The Pentecostal and charismatic movement generally claim that healing from sickness is guaranteed to everyone on earth, if he can simply work himself into enough faith. A variety of passages are alleged to prove this unbiblical assertion. James 5:14-15 is, however, perhaps the most plausible. Thus, Pentecostalism appeals to James 5:14-15 to prove that the ability to heal like Christ and the Apostles did continues throughout the church age. However, the passage proves no such thing. James 5:14-20 reads:
14 Is any sick among you? 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 shall save the sick, and the Lord shall raise him up; and if he have committed sins, they shall be forgiven him. 16 Confess your faults one to another, and pray one for another, that ye may be healed. The effectual fervent prayer of a righteous man availeth much. 17 Elias was a man subject to like passions as we are, and he prayed earnestly that it might not rain: and it rained not on the earth by the space of three years and six months. 18 And he prayed again, and the heaven gave rain, and the earth brought forth her fruit. 19 Brethren, if any of you do err from the truth, and one convert him; 20 Let him know, that he which converteth the sinner from the error of his way shall save a soul from death, and shall hide a multitude of sins.
James[i] instructs one who is very ill, who is unable to go to the elders but must summon the elders to come to him (v. 14),[ii] to call for church leadership[iii] to come and pray for him, anointing him with oil in the name of the Lord.[iv] The elders are called for as men who are able to give spiritual and godly counsel and comfort to one who is suffering, and as those who are men of prayer (cf. Acts 6:4), although the entire congregation has just as much access to the Father in prayer, including prayer for healing (James 5:16). As some sickness, but not all, is caused by sin (cf. 1 Corinthians 11:30-32; 3 John 2) or, under Divine permission, by Satan (Luke 13:16),[v] the elders can examine the ill person to see if he is sick as a Divine judgment upon him for his sin (cf. Hebrews 12:6-11). James specifically indicates, in agreement with the rest of the canon, that some sickness, but not all, is the result of personal transgression (James 5:15).[vi] If the sick one is not right with God, but is backsliding and sinning, he can confess his sins to God and have them forgiven (1 John 1:9); if he has committed faults against his brethren, he can both confess them to God and also confess them to those men he has offended. Such confession will lead to the removal of the Lord’s chastening hand and restoration to health, even as staying right with God and quickly confessing one’s faults against another to the offended party will prevent those illnesses that are Divine chastisement from coming upon believers in the first place (James 5:15-16);[vii] on the other hand, a refusal to repent under sicknesses that are the Father’s chastisement will lead to untimely death (James 5:19-20;[viii] 2 Chronicles 16:12-13). The sinning believer cannot pray and receive answers from God (James 4:3), so he will not be able to offer “the prayer of faith” for his own healing (James 5:15), nor will the elders be able to offer the prayer of faith for the healing of the sick believer.
[i] Merrill Unger comments:
Is the practice of the early Hebrew Christian church reflected in James 5:14–16 identical with divine healing as it should be practiced in the church today or does the rest of the New Testament warrant, and does human experience necessitate, making a careful differentiation? . . . The following reasons are offered to show why this of necessity is so, and why modern “faith healers” who ignore the historical context and time setting of the passage fall into fanaticism or the unwitting practice of magic.
First, James 5:14–16 was never addressed to the Gentile Church. It was written to “the twelve tribes” in the dispersion (James 1:1), that is, to the very earliest Jewish converts to Christ during the transition period (Acts 1:1—9:43), before the gospel had been released to the Gentiles and the first Gentiles were added to the church and before God’s purpose for the new age to visit the Gentiles to take out of them a people had been announced at the first church council A.D. 48 or 49 (Acts 15:14–15). Internal evidence places this epistle as one of the earliest of all New Testament books to be dated, possibly as early as A.D. 45. . . . Believers still assembled in the “synagogue” (James 2:2).
