Divine Healing: Is It Scriptural?
by A.W. Pink
6. Appendix on James 5:14-16
A number of friends who appreciated our recent articles on this subject have written to us expressing the desire for a few words on James 5:14-16. We respond to their wish with a certain amount of diffidence, for we are not sure in our own mind either as to its interpretation or application. This is a passage which has long been an occasion of controversy and debate, and those who took part therein found—as is often the case—that it was easier to refute the arguments of their opponents than to establish their own position. When we are uncertain about the meaning of Scripture we usually remain silent thereon, but in this instance we will give the leading views which have been expressed, and state how we feel toward them.
First, Romanists insist that this "anointing with oil" is a standing ordinance in the church and James 5:14, 15 is the principal passage appealed to by them in support of their dogma and practice of "extreme unction." But here as everywhere the papists go contrary to the Scriptures, for instead of anointing the sick as a healing ordinance, they only administer it to those at the point of death. We have no hesitation in denouncing their perversion as a mere hypocritical pageantry. The "unction" they use must be olive oil mixed with balsam, consecrated by a bishop, who must nine times bow the knee, saying thrice "Ave sanctum oleum" (Hail, holy oil), and thrice "Ave Sanctum chrisma" (Hail, holy chrism), and thrice more, "Ave, sanctum Balsamum" (Hail, holy balsam). The members anointed are the eyes, ears, nose, mouth, and for the extremities, the reins and feet: in women, the navel. The design thereof is, the expulsion of the relics of sin and to equip the soul for its conflicts with the powers of evil in the moment of death. One has but to mention these things to reveal their absurdity.
Second, the position generally taken by the Reformers and Puritans, was, that this anointing the sick with oil was not designed as a sacrament, they being but two in number: baptism and the Lord’s supper. They pointed out that so far from this being a standing rite, the apostles themselves seldom used oil in the healing of the sick: they wrought cures by a touch (Acts 3:7), by their shadow (Acts 5:15), by handkerchiefs (Acts 19:12), by laying on of hands (Acts 28:8), by word of mouth (Acts 9:34). Nor does it appear that they were permitted to employ this gift indiscriminately, no not even among brethren in Christ dear to them, or why should Paul leave Trophimus at Miletum sick (2 Tim. 4:20) or sorrow so much over the illness of Epaphroditus (Phil. 2:27)? In this too God exercised His sovereignty. But what is more to the point, this supernatural endowment was only of brief duration: "But that grace of healing has disappeared, like all other miraculous powers, which the Lord was pleased to exhibit for a time, that He might render the power of the Gospel, which was then new, the object of admiration forever" (Calvin).
A list of the "charismata" or supernatural gifts which obtained during the apostolic period is found in 1 Corinthians 12: "to another faith, by the same Spirit; to another the gift of healing, by the same Spirit; to another the working of miracles, to another prophecy, to another discerning of spirits, to another divers kinds of tongues, to another the interpretation of tongues" (vv. 9, 10.).They were designed chiefly for the authenticating of Christianity and to confirm it in heathen countries. Their purpose, then, was only a temporary one, and as soon as the canon of Scripture was closed they were withdrawn. As 1 Corinthians 13 plainly intimates "whether there be prophecies (inspired messages from God) they shall fail (to be given any more); whether there be tongues, they shall cease; whether there be (supernatural) knowledge, it shall vanish away" (v. 8). It was the view of Matthew Henry, Thomas Manton, John Owen, and in fact nearly all of the Puritan divines, that James 5:14, 15 refers to the exercise of one of those supernatural gifts which the church enjoyed only in the first century.
Among the leading arguments advanced in support of this contention are the following. First, the "anointing with oil" clearly appears to look back to Mark 6:13 where we are told of the twelve, they "anointed with oil many that were sick, and healed them." Second, the positive promise of healing, verse 15, seems to be an unconditional and general one, as though no exceptions, no cases of failure, were to be looked for. Third, "healing" was certainly one of the miraculous gifts specified in 1 Corinthians 12. Moreover, it hardly seems likely that the "faith" here mentioned is an ordinary one: though whether it differed in kind or only in degree is not easy to determine. There was the "faith of miracles"—either to work them or the expectation of them on the part of those who were the beneficiaries, as is clear from Matthew 21:24; Mark 11:24; 1 Corinthians 13:2. The "anointing with oil’’ after the praying over the sick is regarded as a seal or pledge of the certainty of healing or recovery.
