In part 1 of this series, I presented an overview of the healing message touted by many of today's "faith healers" (e.g., Benny Hinn, Todd Bentley, Reinhard Bonnke and numerous others), a message that claims support from Scripture and asserts that extraordinary healing miracles, equal to or more amazing than those of Jesus and the apostles, are being restored today in these ministries through the power of God. It also teaches that because of God's unchanging nature as Healer and the finished work of Jesus on the cross, that physical healing is included in salvation and is the birthright of the Christian who has faith to lay hold of it. In this continuing series, our aim is to weigh this healing message against Scripture. There are a number of related issues we will also explore, such as the purpose of suffering in the Christian life, and whether spiritual gifts are meant to be a sign that validates the message today, in the same way that signs and wonders authenticated the message of Jesus and the apostles. But in this article we will primarily focus on a biblical critique of the "healing in the atonement" teaching as popularly understood.
We also explored in the previous article how the Word-Faith and Signs and Wonders Movement (a.k.a. Vineyard, Third Wave, Apostolic-Prophetic) have in common the idea that healing miracles and other supernatural signs give evidence to the reality of God-- by showing He still works wonders among us, so long as we exercise our faith to tap into His available power. We examined Todd Bentley (formerly associated with Fresh Fire Ministries, as he has now been relieved of his duties in the wake of his separation from his wife), as an example of how strains of Word-Faith and Signs and Wonders teachings overlap. Finally, I sounded various cautions against this healing doctrine that is common to both movements.
The following statements summarize my conclusions thus far:
- The presence of miracles or signs and wonders in a ministry does not, in and of itself, validate the truth of that ministry's teachings, for such signs may be false, that is, they may be produced by means other than the power of God (Matthew 24:24).
- Healings claimed by those who teach this message, though supposedly large in number, have not been verified by presentation of medical evidence. Such proof is needed because the kinds of "miracles" witnessed during the "revival" meetings are not actual healings as they take place, but rather people provide testimonies of having been healed. In light of the fact that healing miracles claims are often extravagant (e.g., Bentley has claimed 33 people have been raised from the dead) it ought not to be so difficult to corroborate at least one of these cases medically.
- The miracles of Jesus and the apostles, in contrast to those of contemporary faith healers, were so extraordinary that corroboration was hardly necessary; anyone present could verify they had really happened. Even the enemies of Jesus could not refute His miracles, for they were so clear and obvious.
- Those who proclaim healing for today almost always also espouse other incorrect doctrines (prosperity, receiving new revelations and doctrine directly from Jesus or angels, commanding miracles, deification of man, etc.). This is quite revealing, for it indicates that the healing for today message is part of a pattern of error.
- Taken together, this pattern of incorrect teachings among certain charismatics constitutes an approach to spirituality and to pursuing relationship with God that dangerously emphasizes experience over Scripture (I recognize this is a generalization I won't have time to expound upon in this article, but will try to address in a future post).
- The teaching on healing in these ministries seems at first plausible, because it is speaks of certain biblical truths-- God is unchanging in His essence; He is our Healer (Jehovah Rapha); redemption is for the body as well as the soul. However the teaching ultimately misinterprets and misapplies Scripture, because it does not take into account the full biblical picture on the subject of sickness, suffering and healing in the life of the Christian. Healing for the body in this life is simply not guaranteed, and it seems that God may use sickness just as much as other circumstances in life to fashion His children in Christ-likeness. There is no biblical reason to place physical sickness in a special category of suffering that God may not use to discipline believers (Job, for example).
- Though some may be healed as they attend a healing campaign or apply these teachings, there are just as many who are not healed. These exceptions must be explained, and it is neither satisfying biblically nor compassionate to sufferers to explain the non-healings as a lack of faith or lack of persevering in faith.
- Because the teaching is so rigid in claiming that everyone can be healed since healing provision has already been made-- guilt and shame is added to the physical suffering of those not healed. Deep disappointment, hurt and confusion may ensue for those relying on promises of healing held out by the faith healers. If not healed as expected, these poor folks can't understand why, and are compelled to blame themselves, since the teaching states that God has already healed them. Certainly, God can and often does heal in answer to prayer, but He does not guarantee healing in the way that is implied by this teaching.
