This is the first (and possibly last) of posts that look to take a stroll through the United Pentecostal Church International’s (UPCI) Articles of Faith for comment. The AoF on the subject of divine healing was one that I felt strongly should be addressed. This is what the UPCI Articles of Faith have to say with respect to divine healing of the body:
The vicarious suffering of the Lord Jesus Christ paid not only for the salvation of our souls but also for the healing of our bodies. “With his stripes we are healed” (Isaiah 53:5). Matthew 8:17 reads, “Himself took our infirmities, and bare our sickness.” (See also I Peter 2:24). We see from this that divine healing for the body is in the atonement. (emphasis added).
The emphasis on divine healing of the physical body based on this passage in Isaiah is not only a twisting of the passage but creates a doctrine of divine healing and expectation in the heart of individuals that is both unwarranted and dangerous in its consequences. This doctrine of divine healing puts the UPCI squarely in the camp of the traditional Word of Faith and charismatic movements with all of the negative results that follow.
Is it accurate to state that divine healing for the body is in the atonement?
The short answer is no.
One of the most amazing passages in all of scripture, Isaiah 53:4-6, 10-11, states:
Surely he has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows; yet we esteemed him stricken, smitten by God, and afflicted. But he was pierced for our transgressions; he was crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace, and with his wounds we are healed. All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned – every one – to his own way; and the LORD has laid on him the iniquity of us all. … Yet it was the will of the LORD to crush him; he has put him to grief; when his soul makes an offering for guilt, he shall see his offspring; he shall prolong his days; the will of the LORD shall prosper his hand. Out of the anguish of his soul he shall see and be satisfied; by his knowledge shall the righteous one, my servant, make many to be accounted righteous, and he shall bear their iniquities.
If we look at the context, it is quite clear that spiritual healing is what was obtained by Christ through the events leading up to and including his crucifixion. It was the relationship between sinful man and holy God that was healed through the atonement, not a specific promise of physical healing of sick bodies today.
The context defines man’s problem (and it is not physical sickness). Man has “gone astray” and turned “to his own way”. We have “iniquity” and “guilt” before God that must be addressed. Therefore, the Lord laid on Christ “the iniquity of us all” and made his soul “an offering for guilt” and “he shall bear their iniquities” and cause “many to be accounted righteous” (justification).
What an amazing passage regarding Christ’s atoning work on the cross. But are we to read into this passage that his wounds are for are physical healing? That would be a mistake. Again, the context makes clear that his “wounds” were “for our transgressions” and “for our iniquities” and the “chastisement” has “brought us peace”. Peace with whom? Peace with the one from whom like sheep we have gone astray and turned to our own way – his atonement has brought us peace with God.
“Therefore, since we have been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ.” Romans 5:1.
But wait a minute, when Jesus healed Peter’s mother-in-law who was sick with fever, healed other sick people and cast out demons, Matthew wrote that, “This was to fulfill what was spoken by the prophet Isaiah: ‘He took our illnesses and bore our diseases.’” (Matthew 8:17). Isn’t Matthew applying the Isaiah passage to divine healing of the body?
Well, let’s take a step back and look at the context and understand the mission of Christ. Did Christ come to heal and perform other miracles or did he come to make atonement for the sins of the people and fulfill Isaiah 53? He came to make atonement for people’s sins and everything needs to be viewed and understood within that context. The next chapter (9:5-6), Matthew records the healing of a paralytic and Jesus explains the purpose behind his miracles. “For which is easier, to say, ‘Your sins are forgiven,’ or to say, ‘Rise and walk?’ But that you may know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins’ – he then said to the paralytic –’Rise, pick up your bed and go home.’”
Jesus was attempting to point to his authority to forgive sin and the mission upon which he was set. Jesus healed and performed miracles within the context of his mission as outlined in Isaiah 53 and that was to accomplish the atonement for sins and cause many to be counted righteous. His healing of the paralytic was not with the primary and sole purpose to make that man’s life easier but to point to who he was, his authority and his mission.
