Healing: Biblical Basis and
Andy M. Reimer
I had a conversation recently with my pastoral trainee who was suffering with an illness which had lingered for several months. He asked me why it was that in the past when he had prayed for others they had been healed, but now when he prayed for healing for himself nothing seemed to change. I believe that it is the paradox between serving a healing God and the persistence of illness and even death which ultimately lies behind most theological debates about divine healing in the Church. On either extreme one or the other of these realities is denied. But if it is our goal to be faithful to biblical teaching within the context of the 'real' world, we will have to find a mediating position which both embraces God the Great Physician and the reality that we continue to live with sickness and death.
The "traditional" Alliance approach to undergirding their practice of prayer for physical healing is, or was, largely based on debates current in the late eighteen and early nineteen hundreds. It is also shaped by the fourfold gospel scheme, which includes as a doctrinal emphasis Christ as healer. It is not surprising then that the biblical evidence should be cast in terms of the debate over whether Christ's death was merely for our sin or for our physical healing as well. The crux of the debate centered around one's interpretation of Isaiah 53:5, "But he [was] wounded for our transgressions, [he was] bruised for our iniquities: the chastisement of our peace [was] upon him; and with his stripes we are healed" (KJV).1
While the debate over Isaiah 53:5 is not unimportant, in terms of the debate over divine healing and healing ministries within churches, I think that developments within the field of New Testament theology since those formative debates have transformed the playing field as it were. It seems to me that the paradox of a healing God alongside the reality of ongoing sickness and death is better dealt with by casting our net broader and seeing the forest, rather than individual trees. And the shape of the debate as I prefer to cast it can be found in a less developed form already in the writings of A.B. Simpson himself.2
New Testament scholars such as Oscar Cullman, George R. Beasley-Murray, and
G. E. Ladd have done a great service to evangelical theology with their emphasis
on New Testament eschatology as a necessary framework for understanding a
large number of apparent paradoxes.3 Space does not permit
a detailed accounting for the evidence, only a summary which is best laid
out with the following chart borrowed from Fee and
Already Not Yet righteousness completed righteousness peace full peace health no sickness or death Spirit in complete fullness
This already/not yet framework is not only necessary for understanding the nature of divine healing, but just as necessary for understanding the nature of the ongoing struggle with sin as well. Given that one will find little or no disagreement with the premise that Jesus dealt decisively with sin on the cross, one might well query why it is that believers who have apparently had their sins removed would fall back into occasional sin. The point of this chart is to affirm that in Christ's death all the effects of the fall and the enemies of God's people are decisively dealt with--sin, sickness, death, alienation from God and, of course, Satan himself. The OT prophecies concerning the redemption of God's fallen humanity have found fulfillment in Christ and his saving work. However, to use Oscar Cullman's analogy, Christ's death and resurrection are akin to D-Day in World War II when the defeat of the Germans was sealed by the landing of the allies in France. However, it took several months of the most severe fighting in the war before VE-Day, in which that defeat was finalized. We live in the "in-between" times between D-Day and VE-Day,5 already experiencing the benefits of God's rule, but not experiencing complete liberation from "this evil age" which is passing away.