This message of healing is by no means new, having been proclaimed since the nineteenth century. However, such dating marks the teaching as relatively new in terms of church history. This view on healing apparently was not shared by the apostles or the early church. Some believe that the faith healing formulation derives from "New Thought" ideas, such as those of Phineas Parkhurst Quimby. The writings of E.W. Kenyon, known to have had a strong influence on Kenneth Hagin (who in turn is called the "granddaddy" of the Word-Faith movement and has been highly influential within it) is said to bear similarity to these New Thought concepts. Determining whether the teaching has these influences, and what is its exact origin, are certainly relevant to our study. But the key question we will consider right now is whether or not the doctrine, as taught by contemporary proponents, is supported by Scripture. Perhaps in a future article we will investigate the origin question more thoroughly. I do want however to briefly show the continuity between the message of faith healers of the recent past and those who preach faith healing today.
Prominent figures who developed and practiced an essentially identical message on healing, from the late 19th through the 20th century, included John Alexander Dowie, John G. Lake, Maria Woodworth-Etter, Smith Wigglesworth, F.F. Bosworth, A.B. Simpson, A.J. Gordon, A.A. Allen, Aimee Semple McPherson, Jack Coe, William Branham, Kathryn Kuhlman, T.L. Osborn and Oral Roberts. Among these teachers, there are some differences in details over how the believer should act upon their faith to receive God's healing. For example, many in this movement have taught that going to doctors or taking medicines negates reliant faith on God, while others advise that medicine and doctors are fine, so long as we look past them to God as our true Healer. Some really stress the positive "confession" of healing, while others underline building faith for healing from reading certain Scriptures. Yet the theological foundation of the healing message-- the doctrine that "healing in the atonement" makes divine health and physical healing in this lifetime the believer's birthright-- is the core teaching that all these "faith healers", past and present, advocate.
To demonstrate the correspondence between the teaching of "healing in the atonement" between previous generations of faith healers and contemporary ones, I present the following sampling of quotes:
Quotes of the Faith Healers
John Alexander Dowie
Question: Then, if that is so, the atonement which He made on the Cross must have been for our sicknesses as well as our sins. Can you prove that is the fact from the Scriptures?
Answer: Yes, I can, and the passages are very numerous. I need quote two only. In Isaiah 53:4,5 it is written of Him, "Surely He hath borne our griefs (Hebrew sicknesses), and carried our sorrows:…. And with his stripes we are healed.” Then in the Gospel according to Matthew, this passage is quoted and directly applied to the work of bodily healing, in chapter 8, 17th verse, “That it might be fulfilled which was spoken by Isaiah the prophet, saying, Himself took our infirmities, and bare our diseases."
John G. Lake
The Lord Jesus Christ is still the healer. He can not change, for "He is the same yesterday, today, and forever," and He is still with us, for He said, "Lo, I am with you always, even unto the end of the world." (Hebrews 13:8 and Matthew 28:20.) Because He is unchangeable, and because He is present, in Spirit, just as when in the flesh. He is the healer of His people.
Divine Healing rests on Christ's Atonement. It was prophesied of Him, "Surely He hath borne our grief, (Hebrew, sicknesses) and carried our sorrows, and with His stripes we are healed," and it is expressly declared that this was fulfilled in His ministry of Healing, which still continues. (Isaiah 53:4-5 Matt. 8:17)
Diseases can never be God's will. It is the Devil's work consequent on sin, and it is impossible for the work of the Devil ever to be the will of God. Christ came to destroy the works of the Devil and when He was on earth He, "healed every sickness and every disease," and all these diseases are expressly declared to have been the "oppression of the Devil." (1 John 3:8 Matt. 4:23 and Acts 10:38.)