It is also worth noting that the invocation of this Isaiah passage in Matthew occurred long before the actual fulfillment of Isaiah 53 in terms of his sacrificial death and atonement. So how do we understand the purchase of our healing (as I have heard it described) on the cross when Matthew is using the passage prior to the atoning work of Christ on the cross being completed? Again, Matthew’s point is that the healings and miracles performed by Jesus pointed to his authority to forgive sins and authority to fulfill the mission that was laid before him, which was to reconcile us with God.
Peter confirms that Isaiah was pointing to our spiritual healing and being reconciled to God in the context of being healed by his wounds: 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. (I Peter 2:24-25). How have we been healed according to Peter – we were like straying sheep but have not returned to the Shepherd of our souls. This is not a promise of divine healing of our physical bodies being purchased within the atoning work of Christ on the cross.
Sickness, disease and death are the reality and consequences of sin having entered the world. While through the atonement Christ paid for the consequences of our sin, not all the benefits have yet to be realized. The position of the UPCI and other Word of Faith and charismatic movements is one of what is described as an over-realized eschatology. An over-realized eschatology is a system of belief that pulls too much of future promises into the present fallen and broken world. It is a belief that all of the benefits of heaven are not only available to us here on earth but that it is the will of God that all of heaven be fully realized here on earth. Thus, as there will be no sickness in heaven, if we have enough faith there should be no sickness among believers here on earth. This is the heart of the health and wealth gospel preached throughout the charismatic movement. But based on this reasoning, if the atonement purchased life and a glorified body, why does the movement not also preach that we should never physically die on this earth?
What does the NT say with respect to sickness/suffering?
This view of divine healing is not taught and certainly was not experienced among the New Testament church. It is not the view of scripture that faithful Christians should always experience perfect health. Despite our new state in Christ we continue to live in our fallen bodies, sin continues to reside and battle within us and we ultimately experience death. Nowhere is it taught that there is a reversal of these consequences in this current life on earth for the believer. To the contrary, there are examples of powerful, faithful Christians in the New Testament that struggled with physical maladies and were seemingly not healed in this life.
When Paul wrote to the Galatians about his “bodily ailment”, his “condition” – “You know it was because of bodily ailment that I preached the gospel to you at first, and through my condition was a trial to you, you did not scorn or despise me, but received me as an angel of God, as Christ Jesus.” (Galatians 4:13-14). In II Corinthians 12:7-8 Paul wrote of his thorn in the flesh and how he asked God to remove the thorn three times but God simply replied that his grace was sufficient, for his strength was made perfect in weakness. Much has been debated and speculated concerning the subject of the thorn. Some argued that Paul was speaking of his opponents. Others seeing that he spoke of a thorn in the “flesh” believe that it was a bodily ailment that Paul suffered from – and possibly the same illness that Paul wrote the Galatians concerning. The point is that Paul – the great Apostle to the Gentiles – clearly suffered from some physical ailment in his life and it was not the will of God for that thorn to be removed.
In writing to the Philippians, Paul mentioned how Epaphroditus – his “brother and fellow worker and fellow soldier” – was ill. “Indeed he was ill, near to death.” Philippians 2:25-7.
Timothy was encouraged to no longer drink water but to use a little wine “for the sake of your stomach and your frequent ailments.” I Timothy 5:23. Paul called Timothy his “true child in the faith”, yet he suffered from frequent ailments.
In II Timothy 4:20, Paul wrote of Trophimus who was ill and left behind at Miletus.
If we were to look at the Old Testament we will find that Elisha died from illness and what would the Word of Faith movement say concerning Job?
The New Testament makes frequent mention of the suffering of Christians – this suffering is tied to our spiritual growth but it also certainly means that physical suffering is whether through illness or persecution awaits the believer. Paul wrote to encourage the Corinthians to “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 us for 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.” (II Corinthians 4:16-18).
This hardly sounds like the message offered by those promising divine physical healing within the atonement.
What about other passages regarding healing?
