As a Reformed, low-church Protestant, I’m naturally suspicious of anything that smacks of religious ritualism. Prayer labyrinths? No, thank you; I’ll stick with corporate prayer in the church and the private prayer Jesus commends (Matt. 6:6). Candles and incense? Again, I’ll take plain preaching and congregational singing. So when asked whether we should anoint the sick with oil, I confess I’m reflexively resistant to the idea. For someone in my theological tribe, pouring oil on someone just feels . . . weird. But faithful theology isn’t an enterprise in following feelings or intuitions, it’s a matter of submitting to Scripture, wherever it leads.
In this case, Scripture directly addresses whether we should anoint the sick with oil.
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. (James 5:14–15).
This passage is notoriously enigmatic, and I certainly don’t have the final word on it. But since it seems to answer the question proposed in the title of this article, it’s worth considering how this text should shape ministry to the sick in our congregations.
I have no intention of untying every exegetical knot (there are many!). Instead, I hope we can get a general idea of what James is commending by simply asking questions of the text and following the basic hermeneutical principle that we should always let clearer parts of Scripture guide and constrain our interpretations of more difficult passages like this one.
With that throat-clearing out of the way, let’s consider four questions that help us understand what James is commending.
Should we apply this passage to every sickness?
James isn’t suggesting you get on the phone with your elders and ask them to break out the oil every time your seasonal allergies act up or you get the sniffles. The fact that the sick person in this text has to “call for” the elders to visit him suggests that this person is significantly ill—unable to attend corporate gatherings or other functions where they might encounter the elders. Further, the description of healing in verse 15 also suggests the illness is severe.
Why should the sick call on their elders?
Pragmatically, calling your elders to pray for you in a time of sickness puts your needs not only before them but, likely, before the whole congregation. As the shepherds of your church, the elders are best suited to know how to care for you, how to express your needs to the church, and how to minister the hope of the gospel.
Faithful theology isn’t an enterprise in following feelings or intuitions, it’s a matter of submitting to Scripture, wherever it leads.
The end of verse 16 may provide another clue why the sick should call on their elders to pray for them. In that verse, James teaches that “the prayer of a righteous person has great power as it is working.” Given the qualifications for elders (1 Tim. 3:1–7) and their responsibility to model godliness for the congregation (1 Pet. 5:3), the elders in your church should be above reproach and you should invite their intercession.
Notably, James indicates that the sick man is the one who initiates contact with the elders and asks for prayer and anointing. These are acts of faith and humility on his part, expressions of humble reliance on the God who holds the power of life and death in his hand.
What’s the deal with the oil?
James’s mention of oil is certainly one of the most enigmatic parts of the passage. Let’s rule out what anointing with oil doesn’t mean.
First, James isn’t teaching the Roman Catholic doctrine of extreme unction. He nowhere indicates that we should see anointing the sick with oil as a “sacrament.” Furthermore, the use of oil in this passage isn’t to prepare the sick for death but is appended to the prayers that look for healing and restoration.
Second, James isn’t suggesting that the oil bears any magical or supernatural quality. The healing results from the elders praying “in the name of the Lord.” The oil is secondary in this passage, adorning the central act of prayer—our humble expression of dependence on the Lord for all things, particularly our health.
The oil is secondary in this passage, adorning the central act of prayer.
Finally, the oil in this passage isn’t medicinal, as some commentators suggest. While an intriguing proposal, there is no evidence in this text that “oil” should be read as a stand in for medicine. In fact, in Mark 6:13, the only other time we find oil and healing connected in the New Testament, the oil is clearly not medicinal since the healings described in that passage are supernatural.
So what’s the point of anointing with oil? Likely, anointing with oil simply symbolizes consecration to God, as it often does elsewhere in Scripture (cf. Num. 3:3; 1 Sam. 10:1; Ps. 89:20). Anointing with oil is a physical act expressing a spiritual truth: we belong to God and have committed ourselves wholly into his care. Prayer expresses this point with words; anointing with oil expresses that point in action.
Does this passage promise those anointed will be healed without exception as long as they have enough faith?
The beginning of verse 15 seems to suggest that “prayers of faith” inevitably result in physical healing. Certainly, such an interpretation doesn’t accord with reality. Godliness is no guarantee of physical health, nor can it perpetually deter death (Heb. 9:27). Furthermore, Paul himself, perhaps the most faith-filled Christian ever, had to leave Trophimus sick in Miletus (2 Tim. 4:20).
Anointing with oil is a physical act expressing a spiritual truth: we belong to God and have committed ourselves wholly into his care.
Rather, James is reminding us that prayer that pleases God springs from the living faith he described in chapter 2. On some occasions, God uses these faith-filled prayers as the means through which he heals the sick. Praying in faith isn’t a magic formula that twists God’s arm to do what we want. Rather, praying in faith both boldly asks God to heal a sick brother or sister and humbly trusts God’s perfect plan—a plan that culminates with Christ “saving” and “raising up” all of his people in the resurrection.
Humble Reliance on God’s Mercy
Should we anoint the sick with oil? It depends on the situation.
On the one hand, God doesn’t command Christians to seek out every sick brother or sister and anoint them. But if someone seriously ill desires healing, then yes—one way they can express their wholehearted reliance on and submission to God is by asking righteous men to intercede for them and symbolize their commitment to the Lord by being anointed with oil.