In the world they are always having new diseases and the doctors cannot locate them. A doctor said to me, "The science of medicine is in its infancy, and really we doctors have no confidence in our medicine. We are always experimenting." But the man of God does not experiment. He knows, or ought to know, redemption in its fullness. He knows, or ought to know, the mightiness of the Lord Jesus Christ. He is not, or should not be, moved by outward observation, but should get divine revelation of the mightiness of the name of Jesus and the power of His blood. If we exercise our faith in the Lord Jesus Christ He will come forth and get glory over all the powers of darkness.
At eventide they brought unto Him many that were possessed with devils; and He cast out the spirits with His word and healed all that were sick: that it might be fulfilled which was spoken by Esaias the prophet, saying, "Himself took our infirmities, and bare our sicknesses." The work is done if you only believe it. It is done. Himself took our infirmities and bare our sicknesses.
Jesus Christ has SURELY BORNE AWAY and CARRIED OFF our sicknesses; yes, and even our PAINS, so that abiding in Him, we may be fully delivered from both sickness and pain. Thus "by His stripes we are healed." Blessed and glorious Gospel! Blessed and glorious Burden Bearer.
Benny Hinn Ministries Faith Statement
Deliverance from sickness is provided for in the atonement and is the privilege of all believers (Isaiah 53:4-5; Matthew 8:16-17).
In this video Benny Hinn declares, I have come to remind you that he was wounded for transgressions, bruised for iniquities, chastised for peace-- that's the front of the cross, but I have come to remind you-- there's the backside of the cross-- with His stripes we are healed! That's definite, that's the Bible!
But He was wounded for our transgressions, He was bruised for our iniquities; the chastisement for our peace was upon Him, and by His stripes we are healed.
Surely! If you have ever wanted to know anything about healing, it is a sure thing that He carried away sickness. It is a sure thing that He suffered and died and shed His blood just as much for sickness and disease as He did sin. Surely He has carried away our pain. This passage of Scripture talks about healing more than it does forgiveness of sin.
He suffered for our peace, our prosperity in wholeness of body, soul and spirit. Three times it mentions in Isaiah 53:3-5, about divine healing, only once it says He was bruised for our iniquity. “Surely He has carried away our grief, and by His stripes we are healed.
Do you know what Isaiah is saying? Isaiah was saying, “He was beaten, wounded, suffered, shed His blood, was rejected, in pain, torment. He carried away sickness, He carried away disease, but we saw Him as afflicted. We saw Him as the suffering, wounded Messiah. Yes, He was smitten and stricken. Yes, we see the realities of the suffering of the Cross of Jesus in Isaiah 53. He carried away sickness and disease. He was wounded for transgressions and sin. He was rejected. He was mocked. He was spit on. He suffered. He was tormented. Yet, we cannot esteem Him as stricken. We must see Him as the one who has conquered sin, sickness, disease, death and the grave. We must see Him as the victorious Christ who rose up on the third day with resurrection power, sin, sickness, disease, and death. He took the curse of the law and redeemed us so we could once again come under the blessing of Abraham and be whole in our body, soul, and spirit.
We do not understand all of the mysteries of healing. But I do know one thing; God wants to heal you. And when you do not get healed and die with your sickness, I do not understand it any more than I understand why people died in sin and did not get saved. But He is an all-powerful God. And my job is to preach the gospel, win souls, and put my hands on sick bodies and let God do the rest; let God be God. Regardless of what I feel and see, I must believe the gospel. I must believe the gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ.
I believe in the doctor. I believe God wants to heal all. And if God wants to use a doctor, God can do that. He gave them the gift. He gave them medicine and science. Some of it is from the pits of hell, but God has blessed it. I am not against doctors and nurses. I am free to go to the doctor. Healing and freedom from sickness and disease is the same as forgiveness of sins. I have come to a place in my life and my relationship with Jesus that I no longer wonder if it is God’s will to heal. I do not even think about that anymore. I can lay hands on a man in a wheelchair with just as much confidence as I can with somebody with a back condition. Because I know that He is the healer. And all I have to do is put my hand on the sick, and God does the rest.
