Greg Mazak on James 5:14-15

Here’s the ESV for James 5:14-15:

14 Is anyone among you sick (ἀσθενεῖ)? 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. 15 And the prayer of faith will save the one who is sick (κάμνοντα), and the Lord will raise him up. And if he has committed sins, he will be forgiven.

All the major English translations (24 that I checked, anyway) agree, translating ἀσθενεῖ and κάμνοντα with “sick” or “ill” (Tyndale’s “defeated” in v. 14 probably means “sick”).

Mazak’s View

Today in BJU’s chapel service, popular teacher Dr. Greg Mazak preached a searching and exegetically rigorous message on prayer in which he challenged this view.

He argued that ἀσθενεῖ and κάμνοντα refer not to physical sickness but to what Lloyd-Jones might call “spiritual depression.” He told the more academic in the audience he’d happily share his sources with them. His view, he said, was not novel.

I asked him if I could post those sources on my blog. Here they are:

  1. Daniel R. Hayden, “Calling the Elders to Pray,” Bibliotheca Sacra 138:551, July, 1981; pp. 258ff.
  2. John MacArthur’s commentary on James (see his discussion of James 5).
  3. Very brief reference in the notes of the Ryrie Study Bible (Expanded edition).

My friend Brian Collins and I think this view makes better sense of the last phrase of v. 15: “And if he has committed sins, he will be forgiven.” If someone is “raised up” from spiritual defeat then certainly he is being forgiven of sins. If he is being raised up from sickness, it’s not immediately apparent how forgiveness of sins is a corollary. This is worth further perusal.

Author: Mark Ward

PhD in NT; theological writer for Faithlife; former high school Bible textbook author for BJU Press; husband; father; ultimate frisbee player; member of the body of Christ.

12 thoughts on “Greg Mazak on James 5:14-15”

  1. Boy, I’ve got to be careful what I say around you. I make a comment in the hall on the way out of chapel, and a few hours later it is immortalized on the world wide web! ;o)

  2. Both of my readers may skip this post, for all you know.

    One of them didn’t. 😉

    I agree that “this is worth further perusal,” so I may be back after I’ve had some time to look at his sources.

  3. Not having been there (nor having read extensively on this matter), I can say I have thought about this passage a lot. I think it really is talking about being physically sick.

    * The oil would seem to be an ancient method of healing (e.g. the story of the good Samaritan). In essence: “use the available medical means, but attack the sickness on a spiritual front, too.” Of course, why do the elders need to do this? I would say because they could do it without getting sued, unlike today.

    * Sin and sickness are often closely related. David had physical effects to his sin. Christ forgave the lame man before he healed him. Sickness could be the result of the Lord’s chastening.

    I know there are problems with this view, but I also see problems with the spiritual defeat view.

    In any event, I do welcome the chance to understand God’s word better.

  4. wdlowry, could you explain further your idea that the elders “could do it without getting sued, unlike today.” ? I don’t understand what that has to do with it. Why would elders not be sued in the 1st century when laypeople would be? What do lawsuits have to do with this passage anyway? Perhaps I misunderstood you, please clarify if so.

    I’m not convinced by the spiritual defeat view, but still need to look into this further. I read MacArthur’s section yesterday. He argues cogently for the spiritual defeat view, but does not engage other positions very thoroughly. Perhaps Hayden will be more helpful.

  5. @Duncan: Sorry, I wasn’t clear enough. I doubt in ancient times that people could get in big trouble by administering medical help even if they weren’t medically certified. Today, in our country an elder would be wise to suggest going to a doctor rather than administering medicine himself.

    I think the proper way to apply that phrase today would be to get the appropriate medical help, but pray in the knowledge that God alone can grant healing.

  6. @wdlowry: “I doubt in ancient times that people could get in big trouble by administering medical help even if they weren’t medically certified.” Agreed! I didn’t think you really believed that.

    “I think the proper way to apply that phrase today would be to get the appropriate medical help, but pray in the knowledge that God alone can grant healing.”

    This may be true, but as already noted, the difficulty with the mention of forgiven sins in v15 suggests to me that it may not be everything James meant.

  7. I’ve got to agree with wdlowry on this. The physically-oriented statement about anointing with oil does not apply well in a spiritualized sense. It seems the fear is that people might think that we’re implying that we could be sick because of sin, but I see no Biblical reason to say that’s not potentially true…

    Just to treat a couple of the connected texts to that concept:
    The lesson of Job is not that God never punishes us with physical effects because of sin, but rather that it is not always the case. For example, in 1 Corinthians 11, Paul says, “That is why many of you are weak and ill, and some have died.” Sickness and death here are said to be punishments for sin. Furthermore, in Hebrews 12, the author speaks of God’s loving discipline of his children. Let us not shy away from the fact that God uses many means of such discipline, which might even include physical ailment.

