Healing by prayer either with or without the use of modern medical science has become a widely accepted part of the modern American religious scene. This is especially true of two sectors of the church which otherwise are rather different. The Pentecostal groups on the basis of a very literal acceptance of Scripture have made healing an integral part of their church life. Some ministers of the Episcopal church in a trend back to Catholic theology have adopted anointing and prayer for the sick as a substitute for the Roman sacrament of unction. Many others, while sympathetic for various reasons to the basic idea, are puzzled about the place of faith healing in both their theological and ecclesiastical system.

The following is a proposed solution. The ideas have their source in John Calvin’s discussions of unction (Institutes I, xvii, 3 and 9; IV, xiv, 1; IV, xiv, 9; IV, iii, 16; IV, xix, 20; IV, xix, 18; IV, xix, 21; Articles of Faith with the Antidote, Article X) and his commentaries on relevant biblical material (Isa. 6:10; 19:22; Jer. 14:19; 17:14; Matt. 9:2; 10:1; John 12:40; Acts 19:6; 1 Cor. 11:30; James 5:13–16). Calvin says that anointing and prayer was a sacrament only of the apostolic Church. The Roman church mutilated the sacraments of Baptism and the Lord’s Supper, but Calvin claims to have restored a biblical teaching and practice of these sacraments. Could the same have been the case with unction?

In Protestantism the number of sacraments has been limited to two—Baptism and Holy Communion. This writer realizes the serious nature of a proposal to increase this number. However, after due consideration of material presented below, it has seemed a possible way of developing a theology of healing for pastoral use. The reason for considering the anointing of the sick as a sacrament is that it would seem to fulfill the definition of a sacrament. A sacrament is an ordinance enjoined by our Lord himself, in which a visible element is used as the sign and seal of the reception of a spiritual blessing. In the New Testament we find Jesus sending forth his disciples to anoint in Mark 6:13 as he sent them to baptize in Matthew 28:19, and we find the elders of the church anointing with oil and praying for the sick. The visible element is the oil which in Scripture is a sign of the Holy Spirit. This oil is communicated by the hands of the pastor, and the laying on of hands is a scriptural symbol of the communication of the power of the Holy Spirit. Healing is most assuredly a spiritual blessing for two reasons: first, it comes through the Holy Spirit; and second, it is ordinarily accompanied by a sense of forgiveness. In these two aspects, sacramental healing is similar to sacramental Baptism and the sacramental Lord’s Supper.

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The oil no more confers healing apart from faith than the water of Baptism or the bread and wine of Holy Communion confer blessing apart from faith. The communication of God’s pardon of sins through Jesus Christ is integral to healing in Mark 6:12–13 and James 5:13–16, just as forgiveness is basic to baptism and communion. This method of prayer for the sick was a part of the practice of the early Church.


If the Church treats this as a sacrament, many of the objections to current healing practice are answered. First, it is the act of the Church, and not the act of an individual. Individual activities, no matter how well-intentioned and biblical in nature, are always open to criticism. Secondly, sacramental healing is under the supervision of the Church and ordinarily is done only by the offices of the Church. The sacramental blessings are often communicated directly by God’s Spirit apart from the sacraments, but the Church ordinarily uses the instruments of the sacraments as means of grace to communicate the blessings of Christ. God answers the private prayers of his saints, but healing as a sacrament is an official act of the Church. Thirdly, prayer for healing is properly offered to God the Father, that for the sake of Jesus Christ, the healing power of the Holy Spirit may be communicated to the believer who is ill. This is not only a prayer for healing, but must also be a plea for pardon from sins.

Although there is some variation among Protestants about the definition of a sacrament, there is general agreement about the spiritual blessings issuing from the practice of the sacraments. Most Protestants make faith primary, while the elements, circumstances, and method are secondary. The treatment of healing as a sacrament is logical whether the sacrament is considered as a symbol of the power of God in Christ or as a moral real presence of the supernatural. The practice of healing as sacramental in nature harmonizes with varying views of the nature and importance of a sacrament.

A sacrament of anointing offers the following advantages for those who are interested in utilizing healing as a part of their ministry. The idea of the sacramental nature of healing has a biblical basis. It is done within the framework of the Church as an official act of the Church. It allows a pastor to offer a fuller ministry to his people. If a pastor offers healing as a sacrament, it is only to those who, within the framework of the Church, have professed faith in Christ. The true pastor of a church is not interested in reputation, but in the spiritual blessing of his people. There is no personal glory for the dispenser of sacraments, but Christ sends his Holy Spirit and Christ receives the glory and honor due him.

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The material in this study on the healing ministry of the Church reflects the writer’s personal conviction. In some ways it is a synthesis of the Pentecostal and Episcopal viewpoints being both biblical and sacramental, with the catalyst provided by Calvin. The traditional view that there are only two sacraments has massive weight as an objection, but does the Bible restrict us to two sacraments? This writer, being a pastor, feels very strongly that he should offer all the benefits of faith in Christ to his people, and the concept of sacramental healing is a pastor’s method of meeting this need.


God does not change the courses of the stars,

To satisfy man’s whim;

Nor will He chart a pathway through the sky

Up which to climb to Him.

He views man’s frantic foraging in space

With condescending eye,

And, with the majesty of tolerance,

Permits the brave to try.

But when on earth one contrite spirit bows,

Acknowledging His grace,

God sweeps the stars aside and, with one move,

Sublimely cancels space.

The heavens may continue to evade

Man’s scientific art;

But faith in Christ, at any moment, will

Bring heaven to the heart.


Samuel M. Shoemaker is the author of a number of popular books and the gifted Rector of Calvary Episcopal Church in Pittsburgh. He is known for his effective leadership of laymen and his deeply spiritual approach to all vital issues.

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