In the Book of Acts we certainly have a number of examples of Peter and Paul praying for the sick and their miraculous recovery. Yet, as discussed above, there are many times that we encounter both Paul and his companions in the faith suffering with physical ailments. We know that Paul prayed for himself. Certainly he prayed for Timothy and his other fellow soldiers, yet it appears their illnesses were not miraculously removed. Was this something that was occurring with less frequency as time went on and the gospel spread and the church was becoming more established?
A passage in the Letter from James is frequently cited with respect to the divine healing being promised for sick who pray. James wrote, “Is anyone among you suffering? Let him pray. Is anyone cheerful? Let him sing praise. Is anyone among you sick? 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. And the prayer of faith will save the one who is sick, and the Lord will raise him up. And if he has committed any sins, he will be forgiven.” (James 5:13-15).
Certainly, when one is sick, as whenever anyone is suffering, we are compelled to pray. It is interesting to note the connection between illness and sin in this particular passage and the confessing of faults to one another in the proceeding verses as well as suffering and persecution in the preceding verses. What seems to be contemplated here is spiritual weakness and not necessarily physical illness. The Greek term translated here as sick is often used in reference to weakness or without strength, including being weak in faith. The entire context of this portion of James is truly addressing the suffering that comes through persecution. James speaks of the suffering and patience that believers must endure much like the prophets of old who spoke in the name of the Lord. He is encouraging believers to remain steadfast in the faith, much like Job. In verse 13, he speaks of those who are suffering to pray and those who are cheerful to sing praise – potentially all with the aim of deriving strength from the hope that Christ has placed within them.
Concerning the use of the Greek word here in James, it is also worth noting that there are three Greek words utilized in the New Testament that can be translated as healing. In the passage in James, the word is sozo, which emphasizes the healing of the entire man – soul, spirit and body – and the word is frequently associated with and translated as saved, rescued or delivered. Another word is therapeuo, from which we derive the word therapy, and this word is primarily translated as to cure through various means of healing. Finally, the third Greek word is iaomai and it is also usually translated as heal in the context of an instantaneous, miraculous healing.
The context and the Greek would seem to indicate that James is not truly focused on physical healing of illness, while it cannot be excluded from the meaning, but is instead focused on those who are spiritually weak as a result of persecution and suffering seeking out the elders of the church, those who are spiritually strong, for prayer and strength and encouragement. And if, in their spiritual weakness in enduring suffering, they have sinned, those sins can be forgiven them as well. James continues that we should confess our faults one to another and pray for one another that we may be healed – that we may be strengthened and restored in our relationship with God. As James, a few verses later writes, “if anyone among you wanders from the truth and someone brings him back, 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.” (James 5:19-20).
Understood in its context, this passage in James is more properly focused on strengthening those that are spiritually weak and enduring suffering and may have stumbled as a result. It is about bringing strength, forgiving sins and healing one’s spiritual relationship with God that would appear to be the thrust of James’ argument. It is not simply a magical promise that God will heal me physically if I just find a righteous person to pray over me with enough faith.
Can God heal? Absolutely. Should we pray for the sick? Always. Does God’s word promise us heaven on earth in the form of divine healing for our physical illnesses as guaranteed through the atonement? No.
What are the implications of this doctrine of divine healing in the atonement?
The implications of this doctrine of divine healing as purchased through the atonement are very dangerous. The doctrine provides false assurances and a false hope based on promises of things that are not provided for now. When the healing doesn’t come in the form in which the seeker asks, he naturally must ask why? Why is God not healing me of this sickness?
The first question that comes to mind is ‘maybe I lack faith.’ The faith preachers assert that you must have enough faith in order to both receive and maintain your healing. The excuse is given that God’s power to heal is always present but a lack of healing could be a result of a lack of faith on your part. It is also possible that we might have just enough faith to start the healing but if we don’t maintain that level of faith, sickness will creep back into our bodies, thus promoting a cycle of doubt and condemnation.
This is simply nonsense. When Jesus would inquire of people with respect to their faith, it was not on the basis of ‘do you have faith to receive?’ but do you have faith in God’s ability to heal.