So we observe remarkable continuity in the healing message (particularly the healing in the atonement aspect) that has been preached. This view has been primarily held by charismatic denominations: Pentecostals, Assembly of God, Christian Missionary Alliance, Foursquare Gospel and others, groups that strongly emphasize the active role that man's faith plays in securing the healing God has provided.
Let us now turn to biblical analysis.
Healing in the Atonement?
The teaching on "healing in the atonement" undergirds the contemporary healing message and we have seen that the content of this teaching has been remarkably consistent as preached by faith healers from previous generations until now. The view that healing in the atonement ensures divine health and physical healing for the believer in this life is perhaps the critical theological foundation of the healing movement. But can it be demonstrated biblically that the death of Christ on the cross accomplished not only reconciliation of man to God by forgiveness of sins (through Christ our sin-bearer), but also removal of sickness and disease in this life, through Christ who bears our sicknesses? Does the teaching of the New Testament on sickness/healing support the notion that believers have already been healed of their sicknesses through the cross, and need only have faith that their healing is accomplished for this healing provision to become manifested in their ailing bodies?
Some believe the prophetic words of Isaiah justify this idea:
Surely he has borne our griefs
and carried our sorrows;
yet we esteemed him stricken,
smitten by God, and afflicted.
But he was wounded for our transgressions;
he was crushed for our iniquities;
upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace,
and with his stripes we are healed. Isaiah 53:4-5
All have traditionally agreed that this famous passage is a prophetic description of what Jesus Christ accomplished for believers on the cross. We observe Isaiah saying that he (Jesus) has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows (although we will find in Matthew 8:17 that this is said to be fulfilled in the earthly ministry of Jesus and not on the cross).
We observe Isaiah speaking of the physical sufferings and stripes of Jesus as the means by which our transgressions and our iniquities, which stood between us and peace with God, were punished-- Jesus was chastised on our behalf-- and through his chastisement we have been forgiven and healed of our "sin-sickness". This clearly is a reference to Jesus on the cross. Yet there is nothing being said about physical healing here. The fact that Jesus suffered bodily does not mean that our physical sufferings today are being substituted for. Isaiah is saying that because God smote Jesus, placing His wrath for human sin upon Christ Jesus, who suffered in our place, the one who takes refuge in Jesus obtains peace with God and "healing" for their soul.
But the "healing for today" teachers claim that this passage in Isaiah was quoted by New Testament writers (Matthew 8:16-17, 1 Peter 2:24) to prove Christ died not only for sins, but also, that we might always obtain physical healing during our lives on earth. Let us examine these two New Testament passages more closely, to see if this is the correct interpretation. We'll begin with the Matthew passage, starting at verse 14:
And when Jesus entered Peter's house, he saw his mother-in-law lying sick with a fever. He touched her hand, and the fever left her, and she rose and began to serve him. That evening they brought to him many who were oppressed by demons, and he cast out the spirits with a word and healed all who were sick. This was to fulfill what was spoken by the prophet Isaiah: “He took our illnesses and bore our diseases.” Matthew 8:14-17On first reading, this passage seems to lend credence to the healing in the atonement argument, for it shows (so it may seem) a connection between Jesus' work on the cross and supernatural, physical healing. Matthew points us to Isaiah 53, a passage which looked forward to the coming of the Messiah, and pictured Jesus dying on the cross, and then declares that Jesus' works of physical healing were done in to fulfill Isaiah's prophetic words.
It is important to remember however that Isaiah 53 is not only about Jesus' suffering on the cross, but makes references to various aspects and times of Jesus' ministry. For example, verses 1-3 speak of Jesus in relation to humanity during His earthly life prior to the cross. Therefore Matthew quoting from Isaiah 53 in regard to the healing ministry of Jesus does not in and of itself draw a connection between the work of the cross and Jesus' healing people.
