Healing and Atonement

God is omnipotent, so that he has the ability to heal the sick. He is sovereign, so that he has the authority to work miracles whenever he wants, even by the hands and prayers of men. No one can say to him, “What are you doing?” (Job 9:12). This is the baseline. Anyone who disagrees with these divine attributes and their implications for the ministry of miracles is a heretic, an enemy of God. Before we debate his cessationism, we should discuss his excommunication.

On the basis of God’s attributes, we must conclude that he may heal the sick in any generation and by any person he chooses, and he does not need to obtain permission from the theologians and denominations before he does it. He needs to have sufficient reasons only to satisfy himself, whether or not he discloses these reasons. Nevertheless, God acts in a way that is consistent with what he has revealed in the Bible. Therefore, it would be beneficial to study the biblical foundation for healing.

Physical death began because of Adam’s transgression: “Therefore, just as sin entered the world through one man, and death through sin, and in this way death came to all men, because all sinned” (Romans 5:12). Some sicknesses occur as a result of specific sins. For example, after healing the man who “had been an invalid for thirty-eight years” (John 5:5), Jesus said to him, “See, you are well again. Stop sinning or something worse may happen to you” (John 5:14). However, not all sicknesses are the results of specific sins. Jesus and his disciples came across a man who was blind from birth, and the disciples asked, “Who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” (John 9:2). Jesus answered, “Neither this man nor his parents sinned” (v. 3).

When we have limited and probably inaccurate information about a person, we should not assume that we know the reasons for his sickness. There are a number of possible reasons for someone to be sick, and it may not be that he has sinned. In the case of the blind man, Jesus explained, “This happened so that the work of God might be displayed in his life” (v. 3). Those who assert the false doctrine that miracles have ceased often suggest that God is glorified in sickness. He is indeed pleased with our faithfulness in suffering, but endurance becomes a sinful excuse when it is founded on unbelief, and God is not deceived. Jesus said that God would be glorified in the miracle of healing. In any case, even if a sickness is the result of a sin that one has committed, James 5:15 says that there is forgiveness and healing for him: “The prayer offered in faith will make the sick person well; the Lord will raise him up. If he has sinned, he will be forgiven.”

The distinction between God’s decrees and God’s precepts is essential. God’s decrees refer to his decisions as to what he would cause. A decree tells us how something can happen at all. This is our reference point when we talk about metaphysics. God’s precepts refer to his definitions as to how men should behave. A precept tells us when something is right or wrong. This is our reference point when we talk about ethics. To illustrate, God’s decree was that the Jews would conspire with the Gentiles to murder Jesus, so that was what happened (Acts 2:22-23, 4:27-28). On the other hand, his precept was that it was sinful to commit murder, perjury, and so on, so that they were guilty for the death of Jesus.

This leads to a distinction between two kinds of causes. Since God is the intelligence that decides that an event should happen and then exercises power to make it happen, he is the actual cause. Since a created object might stand in a perceived relationship between an action and an event that seems to follow it, this object is the apparent cause. From the metaphysical or ontological perspective, an apparent cause is only an effect that God causes and arranges to stand in relationship to a subsequent effect that God also causes. Nevertheless, from the moral or ethical perspective, an apparent cause is the one considered.[1]

Just because the murder of Christ was ordained and caused by God did not render the culprits innocent, since their minds and members indeed went through the motions of unbelief, hatred, perjury, murder, and so on. Regardless of the metaphysical or ontological cause, they were guilty of sin because moral responsibility has to do with men’s actions in relation to God’s precepts, not God’s decrees. Since God’s precepts define unbelief, murder, and so on as sinful, they were supposed to resist these things. Therefore, it follows that God’s decrees could cause certain things that God’s precepts instruct us to resist. There is no contradiction, because the two refer to different categories – one has to do with metaphysics, as in what would happen, and the other has to do with ethics, as in how we should behave.

This has a direct relevance to healing, because it explains how God can be sovereign over all things, including sickness, and at the same time commands us to have faith to receive and minister healing. The Christian who believes in healing and contends for miracles does this in obedience to God’s precepts, so that he can at the same time affirm God’s sovereignty, that all things occur according to God’s decrees. On the other hand, no one can use God’s sovereignty as an excuse for unbelief. If God’s precepts instruct us to believe that Jesus is our healer and to expect miracles of healing, then to use “God’s will” to undermine this is an act of rebellion. The attempt to hide this under religious verbiage adds to his guilt.