What does this mean in terms of our theology of divine healing? First, it means that we can, and ought to affirm, that all the benefits we accrue as believers come to us only through the saving work of Christ on the cross, whether that be forgiveness of sins, emotional healing, physical healing or victory over temptation. On the other hand, we affirm that we will continue to experience the effects of living in the age which is passing away. That is, we will continue to fall into sin, be emotionally damaged, suffer illness, and ultimately physical death. As I consistently point out to those who tend towards an "over-realized" eschatology in terms of physical healing, even Lazarus whom Jesus revived from the dead ended up dying ultimately.6 We are being naive about our present eschatological position if we think we can live completely free of sin and sickness (as every funeral should drive home rather forcefully).7 On the other hand, we are being faithless if we do not claim as ours the freedom from "this age" offered to us in Jesus.8 We hope not just for benefits when the Kingdom is consummated, but also believe that God is interested in his will "being done on earth as it is in heaven" even as we pray for the Kingdom to come (Matt 6:9-10). This eschatological framework then, especially when coupled with the larger biblical narrative from Genesis to Revelation, goes a long way toward answering some persistent questions with regard to divine healing.9
First, what is the connection between sin and sickness? Are people sick because of their sin? The answer is "Yes"--and "No"! First, all human suffering is ultimately attributed to the sin of the first human pair. With human sin came sickness and ultimately physical death (Gen 3:14-19; Rom 5:12-14).10 Most people asking the question, however, are more interested in whether the sick individual's personal sin is the cause of their illness. Here is where the "no" response fits quite often.11 There are obvious cases where someone's personal sin has led to the illness they face--striving for success leading to stress-related illness, excessive alcohol consumption leading to liver damage, sexual promiscuity leading to STD's, etc. But in some cases one can identify someone else's sin as the cause of one's suffering--an injury after being hit by a drunk driver, lung cancer from second hand smoke, etc. But in many cases, there is no immediate link to human sin per se. It is NOT the individual's sin which has caused the illness, but simply the fact that one is in this present age where humanity's fallen state means that physical breakdown is inevitable.12
Another question we might then want to answer is whether we ought to pray for healing for an illness which we can attribute to sin. Here there can be only one emphatic response--"Yes." Jesus death and resurrection effectively reverse all the effects of the fall, and that includes both sin and sickness as the combination of healing and forgiveness in James 5:15 make clear. James 5:15 would also deal with those instances which fit under "sickness as God's punishment for specific sin" which one finds in Acts 13:9-11 and 1 Cor 11:30-32.13 Should we pray for healing for a sickness attributable to sinful behaviour a person is unwilling to give up? Individual contexts will determine what is or is not an appropriate course of action, but my sentiments would be that one would pray for the sickness as well as for conviction of and victory over the obvious sin causing the illness.
Is it always God's will to heal? The only answer when cast within our NT eschatological chart is, "Yes, God's will is for his redeemed humanity to be completely liberated from the effects of the fall, including sickness and death."14 God's will in this regard is expressed in Revelation 21:4. When we ask for healing in our present already/not yet age, we can be certain that we are asking for exactly what it is God wants for us. As Jesus himself instructs in the Lord's prayer, "Your will be done on earth as it is in heaven" and "Your Kingdom come" (Matt 6:10 NIV).
The question is better put, "Will God heal me now in this present age or will he wait for the consummation?" As I stated earlier, we cannot live in denial that we still live with one foot in "this age." Even those people Jesus himself healed fell ill again and died. The mystery of who experiences what benefits and to what degree from Christ's death and resurrection even in our present age cannot be explained, and pastorally I have no answer.15 What I can reassure those seeking divine healing is that they are indeed asking for exactly what it is their loving God wishes to give them. The only question is "When?", and the only response to "later" is carrying on living out a life based on faith and hope in the knowledge that a perfectly whole body awaits us. As Paul's "firstfruits" language points out, Christ's resurrection proves it!16
A most troubling and potentially tricky question is that of the role of faith in divine healing, particularly as certain Christian groups have committed some gross atrocities in the name of "faith healing." The New Testament repeatedly hints there is a connection between faith and experiencing God's divine healing.17 This should hardly be surprising given all our benefits accrued on the cross and resurrection become available as we put our faith in Christ and his saving work. The problem lies with those who chalk up failure to see results from healing prayer to lack of faith, usually on the part of the ill victim.