    Further, James continues on in the immediate (and connected) context after this to talk about confessing sin to each other. I’ll post it here and follow the precedent ESV:

    Jas 5:16 Therefore, confess your sins to one another and pray for one another, that you may be healed. The prayer of a righteous person has great power as it is working.
    Jas 5:17 Elijah was a man with a nature like ours, and he prayed fervently that it might not rain, and for three years and six months it did not rain on the earth.
    Jas 5:18 Then he prayed again, and heaven gave rain, and the earth bore its fruit.
    Jas 5:19 My brothers, if anyone among you wanders from the truth and someone brings him back,
    Jas 5:20 let him know that whoever brings back a sinner from his wandering will save his soul from death and will cover a multitude of sins.

    At some point, it seems there are 2 Biblical reasons God would let “bad” things happen in our lives: punishment and testing/refining. James addressed testing in chapter 1… Perhaps it is fitting that he would address punishment in the last chapter and return to his opening theme of suffering?

  8. oh- to clarify my Job statement. The Job lesson is that the conventional wisdom: sin=suffering is not always true. However, see examples in the NT where it still *can* be true…

  9. I guess I should clarify that I have not said that I disagree with wdlowry on this, although I confess I haven’t stated this with overwhelming clarity.

    Let me put my confusing statements together here and then clarify my point:

    First, I stated that I do not hold the spiritual defeat view:

    I’m not convinced by the spiritual defeat view, but still need to look into this further.

    Then, I pointed to an acknowledged difficulty with the physical illness view:

    This may be true, but as already noted, the difficulty with the mention of forgiven sins in v15 suggests to me that it may not be everything James meant.

    My point is that although the spiritual defeat view does bypass some of the difficulties of the physical illness view, it is not without problems itself. Therefore, I have not yet accepted it.

    I haven’t yet said it, but I do agree that the statement about anointing with oil weighs heavily toward an illness viewpoint. However, because there are difficulties with this view also, I’m interested in looking at this passage in more depth and pursuing a satisfactory interpretation.

    @EricSundt: I don’t know if you actually heard Mazak’s message or not, but I thought I should mention that he actually did address James 1 as well. Basically, he presented James 1 first as “how to pray in trials” and then presented James 5 as “how to pray when you’re too discouraged to pray” (which of course only works with the spiritual depression view). James certainly is connecting chapters 1 and 5 on the theme of suffering, but either understanding of chapter 5 is not without difficulty.

    I agree that James 5:16-20 could be evidence for an illness/punishment interpretation. That corresponds well to the implication of 5:19-20 as well as Job, 1 Corinthians 11, and Hebrews.

    MacArthur argues that this must not necessarily be so. Regarding verse 16a, he says:

    The purpose for the mutual prayer that James called for is that believers may be healed. Iaomai (healed) does not necessarily refer to physical healing. In Matthew 13:15 it symbolized God’s withheld forgiveness of Israel’s sins (cf. John 12:40; Acts 28:27). The writer of Hebrews used it metaphorically to speak of spiritual restoration (Heb. 12:12-13), while Peter used it to describe the healing from sin Christ purchased for believers on the cross (1 Pet. 2:24). James uses it to refer to God’s forgiveness, making the repentant believer spiritually whole again.

    Then, re 16b-18, he makes this point:

    The story of Elijah and the drought would certainly be a strange illustration if James had physical illness and healing in view throughout this passage. Certainly there are numerous clear biblical illustrations of healing he could have drawn from. But the picture of rain pouring down on parched ground perfectly illustrates God’s outpouring of spiritual blessings on the dry and parched souls of stuggling believers. And He does both in response to the righteous prayers of godly people.

    Now, I’m not convinced with MacArthur’s argumentation. As I said earlier, he “does not engage other positions very thoroughly.” Let me make a couple points about his argument:
    MacArthur’s point about verse 16a is not conclusive. Just because a word can mean something in a given context does not mean that it actually does mean that. He gives no conclusive evidence to suggest that the meanings he finds elsewhere for iaomai actually apply to James 5:16. This is one of my biggest problems with MacArthur and Mazak’s argument for the entire spiritual depression view in James 5.
    MacArthur’s contention that the Elijah story is a “strange illustration” is misleading. MacArthur is forced to allegorize the Elijah story to support the spiritual depression view. This is another problem with the spiritual depression view, because it must also allegorize the reference to anointment with oil in verse 14.
    Perhaps because of the influence of the spiritual depression view, MacArthur stops his chapter on this passage before he gets to verses 19-20. I haven’t looked to see what he does with those, but it may be that he is ignoring a critical piece of context because it contradicts the spiritual depression view.

