There are some debates over Christian doctrine that extend beyond the boundaries of the faith—ones that have direct implications on how we relate to the unbelieving world. The nature of the gospel, the effectiveness of Christ’s redemption, who God is, the inspiration of Scripture, heaven and hell… these are issues on which Christians can’t really compromise without experiencing significant cognitive dissonance at best and falling into outright apostasy at worst.
There are other doctrines, though, over which we can debate and still walk away as friends. One of those is the question of whether or not the charismatic gifts—the “signs and wonders” we see in Scripture as being intended for confirmation of the gospel message—are still active today.
Some, like my friend Adrian Warnock, say yes. Some, like John MacArthur and R.C. Sproul, say no.
And it’s easy for us to get hot under the collar on the issue—and far too often, cessationists and continuationists paint one another in an unfair light.
I’m a bit more moderate in where I stand on this topic, which really means that while I’ve heard evidence that at least some of these gifts are active in some capacity, I tend to lean on “earnestly desir[ing] the higher gifts” (1 Cor. 12:31), as Paul puts it.
In other words, I try not to make this a big issue.
But one of the things that’s been a curiosity to me for ages has been the issue of healing—did miraculous healings end at the conclusion of the apostolic age? Does God still miraculously heal today? How does it happen?
Opinions, of course, vary. I know of men who earnestly believe that if you pray and God doesn’t heal you, it’s because you lack faith. I know of others who don’t seem to believe God engages at all with requests for healing… and then there are some who are a little more balanced, like the late Anthony Hoekema.
Reading through his excellent book, Saved by Grace, there’s a very helpful discussion of healing, particularly addressing James 5:14-15:
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. And the prayer of faith will save the one who is sick, and the Lord will raise him up. And if he has committed sins, he will be forgiven.
Historically, it’s been a duty of the elders of a local church to visit believers and bring what care they can during times of illness. Some today will visit a hospital and literally put oil on a person, for example. And this is a great thing to do. We should pray for the sick, earnestly praying that God would heal them should healing be the thing that brings Him the most glory (in other words, that whole “Your will be done” thing…).
But Hoekema brings a really great perspective to the verse, particularly where James says to anoint the sick person with oil. The word translated “anoint” is aleiphō. In Mark 16:1, we read that Mary was coming to anoint (aleiphō) Jesus’ body with spices. It’s used of Mary pouring oil on Jesus’ feet (Luke 7:38, 46; John 12:3). It’s used in connection to fasting in Matt. 6:17 and with the apostles’ mission in Mark 6:13.
The word’s meaning (“anoint,” ”smear on” or “rub on”) and usage gives a connotation of fairly common place activities (as opposed to chriō, which is used most often in connection with the work of the Holy Spirit—see Heb. 1:9; Luke 4:18; Acts 4:27; 10:38). It’s the washing of feet and head. It’s the preparing of the body for burial (to avoid the stench of decay). And, it’s a medicinal act. Hoekema explains:
In ancient times people used olive oil in this way; rubbing or massaging the body with oil was a common medicinal practice. It wil be recalled that in the Parable of the Good Samaritan the Samaritan is said to have applied oil and wine to the injured man’s wounds (Luke 10:34). Still today in the Middle East sick people are often rubbed with oil.
The grammatical structure of the sentence suggests the possibility that the elders first rubbed the sick person with oil (presumably olive oil) and then prayed over him (or her). The application of the oil, however, was for medicinal purposes. James is saying, in other words, that the church’s ministry to the sick should include the best medical hep that can be found. (Saved by Grace, p. 38)
To put it simply, Hoekema is suggesting that the best way to interpret this verse would be to say, “If any among you are sick, pray and get them to a doctor!”
I know there are some who worry that seeking medical help shows a lack of trust in the Lord. It doesn’t. Medical intervention may be the ordinary means by which God brings about healing or comfort from illness. I know there are some who feel weird about people praying that God would heal them. Don’t. God may indeed choose to bring about healing, either through ordinary or extraordinary means. But either way, don’t get too hung up on how such things happen.
If you’re sick, pray, get thee to a doctor and may God’s will be done.