I usually assure those who seek healing and worry about the faith dimension with the following observations. First, to attempt to "hype up" one's faith so one can experience healing is to rely on personal work, not faith--ultimately it is not your faith that heals you but God's graciousness (Jam 5:15b). Second, Jesus' faith "demands" were not particularly burdensome. He talked about "mustard size" faith (Matt 17:20). This lines up with an observation I have made with regard to the faith/healing miracle connection in the NT narratives--that is, the references to "faith" in the Gospels and Acts are less an issue of amount (i.e., persons having greater faith receive healing as a result) as correctly oriented faith (i.e., they have chosen to put their trust in Jesus to heal them).18 So long as our attitude is that of the father of the possessed boy who cried, "I do believe; help me overcome my unbelief," we have met the faith requirement (Mark 9:24). In fact, the very act of asking for prayer for healing demonstrates one has at least the seeds of faith within.19 Entertaining doubts about whether one will or will not be healed is not going to prevent God from healing us through that same Jesus who accepted the distressed father's cry.
There is another dimension to faith and healing occasionally forgotten, and that is that frequently the "faith demand" is on the part of those praying for healing, rather than the ill person themselves. I have discusses this at greater length in my thesis and will only site an example from James 5:14-15 where it is clearly the elders praying to whom the remark about "the prayer offered in faith" applies.20 This of course has some practical implications to which we shall now turn.
While at Regent College, I completed a 200 page dissertation on the topic of healing rites in the New Testament era churches under the supervision of Peter H. Davids. Space here only permits a summary of my findings, which I have further supplied in chart form in Appendix A.
My conclusion was that the New Testament church varied in its approach to healing depending on the context. In Acts we find traveling preachers performing public healings to underscore their message of a saving and healing Savior. In 1 Corinthians, we find that in Paul's charismatic community healing was done by those who believed the Spirit was gifting them to perform a particular healing or healings. In James' more structured context, based most likely on a Jewish synagogue model, it is the role of the elders to carry out healing rites. Those who claim that we must get back to "doing it the way the early church did it" must first answer the question, "Which church, where and when?"21 NT diversity suggests that there is a good deal of freedom we have in structuring our healing ministries, so long as we are doing so with a sensitivity to our context, and with an eye to what I believe unifies all these various approaches.
Fundamental to all the approaches was that the healing was attributed to the exalted Christ and the presence of a human healing mediator. That is, it is Christ doing the healing, but he mediates that healing through human believers. Christ through the Spirit is in the business of ministering to our needs by using one believer to meet the needs of another. This is not to say that individuals cannot ask for healing directly from God, but that the model given to us in the NT is that Christ's modus operandi is typically to involve someone else in the process of meeting that need.
Within the Alliance church the approach to healing ministries has been structured largely on the basis of James 5:13-16 and is adequately discussed by both Sipley and Bailey.22 The merit and appropriateness for this approach within the Alliance context is obvious. Alliance church ministry is quite formalized with salaried official workers and voluntary elders. One would assume (or at least hope) that this means those involved in prayer for healing would be persons of faith who truly believe that God's will is to heal through Christ. One would also assume that these individuals would be sensitive to the guiding of the Holy Spirit and sensitive to the true needs of the person who has requested prayer. That is, they would be the sort of people to whom the Spirit might give a word of knowledge as to what is God's timing in all of this or whether there are underlying sin or emotional issues that need dealing with. One would also hope they would be mature enough to maintain confidences, especially if you are asking the ailing person to divulge information about the nature of their illness or whether there is sin which needs dealing with. This latter issue particularly needs a sensitive hand as one would never wish for an innocent victim of an illness to feel as if they are being blamed for their own condition and there must be reassurance that sin exposed is dealt with immediately so that prayer for healing may also be offered. Bailey also mentions something which I emphasized in my thesis, and that is that a plurality of elders prevents the dramatic enhancement of an "individual" who is then perceived to be "super-spiritual" because of their having manifested the Spirit through a gift of healing.23
As for the "symbolic" gestures associated with the James 5:13-16 "healing format", that is, the laying on of hands and the anointing oil, I would say these are still very appropriate.24 I would regard these as forms of "non-verbal" communication, often more powerful than words, in which human touch communicates love, as well as the mediation of Christ's healing through another believer, the oil a sign of God's activity in setting the person apart to receive a special blessing from him, and perhaps, the "oil" as a visible manifestation of God's invisible "medicine." One could add other symbols to the process depending on context as well. For instance, I have participated in healings "by proxy" in which someone sits in for the person needing healing but unable to be at a service.