The Epistle is also shown to be very early by the exceedingly elementary character of its doctrinal content. There is a silence with regard to the relation of the church to the non-Jewish world. No evidence appears of the church as the Body of Christ, nor of the distinctive teachings of grace revealed in Paul’s letters. Indeed the question of the incorporation of Gentile believers does not appear to have been broached, indicating a date of authorship before the Jerusalem council in A.D. 48 or 49. There is no more Jewish book in the New Testament. Indeed, if the several passages referring to Christ were eliminated, the whole Epistle would be as proper in the canon of the Old Testament, as in the New Testament. The Epistle could be described as an interpretation of the Mosaic law and the Sermon on the Mount in the light of the gospel of Christ.
Second, James 5:14–16 is based on the healing covenant made with Israel. . . . This healing covenant concerned Israel only, the people of the covenants (Rom 9:5). . . . As a healing covenant it was operative upon Israel from its constitution as God’s chosen nation at the Exodus to the nation’s setting aside in unbelief (Acts 28:23–29), the Epistle of James being written before this climactic event.
When the nation Israel will be saved and restored to national blessings at the second advent (Isa 53:1–12) the healing covenant will be reinstated, accompanied by the restoration of miracles of healing and other supernatural powers (Isa 35:5–6; Heb 6:5). . . . [T]he healing covenant with Israel guaranteed early Hebrew Christians instantaneous and complete healing in response to faith in Christ. Healing “in the name” and “through faith in the name” brought such miraculous deliverance as was manifested in the cripple at the Gate Beautiful (Acts 3:6, 16). Such hearings among Hebrew Christians were the order of the day until the setting aside of Israel in unbelief and with this event, the abrogation of the healing covenant with the nation (Acts 4:30; 5:12–16; 6:8; 8:7–8).
The use of oil also connects with the Jewish setting of James 5:14–16. Such anointing with oil was a general Jewish practice, as shown by the Talmud. The Lord and His disciples adopted this custom (Mark 6:13). . . . [E]fficacious faith for healing was divinely imparted to the Apostolic Jewish Christian elders as they claimed the promises of Israel’s healing covenant (Exod 15:26). But the all-important point for the correctly instructed Christian minister to see, now that the nation Israel and her healing covenant have been set aside while the great “Gentile” church is being called out, is that such “prayer of faith” is divinely given and divinely operative in the established Gentile church only when it is God’s will to heal. The great Epistles addressed to the church clearly teach that it is not always God’s will to heal, nor is it always for the believer’s highest good to be healed. Chastening, testing, molding into Christlikeness and other factors condition the Lord’s healing of a Christian’s sicknesses (1 Cor 5:1–5; 11:30–32; 2 Cor 12:7–9; 1 Tim 5:23; 2 Tim 4:20).
This is the reason why nowhere in any of the church Epistles is anything said about anointing the sick with oil (cf. 2 Cor 5:7) and the prayer of faith saving (healing) them. “The prayer of faith,” however, does save (heal) them, but it is only given when God’s purpose is determined in each case, and such prayer is offered in God’s will. For so-called “faith healing” to teach that it is always God’s will to heal believers and to command “God in Jesus’ name” is a Satanic snare, into which so many modern faith healers have fallen. It is an open door to “white magic,” where despite the use of God’s name and religious pretentions, the creature dares to make the Creator his lackey. By so doing he captures the very essence of “magic,” which is Satanic opposition to God’s will and desire to be like God and use His power independent of Him (Isa 14:12–14; 2 Tim 2:26). To accomplish such a misguided purpose, however, innocent or sincere as it may be, is an open invitation for demonic deception and operation, and it is high time for all who seek physical healing to realize this peril. (“Divine Healing,” Bibliotheca Sacra 128:511 (July 1971) 234-244)
Unger’s comments are worthy of consideration, especially in connection with the Jewish practice of using oil for healing. The view that the promise of James 5:14-15 “applied only those miraculous days [of the first century], and is no longer to be claimed . . . seems to have never been without advocates among leading Protestants” (pg. 229, Counterfeit Miracles, Warfield). Nonetheless, even if James 5:14-15 is valid for the entirety of the dispensation of grace, it does not even come close to proving the Faith Cure theology, as demonstrated in the text below.