Matthew 9:28-29: When he entered the house, the blind men came to him, and Jesus said to them, “Do you believe that I am able to do this?” They said to him, “Yes Lord.” Then he touched their eyes saying, “According to your faith [in the ability of Jesus] be it done to you.”
The type of faith that Christ seeks is the one that simply believes and has confidence and trust in him and in his promises. Why would God require a greater level of faith to receive a healing than is somehow required in order for us to be saved? It has nothing to do with faith enough to receive but simply faith in God’s ability. When we make it about faith enough for us to receive, we make it all about us, what great levels of faith we can conjure up rather than about God. This gets to an error that exists with respect to the nature of faith – something we will need to address in another post.
A second question that comes to mind is, ‘maybe I’m not saved.’ This is a crushing message that places great distress on an already suffering individual. Why am I not healed? Is it because I’m not really saved? If the message is one of divine healing being purchased for me in the atonement, if I am not being healed, maybe I am still lost? Maybe the atonement is not really for me. Maybe, relying on James 5, I have sin in my life causing this illness? Based on their interpretation of James 5, it seems only logical that one would question whether illness is a result of some secret sin in the life of the believer causing them to believe that they are not “right with God.” This leads to someone already dealing possibly with a serious illness to know begin to experience condemnation and to question God’s love for them and their very salvation.
When the message is that physical healing is so interwoven into the message of salvation, the logical consequence is the presence of sickness is a lack of salvation. When the loved one (a wife and mother or a child) is not healed of cancer despite prayers for their healing, the message of divine healing in the atonement leads to the inevitable question as to whether the atonement was really in effect in the loved one’s life in the first place. This is simply a lie and a perversion of the scripture that leads people to question both the truthfulness and goodness of God in their lives. Thus, we know the origin of this lie and it is not from a proper understanding of scripture but a torturing of promises of God.
Illness is never a reason to question your salvation. Illness is, unfortunately, a normal part of living in this broken and fallen world and being trapped in a fallen and broken physical body. We have the promise of healing – both a physical healing of our bodies with a new glorified body at the time of the resurrection and a physical healing of the physical world through the creation of a new heaven and a new earth. We continue to exist in a world subject to the curse and though we are new spiritual creations in God with a heavenly citizenship we remain living here on earth and continue to experience the brokenness of life here.
I have personally known people who lost loved ones to illness who firmly believed that God would heal their loved one – they did all they could to conjure up and maintain a level of faith that God not only could but that he would heal their loved one and created such a level of expectation as though that would somehow be the difference maker in that situation. And when they lost that loved one – as devastating as it was to lose a loved one so early, who left small children behind – their underlying faith in God was also so devastated that they seem to have walked away from the faith. Others I know have simply been plagued by physical issues for most of their adult lives and have questioned whether they simply don’t have enough faith to be healed or whether they are being punished by God for some sin in their lives.
The fact of the matter is that physical healing in this lifetime is not apparently always God’s will. When your foundational thinking is that physical healing is promised now to believers and that it was purchased in the atonement and you are not healed of some illness, the only logical result must be that it is somehow your fault.
This is a devastating and dangerous doctrine that is not based on the scripture and causes such spiritual harm in lives of people already suffering physically. They are suffering with illness and instead of being comforted with the reassuring words of the true promises that we have in scripture they are lead to question whether they have sufficient faith, whether they are being punished by God and whether they are actually saved by God in the first place.
While this doctrine is very prevalent in much of the charismatic world, it finds its way into the Oneness Pentecostal movement as well. In a movement that emphasizes physical manifestations of the Spirit’s work, this doctrine finds a natural home in the UPCI. In an organization that stresses man-centeredness and works, it is also natural that feelings of condemnation and judgment are often associated with illness and are only heightened when healing does not seem to immediately come.
I have heard a minister declare that when he became ill – he refused to accept it, he spoke against it (as thought speaking to remove the mountain), and eventually he was healed (I am sure with the help of doctor prescribed medications). Yet, the minister can’t read without his reading glasses. Not to sound disrespectful, but I wonder has he prayed concerning the imperfections of his eye sight. Or maybe he just considered the poor eye sight as a function of getting older and a body that will eventually break down.