Looking carefully, we see that Matthew 8:14-17 is not referring to Jesus' work on the cross, but rather, to the healing ministry Jesus had among people. And it is these works of Jesus, Matthew tells us, that fulfilled what was spoken by the prophet Isaiah, and not Jesus' death on the cross. Matthew 8:17 then, does not link Christ's death on the cross (the atonement) with physical healing in a direct way. It might be said from this verse that Jesus took illnesses and bore diseases through His miraculous healing ministry among people, thereby proving that He was/is the Messiah Isaiah prophesied about.
Some will object, however, that since Jesus' healing ministry on earth included both spiritual (forgiving sins) and physical (healing the body) aspects, these must have as their basis Jesus' atoning work on the cross. For Jesus is the "the Lamb who was slain before the foundation of the world" (Rev 13:8), this argument continues, and so the healing authority issuing from His death does not depend upon a fixed point in time (i.e., the moment in which Jesus the God-Man actually died for sin on the cross). In other words, Jesus' earthly ministry anticipated His atonement and drew authority from His future work on the cross.
This argument is not without merit since the atonement does seem to be the means by which ultimate healing from sin and all its attending consequences (which include physical disease and death) is provided. Also, it is true that the atonement has timeless application, for God is not bound by time and had the plan of salvation in mind even before mankind fell. However, this argument fails to convince that healing for the body for this life is therefore something we may claim from the atonement, because scriptural teaching concerning the meaning and significance of the cross does not corroborate this.
Let's look at 1 Peter 2:24, for example, in its context. The verse is often used to argue for an atonement-based right to healing.
Servants, be subject to your masters with all respect, not only to the good and gentle but also to the unjust. For this is a gracious thing, when, mindful of God, one endures sorrows while suffering unjustly. For what credit is it if, when you sin and are beaten for it, you endure? But if when you do good and suffer for it you endure, this is a gracious thing in the sight of God. For to this you have been called, because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, so that you might follow in his steps. He committed no sin, neither was deceit found in his mouth. When he was reviled, he did not revile in return; when he suffered, he did not threaten, but continued entrusting himself to him who judges justly. He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree, that we might die to sin and live to righteousness. By his wounds you have been healed. For you were straying like sheep, but have now returned to the Shepherd and Overseer of your souls (1 Peter 2:18-25)In these verses Peter speaks on the calling of the Christian, which may include, if it is God's will, to suffer unjustly. He emphasizes that Jesus set an example for us of how to act under such circumstances-- we are not to return evil for evil, nor threaten our oppressors, but instead, entrust ourselves to God. Peter goes on to explain the purpose of Jesus' death on the cross was that "we might die to sin and live to righteousness." He explains that we believers were straying like sheep (a reference to Isaiah 53:6) but "have now returned to the Shepherd and Overseer of your souls" (Jesus Christ).
We find in this passage Peter speaking of the Christian life as one in which sometimes believers suffer unjustly, but that if called to do so, we have our Savior's example to follow. We see that when Peter says "by his wounds you have been healed" (a reference to Isaiah 53:5), he refers to the healing of sin by the cross of Christ which returns us to the "Shepherd of our souls". He is not speaking here of physical healing, but of the spiritual healing of the soul. This passage then, rather than confirming the concept that Christ suffered sickness so that we don't have to, in fact mentions nothing at all about physical healing. It does tell us that Christ suffered as our example of how to suffer in a godly way. But, it may be asked, why does Peter use the language of healing ("by his wounds you are healed") when talking about sin?
In this, Peter echoes Isaiah, who uses this same figurative language when talking about the "sin-sickness" that Israel was afflicted with and needed healing for:
Ah, sinful nation,
a people laden with iniquity,
offspring of evildoers,
children who deal corruptly!
They have forsaken the Lord,
they have despised the Holy One of Israel,
they are utterly estranged.
Why will you still be struck down?
Why will you continue to rebel?
The whole head is sick,
and the whole heart faint.