[ii] The passage speaks of pastors engaging in hospital visits, as it were, not going to help those who have the sniffles.
[iii] Only true churches really have church leaders such as elders. Thus, those not associated with true churches—historic Baptist churches—do not really follow the practice of James 5:14-20, for the leaders of their religious organizations are not truly church elders any more than the leaders of any secular corporation, such as leaders in a restaurant chain or a department store, are church elders. However, God in His great mercy can grant answers to prayer for healing to those not members of true churches, especially since in James 5:13-18 the emphasis is not upon the office of elder, but the elders are simply representatives of the congregation; thus, in 5:16, all the congregation is commanded to pray, so that healing may come.
[iv] James’ emphasis upon prayer, rather than upon the anointing with oil, is seen in both the fact that the imperative in v. 14 is to pray, while anointing is a dependent participle (proseuxa¿sqwsan e˙p∆ aujto/n, aÓlei÷yanteß aujto\n e˙lai÷wˆ), and in the fact that v. 15 mentions hJ eujch\ thvß pi÷stewß without any mention of anointing. That the main subject of James 5:13-18 is prayer appears from the occurrence of the word prayer in each verse of 5:13-18; indeed, only in this section of James’ epistle is prayer mentioned at all. The shift from the present tense verbs afflicted, pray, merry, sing psalms (Kakopaqei√ . . . proseuce÷sqw . . . eujqumei√ . . . yalle÷tw) of 5:13 and sick (aÓsqenei√) of 5:14 to the aorists call, pray, anointing (proskalesa¿sqw . . . proseuxa¿sqwsan . . . aÓlei÷yanteß) in 5:14 and then back to present imperatives confess and pray (e˙xomologei√sqe . . . eu¡cesqe) in 5:16 indicates that the call for the elders and the anointing with oil is to take place only one time, while the confession and prayer of 5:16 and the imperatives of 5:14 are to be the normal character of events.
[v] It should be noted that just as Satan, to advance his overall plan, can allow unconverted false teachers who are under his control to cast out demons (Luke 11:19), so he can allow false teachers to supernaturally heal diseases that were Satanically caused in the first place, so that, by means of these supernatural exorcisms and healings, people come to follow the false teachers as if they are proclaiming the truth (cf. Revelation 16:14) and come into a worse place of deception than before the “good” of the demonic healing wonders took place.
[vi] ka·n aJmarti÷aß hØ™ pepoihkw¿ß, aÓfeqh/setai aujtwˆ◊. ka·n is kai÷ + e˙a¿n, and so the statement presents a third class condition, not a first class condition. Sin causing the sickness is only possible, not presented as true. Similarly the subjunctive mood in the perfect periphrastic hØ™ pepoihkw¿ß indicates the possibility, but only the possibility, not the certainty, that the sick person committed sin in the past with results that continued into the present (that is, the sin was not confessed and repented of), so that sin was the cause of the sickness.
[vii] In 5:16, “healed” is from i˙a¿omai and is clearly used for physical healing, in accordance with the large majority, but not the totality, of its uses in the New Testament (Matthew 8:8, 13; 13:15; 15:28; Mark 5:29; Luke 4:18; 5:17; 6:17, 19; 7:7; 8:47; 9:2, 11, 42; 14:4; 17:15; 22:51; John 4:47; 5:13; 12:40; Acts 3:11; 9:34; 10:38; 28:8, 27; Hebrews 12:13; James 5:16; 1 Peter 2:24). The verb always refers to physical healing in the New Testament when it is not in a quotation. James moves from the specific case of sickness in 5:14-15 into the general principle, enunciated in 5:16, that being right with God will keep believers free from sickness as Divine chastisement.
[viii] James 5:19-20 uses the verb convert (e˙pistre÷fw) in the same sense as Luke 22:32 for the restoration of a backslider. The sins of the backslider will be forgiven, and he will not suffer physical death as chastistement for continued impenitence (James 5:20), including physical death as a result of sickness decreed by the Father as chastening (5:14-20).