Call for the Elders
“Is anyone among you sick? Then he must call for the elders of the church and they are to pray over him, anointing him with oil in the name of the Lord; and the prayer offered in faith will restore the one who is sick, and the Lord will raise him up, and if he has committed sins, they will be forgiven him. Therefore, confess your sins to one another, and pray for one another so that you may be healed” (James 5:14-16a).
These verses, which begin with a simple question and answer, are variously understood. While we may not be able to precisely determine the details, the main point is clear.
James envisions a sick Christian. Physical illness is initially in view, and the language suggests something serious. James includes the possibility of spiritual illness as well. The two may be linked. Some sins have inherent physical consequences, and the fact is, guilt itself can easily produce adverse physical symptoms. That said, physical illness is by no means always attributable to some specific sin.
James instructs the sick Christian to take the initiative; he is to call for the elders. The elders are to do two things: pray over the sick man and anoint him with oil.
What is the purpose of the anointing? Some think it is medicinal; in James’s day oil was used as a salve (for example, the “Good Samaritan” poured oil on a beaten traveler’s wounds [Luke 10:34]). Others think it suggests consecration to God; that is the most common reason for anointing in the Bible. Others think it was an anointing in conjunction with miraculous healing. Mark 6:13 says the apostles “were anointing with oil many sick people and healing them,” although it does not explain the connection between the two actions. Those who take this third view assume the elders had the gift of healing.
Regardless of the exact purpose of the anointing, James’s emphasis is on prayer. He says the prayer will restore the one who is sick; that is, God will heal him in response to the prayer. As in 1:6, it must be a prayer offered in faith. It must come from the hearts of the righteous, men who are right with God and seeking to do His will in their lives. “The effective prayer of a righteous man can accomplish much” (v. 16b). Surely the elders would be such men!
One who is sin-sick surely cannot be healed apart from repentance. In such cases, James calls for a confession of sins. Mutual encouragement to do right (along with accountability to others) and mutual prayer, combined with divine grace, has a powerful healing effect.
A closing side note: Roman Catholic practices of “Extreme Unction” and regular confessing to a priest are not at all justified by these verses. They do not fit either James’s language or his context.