 Cor 12:7-10, 1 Tim 5:23, 2 Tim 4:20). We cannot demand nor expect that God will heal anybody. What we can pray for, with confidence, is the spiritual well-being of those who are sick: that in the midst of their suffering, the Lord will strengthen their faith, draw them to Himself, magnify His name, and so on. 

At the same time, we understand that Scripture nowhere tells us that God has permanently ceased healing people. We therefore believe that, if and when He chooses, God can and does bring glory to Himself by healing His people in supernatural ways. And so, in the spirit of “not what I will, but what you will” (Mark 14:26), we will ask God to heal those who are sick.

James 5:14-15 describes one who is “sick” calling the elders of the church to pray over him and anoint him with oil, with a promise that “the prayer of faith will save the one who is sick, and the Lord will raise him up.” We understand that the meaning of this passage is not immediately obvious. The Greek word for “sick” can refer to (spiritual) weakness, and some interpreters believe that the details of this passage best describe a believer who is spiritually weak and giving into sin (especially v. 16).1See Gary Millar, Calling on the Name of the Lord (New Studies in Biblical Theology) (Downers Grove: Intervarsity Press), pp. 219-224. Others maintain that physical sickness is the best context within which to understand this passage.2See Ralph P. Martin, James, vol. 48, Word Biblical Commentary (Dallas: Word, Incorporated, 1988), p. 206.

Even if this passage is describing a prayer for healing from physical sickness, this specific practice of calling the elders and being anointed with oil is nowhere else described (let alone prescribed) in in any other New Testament passage which speaks of sickness (1 Tim 5:23, 2 Tim 4:20) or healing (Acts 9:34, etc.). This suggests that we should not view James’ instructions as mandatory. James is not mandating the practice of anointing with oil, but suggesting one possible course of action.3“Elders who pray for the sick may [anoint with oil], and James clearly recommends the practice; but they do not have to do so.” (Douglas J. Moo, James: An Introduction and Commentary, ed. Eckhard J. Schnabel, Second edition, vol. 16, Tyndale New Testament Commentaries [Nottingham, England: Inter-Varsity Press, 2015], p. 226.)

A final observation is that James’ instructions seem to be referring to more extreme cases of either physical sickness or spiritual weakness. If we understand “sick” to refer to physical sickness, this person is unwell enough to be unable to leave their home; if they are spiritually weak, they appear to have reached a particularly low point.

Anointing with oil those who are particularly sick (or spiritually weak) is thus a permissible but not a necessary practice. As elders, we are happy to follow this practice if requested, but do not feel the compulsion to do so every time we pray for the sick (or the spiritually weak).

Finally, we wish to recognize the way in which the Lord uses “normal” medicine in the lives of His people (1 Tim 5:23). Within a robust doctrine of vocation, we understand that doctors and medical professionals can be seen as agents of God’s healing. When someone is helped through “normal” medical intervention, this is not a second-best to divine healing, but is rather the particular means which God chose to restore that person to physical health, and He should receive all of the glory for it.


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