From the sole of the foot even to the head,
there is no soundness in it,
but bruises and sores
and raw wounds;
they are not pressed out or bound up
or softened with oil (Isaiah 1:4-6)
The language of Isaiah shows that sin biblically may be described as "sickness" of the human soul. Isaiah and Peter both say that Christ's death on the cross atoned for the sin that causes this soul-sickness. It brings healing to those who place their faith in Him and what He has done for them. Healing for the soul and the body are indeed joined in the ministry of Christ (as we see in His earthly healing miracles), with complete healing for body and soul found through what Christ accomplished for us by His death and resurrection.
Yet healing is ours only in part at this present time. Just as we find sin still present within us as Christians (Romans 7:15-25, 1 John 1:8), causing us always to wrestle with the flesh even as we pursue God by the Spirit He has placed in us, so also we find that our bodies are not yet fully redeemed, and that we may suffer with sickness in this life. All believers in this life, despite looking forward to the promise of the new, imperishable body (1 Corinthians 15:42), will die (Heb 9:27) as the body wears down physically (2 Cor 4:16).
Paul's teaching on redemption of the body
Referring in part to the redemption (God's complete healing) of the body, Paul writes,
For we know that the whole creation has been groaning together in the pains of childbirth until now. And not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies. For in this hope we were saved. Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what he sees? But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience (Romans 8:22-25); and also,
But we have this treasure in jars of clay, to show that the surpassing power belongs to God and not to us. We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed; always carrying in the body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be manifested in our bodies. For we who live are always being given over to death for Jesus' sake, so that the life of Jesus also may be manifested in our mortal flesh. So death is at work in us, but life in you.
Since we have the same spirit of faith according to what has been written, "I believed, and so I spoke," we also believe, and so we also speak, knowing that he who raised the Lord Jesus will raise us also with Jesus and bring us with you into his presence. For it is all for your sake, so that as grace extends to more and more people it may increase thanksgiving, to the glory of God.
So we do not lose heart. Though our outer self is wasting away, our inner self is being renewed day by day. For this light momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison, as we look not to the things that are seen but to the things that are unseen. For the things that are seen are transient, but the things that are unseen are eternal (2 Corinthians 4:7-16)
These Pauline passages refer to the bodies of believers as "jars of clay", "mortal flesh", "wasting away", and states that we believers are waiting for something we do not yet have-- the redemption of our bodies. In harmony with this teaching, we find that Paul (though extraordinary healing miracles had been accomplished through him) did not himself always walk in perfect health, nor was he always able to heal others. We know that Paul suffered with an ailment at some point in his ministry (Galatians 4:13-14). We know that at least on occasion, he did not heal either Timothy or Trophimus, partners in his ministry. But despite his physical weaknesses and that of others, Paul reminds believers that we have been "sealed with the promised Holy Spirit, who is the guarantee of our inheritance until we acquire possession of it, to the praise of his glory (Ephesians 3:13-14)." He understood and taught that afflictions in this life are but temporary, and that we have a glorious future ahead that includes new bodies that won't suffer with infirmities nor grow old and die. He counsels us to place hope is in this future promise and does not tell anyone to claim immediate healing based on a supposed redemption right to do so.
Paul's Thorn in the Flesh and Sick Servants
Many that argue both for and against the popular healing teaching have thought that the famous "thorn in the flesh" Paul speaks about in 2 Corinthians 12:7-10, most likely refers to a physical ailment. It is possible that this is referring to a physical ailment. However, when one compares the same expression as used in various Old Testament passages (Numbers 33:55, Judges 2:3, Joshua 23:13, Ezekiel 2:6), it seems that "thorns in your sides" or "thorns in your eyes" signifies the enemies of God attacking His people from without. This seems consistent with Paul describing his "thorn in the flesh" as "a messenger of Satan to harass me, to keep me from becoming conceited." Therefore, though the term "flesh" is used, we see from these OT cross references that this phrase is possibly not referring to a physical ailment, but to attacks coming from without, from enemies. So I don't think one can definitively argue from this passage that Paul's thorn was necessarily a physical illness. One does not need to make this argument, for as we noted, we see elsewhere in Scripture that Paul did indeed suffer from a physical ailment during his ministry.