In my personal experience, one of the greatest failures in the typical Alliance "healing service" is the failure to spend time with the person, to ask some important questions, to make the person feel loved and cared for whether instantaneous healing occurs or not. We pray for healing for one another because we love one another--our approach to healing ministry must reflect this. "Healing services" are themselves a bit of a limiting format and I believe that pastors must do a more adequate job of informing their congregation that if they are ill, they have every right to call the elders together to pray for them. Many people in the pew are unaware that this is a "standing offer". A private session with a person is often far more effective in meeting some of the deficiencies of a typical "altar-call healing service."
For all the strengths of the James 5 approach to healing, the NT churches did not seem constrained by this model but had alternative approaches. This means I believe that we must remain open to alternative formats for healing ministry, especially being sensitive to our context and what we are communicating through our forms of ministry.25 I have on occasion incorporated elements of what I see as the 1 Corinthians approach by allowing those who believe gifted to pray for a healing to join the elders in prayer for a sick individual. Peter Davids stated to me that in his personal experience, children were often effective in prayer for healing. This ought to be hardly surprising given Christ's word about children modelling our approach to God and the "prayer of faith." I believe there is no need to abandon James 5 as a primary model, but I also believe there needs to be a openness to alternative approaches.
As I stated above, we pray for healing for one another in the church because we share Christ's love for one another and his concern that we should be liberated from the devastating effects of our sin, corporately and individually.26 The surest test of our healing ministry is not whether we see paraplegics walk, but whether those who pray for healing and those who are prayed for understand that we are doing this out of love and care and concern.27 If God cares for our ultimate physical well being, we share that care and concern for our brothers and sisters. If those involved in healing ministry within our church walk away from a time of healing ministry profoundly touched by God's love for us and his people's love for one another, I believe one has an effective healing ministry.
1 A.B. Simpson, The Gospel of Healing (Camp Hill, PA: Christian Publications, 1986), 16-19; K.M. Bailey, Divine Healing: The Children's Bread (Camp Hill, PA: Christian Publications, 1977), 43-58; R. M. Sipley, Understanding Divine Healing (Wheaton: Victor Books, 1986), 115-118. All three of these Alliance writers also begin their discussion on healing in Exodus 15:22-26 which conclude with YHWH's words in Exodus 15:26, "He said, 'If you will listen carefully to the voice of the LORD your God, and do what is right in his sight, and give heed to his commandments and keep all his statutes, I will not bring upon you any of the diseases that I brought upon the Egyptians; for I am the LORD who heals you'" (NRSV)(Simpson,14-15; Bailey, 18-22; Sipley,8-11). As a "proof-text" this remains highly problematic as the covenantal framework in which it is found also promises wealth and security if Israel remains faithful--hardly something most people in touch with the teaching of Jesus and the general thrust of New Testament theology would wish to affirm as having ongoing significance in our present eschatological age.
2 "We are in the age of miracles, the age of Christ, the age that lies between the two advents. Underneath the eye of a ceaseless Divine Presence, this is the age of power, the age which above all ages of time should be intensely alive" (Simpson, 43).
3 O. Cullman, Christ and Time: The Primitive Christian Conception of Time and History, trans. F.V. Filson (London: SCM Press, 1951). G. R. Beasley-Murray, Jesus and the Kingdom of God (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1986). G. E. Ladd, The Presence of the Future: The Eschatology of Biblical Realism (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1974), and A Theology of the New Testament, rev. ed. (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1993), 54-67.