God is the actual cause of all things, and he exercises direct control over the existence and operation of all things. From the metaphysical or ontological perspective, God must be the actual cause of all instances of sickness, because he is the actual cause of all events. Unless God decrees and causes something to happen, nothing can happen at all, whether good or evil. Then, the Bible indicates that Satan is sometimes the apparent cause of sickness. As Acts 10:38 says, “God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Spirit and power, and how he went around doing good and healing all who were under the power of the devil, because God was with him.”

Since Satan is not God and does not have God’s attributes of self-existence and omnipotence, he can function only as God sustains, commands, and drives him. Although God determines all things, he sometimes uses means to accomplish what he wants. Just as he could send a “lying spirit” to “entice Ahab king of Israel into attacking Ramoth Gilead and going to his death there” (2 Chronicles 18:19-22), he could send Satan to inflict Job with calamities and sicknesses. As Job 12:16 says, “To him belong strength and victory; both deceived and deceiver are his.”

The Bible teaches that Satan is a cause of sickness, and it teaches that God is the one who heals. For this reason, Christians who obey God in praying for miracles of healing often deny that he would inflict people with sickness. This is also the result of a failure to distinguish between God’s decrees and God’s precepts, or actual causes and apparent causes. The Bible insists that God can do anything he wishes, whether it is to afflict or to restore, and whether it is to strike dead or to make alive. It is futile to claim that God has nothing to do with sickness, and attribute all instances to other factors such as sin and the devil, because even sin and the devil are under God’s direct control.

God said to Israel, “If you listen carefully to the voice of the LORD your God and do what is right in his eyes, if you pay attention to his commands and keep all his decrees, I will not bring on you any of the diseases I brought on the Egyptians, for I am the LORD, who heals you” (Exodus 15:26). Later, he said, “If you do not carefully follow all the words of this law, which are written in this book, and do not revere this glorious and awesome name – the LORD your God – the LORD will send fearful plagues on you and your descendants, harsh and prolonged disasters, and severe and lingering illnesses. He will bring upon you all the diseases of Egypt that you dreaded, and they will cling to you. The LORD will also bring on you every kind of sickness and disaster not recorded in this Book of the Law, until you are destroyed” (Deuteronomy 28:58-61). God was the one who sent the plagues against Egypt, and he was the one who made them sick. This same God could send sickness against Israel, or he could send them healing.

The doctrine of divine sovereignty does not diminish the doctrine of miracle healing. In fact, it was in the context of thanking God for his generosity that Hannah declared his control over both death and life, and both poverty and wealth: “The LORD brings death and makes alive; he brings down to the grave and raises up. The LORD sends poverty and wealth; he humbles and he exalts” (1 Samuel 2:6-7). Does God bring death? Of course he does, but he also brings health. Does God send poverty? Of course he does, but he also sends wealth. Does God make people sick? Of course he does, but he also makes people well. He does all these things according to his plan and his pleasure, and all that he does is by definition wise, just, and good. God is sovereign, but he is sovereignly generous with his power to save and to heal. The doctrine of divine sovereignty should increase our faith for miracle healing.

By sickness, we refer to a biological malfunction or condition that is subnormal relative to the body’s original design. Precision is elusive, because after the fall of man, everything about him is subnormal, and even what is considered a healthy body is not in the condition of the normal human body before sin was introduced. This suggests that total healing will come only after this life, when God will complete the salvation that he has started in us.

Therefore, biblical healing refers to the restoration of the body by God’s power, but it does not necessarily bring the body to perfection or to its maximum potential in every way. Rather, it is usually God’s act on the body to correct a specific malfunction or condition. In this sense, all physical healing in this life is relative and incomplete, just as all spiritual healing in his life is relative and incomplete. We possess the promise of complete sanctification, and we start to enjoy its effects in this life, but its full manifestation comes after this life. The same applies to the healing of the body.

God is able and willing to heal any kind of sickness. If the sickness has to do with a chemical imbalance, then God could restore the chemical balance in the body. If the condition has to do with a damaged or missing body part, such as an amputated limb, then whether it happens instantly or gradually, God could restore it by his power. Some sicknesses are psychosomatic, in that the malfunction in the body is a result of the individual’s destructive mental state, such as unbelief, guilt, fear, hatred, and so on. In such cases, God might act directly on the body to heal it, and then renew the person’s mind over time by biblical teachings. If he wishes, he might also instantly change the persons’ thinking. Then, the Bible teaches that some sicknesses are caused by demons, but God is able to expel the spirits and heal the bodies.

As we begin to discuss the relationship between healing and the atonement, we should first review the nature of Christ’s atoning work.

