Our Ministry in Sickness

Raymond O. Zorn

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. - James 5:14-15

All the sons of men fall prey to the ravages of sickness and disease. Even the health which we enjoy is only relative. We have good days and bad. All of us experience sickness, sooner or later. Finally, the last sickness ends in death.

Sickness is bound up with God's curse upon sin. Man was not originally made to get sick and to die. Man gets sick and dies because he is a sinner (Genesis 3:19).

Sickness for God's people will be removed forever at the second coming of Christ. Then, the bodies of the redeemed will be glorified (I Cor. 15:53). Until then we must groan in this earthly tabernacle of clay that is subject to time's inroads of disease and death.

God, in his mercy, has provided for the relief of sickness with both material and spiritual means. Materially, there are medicines and drugs, together with doctors and nurses skilled in the practice of the art of healing. Spiritually, there is the power of prayer and ever-renewed dependency upon the Lord for one's physical, as well as spiritual, well-being. It is to these spiritual resources primarily that James calls our attention in the above text. In times of his people's sickness, God gives his church a role to perform for their help and benefit.

Performed by the Elders

We see this, first of all, in that James says the church's ministry in sickness is performed by the elders: "Is any sick among you? Let him call for the elders of the church..." Is this unusual? In sickness don't we think of the doctor long before we give thought to notifying the office-bearers of the church about it?

But James stresses the necessity of giving consideration to the spiritual Side of illness, and not just the physical. Illness means more than being treated with pills and prescriptions, though many people seem to rely upon physicians as if they were gods of some sort. It was Abraham Kuyper who once pointed out in a meditation concerning the woman who had had an issue of blood for 12 years, and who could not be helped by her doctors, but rather grew worse, that the Lord at times permits this so that we may ever remember that ultimately he alone is the Great Physician who must heal us if we are to experience physical as well as spiritual wholeness. In sickness, as in all else in life, we are always to look to the Lord in prayer and trust.

In addition, James reminds us, we have this further resource: the prayer and ministry of the church on our behalf. We may not be able to go to our fellow-believers when we are sick, but they can come to us. In what more loving way can the communion of the saints be expressed than in such concern by the healthy for the sick? There, at the bedside, the oneness of the bonds of visible communion may be deepened by the invisible bonds of communion as united intercession ascends to the presence of the Lord at his throne of grace.

Where impractical for the church as a whole to express this ministry, the elders are to do so representatively. They do it not as mediators between the sick and God, for the elders are not priests in that sense. There is but one who exercises that office, the Lord Jesus Christ. Rather, the elders come as undershepherds of Christ's flock by his appointment to offer prayer for the sick in the light of the promise the Lord has given: "that if two of you shall agree on earth as touching any thing that they shall ask, it shall be done for them of my Father which is in heaven. For where two or three are gathered together in my name, there am I in the midst of them" (Matt. 18:19-20).

Not According to Popular Errors

We should see, in the second place, that the church's ministry in sickness is not according to popular errors. Two in particular should be noticed, both of which are improperly based upon the words of James.

The first is the error of the Roman Catholic Church in its sacrament of 'extreme unction.' This last rite of Rome is performed by applying oil to bodily extremities while prayer is made by a priest that the venial sins of the dying will be absolved and his soul be prepared for death. But extreme unction finds no support in this text for at least three reasons.

  1. James speaks of prayer and an anointing that is for life, not for death.
  2. The prayer and anointing is to be made by the elders,. and not by a priest.
  3. Extreme unction did not become a sacrament in the Romanist Church until the 12th century, being adopted as a counter move to the rite of the heretical Cathari who anointed their dying as a seal of the Holy Spirit to protect the departed soul from hostile demon spirits. Like so much else of Romish doctrine, the development of the practice of extreme unction came first. Only afterward was support for it sought in Scripture. But there is no support for this notion in the Bible, least of all in the passage in James.

