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Confess your sins to each other and pray for each other so that you may be healed. The earnest prayer of a righteous person has great power and produces wonderful results. —James 5:16

When James is speaking of being healed, is he referring to being healed from a sin, or in the context of the previous verses is he tying sin to sickness?

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    I'd always assumed the primary meaning was physical sickness with any "spiritual" meaning being secondary. But I don't have any backing for that at the moment.
    – Jon Ericson
    May 11 '12 at 23:58
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    James repeatedly equates physical death with the accumulation of sins, see James 1:13-15, esp. 15. In terms of verse 5:16, he means actual healing as well as the spiritual form of healing. If you read 5:14-16 together, since they are consecutive and all, it is very clear that the meaning is that physical healing may occur due to forgiveness. However, 5:15 is just as clear that this physical healing depends on the faith of the ill person, and that the 5:14-16 process will result in one of two good ends: physical health, or forgiven in death. Sep 17 '13 at 17:58
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Calvin does not treat the issue directly, but seems to understand that by healing, restoration from a sin is meant. This is the interpretation that I am immediately inclined to. However, a strong counter-argument can be made from the context.

13Are any of you suffering hardships? You should pray. Are any of you happy? You should sing praises. 14Are any of you sick? You should call for the elders of the church to come and pray over you, anointing you with oil in the name of the Lord. 15Such a prayer offered in faith will heal the sick, and the Lord will make you well. And if you have committed any sins, you will be forgiven. —James 5:13-15

There seems to be a connection between sin and sickness already in verse 15. Henry comments,

Where sickness is sent as a punishment for some particular sin, that sin shall be pardoned, and in token thereof the sickness shall be removed.

I am not sure how this square with the teaching about sin ad suffering elsewhere in Scripture, but the most natural reading of this passage itself it to keep that connection in mind when interpreting 16: when suffering from a sin-induced sickness, confess and pray with brothers, and healing will be given.

Gill says with uncharacteristic brevity,

And pray for one another, that ye may be healed; both corporeally and spiritually.

If this interpretation of the passage is taken, then its immediate application is much narrower than the typical (out-of-context) way I've heard it used.

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What does “healed” refer to in James 5:16?

Prayer for the Spiritually Sick

James 5:13-16 (NET Bible)

13 "Is anyone among you suffering? He should pray. Is anyone in good spirits? He should sing praises. 14 Is anyone among you ill? He should summon the elders of the church, and they should pray for him and anoint him with olive oil in the name of the Lord. 15 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. 16 So confess your sins to one another and pray for one another so that you may be healed. The prayer of a righteous person has great effectiveness."

Treatment of spiritual sickness experienced by a member of the Christian congregation is considered at James 5:13-20. The context, which contrasts being sick with being in good spirits, shows that James was dealing, not with physical illness, but with spiritual sickness .By approaching the warm hearted and spiritually strong elders,their Bible counsel and prayer with him, will be comforting to anyone being truly repentant.

Concerning remedial steps and their effectiveness, James wrote:

13 "Is anyone among you suffering?(spiritually) He should pray. Is anyone in good spirits? He should sing praises. 14 Is anyone among you ill? He should summon the elders of the church, and they should pray for him and anoint him with olive oil in the name of the Lord.15 "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.[b Psalm 145:1]

Psalm 145:1 NET.[b- olive oil] "May the godly strike me in love and correct me. May my head not refuse[a] choice oil.[b]Indeed, my prayer is a witness against their evil deeds."

The fact that James encourages confession of sins with the hope of being healed, proves conclusively that he was referring to spiritual sickness:

James continues:

16 So confess your sins to one another and pray for one another so that you may be healed. The prayer of a righteous person has great effectiveness."

The "righteous person" could be older men or elders of the congregation that will assist the spiritually sick person gain God's favor. This is provided the spiritually sick person responds , and repents from his sinful course.

Galatians 6:1 (NASB)

Bear One Another’s Burdens

6 "Brethren, even if [a]anyone is caught in any trespass, you who are spiritual, restore such a one in a spirit of gentleness; each one looking to yourself, so that you too will not be tempted."

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I'm not qualified to dismiss the idea that James' audience would understand "are any among you sick" with "spiritual sickness" but it seems to be a stretch, especially when coupled with "shall be healed". I'm not aware of other examples of the usage of "sick".

I heard a teaching that the anointing with anointing oil suggested giving the person a job to do that would necessitate their being healed to do the task. Anointing with oil and laying on of hands was how a Rabbi was ordained. If appointed and anointed, the LORD would provide the ability. I find it somewhat logical but manipulative. It makes the elders the lords of the harvest.

Today I became acquainted with the scriptures that teach that there is a balm from Gilead that is effective in healing various conditions. Who needs secular doctors when there are elders on hand with a bottle of this evidently effectual balm? This is an article from the US National Institution of Health website, "Pubmed":

Chios mastic gum (Pistacia lentiscus var. Chia, Anacardiaceae): A review:

...CONCLUSIONS:

Chios mastic's beneficial properties have been demonstrated in the treatment of gastrointestinal disorders, wound healing, skin inflammations, plasma lipid and blood sugar reduction and oral care. These properties are attributed to triterpenes and volatile compounds. However, because of the resin's chemical complexity and the lack of commercial standards for its main compounds, there is a notable gap in literature concerning the biological evaluation of CMG's isolated components. Therefore, future research should focus on the development of efficient extraction, isolation and analysis techniques in order to unravel CMG's full pharmacological potential.

Obviously this is "easy cases only" but may provide a more mundane but more practical paradigm that may well have been practiced in James' assembly. It has been used for at least 2,500 years for healing and is available at places like Amazon.

So in my view, "healed" means "healed of non-tough case sicknesses" through a combination of a biblical (scripturally endorsed) balm and prayer.

Disclaimer: My answer is rather tentative at this time as I have not yet received my order of Mastic oil to prove it for myself.

Update:

I tried the stuff and it did not appear to be a wonder drug of any sort.

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