Is any one of you in trouble? He should pray. Is anyone happy? Let him sing songs of praise. Is any one of you sick? He should call the elders of the church to pray over him and anoint him with oil in the name of the Lord. And the prayer offered in faith will make the sick person well; the Lord will raise him up. If he has sinned, he will be forgiven. Therefore confess your sins to each other and pray for each other so that you may be healed. (James 5:13-16a)
We ought to live all of life in relation to God and to acknowledge him in all things. If a person is suffering or in trouble, he should not wallow in fear and self-pity, or rely solely on human resources to rescue him, but he should turn his mind toward God, and pray for help and deliverance. And we are not to forget him when we are happy and comfortable; rather, we should offer him thanksgiving and songs of praise.
Then, if a man is sick, he should call a medical doctor right away. What? Is that not what James says? Oh, he says to call the church elders so that they could pray. Is it to pray that the man may endure sickness “for the glory of God”? Oh, he says for them to pray so that the man will receive healing and so that the Lord will raise him up. Does your seminary teach this? Does your church even allow it?
If a person disagrees with James, or if he heaps up excuses so that he could teach something different – even the exact opposite – is it because James is defective and outdated, or is it because this man is teaching rebellion against the Lord? And if I cannot pray for healing when I am sick, why can I still pray when I am suffering or in trouble, and when I am happy, why should I still offer songs of praise? James makes no dispensational distinction in the middle of his passage.
The founder of a biblical counseling movement complains that Christians are inconsistent when it comes to resolving spiritual or psychological issues. They claim to believe in the sufficiency of Christ and of the Scripture, and indeed they at least attempt to be consistent with this when it comes to our justification before God, and thus we affirm that we are made righteous by Jesus Christ through the gift of faith, apart from our own works and merits. But then these same Christians would seek help from therapists and psychologists who counsel on the basis of anti-biblical theories and methods, in order to resolve problems like fear, rage, depression, addictions, destructive sins and habits, and marital conflicts. He correctly insists that the Scripture is sufficient to provide guidance in these areas.
However, when he comes to physical ailments, or even psychological issues that stem from physical defects, such as a chemical imbalance, suddenly it appears as if the power of Christ is sufficient only as long as the matter does not touch the physical realm. The moment it is suspected that there is some physical basis to the psychological symptom, the matter is referred to a medical professional. What, is Jesus Christ good for the soul, but useless for the body? Which is easier: to say “Your sins are forgiven,” or to say, “Get up and walk”? But the Son of Man has power to do both.
To add hypocrisy to unbelief, this theologian, this scholar, this defender of biblical sufficiency and biblical counseling, wrote from a theological tradition that stresses God’s rule over all of life. We are supposed to regard the body as holy, even integral to the human person like the soul; yet, God will regenerate the spirit and charge it with divine power, and leave the body to the non-Christian doctors. We trust God for forgiveness, and for our psychological well-being, but to trust him for health is the height of recklessness, and to teach about prayer for physical healing is to give people false hope. What is this strange doctrine? James knows nothing about it. It does not come from faith, but from unbelief, and from the devil.
There are arguments that pertain to the situation of that day. The medical care was poor, expensive and dangerous, and often associated with paganism. But this is not fundamentally different from the contemporary scene. How many people receive good medical care, even in advanced western nations? And even if you think that your doctors possess the very powers of God, how about the millions of people that reside in other countries? The truth is that even in your nation, medical care is often expensive and dangerous, and the doctors are evolutionists. The situation has not changed as much as theologians wish to believe. But suppose it has indeed improved much, the most disturbing implication remains, and that is these theologians wish to convince you that God is always the last resort, even in the face of an explicit biblical teaching to seek him first. What explains this baffling way of thinking? Unbelief.
All this is not an argument or prohibition against medicine. Since I have made a statement about this elsewhere (there is no condemnation – call a doctor, or call fifty if you wish, but do not make yourself into some kind of faith hero when you do, and do not call your recovery a miracle), I will not repeat everything here, except to note that I have also refuted the view that by the anointing with oil James intends to combine medicine and prayer (if one insists on combining them on the basis of this passage, then he can either make the church elders perform the surgeries, or else drop the pretense and admit that he wishes to assert an alternate view no matter what, changing only what he wants to change, all the while claiming biblical support). Rather, I am insisting that unless there is an infallible and biblical argument to do otherwise, there is no reason to annul an explicit command in Scripture, and here this means that church leaders must pray in faith for the healing of their people. No historical-redemptive maneuver can make this text mean the opposite of what it says. You either believe and obey it, or you do not.
As for method, although James says that the elders should anoint the sick with oil, it is understood that this is not the only way. It is certainly one way, and an acceptable way, and it should be followed when one’s attention is focused on this text. But Scripture shows that healing is effected by the laying on of hands, and by prayer or a word of command without any physical contact. There is much freedom and power in Jesus Christ.
The essential thing is faith. It is easy to utter a prayer of doubt and unbelief where one believes nothing, expects nothing, requests nothing, and receives nothing. But let us not settle for that which is natural for the old, sinful man. Let us not be mere hearers of the word, and so deceive ourselves, but let us be doers of the word as well. Let us truly live all of life in relation to God and acknowledge him in all things, even when it comes to the health of our bodies. And whether or not we call on doctors, when we fail to pray in faith or when our prayer does not bring healing, let us admit our shortcoming and ask for grace instead of continuing in a state of delusion. Of course we acknowledge the sovereignty of God, but the Bible never uses this to excuse unbelief. The worst thing we can do is to justify ourselves by condemning James to irrelevance.