The Reformation of the 16th century made an unmistakable mark on Christendom. Led by the spirited Martin Luther, reformation leaders led the body of Christ in a renewal, marching under the cadence, “justification by faith!” Luther did not limit his critique of Catholic practice to the area of penance only, but he also attacked the Catholic practice of prayers offered for the healing of the sick.
James writes, “Is any one of you sick? He should call the elders of the church to pray over him and anoint him with oil in the name of the Lord. And the prayer offered in faith will make the sick person well; the Lord will raise him up…” (James 5:14,15). Contrary to the belief of some, this practice continued after the death of the apostles. As Christian thinkers established the doctrine of the Catholic Church, the prayer of faith for the sick was included initially as a sacrament called Extreme Unction. Unfortunately, due to unbelief, this sacrament evolved later into what is known now as “Last Rites.” Last Rites include an anointing for death, but at its inception holy men of faith practiced it with the expectation of recovery not death.
In The Pagan Servitude of the Church, Luther dismisses Extreme Unction as a sacrament, but he does comment on the need to pray for the sick. He writes,
“But in Extreme Unction as practiced in our day, there is no prayer of faith. No one prays in faith over the sick, confidently expecting their restoration. Yet James describes that kind of faith in this passage (in James 5)…. There is no doubt at all that if, at the present day, this kind of prayer were offered over the sick, i.e., by the older and graver men, men saintlike and full of faith, as many as we desired would be healed. Nothing is impossible for faith.” [Martin Luther: Selection from His Writings, John Dillenberger, ed. (New York: Anchor Books, 1962), 354.]
This passage from Luther almost reads like a prophecy of the healing revivals that would cover the globe from the late 19th century to the present day, as people full of faith pray for the physical recovery of the sick. Faith is limitless in its pursuit of the kingdom of God, as Luther himself proclaims, “nothing is impossible for faith.” May this encourage the weary and fainthearted not to allow their confidence in God to wane. Continue to pray with faith and expectant hope no matter what we see. Romans 5:5 says, “And hope does not disappoint us, because God has poured out his love into our hearts by the Holy Spirit, whom he has given us.” Hope does not disappoint because God’s will is true, no matter what the earthly facts may convey to us.