A Question I Was Asked:

Is James 5:13-15 Still Applicable for the Sick?

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...I do question the scripture in James where we are told to call for the elders of the church and the sick will be recovered and their sin forgiven. Can you give me your thoughts? It seems to be pretty emphatic that the healing will occur by the use of the word "shall". What is your answer? I do not see many people healed in this mode of prayer. It says the prayer of faith will heal the sick. Can you help me with this? Thank you and may God bless you.

UK Apologetics Reply:

First of all, the use of any specific word such as "shall" is not important, we must ensure we are not influenced by the 'positive confession' people here!

With regard to James 5:13-15, I have always thought that James just wanted to make a few comments about the sick in passing here and it is we Protestants who have tended to turn this into a complete theology of healing; it is not and we are now learning this.

All true, saved Christians are indeed eventually healed and will go on to inherit the Kingdom - it's a promise! Yet - as we all know - not all are healed in this life. The point in these verses is that sin continues to be forgiven as and when we faithfully petition God, but not all sicknesses are healed right now.

But we need to look more closely at some of these things. I think that we are forgetting and/or ignoring a few associated matters here.

Okay, so let us carefully look at these verses:

13. Is anyone among you suffering? Let him pray. Is anyone cheerful? Let him sing psalms. 14. 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. 15. And the prayer of faith will save the sick, and the Lord will raise him up. And if he has committed sins, he will be forgiven. 16. Confess your trespasses to one another, and pray for one another, that you may be healed. The effective, fervent prayer of a righteous man avails much. 17. Elijah was a man with a nature like ours, and he prayed earnestly that it would not rain; and it did not rain on the land for three years and six months. 18. And he prayed again, and the heaven gave rain, and the earth produced its fruit. (James 5:13-18; NKJV).

We are especially concerned with verses 13-15 here.

The overwhelming sense here is that this refers to sudden, dramatic and possibly painful illnesses. Notice James starts this section with two questions: "is anyone among you suffering?" then he asks, "is anyone among you sick?" Yet James seems determined to use a light-hearted manner here for he also asks, "is anyone cheerful?" I once heard verses 13-15 being applied to somewhat silly sorts of illnesses: dandruff, toothache etc., if we have toothache we should see a dentist! No, the strong sense here is of sudden, painful, life-threatening illnesses and how we should handle them, yet the approach of James is not deadly serious at all.

It Is No Longer the First Century AD!

At once, the first part here is a particular problem right now in this modern world:

14. 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. (verse 14).

We must remember that in the days of James it was one unified Church under the direct authority of the Apostles - that has now gone and we cannot pretend that such an ideal situation still exists. Since that time, Christianity, as we all know, has broken up into numerous groups, so - in such a situation - can this still be applied? No, I don't think it can be, not in quite the same way. Too many are seeing this as simply a matter of faith when the whole world has been turned upside down!

I think it can be highly arrogant for any of us in our day to carry on as though we were still in the apostolic God-ordained Church - I mean as a single institution - right back in the first century AD! Would any elders in our day even be prepared to pack the olive oil and to go out and personally and individually pray with the sick of their church group? And don't forget: it should hopefully be all the elders. I know that some tiny groups will do that but this must not be any cult or sect: this should be the bone fide Church which Jesus founded - at least in Spirit! Let us all stop burying our heads in the sand in this matter; times have changed, let us acknowledge that fact.

The Healing Gift of the First Century was Powerful

We must not pretend in this matter. All seasoned Bible searchers and researchers can see that in the first century AD there was a most powerful healing gift around, the merest shadow of Apostles like Peter and John was enough to heal the sick, the dramatic and powerful healings of Jesus, and so on. The 'church fathers' (early church writers) sometimes mentioned this, it is also mentioned by one or two of them that they saw this powerful and dramatic healing gift just starting to depart the scene as they wrote. This was plainly an especially powerful Gift for a particular time and place as God wanted to powerfully attract attention to the Gospel of Jesus Christ, then just going to the world for the very first time. We really must acknowledge that this especially powerful and potent gift of healing is not around today to the same extent - whether or not a real faith is present.

When James wrote his fifth chapter, he might well have expected to see something like an 80-90% healing, today some might be healed whilst the majority are not. We must not be like those who operate so-called "healing ministries," believing that some deceit and subterfuge are acceptable: they are not! Too many refuse to face up to these things - there is no physical 'healing ministry' today, only a spiritual one where the Scripture is faithfully preached. However, a few are still healed of sickness and I have seen a few dramatic ones, but not many.

What We Must Do For the Sick - Right Now!

So I think we are left with faithful and persevering prayer in which we are constantly also asking for forgiveness (the sick person might have brought on the illness through sinful behaviour or practices even if this is not in any way obvious but James tells us that forgiveness for sin is part of this). That can and must be done by the sick person, plus his family, friends and concerned associates, and I think that is the closest we can now get to obeying the instruction of James. The leaders of one's church group or worship group should also be asked for specific prayers whether or not they can attend any particular home.

I would suggest that - perhaps over a few evenings - possibly 3-10 Christian believers who feel burdened for the sick brother or sister go to that person's home and spend some time in prayer together. A leading Christian, good at using words and quite happy to pray in public could be invited to lead. PLEASE NOTE: I did not say "the most charismatic," rather, the most mature in the Faith is always a good choice. In James 5, it seems like the elders were expected to travel to that person's home (if at all possible, and I know that sometimes that is now very difficult). The leader of such a group would hopefully ensure that any such evening should have a serious approach, no arguing about doctrine, no silly joking, no talking about holidays, no boasting about that new home extension; this is an evening of prayer for the sick!

Two major Bible commentators Albert Barnes and Adam Clarke made a few comments on this matter (in their respective commentaries). Let us consider these because they are helpful to us:

Albert Barnes wrote,

"...They [the sick] will be restored to health if it shall be the will of God; if he shall deem it for the best. It cannot be taken in the absolute and unconditional sense, for then, if these means were used, the sick person would always recover, no matter how often he might be sick, and he need never die."

If a dramatic healing does occur that obviously does not mean that such healings will continue to occur as and when that person becomes sick; God's will shall continue to be done throughout the lives of all of us and there is a time for all of us to die.

And Adam Clarke wrote this,

"..And the prayer of faith; shall save the sick - That is, God will often make these the means of a sick man's recovery; but there often are cases where faith and prayer are both ineffectual, because God sees it will be prejudicial to the patient's salvation to be restored; and therefore all faith and prayer on such occasions should be exerted on this ground: "If it be most for thy glory, and the eternal good of this man's soul, let him be restored; if otherwise, Lord, pardon, purify him, and take him to thy glory."

Paul the Apostle also shows us that God might use any sort of 'thorn in the flesh' to keep us humble, this could well include illness. (2 Corinthians 12:7-9).

Finally, don't forget that James 5 says,

And the prayer of faith will save the sick, and the Lord will raise him up. And if he has committed sins, he will be forgiven. (verse 15).

In short, this promise is eternal, the 'raising up' may not happen right now but - ultimately this person - as a converted child of Christ - will indeed be saved and 'raised up,' that is certain - even where the hoped for immediate healing does not occur. God knows best and we must continue to trust His decision and choice in the matter as we wait upon Him.

Robin A. Brace. March 28th, 2019.