4 G. D. Fee and D. Stuart, How to Read the Bible for All Its Worth (Grand Rapids: Academie Books, 1982), 120. I thoroughly enjoyed discovering someone else who saw the relevance of this eschatological chart with respect to a theology of healing when I found a nearly identical chart in Ken Blue, Authority to Heal (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1987), 95.
5 O. Cullman, 84, and picked up by Ladd, Theology, 64.
6 Any claims to originality on this were subsequently shattered when I read a similar statement in Sipley, 122.
7 In this regard Ecclesiastes 7:2 is instructive. Simpson's concept of a life lived free of all illness with death at an old age is a "half-utopia" which fails to fully appreciate death itself as evidence for the ongoing effects of living in "this age"-ultimately every bit as much as illness in the course of one's life en route to the grave (37-38).
8 The gospels are teaming with stories of individuals, particularly from among the Pharisees, who fail to discern the "times" as it were and therefore are unwilling to concede that the forgiveness and healing after Israel's long exile are now being poured out in a ridiculously merciful fashion by God through his Messiah (Mark 2:6-7 and parallels; 3:1-6; Matt 20:1-15; Luke 15:11-32).
9 This eschatological framework as also proven its practical value especially within the third wave charismatic movement (of which the Vineyard movement is the prime example) which unlike previous Pentecostal and Charismatic renewal movements has adopted this framework and thus avoided many of the excesses and pitfalls which accompanied these previous movements. While Pentecostalism and charismatic renewal movements in the 1970's tended toward an over-realized eschatology which demanded a full experience of all the benefits of Christ's saving work, and thus ended up living in denial about sickness and death; third wave writers such as John Wimber, Power Evangelism: Signs and Wonders Today (London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1985) and Ken Blue (79-116) have had a considerably more balanced approach.
10 A point well made by Bailey, 14-15. An excellent discussion of the biblical view of sin and sickness integrated into our already/not yet framework can be found in Peter H. Davids, "A Biblical View of the Relationship of Sin and the Fruit of Sin: Sickness, Demonization, Death, Natural Calamity," in The Kingdom and the Power, ed. G.S. Greig and K.N. Springer (Ventura: Regal Books, 1993): 111-132.
11 The potentially troublesome phrase in James 5:15, "and anyone who has committed sins will be forgiven" (NRSV) begins with the ka)\n (kai/ + ea)\n). BDF suggest that this term "combines in itself the meanings 'and if' (purely conditional) and 'if only, even if' (etsi, i.e., concessive in itself)", §374. Clearly the clause is simply suggesting that if unforgiven sin is also a problem with the sick individual it can be taken care of immediately as well, suggesting by implication that this is not always the case. Davids, James, 194-195; and for a more thorough discussion on this and the mutual confession and healing in 5:16 see Reimer, 153-155. See also Davids, "A Biblical View," 118.
12 I would subsume the story of the blind man in John 9:1ff in this category. Jesus claims that neither the blind man's sin nor the sin of his parents is responsible for the blindness, but rather "he was born blind so that [i(/na] God's works might be revealed in him "(John 9:3). If one reads the i(/na clause as result rather than purpose, as it clearly is in John 5:7, one could conceivably read the statement as Jesus stating that the result of the man being born blind would be that he would play a role in the revelation of God's eschatological activity in Jesus without making a statement about ontological cause (J.A. Brooks and C.L. Winbery, Syntax of New Testament Greek [Lanham, MD: University of America Press, 1979], 120, 121 180; BDF §379). This might be regarded as a bit of sophistry to attempt to get God off the hook for causing blindness for some unfortunate soul only so that he might be utilized for a christological statement in the future, especially given passages which speak of God causing blindness, death, and even sending evil spirits on people (Acts 13:9-11; 5:1-11; 1 Sam 16:14). However, it seems in keeping with the canonical narrative from Genesis to Revelation that evil is not from God, but God reveals himself by turning evil on itself to work out his purposes (e.g., Gen 50:20). This is hardly a cause for celebrating the original evil so much as reveling in the God who can turn circumstances into his favor, as the cross so ably demonstrates (Col 2:15).