The second error is the fallacy of what is called 'faith healing,' support for which is also sought in the same text. The popularity of faith healing is on the increase, it appears, among various groups and in the campaigns of traveling evangelists and in certain radio broadcasts. In faith healing, prayer is made for the sick, and an anointing with oil may also be made. All other means are scorned. The sick person must be healed by faith alone - otherwise it is alleged that he lacks the proper faith. But faith healing finds no support in our text, either, for at least two reasons.

  1. James was surely aware of the fact that the Lord may have a ministry for his people to perform in sickness as well as in health. Job, the blind man of John 9, and Paul with his thorn in the flesh are cases in point. Moreover, as is evident from Paul's own experience, not even the apostles were faith healers, in the strictest sense of that term. Paul left Trophimus sick in Miletus (II Tim. 4: 20). And he counseled Timothy to drink a bit of wine as a means for his stomach's sake and his frequent infirmities (I Tim. 5:23). God has his reasons for his saints' illnesses, as well as for their health, that we must recognize and respect, even if faith healers do not.
  2. Further, God has given means for our healing which we are to make use of, and not to despise as most faith healers do. Hezekiah, whose life was miraculously lengthened 15 years In answer to prayer, nevertheless was cured by means of a lump of figs being placed upon the boil of his affliction (Isaiah 38:21). The Good Samaritan poured oil and wine into the wounds of the injured man as a means of help (Luke 10:34). In the same way James would have us understand through anointing the sick with oil (more or less the ointment or aspirin of that day) that medical means together with prayer are Iegitimately employed for their recovery.

Dependent upon the Lord's Will

In the third place, we should recognize that the church's ministry in sickness is effective, depending upon the will of the Lord. When James says that "the prayer of faith shall save the sick, and the Lord shall raise him up," he does not mean that the church's ministry will always lead to the unqualified result of recovery from illness.

Were this the case, sickness and death would already be banished - at least for some of God's people. Yet we know that such was not true even for those whom the Savior himself healed in the days of his earthly ministry. The church's ministry in sickness, like all else in the lives of God's own, is ever subject to the good and acceptable and perfect will of the Lord who doeth all things well.

Recognizing that since sickness is still a part of this old order, not to be done away with until the regeneration of all things (Rom. 8:19-23), the Christian will add self-examination to his faith, when he experiences physical affliction. Is he perhaps sick because of some sin on his part? Then his and the church's prayers for him will be hindered until it is confessed to the Lord and put away, forgiven for the Redeemer's sake who shed his blood that his people might be given the wholeness of salvation.

Spiritual Healing Primary

Spiritual healing is ever basic and primary. For robust health without the forgiveness of sins must yet inevitably lead to the ruin of eternal death. Whereas the end of physical sickness, even if terminating in death, if sins' forgiveness has been experienced, will result in heaven's glory. No wonder the Lord Jesus therefore first gave spiritual healing to the palsied man by forgiving his sins (Mark 2:5) before following it up with the lesser deed of bodily healing.

What a comfort to know that, "if we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins, and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness" (I John 1:9). And of this James also gives us assurance when he writes, "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."

The one who has experienced this healing knows that it is well with his soul for time and eternity, come what may of bodily infirmity which God may send according to the gracious dispensations of his sovereign providence.

Let us therefore continue to look to and depend upon the Lord Jesus who as the Great Physician redeems our lives from destruction and crowns them with his loving kindness and tender mercies.

Let us also give concrete evidence of our membership in the body of Christ by availing ourselves of his church's spiritual resources of corporate prayer on our behalf in the hour of our physical or spiritual infirmity.

The Rev. R. O. Zorn is the minister of the Reformed Church of Hamilton, New Zealand. He writes a monthly meditation for a 16-page mimeo newsletter "Contact" put out by the church. This article appeared in the October issue.

Reprinted from the Presbyterian Guardian, Volume 33, No 10, December, 1964. The OPC Committee for the Historian has made the archives of the Presbyterian Guardian available online!


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