On the other side, we find such a deeply-taught man and so able an expositor as Thomas Goodwin (1600-1680) insisting on the contrary. He pointed out, first, that James 5:14 is quite different from Mark 6:13, for here the anointing with oil is joined with prayer, whereas prayer is not mentioned there, but only the miraculous gift. Second, the ones to be sent for were not specified as men endowed with the gift of healing, but the "elders," and there is nothing to show that all of them possessed that gift. The "elders" were standing officers who were to continue. Third, the ones to be healed are the "sick" or infirm, but extraordinary healing would have extended further—to the blind, the deaf and dumb, and would have reached to unbelievers instead of being restricted to church members: cf. 1 Corinthians 14:22. Fourth, the means commanded: oil and prayer on all such occasions, whereas the extraordinary gift of healing was not so confined, but was frequently effected without any means at all, by mere word of mouth.
Third, rather more than a century ago, a certain Edward Irving, founder of the "Catholic Apostolic Church," propounded the theory that the supernatural gifts which existed in the early Church had been lost through the unbelief and carnality of its members, and that if there was a return to primitive order and purity, they would again be available. Accordingly he appointed "apostles," and "prophets" and "evangelists." They claimed to speak in tongues, prophesy, interpret and work miracles. There is little doubt in our mind that this movement was inspired by Satan, and probably a certain amount of abnormal phenomena attended it, though much of it was explainable as issuing from a state of high nervous tension and hysteria. Irving’s theory, with some modifications and some additions has been popularized and promulgated by the more recent so-called ‘Pentecostal movement," where a species of unintelligible jabbering and auto-suggestion cum mesmerism is styled "speaking in tongues," and "faith healing." Many of their devotees and dupes attempt to carry out James 5:14, 15, but with very meager and unsatisfactory results.
Fourth, there is the grotesque idea of the Dispensationalists. These is a class of men who pose as being exceptionally enlightened, and under the guise of "rightly dividing the Word of Truth" arbitrarily partition the Scriptures, affirming "this is not for us," "that does not pertain to this present era of Grace," "that relates to the Tribulation period," "this will be fulfilled in the Millennium." Because the opening verse of James reads, "To the twelve tribes which are scattered abroad, greetings," these robbers of God’s children declare this epistle is "entirely Jewish;" as well might they reason that the first epistle of Paul is designed only for Papists because it is addressed "To all that be in Rome" (Rom. 1:1). The epistle of James belongs to all the "beloved brethren," to all born-again souls (1:16, 18). It is surely striking that the very passage we are here considering (5:14-16) comes right between a reference to Job (a Gentile) who endured patiently his affliction and found the Lord to be "pitiful and of tender mercy" (v. 11) and to Elijah who is described as "a man subject to like passions as we are" yet mighty in prayer (v. 17)—as though the Spirit was anticipating and refuting this mad notion.
Now where such widely-different interpretations are given of a passage, it usually follows that the true one lies somewhere between two extremes, and such we believe is the case here. We are very loathe to regard our passage as being an obsolete one, that it refers to something which pertained only to the apostolic age and relates not at all to us. When referring to the Papish travesty of this "anointing with oil" Thomas Goodwin said, "The Reformed churches seeing that such a sacrament could not be and this must needs be a perversion of it, did justly reject it, only in rejecting it (as in some other things) they went too far, even denying it to have that use of restoring the sick as a seal of the promise, and an indefinite means to convey that blessing which God in mercy hath appointed it to be." We are strongly inclined to agree with this eminent Puritan that the churches which grew out of the Reformation went too far when they set aside this passage as containing Divine directions to be followed by Gospel churches throughout this Christian era. Such a sweeping conclusion needs qualifying.
The knotty point to be settled is, how far and at which points is this qualification to be made? Personally we believe the general principle and promise of the passage holds good for all generations—seasons of great spiritual declension and deadness only excepted. In normal times it is the privilege of the saint—when seriously ill, or suffering great pain, and not on every light occasion—to send for the "elders" (pastors, ministers) of the local Gospel church to which he belongs, for they who preach God’s Word to him should surely be the fittest to spread his case before Him: cf. Job 42:8. They are to pray over him, commending him to the mercy of God and seeking recovery for him if that be according to the Divine will: whether or not the "anointing with oil" should accompany the praying is a detail on which we are not prepared to dogmatize; but where the sick one desires it, his request should be complied with. The kind of oil is not specified, though most likely olive oil was used in the first century.