13 These rightly deserve a greater treatment than the scope of this paper allows. In a preliminary fashion I would suggest that this is the exception, not the rule, and that it ought to be invoked rather infrequently, if ever, when dealing pastorally with individuals. Sipley makes some valuable points with regard to the Corinthian passage in his chapter entitled, "Understanding the Lord's Body" (100-113) as does Bailey, 127-130.
14 In this regard I couldn't agree more with Simpson's sentiments on the matter (43, 46-49, 59-60) even if one might feel uneasy about his subsequent disregard for human medical means (33-34, 52-54, 61).
15 This is where the overwhelming confidence of Simpson on God maintaining the health of a believer until they die at a ripe old age in their sleep (to only slightly exaggerate his claims) is problematic pastorally because this is not the experience of some very godly individuals (37).
16 1 Cor 15:20-23.
17 Matt 8:10-13; 9:2, 22, 29; 13:58; 15:28; 17:20; Mark 2:5; 5:34; 6:5-6; 10:52; Luke 5:20; 7:9; 7:50; 8:48; Acts 3:16; 14:9.
18 This most obvious in the healing of the Gentile centurion's son who correctly describes Jesus' mission and role and for that is congratulated with having "more faith" than the Jewish people (Matt 8:5-13; Luke 7:1-10). The healing of the Syro-Pheonician woman's demonized daughter has similar overtones (Mark 7:24-30; note that Bailey reads this woman's faith in terms of "quality" not "quantity", 191). The hemorrhaging woman likewise demonstrates her faith that it is Jesus who will heal her by her desperate attempts to touch his clothing (Mark 5:24-34).
19 Bailey seems to make a similar point when he states, "Faith is the hand reached out to accept God's blessing....The blessings are to them that ask. Asking is a high level of prayer. Asking is also a process of faith" (196).
20 In my thesis I have argued that the "faith" of Acts 3:16 which is instrumental in the healing of the temple beggar is that of the apostles, not the beggar (Reimer 59-61, on the "prayer of faith" of James 5:15a and its referents see 152-153).
21 Needless to say I would disagree with Bailey's statement that "the only authorized healing service for the church is James 5:13-18" (135).
22 Bailey, 132-140.
23 Bailey, 135. As I pointed out in my thesis, when a plurality of elders successfully heals, the inevitable status gain accrues to the office rather than any individual, thus reinforcing existing ministry structures (Reimer, 158-159).
24 On these two features and their significance within the James 5 passage see Reimer 145-148.
25 Ken Blue rather eloquently states, "In examining the healing models within the church today, I found no structural or procedural elements common to all. Each tradition has a model of ministry which reflects its own history and theological ideals. It was liberating for me to discover that God works through the peculiar character and beliefs of each group to facilitate healing and deliverance. In developing our own healing models, we need not feel pressured to conform to technique or expectations of other groups nor should we sit in judgment on them. Particular methods of healing are not essential in themselves but rather appropriate or inappropriate, depending on their context" (122). C. Peter Wagner, while suggesting a methodology based on the work of John Wimber, also states up front that his ". . . suggestion is not to look for the right or the wrong way to pray for the sick, but to look for the way that best fits you and your particular philosophy of ministry" (How to Have a Healing Ministry Without Making Your Church Sick! [Ventura: Regal Books, 1988], 224).
26 One need only note how frequently in the gospels Christ is moved by compassion to heal (to cite but two explicit examples Mark 1:41 and Luke 7:13).
27 1 Cor 13, inserted as it is in
the midst of a discussion on spiritual gifts in 1 Cor 12 and 14, is particularly
instructive in this regard.
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