Atonement has to do with substitutionary sacrifices for sins. As God said to Israel, “For the life of a creature is in the blood, and I have given it to you to make atonement for yourselves on the altar; it is the blood that makes atonement for one’s life” (Leviticus 17:11). The blood of the animals would make “atonement” for the people’s sins. Instead of demanding the deaths of the people, God accepted the deaths of the animals as their substitutes. The animals died in the place of the sinners.

However, the Bible says, “It is impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sins” (Hebrews 10:4). Indeed, it is reasonable to think that the sins committed by men could not be washed away by the blood of lower creatures. The animal sacrifices were symbolic and temporary. God accepted them in anticipation of a perfect sacrifice, which would completely and permanently satisfy divine justice and remove the sins of his people. As Hebrews 10:1-10 explains:

The law is only a shadow of the good things that are coming – not the realities themselves. For this reason it can never, by the same sacrifices repeated endlessly year after year, make perfect those who draw near to worship. If it could, would they not have stopped being offered? For the worshipers would have been cleansed once for all, and would no longer have felt guilty for their sins. But those sacrifices are an annual reminder of sins, because it is impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sins.

Therefore, when Christ came into the world, he said: “Sacrifice and offering you did not desire, but a body you prepared for me; with burnt offerings and sin offerings you were not pleased. Then I said, ‘Here I am – it is written about me in the scroll – I have come to do your will, O God.'”

First he said, “Sacrifices and offerings, burnt offerings and sin offerings you did not desire, nor were you pleased with them” (although the law required them to be made). Then he said, “Here I am, I have come to do your will.” He sets aside the first to establish the second. And by that will, we have been made holy through the sacrifice of the body of Jesus Christ once for all.

It is by the “sacrifice of the body of Jesus Christ” that “we have been made holy…once for all.” The blood of animals was insufficient to redeem sinners, but the blood of Christ was sufficient to completely and permanently atone for the sins of those God intended to save. The passage continues to explain:

Day after day every priest stands and performs his religious duties; again and again he offers the same sacrifices, which can never take away sins. But when this priest had offered for all time one sacrifice for sins, he sat down at the right hand of God. Since that time he waits for his enemies to be made his footstool, because by one sacrifice he has made perfect forever those who are being made holy. (Hebrews 10:11-14)

Therefore, the nature of Christ’s atoning work is one of substitution, in which he died so that we may live, and in which “God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God” (2 Corinthians 5:21). God identified the chosen ones with Christ, so that in his death, we died with him, and that in his resurrection, we rose with him (Colossians 2:12-14). Then, God applies Christ’s atoning work to his people in their lifetimes by regenerating them and giving them the gift of faith (John 3:7-8; Ephesians 2:8-9).

The Bible teaches that deliverance from damnation is not the only benefit of the atonement, but among many other things, it also offers healing for the body. Matthew 8:16-17 says, “When evening came, many who were demon-possessed were brought to him, and he drove out the spirits with a word and healed all the sick. This was to fulfill what was spoken through the prophet Isaiah: ‘He took up our infirmities and carried our diseases.'” This applies Isaiah’s prophecy about the atonement to the healing miracles of Christ. Thus it is certain that the atonement offers healing for the body, and that this benefit is manifested in miracles of healing, and not in natural remedies. Since verse 16 also mentions the “demon-possessed,” this means that verse 17 – the atonement – applies to both those who are afflicted by physical sicknesses and those who are afflicted by demonic powers. Anyone who denies this doctrine makes himself an enemy of the atonement, and holds the blood of Christ in contempt.

From the fact that healing is a benefit included in the atonement, some conclude that complete healing is therefore available to the Christian on demand in this life. Those who oppose this sometimes choose the heretical response of denying that healing is included in the atonement. This is obviously false, since all the benefits of heaven come as a result of the atonement, and if healing is not included in it, it would mean that sickness would continue even in heaven.

Then, others answer that although healing is indeed in the atonement, it does not follow that it is available on demand in this life. As D. A. Carson writes:

It is also argued that because “there is healing in the atonement,” as the slogan puts it, every believer has the right to avail himself or herself to the healing benefit secured by the cross. Sadly, noncharismatics have sometimes responded to this by denying that there is healing in the atonement – a position that can be defended only by the most strained exegesis.

