The instruction is found in the book of James, chapter 5, verses 14 and 15: "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: 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."
This verse is one of a few which gives rise to much controversy between those, on one extreme, who take it literally as a doctrine to be obeyed today for healing in all cases of sickness, and on another those who regard it only as circumstantial for the days in which it was written.
To get at its true meaning, we must know what the Bible has to say about its ingredients:
To be sick, or weak (without physical strength), is not an anomaly among believers. In a general way, sickness is the result of sin having entered the world and our bodies are not immune to sickness after we are saved by faith in Christ Jesus, just as we are not immune to physical death.
Besides the natural vulnerability of the body, there are other causes, for example:
the righteous Job was made sick to prove his faith (Job 1:8); Epaphroditus was sick because of his tireless work for the Lord (Philippians 2:30); Gaius was spiritually healthy but apparently physically weak (3 John 2).
Satan is sometimes given power to touch the physical health of people as in the case of Job (Job 2:7), to cripple a woman (Luke 13:10-17), to put a thorn in Paul's flesh (2 Corinthians 12:7).
Sickness can also be a direct result of sin in a person's life (Mark 2:5; John 5:14; 9:2; 1 Corinthians 11:30).
God overrules our universe, and that includes sickness in the human body. He has provided our natural bodies with defences which alone, or with the assistance of chemicals, can avert or combat diseases. For example, King Hezekiah prayed for healing and God granted his request but by means of a cake of figs which Isaiah the prophet instructed should be applied to the boil that he might recover (Isaiah 38:21). God had granted the healing, so why was a poultice needed? God was establishing a principle: when sick pray for healing but also use available medicine.
In James 5:15 we find God working through medicine, applied "in the name of the Lord": the use of olive oil was one of the best remedial agencies known to the ancients. It is clear here and in Mark 6:13 that medicinal value was attached to the use of the oil. They used it internally and externally. Some physicians still prescribe it today. There is nothing here to do with any rite of anointing, such as the practice of "extreme unction" introduced centuries later, rather like pagan magic.
Physicians have been learning to treat diseases with natural and artificial chemicals throughout the ages, and their work was acknowledged by the Lord Jesus (Matthew 9:12). God uses the doctor, and that is precisely how it is today. The best physicians believe in God and want the help of prayer.
Surgeons have been contributing also, mostly in recent years by cutting out diseased or defective tissue, grafting and transplanting. A famous surgeon called Paré is remembered as saying "The surgeon dresses the wound; God heals it."
Nature is God's creation, and He may intervene to change its course when He wills to do so. God sometimes intervened in the Old Testament times, and the Lord Jesus gave ample proof of His divinity by intervening, and healing the incurable, and He gave the apostles the gift of healing as a sign of their authority on His behalf.
Healing is not something we can demand from God. In Philippians 2:27 it is spoken of as a mercy, not something which we have a right to expect. He is able to overrule, and sometimes does, but it may be His sovereign will not to interfere with the course of nature. Weakening of the body is part of the dying process.
Failure to be healed is therefore not an indication of lack of faith. Paul, Trophimus and Gaius, for example, were men of faith but they were not healed. Epaphroditus was sick because of his tireless activity in the work of the Lord; in the mercy of God towards him and Paul he was healed, but apparently only after prolonged sickness.
Prayer for the sick is clearly instructed here. It acknowledges our dependence on God as the giver and sustainer of all life.
If James 5:14-15 were the only verses in the Bible on healing, we might be led to assume that prayer by the elders of the church accompanied by medicine would automatically heal any ailment.
Evidence in other portions of Scripture, however, of which we have mentioned some examples, makes it clear that these verses do not apply to all illnesses, but only to those related to their context.
The entire context concerns a person whose sickness is a result of sin. The words "and if he have committed sins" in verse 15 are a statement of fact, not implying the possibility that he might be innocent. It implies repentance, for upon the prayer of faith sin will be forgiven by the Lord, who will also heal him.
Prayer of faith is the prayer based on the promise of God's word. It does not depend on the degree of faith of the sick person, nor on the degree of faith of those praying for him: it is the prayer the result of which is assured because the Word of God says so, when its conditions have been met.
Sins are to be confessed to God, but our faults are to be admitted one to another that we may be healed. If we have injured a brother or sister, by word or deed, then we ought to confess it to them and ask for their forgiveness. But we are not to confess our sins to one another, or to a pastor, or priest, for forgiveness. Only God can forgive sins, and He does it freely (1 John 1:9).
We are to pray for one another, or keep praying for one another, for healing. Probably bodily healing, though healing of the soul could also be meant (Hebrews 12:13). Instead of holding grudges and allowing resentments to build up, we should maintain our fellowship with other believers by admitting our bad thoughts, words or deeds and praying for them. Confession, prayer and healing are linked. Spiritual restoration comes before physical healing. Personal problems are often the cause of physical ailments and they should be cleared by admitting our fault to the people concerned. Sins like gluttony, worry, anger, an unforgiving spirit, intemperance, jealousy, selfishness and pride can be the source of illnesses. All sins should be confessed to God. With prayer, this is the way to be healed.
The prayer of a man who is right with God works wonders, a paraphrase of verse 16, second part. Like the prophet Elijah was instrumental in bringing a wayward nation back to God with prayer, also with prayer the elders of an assembly are used in the restoration of mind and body of a sinning believer.
We are also exhorted to minister to those who are astray from Christ. This is some unsaved person who has been introduced to the Gospel and has been coming to the church meetings, for he is "among you" (verse 20, clearly has to do with the salvation of the sinner from his sin). When such a person comes to a saving knowledge of Christ, his sins, no matter how many, will be covered by the blood of Christ. The wonder of justification by faith is that once God has pardoned our sins, they are gone forever.