Divine Health our Privilege?
Besides Paul, other New Testament saints suffered with illness:
- Timothy (1 Tim 5:23)
- Trophimus (2 Tim 4:20)
- Epaphroditis (Phil 2:25-30)
What does this mean? If it is the believer's privilege and right to walk in divine health, as the faith healing message argues, why were these saints sick? It would seem these early saints somehow missed out on a blessing that was theirs to have. How can this be? Were they ignorant of their privileges? Were they unfaithful somehow, or sinning?
Examining these passages we note that these men were ministering during a period in church history when healing miracles were not infrequent. Yet in their own sicknesses, in certain instances, no miracle cures were being provided by God.
As far as the character of these servants, we find nothing to indicate these men were anything but faithful, hard workers in ministry. If anything, they probably possessed greater faith and were more mature than the average believer-- after all they were Spirit-filled leaders in ministry and the Scriptures testify to their faithfulness. It's difficult then to argue they would lack faith to believe in healing for themselves, if such a provision was available. To surmise that they were sick due to some sin in their lives is also unwarranted speculation.
Paul was privileged to receive such incredibly great revelations from God that some kind of trouble (satanic opposition to his ministry) was visited on Him by God for the purpose of keeping him humble (2 Cor 12:7). And of course, a good deal of the New Testament was written by Paul through inspiration of the Spirit. Can it be that this Paul, who through the Spirit has provided the Church with the most profound insights we have in Scripture concerning the meaning and significance of the cross of Jesus Christ, somehow missed the revelation that physical healing is ours right now through the atonement?! Would the Holy Spirit neglect to inspire Paul and other New Testament writers to teach the church how to obtain physical healing through the atonement, if such is our right and privilege? Why did Paul not counsel Timothy or Trophimus to simply believe God for their healing?
Paul did not teach that physical healing is immediately available for this life and is to be claimed from Christ's atonement; the Spirit did not lead Him to do so as no such provision exists. And we have seen that Peter also does not, in quoting Isaiah, endorse the notion that the atonement provides immediate physical healing. Echoing Isaiah, he teaches very specifically and clearly that by the stripes of Jesus we are healed of sins and transgressions that had led us astray from God, but mentions nothing at all about physical healing.
So we have seen that in the most critical passages "healing for today" advocates use to justify their teaching (Isaiah 53: 4-5, Matthew 8:16-17, 1 Peter 2:24), it is spiritual not physical healing that is being emphasized. When the Spirit gives His interpretation of the meaning of Isaiah, through Matthew and through Peter, it is twofold. We see Jesus is the promised Messiah who walked among us without beauty or majesty to attract us and who was acquainted with human grief, sickness and suffering, sufferings which He relieved, in part, through His earthly ministry. Then on the cross He bears our sin, and reconciles us to the God from whom we were separated, like sheep who in their sins had gone astray from their Shepherd. The physical healings Christ provided on earth offer a wonderful foretaste of the complete redemption we are promised. His death on the cross which takes away sin is the means by which the curse of sin in our bodies will someday be entirely removed; we'll receive new bodies that have no pain or disease in them and won't "waste away".
I appreciate very much Bob DeWaay's implications and applications from his article on this same subject. In "Physical Healing and the Atonement- Is it Always God's Will to Heal Now?," he writes,
It is clear that Matthew cited Isaiah 53:4 to show that Jesus the Messiah fulfilled this prophecy when He healed sick people during His earthly ministry. This has further implications because of the nature of Isaiah 53 and its reference to Messiah's atoning work. Yet it does not, as far as the Matthew passage itself goes, directly address the modern questions that many are trying to answer. For example, Matthew was not answering the question, "should every believer whose sins have been cleansed by the blood of Christ expect not to become sick?" Neither does he answer the question, "Should all believers who have become sick consider themselves having fallen short of the will of God for their lives through neglect, sin, or unbelief?" There is a relationship between these questions and Matthew 8:16,17 but it is an indirect one.