Of course there is healing in the atonement. In exactly the same sense, the resurrection body is also in the atonement – even though neither charismatic nor noncharismatic argues that any Christian has the right to demand a resurrection body right now. The issue is not “what is in the atonement,” for surely all Christians would want to say that every blessing that comes to us, now and in the hereafter, ultimately flows from the redemptive work of Christ. The issue, rather, is what blessings we have a right to expect as universally given endowments right now, what blessings we may expect only hereafter, and what blessings we may partially or occasionally enjoy now and in fullness only in the hereafter.[2]

According to Carson, to infer from the fact that healing is in the atonement to the conclusion that complete healing is available on demand seems to be “another form of the overrealized eschatology so rampant in the church in Corinth.”[3]

Likewise, Wayne Grudem writes:

All Christians would probably agree that in the atonement Christ has purchased for us not only complete freedom from sin but also complete freedom from physical weakness and infirmity in his work of redemption. And all Christians would also no doubt agree that our full and complete possession of all the benefits that Christ earned for us will not come until Christ returns: it is only “at his coming” (1 Cor. 15:23) that we receive our perfect resurrection bodies. So it is with physical healing and redemption from the physical sickness that came as a result of the curse in Genesis 3: our complete possession of redemption from physical illness will not be ours until Christ returns and we receive resurrection bodies.[4]

Then, he adds, “When people say that complete healing is ‘in the atonement,’ the statement is true in an ultimate sense, but it really does not tell us anything about when we will receive ‘complete healing’ (or any part of it).”[5]

Both Carson and Grudem refer to the resurrection body to illustrate that even if a benefit is included in the atonement, it does not automatically tell us when it will be fulfilled in us or how much of it we could receive in this life. However, this example is misleading, because the resurrection body is not something that we can receive by degrees, and the Bible clearly teaches that it is reserved for the next life.

In contrast, healing is something that we can receive by degrees – we can have more or less of it, and we can have it sometimes and not have it sometimes – and the Bible clearly teaches that it is intended for this life and even promises it to faith, just as the salvation and development of the soul is promised to faith. The accusation of “overrealized eschatology” is a simplistic explanation, because the Bible offers healing to faith without clear reservations.

In one instance, Jesus says to a woman, “Your faith has healed you” (Matthew 9:22). Later, he says to two blind men, “According to your faith will it be done to you,” and their sight is restored (v. 29-30). In another place, he says to a leper, “Your faith has made you well” (Luke 17:19). There are a number of other cases like these. In fact, Jesus rejects all limits on what faith can do, specifically when it comes to miracles of healing. Just when he is about to heal a boy, he says to the father, “Everything is possible for him who believes” (Mark 9:23).

In Acts 14, while Paul is preaching, a crippled man receives a miracle because he has faith to be healed:

In Lystra there sat a man crippled in his feet, who was lame from birth and had never walked. He listened to Paul as he was speaking. Paul looked directly at him, saw that he had faith to be healed and called out, “Stand up on your feet!” At that, the man jumped up and began to walk. (v. 8-10)

Then, James 5:15 tells us, “The prayer offered in faith will make the sick person well; the Lord will raise him up. If he has sinned, he will be forgiven.”

Thus God promises healing to faith, and he places no limit on faith. The issue is how this fits with his sovereignty.

Paul writes, “Consequently, faith comes from hearing the message, and the message is heard through the word of Christ” (Romans 10:17). This tells us how faith comes – faith comes by hearing the message of Christ – but faith does not always come when the message of Christ is heard. The distinction is crucial. A tree comes by planting seed, but a tree does not always come when a seed a planted (Matthew 13:18-23). In fact, Paul is explaining Israel’s unbelief, and he writes that all the people heard the message (Romans 10:18), but it was God who selected those who could believe it (Romans 9:10-24). For this reason, Jesus says, “The words I have spoken to you are spirit and they are life. Yet there are some of you who do not believe….This is why I told you that no one can come to me unless the Father has enabled him” (John 6:63-65).

Faith is a sovereign gift from God. It cannot be manufactured by man’s own will: “For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith – and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God – not by works, so that no one can boast” (Ephesians 2:8-9). Hearing the word of God does not guarantee faith, but it is the usual means by which God grants faith when he wishes to grant it. Jesus is “the author and perfecter of our faith” (Hebrews 12:2), and he has complete control over its origin and progress.

Romans 12:3 mentions “the measure of faith God has given you.” God gave you the faith that you have, and a specific measure of it. He does not give everyone the same measure of faith, and he does not grant everyone the same kind of faith. This is why the verse tells us to be aware of our measure of faith, and to function in accordance with it.