It should be pointed out that those promises of God which relate to temporal and eternal mercies are quite different from those pertaining to spiritual and eternal things, the former being general and indefinite and not unconditional and absolute as are many of the latter, and therefore as God reserves to Himself the freedom to make them good when, as, and to whom He pleases, we must ask in full submission to His sovereign pleasure. To illustrate: if I am starting out on a journey I ask God to preserve me from all harm and danger if that be His holy will (Rom. 1:10), but I make no such proviso when I request Him to deliver me from those who assault my soul (2 Tim. 4:18). Thus "the prayer of faith" here is not a definite expectation that God will heal, but a peaceful assurance that He will do that which is most for His glory and the sick one good. That the promise of James 5:15 is an indefinite and not an absolute one is clear from this consideration: if it were not so, he could continually claim the promise and so never die— the "and IF he have committed sins" further confirms the indefiniteness of what is here in view.
Some are likely to object against what has been pointed out in the last paragraph and say, But faith must have a foundation to rest upon, and it has none other than the Word of God: if then there be here no definite promise to lay hold of and plead before God, the "prayer of faith" is impossible, for there is no assurance the sick one will be healed. That may sound very plausible and pious, yet it is wrong. There is a faith of reliance and submission as well as a faith of expectation. There is no higher, no stronger, no grander faith than one which has such confidence in the wisdom and goodness of God as leads me to present my case to Him and say "Do as seemeth Thee good." It is always a help when we can plead a promise, but God is greater than all His promises and where some specific need or emergency be not covered by some express promise, faith may count upon the mercy and power of God Himself— this is what Abraham did: Hebrews 11:19!
Personally we greatly fear that there are very few "elders" now left on earth whom it would be any good to send for in an emergency: only those living close to God and blessed with strong faith would be of any use. This is a day of "small things," nevertheless the Lord remains unchanged and ready to show Himself strong on behalf of those who walk uprightly. Though there be no spiritual elders available, yet God is accessible; seek unto Him, and if He grants you the "prayer of faith" then healing is certain either by natural means or by supernatural intervention. "The Lord is undoubtedly present with His people to assist them in all ages, and when necessary He heals their diseases as much as He did in ancient times; but He does not display those miraculous powers or dispense miracles by the hands of apostles, because that gift was only of temporary duration" (Calvin)
"Confess your faults one to another, and pray one for another, that ye may be healed" (v. 16). Here the scope of our passage is widened: in verse 13 the afflicted or tried one is to pray for himself, in verse 14 the ministers are to pray for the one seriously sick, now fellow-Christians are to pray for each other. But first they are bidden to confess their faults one to another, which does not mean revealing the secrets of their hearts or acquainting their brethren with that which is suited only for the ear of God: but cases where they have tempted or injured one another or consented to the same evil act—tattling, for example. A mutual acknowledgement of those faults which cause coldness and estrangement, exciting one another to repentance for the same, promotes the spirit of prayer and fellowship, The "healing" here is also wider, referring primarily to that of the soul (Ps. 41:4) and breaches (Heb. 12:13), being the term used in 1 Peter 2:24, yet also includes removal of physical chastisements.
Observations in Conclusion
A few brief observations on our passage in conclusion.
Personal prayer (v. 13) is enjoined before ministerial (v. 14) and social (v. 16): individual responsibility cannot be shelved.
God is not indifferent to the sickness of His people (v. 14), but cares for their bodies as well as their souls.
Are not ministers too free in visiting the sick and praying over them, instead of waiting until they are sent for (v. 14)?
If none but "elders" (ministers) were to anoint with oil, surely they alone are eligible to administer baptism and the Lord’s supper!
All sickness is not occasioned by sin or the "if" of verse 15 would be meaningless.
Yet God does sometimes visit with physical chastisements as the "if" denotes.
The mutual confession of verse 16 refutes the Papish error of "auricular confession," for the priest does not confess his sins to those revealing to him the secrets of their souls!