    Dear me… I’ve said way too much for one morning. Anyway, thanks EricSundt and wdlowry for your thoughts. This passage only becomes more interesting the more you study it.

  10. Oops. Looks like Mark’s blog doesn’t support the >ol< html tag that I was trying to use with my observations about MacArthur. Here’s what I meant that part to look like:

    1. MacArthur’s point about verse 16a is not conclusive. Just because a word can mean something in a given context does not mean that it actually does mean that. He gives no conclusive evidence to suggest that the meanings he finds elsewhere for iaomai actually apply to James 5:16. This is one of my biggest problems with MacArthur and Mazak’s argument for the entire spiritual depression view in James 5.
    2. MacArthur’s contention that the Elijah story is a “strange illustration” is misleading. MacArthur is forced to allegorize the Elijah story to support the spiritual depression view. This is another problem with the spiritual depression view, because it must also allegorize the reference to anointment with oil in verse 14.
    3. Perhaps because of the influence of the spiritual depression view, MacArthur stops his chapter on this passage before he gets to verses 19-20. I haven’t looked to see what he does with those, but it may be that he is ignoring a critical piece of context because it contradicts the spiritual depression view.

  11. Notes from Mazak… (a guy who does not typically blog, since there are so many more capable bloggers out there, as indicated by your thoughtful comments on my recent sermon, which I am honored you would even blog about!) Thanks to Mark for allowing me to post.

    It’s not my goal to argue that the position I took on the James passage was correct (although I think it is). Perhaps it would help to list a few reasons why I came to my current conclusion:

    1. from a NT lexical standpoint, the 2 words translated “sick” in Js 5:14 and Js 5:15 are just as readily translated “weak” (majority of usages in the Epistles) or “weary” (Heb 12:3). There is no reason to start with the assumption that James refers to physical illness at all in light of the context of the letter (persecution or trials). A few comments seem to begin with the assumption, “it refers to physical illness—why would this not be the case?” Yet I understand this… since it is the traditional view.

    2. the word translated “suffering” or “afflicted” (Js 5:13) in its other 2 NT usages (II Tim 2:9; 4:5) clearly does not refer to illness. How one interprets “afflicted” no doubt influences how one translates the 2 references to “weary/sick” which follow.

    3. a point I did not make in the sermon due to time: Hayden argues that the Elijah example (Js 5:17-18) seems odd in light of the physical healing interpretation (Hayden, p.265). If James were thinking of physical healing, surely Elijah’s dramatic prayer for the healing of the widow’s son (I Kg 17) would have been more illustrative of his point. He further notes that Elijah was a man “with a nature like ours” (Js 5:17). What is this a reference to? One typically thinks of Elijah growing weary (not getting ill) with discouragement (I Kg 19).

    4. the “problem” of anointing with oil is minor (imho) in light of the problem faced in v.14-15 if one takes the physical illness interp. Why?

    a. “Will restore” (v.15) is absolute language. Does God promise to always heal the sick? No. Have you prayed for those who are ill to be healed–and they still died? Yes. Do you know of churches where elders prayed and anointed–and the person still died? I do (Charismatics have an easy out–“he lacked faith”). Is physical healing always God’s will? No—but it is always God’s will that a discouraged, weary, or even depressed believer be lifted up to rejoice in the God of his salvation.

    b. why would God “heal” in response to the prayers of the elders and not the physically ill person (which is not demanded, but implied)? This seems a bit “Romanist” (i.e., the clergy-laity dichotomy). The “weary” view accounts for this—the brother is so weary that he does not pray. What does he do? He calls for those that do pray, i.e., his elders (what a great argument for a plurality of elders in a local congregation—but that’s a bit off the subject. Wow—no wonder he doesn’t blog—he can’t stay focused. Sorry).

    5. “So what about anointing with oil?” I’ve been asked that many times in the last 2 days, and it’s a great question. A few ideas:

    a. the command is to pray. The context is all about prayer. The focus is on prayer. Just thought I’d remind us all.

    b. what lifts the spirits of the weary (if you prefer, heals the sick) is prayer—not oil (“the prayer offered in faith”). The active ingredient is believing prayer, not oil. OK—I still haven’t answered it. Here I go…

    c. “Anoint” can be translated to “rub.” Oil was used for a multitude of non-sacramental/non medicinal reasons in NT times, including ancient hair gel! Before you laugh please review Mt 6:17, where anointing with oil is parallel with washing one’s face. When visiting a very weary friend, pray for him… as you wash his face with a cool cloth, give him a glass of fresh water, and honor him—which was done by anointing (see Luke 7:38).

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