There is an account of miracle healing in Acts 3, where Peter and John healed a crippled man in the name of Jesus:

One day Peter and John were going up to the temple at the time of prayer – at three in the afternoon. Now a man crippled from birth was being carried to the temple gate called Beautiful, where he was put every day to beg from those going into the temple courts. When he saw Peter and John about to enter, he asked them for money. Peter looked straight at him, as did John. Then Peter said, “Look at us!” So the man gave them his attention, expecting to get something from them.

Then Peter said, “Silver or gold I do not have, but what I have I give you. In the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, walk.” Taking him by the right hand, he helped him up, and instantly the man’s feet and ankles became strong. He jumped to his feet and began to walk. Then he went with them into the temple courts, walking and jumping, and praising God. (v. 1-8)

Then, in verse 16, Peter explains the miracle, and says, “By faith in the name of Jesus, this man whom you see and know was made strong. It is Jesus’ name and the faith that comes through him that has given this complete healing to him, as you can all see.” We receive and minister healing by faith, and it is a faith that comes from God.

Therefore, the answer is that just as God is sovereign over all things, including faith for salvation, he is also sovereign over faith for healing. Based on what the Bible teaches, we must insist that healing is indeed available on demand, but it is available to the demand of faith, not the demand of desire. Then, faith itself is under God’s control.

God’s sovereignty does not condone the unbelief and uncertainty of those who resist the ministry of miracles. When it comes to the salvation of the soul, there are those who use God’s sovereignty as an excuse for their lack of faith or lack of interest, and if they are believers, for their lack of zeal in evangelism. We refuse to accept this, but we recall a distinction between God’s decrees and God’s precepts. Indeed, God’s decree is that this one would believe, and that the other would not believe, but his precept to both is for them to believe and preach his message. The decree refers to what God would cause, and the precept refers to how men should behave. The same applies to faith for receiving and ministering healing.

If someone says, “Since faith for salvation is a sovereign gift, I will not come to Christ, but wait for faith. If God wills, he will save me.” We would realize that he is making an excuse for his unbelief, uncertainty, and rebellion. We would answer, “Now commands all people everywhere to repent” (Acts 17:30), and “Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved” (Acts 2:21). Likewise, although God is sovereign over healing as he is sovereign over everything, this is not an excuse for unbelief, uncertainty, and rebellion. We relate to God on the basis of his precepts, not his decrees. He says, “The prayer offered in faith will make the sick person well; the Lord will raise him up” (James 5:15), and “Everything is possible for him who believes” (Mark 9:23).

In fact, God’s sovereignty does not diminish even the expected instances of healing, but rather increases it. God is sovereign, but he is sovereign according to his nature. He is sovereignly generous, compassionate, mindful of men’s suffering, and eager to heal. He is more generous with faith for salvation than we are zealous in preaching about it or skillful in arguing about it. Likewise, he is more generous with faith for healing than we can ask or think. His sovereignty does not reduce the miracles of healing, but is the basis for an abundance of miracles. Since God is sovereign, no theologian, no denomination, no religious tradition, and no heresy of cessationism can stop him from infusing his people with faith for miracles of healing. But woe to those who refuse to approach, and forbid others to enter!

God’s sovereignty in the miracles of healing extend to other areas. For example, he often heals non-Christians. Of course, the non-Christians have no faith, although the Christians who pray for them would have faith. Some of these non-Christians would believe in the gospel after they are healed, as the goodness of God moves their hearts and leads them to repentance. However, there are others who would never believe even after they are healed. Since Jesus made atonement only for his own people, these non-Christians who never come to faith are healed not on the basis of the atonement, but by God’s sovereign power. And since they never repent, the miracles of healing become testimonies against them, adding to their final condemnation.

Moreover, God sovereignly endows some Christians with the gift of healing. They will often obtain more regular, complete, and spectacular answers to their prayers for healing. People endowed with the gift may be more effective in ministering healing to those with specific kinds of sicknesses, so that one may find greater success when praying for those with cancer, and another may find greater success when praying for cripples. However, success in one area should not produce a sense of limitation in other areas. God is the one who heals, so whether a Christian thinks he has the gift of healing, or whatever gift of healing he thinks he has, he should pray for people with all kinds of sicknesses, looking to God to stretch forth his hand to heal (Acts 4:30).

[1] See Vincent Cheung, Systematic Theology and The Author of Sin.

[2] D. A. Carson, Showing the Spirit: A Theological Exposition of 1 Corinthians 12-14; Baker Books, 2000 (original: 1987); p. 175-176.

[3] Ibid., p. 176.

[4] Wayne Grudem, Systematic Theology; Zondervan Publishing House, 1994; p. 1063.

[5] Ibid., p. 1063.