Because it is clear that there is promised total deliverance from disease and death through the resurrection and because our resurrection is assured because of the resurrection of Jesus Christ (a part of the atoning work of the Cross) it is clear that our healing is in the atonement. It is not clear to what extent that, because of the atonement, we can expect to experience physical healings of the illnesses that afflict, in differing degrees, all human beings. Can God promise healing to His people even in this life, without the converse being true - that those Christians who are not healed from some physical maladies are falling short of the will and plan of God for their lives?
Because the atonement of Christ is applied to sin and not primarily or directly to the various effects of sin, and because the New Testament does not indicate that the absence of sickness and weakness is to be the norm for Christians, and because of the obvious fact that all humans, including faithful Christians, have some degree of "sickness" or departure from perfect health in their bodies, the physical healing in the atonement theory as popularly understood is not true.
Healing is in the atonement in the sense that all the benefits of Christ's substitutionary death apply to all believers and will find their complete fulfillment at the return of Christ and the resurrection. It is because of the atonement that Christians have been healed, are being healed and will be healed. This does not mean that we should expect never to suffer with an illness in this life or that God has guaranteed to remove any illness that might come into one's life.
If a Christian becomes sick, he or she should faithfully and obediently ask God for healing according to the instructions of James 5:14-16. God's promise to "raise up" the sick person does not have to be absolute to be valid. We should teach the saints about this matter and have the elders of the church available to anoint the sick with oil and pray for them, with confession of sins as is appropriate. Calling upon the Lord in faith and in obedience to Scripture is clearly the right thing to do. The presence or absence of an instantaneous miracle of healing does not determine the validity of the prayer and anointing.
Cessationism vs Continuationism
But the instructions given the church DeWaay references in James 5:13-20 or Jesus' commission to the apostles in Mark 16:15-20, are also seen by some as a healing mandate that guarantees physical healing in the name and power of the Lord.
To properly interpret these passages we need to determine if miraculous gifts are for today, or if they were meant primarily to authenticate the message of Jesus and the apostles? Can miracles still happen today? Are there people with the gift of healing, or are "gifts of healings" still available to the body of Christ? These questions reflect a longstanding debate among Christians and theologians: the issue of continuationism vs. cessationism. In other words, are all the spiritual gifts, including healing, prophecy and tongues, still active in the body of Christ today or have they ceased to function because their purpose was fulfilled? Is there some middle ground? The answers to these questions affects one's understanding of these passages and are relevant to our study on healing.
What's your doctrine of suffering?
Another subject of immense relevance to our topic is suffering. The view one takes of sufferings of believers in this life affects how one approaches healing. If one's theology demands that the sign of God's blessing is earthly healing and prosperity, then the suffering produced by sickness will likely be viewed as beneath Christian privilege and/or demonic attack that must be rebuked.
Accordingly, as we continue our critique of popular healing doctrine, we will address these important, related issues. Then I will attempt to sum it all up with practical, Scriptural application. However, I think I will continue pursuing these objectives in the next article in our series.
May the Lord by His Spirit grace believers to understand this vital topic and bring us all to sound, balanced and biblical conclusions.
Below, please find articles I have found helpful as I've studied and thought about sickness, healing and how they relate to believers in Christ. Some of these are written from a cessationistic viewpoint, but not all. One need not be a cessationist to object to the popular teaching on healing.
Further Resources for Study
Physical Healing and the Atonement- Is it Always God's Will to Heal Now? by Bob DeWaay
Sickness by J.C. Ryle
Miraculous Healing by Henry Frost
Is Healing in the Atonement? by David W. Cloud (NOTE: I don't agree with Cloud's view of Calvinism, but think he presents strong evidence against the charismatic healing in the atonement doctrine and also exposes how so many of these healers could not do the healings they claimed, even for themselves).
CESSATIONISM, "THE GIFTS OF HEALINGS," AND DIVINE HEALING by Richard L. Mayhue (PDF file)
Does God Still Heal by John MacArthur
Healing in the Atonement by Sam Harper
Does God Always Heal? by Elliot Miller(PDF file)